I was conducting a workshop on race in Oklahoma when a white participant pulled me aside and said, “You’re just trying to make us feel bad, aren’t you?” My answer to that is both yes and no.
I’m a believer in the idea that white guilt is one of the most useless emotions around. White people feeling guilty just because they’re white seems to be mostly about feeling ashamed of who they are or angry at whoever is trying to make them feel that way, neither of which does anyone any good. Besides, white people alive today did not create the system of white privilege that became part of everyone’s inheritance the moment they were born or came to this country to live. So, no, I don’t feel guilty because I was born white and I have no interest in other white people feeling guilty about it either.
That doesn’t get us off the hook, however. I don’t think it’s possible, for example, to really look at the history of race in this country and what it’s come to now without feeling bad. It is a horrible story and not the one we were taught in school. I do not know how to avoid feeling grief over what has been done and how it’s affected millions of lives—not only people of color but also whites—and how not to feel anger at not being told the truth for so many years. As a citizen and as a father and grandfather I also don’t know how to avoid feeling some responsibility for what happens now, for shaping the legacy that we will pass on to generations to come.
I think the main reason white people so often think this is about making them feel guilty is that they assume that the system of white privilege is just a collection of individuals. Since the white privilege system is bad because it produces bad consequences, then they must be bad, too. But it doesn’t work that way. Every day, millions of decent, moral, well-intentioned white people participate in a system that is designed to advantage them at the expense of people of color. They don’t have to consciously intend harm for anyone in order for harm to be done. It’s just like the game of Monopoly where the outcome is always greedy no matter what kinds of people are playing the game. We need to step back from this far enough to see it whole, so that we can see how it isn’t about us. And how it is.
Copyright © 2013 by Allan G. Johnson. This article may be quoted, reprinted, or distributed for noncommercial purposes only and with an attribution to Allan G. Johnson, www.agjohnson.com, and this copyright notice.