Note to my white self…
You need to stop feeling guilty about your white privilege.
I know you sometimes feel guilty, especially when confronted with all the past and present racial injustices in America. Appalled by what has been done to people of color by white people, you are embarrassed and ashamed. While I’m glad you take inequity seriously, guilt is largely irrelevant to any thoughtful discussion about systemic racism.
When people challenge your white privilege or point out your racism, they are not trying to make you feel guilty. They are trying to make you aware. They aren’t blaming you for all the ugliness of the past. They are pointing out how you continue to benefit from the maltreatment and marginalization of people of color. In a discussion about race, the proper response of a white person to historic and systemic racism is not defensiveness or guilt. Neither contributes positively to the conversation. When challenged about your participation in white privilege and its societal benefits, it is far more helpful to take responsibility.
Consider this analogy. Imagine an art historian visiting your home and pointing out that the painting on your wall, which had been passed down in your family for generations, had actually been stolen from a museum a couple of hundred years ago. How would you respond? Would you become angry, belittling the expert and justifying your possession of the painting? Would you become despondent, taking the blame for your possession of it? I hope not.
You didn’t steal the painting. You don’t have to defend your possession of it or feel guilty about your ancestor’s thievery. I suppose a little embarrassment might be understandable, but what matters most is what you do with your new knowledge. Once you know the painting is stolen, you become morally responsible. You need to make things right, to restore the painting to its rightful owners.
This is the appropriate response when someone challenges your white privilege and racism. Neither getting defensive nor taking the blame is helpful. People of color want you to acknowledge the past injustices and the present inequities and – this is essential – to do whatever is in your power to make things right. To do otherwise would be like keeping the painting on your wall. And you know that wouldn’t be right.
So don’t feel guilty about your white privilege and its benefits. They were part of your inheritance, something you didn’t choose. Your parents didn’t tell you the origins of that inheritance. Until recently, you didn’t fully understand the advantages of those privileges. Now you do. And I think you’ll do the right thing. I think you’ll take that painting down and return it to the museum. You’re going to start looking for ways to restore what was stolen from people of color.
That won’t be easy. The benefits of your white privilege – unlike a painting – are embedded in nearly everything about you – your bank account, your home, your job and your lifestyle. Nearly every business and institution in society has benefitted in some way from racism. Trying to sort out how to compensate people of color for past wrongs and present injustices is complicated. As much as you might like to, you can’t divest yourself of your privilege.
But you can take responsibility for it. You can avoid taking advantage of your privilege. You can use your privilege to ally with people of color. You can challenge the status quo and its insistence that “the past is in the past.” You can support efforts to end systemic racism and provide people of color with new opportunities. Finally, you can challenge other white people when they try to justify keeping the painting on the wall.
When you do so, explain that you are not trying to make them feel guilty.
You just want them to be responsible.