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.


3 thoughts on “I Need To Stop Feeling Guilty About My White Privilege

  1. Interesting analogy–and like all analogies, less than perfect. The devil, of course, is in the details. How, concretely and constructively, do I challenge the status quo? What exactly does it mean to support efforts to end racism? What are some of those current efforts? How do I, as an individual with limited power, provide people of color with new opportunities?

    These are not rhetorical questions. When people in the late 50s and early 60s were fighting segregation, they could take part in a march with like-minded people; they could help people register to vote; and they could participate in an economic boycott of businesses that refused to integrate. What specifically should I/we be doing today?

    I live in a “red” state where the overwhelming majority of white people not only believe that the privilege they enjoy is deserved but also resent any suggestion that things should change. I voted last November, and for the first time in my life not one of the candidates that I voted for won. Former President Obama often said in response to bigoted ideas, “We as Americans are better than that.” Experience now tells us otherwise. The American people–at least a significant portion of them–are not better than that.

    I hope that specific ideas and concrete examples can be suggested here in this forum. It’s one thing to say (with noble intentions), “I’ll do whatever I can.” It’s another thing to say, “Here are the things I’m doing that make a difference.”


    1. James, thanks for the response. I’ve printed the list and will begin following the suggestions. Although I won’t be limiting my reading solely to authors of color in 2017, I do have several books in my current stack that would be on such a list. I’ll share titles and authors after I’ve read them. Most of the other items on the list are quite practical.

      The two OLLI courses I’m taking now at the University of Alabama have both featured African-American authors and speakers, several of whom are active locally in efforts to address continuing racial inequities in the Tuscaloosa community. I suspect the most important item on the list for me will be getting involved in some of these groups and becoming an “active learner.”


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