How Guilt Feeds Racial Division in America



You would not believe all the positive comments this discussion on race has generated.  In most cases, I hear it’s an eye-opening discussion.  Unfortunately, for some others, I have received an apology.  I say unfortunately because I know far too many white people carry around with them this tremendous burden of guilt.  Guilt for all the atrocities of their ancestors.  As a pastor and an African American, I wanted to offer them absolution just to ease their pain.  Instead of doing that on a one-on-one basis I decided to address this issue in this particular blog post.

William Shakespeare described guilt in Macbeth as “life’s fitful fever.” And the wise King Solomon gives a solution to guilt’s grasp in this way “Love and faithfulness reconcile guilt,” Proverbs 16:6a 

The White Privilege Factor and Guilt

To provide some context, the online Urban Dictionary defines white privilege” as:

The racist idea that simply being white benefits people in some unexplainable way, and that discriminating against white people is not only okay but enlightened and necessary. The excuse some extremists use to justify pretty much any level of racism, as long as it is coming from people of color. A young American woman died because in college she was brainwashed into believing that her white privilege would protect her from being run over by a bulldozer.”

I could offer you mountains of research on the effects guilt have on the human body, the human psyche, but that would just serve to distract us from the issues at hand. However, one of the findings I will share comes by Dr. Art Markman.  He discusses the results of a paper in the May 2012 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by Cynthia Cryder, Stephen Springer, and Carey Morewedge:

“These results [of the study] show the positive power that guilt can have.  Whenever you do something that could hurt another person, you run the risk of damaging your relationship with them.  Your feelings of guilt lead you to be more generous to that person in a way that can demonstrate clearly that your relationship is valuable.”  

So allow me to just summarize all those studies with this non-scientific conclusion: “Guilt, when employed properly can achieve its desired results.  You may win the small battles but ultimately you destroy the deeper, authentic relationship.”

Some African Americans use White Privilege against you

So at the risk of again losing my Black Card, when it comes to race relations in America, I hate to admit it, but some African Americans have used the guilt that white people feel about how badly African Americans were treated during slavery and that still continues today in many areas, to their advantage.  By playing on that guilt, time and time again it achieves its desired results.  You get some victories.  You get white Americans to be more generous with their income, their donations to charity, maybe that will ease their guilty consciences.

However, by using this very powerful emotion you also create equally strong and competing emotions of resentment and anger.  By playing on people’s guilt you don’t create a culture or atmosphere where people care about you as a person.  You create a relationship founded on coercion.   The people you “guilted” into a decision may give you what you want, but they have very little respect for how you achieved what you got.  And the more this practice is on display the greater the gulf in the relationship grows.

I often see how this situation plays out on a number of fronts.  I will avoid dumping on any particular political party because both fall into the similar traps of wanting to help but not doing so effectively. Nevertheless, in the political arena you see this played out as political groups try to use the racial divide to get votes.  One side will accuse the other of wanting to go back to Jim Crow days in the South, and put blacks back into the cotton fields.  The other side then has to fight back or yell all the louder ”we are not racist”.  Meanwhile, the real issues go unaddressed.

Poverty and underemployment are real factors destroying communities.  The family structures are breaking down.  Young people are committing genocide in their own communities with the rampant gang violence in our cities and we are not addressing it because we are focused on how bad the other side is for America.  What is bad for America is that this growing detrition affects our ability to work side by side and solve the issues that are ripping our country apart.  The more we fight and call each other names the more the black family is at risk of extinction.  Ok, I needed to get that off my chest.  The white guilt thing is destroying us.

A Better Path Forward

I wish I could offer all those white Americans absolutions, but you do not need to be forgiven for a sin your ancestor’s committed.  It is not your fault you were born white and therefore you had certain opportunities others did not.  It is not your fault you took advantage of those opportunities to make a better life for yourself.  What we do need to confess as a nation is that while some had a less encumbered path to success we forgot to look around at those who may have been left behind.  How do we lift up those whose race has hampered their opportunities?  Those people who put their family at a disadvantage, sometimes due their own choices and societal issues, other times due to the mountains they were forced to climb over.

I believe deep in my soul, that there is a pathway forward.  It begins with hearing from both sides.  Not heaping unnecessary guilt on the one side while condemning the other for lack of achievement, drive, or success.  We need to realize we are all better off if we as a nation are all better off.  To get there we have to pull each other up and stop tearing each other down.

It would be wonderful if people could receive forgiveness and freedom for the guilt so many white people feel forced to carry.  And it is not just white Americans that need forgiveness and absolution.  Black Americans need time to address the sins of putting that added burden on white Americans because the plight of our people is not solely their fault.  We hold some responsibility for what has happened to our families, our community, and our core beliefs.  Would it be great to have a day of reconciliation?  We could all come to together and hear words of forgiveness spoken and leave that meeting with a new resolve to work side by side, hand in hand to truly make America one again?

Research results:

Other blogs in this series:


37 thoughts on “How Guilt Feeds Racial Division in America

  1. Ufuomaee says:

    Hi Keith,

    Thanks for this post. I had conflicting emotions while reading it. I am not American. I’m African and Black racially.

    I think having the meeting as you say will probably just do what good deeds do to guilt, suppress it for a while. The only thing that will deliver us and unite us a newness of our minds with the truth about who we are as a HUMAN race.

    I think the only time we can say we have overcome the racism that is still bubbling in America and around the world is when we can all address ourselves not as White or Black, but as American, British, African, Spanish. Our skin colours needn’t constantly be on the forefront of our consciousness.

    In Christian, we even transcend the geographical differences. We don’t have Black Christians or White Christians or British Christians or American Christians. We are just Christian, brothers and sisters in Christ.

    The day we can have that mind seeing ourselves and brothers and sisters and treating each other equally, having no guilt and having no suspicion, then we can say that racism is no more.

    My two cents. Cheers, Ufuoma.


  2. 83unsungheroes says:

    Great post. I liked your comment about not needing to forgive a sin committed by ancestors. Once upon a time, when talking about a different “-ism”, a feminist told me that I was a responsible for oppression of women simply because I was born male, whatever my beliefs, because society has certain expectations and ways of treating me because I’m male. And I thought that was odd, mainly because it suggests that the problem can never be solved while men exist. So I prefer your idea or looking forward rather than back.


  3. Stephanie Romero says:

    Let me be completely honest as a white woman. I have never felt guilt for being white or for the atrocities suffered by other races. Because I’m white, should I feel guilty for slavery? Because I’m German, should I feel guilty for the Holocaust? Guilt implies personal responsibility for something I didn’t do. On the other hand, do I feel empathy and compassion for what other races have endured? Whenever I watch something about slavery or the Holocaust, my heart grieves. The suffering and inhumane treatment of people cuts to my heart. The same emotional response I felt watching “Passion of the Christ” is the same for anyone who is abused…and this extends to victims of human trafficking, Syrian refugees, the list could go on. My point is that I have compassion for the human race. But it bothers me when it’s expected for a white person to feel guilt. This is the first forum where I have had the opportunity to express this and I do thank you for opening the communication lines to such a sensitive topic. Some might think it wrong that I don’t feel guilt. But I would never put that burden upon someone else, an individual who has no personal responsibility for the cruel and evil actions of others.


    1. Keith Haney says:

      I am glad you have a heathy response to the pain you see around you. A lot of the white people who started reading this series immediately started to apologize to me for things they had nothing to apologize for. I wanted to let them know there was no need and to let African Americans know who employ this strategy that it is counterproductive. Thank you for reading and thank you for seeing the hurt and having the right spirit and heart needed to make a difference.


  4. stephen matlock says:

    What a great conversation-starter!

    I enjoy that you face head on some difficult ideas and feelings. No one wants to feel guilty, for one — in my experience of being me, I do what I can to avoid situations where I might feel guilty, I avoid people who might make me feel guilty, or I do what I can to suppress the thoughts that would make me feel guilty.

    But I think it’s OK to feel things when we as white Americans (and even white Christians) consider the experiences and testimonies of our black American friends, co-workers, church members, and just the community. It would less than human to not have some feelings. I mean, the facts are that terrible things have been done to our fellow citizens and humans, and we as white people have almost entirely escaped them. It’s a relief to realize we escaped, but then we see people just like us getting the short end of the stick (a euphemism, to be sure) for no reason other than pigment; it’s only human to feel a sense of connection and a growing sense that “something’s not right, and I don’t know why I escaped and they didn’t.” That might lead to guilt; it might lead to other emotions as well

    But then we have to also process the facts, attempt to figure out our place in the system, and then understand what power we have to change things, at the micro-level of acknowledging the human dignity and worth of our black brothers and sisters to the macro-level of pushing for change in our systems to bring about justice and fairness.

    It’s all risky stuff, full of feelings and dangers and mistakes, but it is also the stuff that makes us more fully alive and participatory. We can make changes. We can bring about justice.

    Do I feel guilty as a white American? Sure. Most of my participation in the system has been as an unconscious American. Some of my participation has been more overt, almost without my consent, and some has been with my consent as things were “explained” to me.

    I can’t take any of that back. I was wrong to be asleep, I was wrong to be convinced when I was more awake; I was wrong to let my own nagging sense of “this isn’t right” be silenced by the argument that “this is how things are done.”

    The only things I can do now are to repent of past failures, learn from my mistakes, and attempt to be more prudent and sure in my decisions.

    Oh, and be willing to receive correction.

    This is all good stuff you’re writing here, Mr. Haney. Blessings to you and yours.


  5. lex says:

    Am African, Nigerian… I dont live over there but have relatives who are there and this I can agree with some and not all. Your post is very useful and of good resource. Thanks Keith.


    1. Keith Haney says:

      Thanks for reading lex. It is based on my observations and work with many white Americans who feel safe enough to share some sincere feelings and hurts. I don’t think it applies completely to each side. I am thankful most have avoided the temptation to use guilt or succumb to allow guilt to be placed on them.


  6. Kari Jonard says:

    What a great post! I am always so surprised when I see people treating each other differently in a negative way no matter what color each of the parties are. I too wish we could all come together.


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