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?
Other blogs in this series: