Spoiler alert: there may be no cure.
Simply put, white guilt is the individual or collective guilt felt by some white people for harm resulting from racist treatment. With the current situation, many white people may be feeling an intense version of this guilt. While some may channel this guilt into productivity (such as educating and advocating), others may react defensively by claiming “All Lives Matter,” or “Blue Lives Matter.” Also, some may stay silent or neutral on the matter.
I’ve seen the two latter reactions of white guilt. And, heard of the former. Recently, however, a close friend of mine reached out when struggling to deal with her white guilt during Bar Exam prep. To be clear, she reached out to vent about not receiving help from other white people when dealing with her guilt. Not to make the movement about her whiteness.
The Bar Exam is known for being institutionally racist toward African Americans. According to the National Black Law Journal’s LSAC Study, the first-time pass rate is 30% lower for blacks than for whites. Taking the exam isn’t simply knowledge and skills, but also a set of strategies for dealing with unknown tasks that seem difficult. This culture can affect the strategy of answering unfamiliar question formats, choosing the right answer, and overall motivation and confidence when preparing for the exam.
Aware of these facts, my friend felt conflicted while studying for the exam and protesting for Black lives. So, she decided to look for guidance. Identifying her problem as white guilt, she reached out to a group of other white law students in a group chat. My friend wrote something like this:
“Lately, I’ve been having a horrible internal struggle while studying for the Bar Exam. I’m aware that the exam itself is a racist institution known for historically preventing the Black community from practicing law. So, I feel like I am feeding this institutional racism by sitting for the Bar. But, then I hear that I have to ‘partake in this necessary evil to become an advocate for marginalized people.’ Can someone advise me on how to deal with this?”
Immediately, one white woman responded by stating, “let’s remember what this is really about since this isn’t the time to make your white guilt the center of attention during this movement.” My friend apologized for her message coming across as attention-grabbing. But, my friend also stated that she thought that she picked a safe space to say something like that. Another white woman told my friend that her concern wasn’t even a part of the aggrieved group’s narrative but making the situation worse for those aggrieved. After taking some time, my friend called me to discuss what happened.
I listened very closely when my friend told me her side and read the messages to me. I easily identified my friend’s struggle with the Bar Exam as white guilt. Moreover, I immediately identified the white women’s responses as “white savior complex.” In a poem by Rudyard Kipling, he described saving as the “White Man’s Burden.” Put in a modern context, the white savior complex refers to a white person who provides help to non-white people in a self-serving manner.
I told my friend that I didn’t think she tried to make her white guilt the center of the Black Lives Matter movement since she purposely sought a group of fellow white people (rather than a group of diverse people). My friend then conveyed that she felt “disheartened when immediately shot down.” By doing this, the other white women cut off all means of meaningful communication when someone is genuinely trying to be better.
After she vented, I explained to my friend that many white liberals end up becoming white saviors which don’t help the aggrieved or marginalized. Even more dangerous, these white saviors don’t see the consequences of those actions. I told my friend that being an ally means standing WITH the marginalized – not on their behalf as though as they cannot speak. Nor is it allowing them to speak. Often, white saviors make the movement about them. I don’t know those white women who shot down my friend, but it sounded like they participated in white savior culture. They most likely felt good shutting down someone they thought was trying to make Black Lives Matter about white guilt. When, in reality, that was not my friend’s intentions at all.
When white saviors participate in this “shut down the haters,” or “you’re canceled culture,” they stunt the very progress they wish to achieve. I believe white allies should educate other white people about white fragility, white guilt, and the white racial frame. (FYI: many sociologists of all races wrote books about those subjects relying on critical race theory which focuses on stories and experience of minorities.) White people who understand critical race theory can easily share what they’ve learned with their white communities. Whereas people of color don’t get that luxury to educate other white people. Instead, POCs hope that white people will listen and absorb the information to a point where society can progress.
I’ve said this once and will most likely say it 1000x, “IT IS NOT YOUR COLORED FRIENDS JOB TO BE YOUR GUIDE THROUGH RACISM IN AMERICA.” You can learn from their stories and experiences, but, ultimately, you have to process and practice what they preach. And, you should teach what you’ve learned to others. Yeah, some white people will get super defensive which is a common reaction to the “uncomfortableness” of the race talk. But, people can surprise you. Take this movement for example: I’ve seen people who were silent start advocating for change. You may find, after the defensive reaction, people can grow. Or even progress to the point where they understand their role in this civil rights movement.
After sharing all of this my friend, I ended by saying, “don’t shut people down when they’re having a similar experience/feeling as you. By shutting people down, you act no better than the people who oppressed the aggrieved.”
White guilt may never be cured since history will constantly remind us about the oppression committed by the white race. (Or, history will continue to celebrate oppression which really depends on if we can get some education reform over here.) But, white guilt can be managed to serve a purpose. If we don’t educate others who share our background and privilege, then we are no better than those police officers trying to silence the Black community protesting for their lives. If we don’t be patient with those struggling with their guilt or take the time to guide them when they ask for help, then we are no better than those who stay silent or neutral.
That’s all the preaching for now. Stay tuned!