My Turn: Zero white guilt


For the Monitor

Published: 12-06-2020 6:00 AM

My husband and I served as volunteer election monitors on Nov. 3. When we arrived at the polling location in a neighboring town, there was a large truck parked in the lot so the sign in the rear cab window faced those pulling in: “ZERO WHITE GUILT.”

I read the sign as saying I’m not racist, so don’t try to make me feel bad about being white, as if being anti-racist, even just acknowledging racism, requires white people to feel guilty. It doesn’t.

It does require that white people understand how the assumption of whiteness as the norm, and colored skin as the “other” and thus less favorable, is harmful and even deadly to Black people. Examining how systemic racism has denied Black people equal access to jobs, housing, credit, and societal and political power of all kinds is the only way to begin to counter its negative effects.

A good example of the harm of systemic racism is the wealth disparity between Black and white families. Black families on average have 10% of the wealth of white families, a difference rooted in the history of our country, from 250 years of slavery to discriminatory policies in the 20th century. Those policies included Jim Crow-era practices that limited opportunities for Black people, unequal access to benefits of the GI Bill following World War II, exclusion from labor unions, and redlining, the practice of denying mortgages to “redlined” areas of cities, most commonly those with majority Black populations. Because Black families were barred from accumulating wealth in ways white families have, primarily through home ownership, there has been less to pass on to future generations, creating disparities that persist today.

Recognizing how structural racism operates to disadvantage Black people and other minority groups inevitably results in seeing how that system benefits people with white skin. Feelings of guilt in response to that recognition aren’t uncommon, but the discomfort guilt causes too often shuts off further exploration of how racism functions on a systemic level, and ways that white people can personally work to change that.

Acknowledging that I’ve enjoyed privileges in my life because of my skin color doesn’t make me culpable for those privileges. It also doesn’t mean there aren’t innumerable ways in which others might have had more or less privilege based on class, gender, sexual orientation, physical and intellectual ability, ethnicity, and any other division based on personal circumstances and characteristics.

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When introduced to the idea of white privilege, it’s not unusual for people to point to people underprivileged due to other variables, most commonly class. Yes, people born into families with adequate and even excess money have more privileges than those born into poverty. That can be acknowledged too, but it doesn’t change the privilege of white skin which brings benefits largely unrecognized because the assumption of whiteness as superior is so entrenched in how we see the world.

In her book White Fragility, Robin D’Angelo outlines how white people’s defensive reactions to discussions of racism blocks progress towards creating a less racist world. Her book doesn’t blame white people, it explains how racism is so entrenched in our societal structures that it’s invisible and prevents us from seeing how it works to keep Black people disempowered. Acknowledging how that hidden system hurts Black people and provides unearned benefits to white people is difficult and unsettling work.

For white people, anti-racism work means challenging assumptions that have shaped how we see the world. It means being willing to admit that some of what we’ve achieved may not be solely because of our individual worth or efforts. The invisibility of our privilege keeps us from challenging a system of structural racism that benefits us but harms others.

But that’s the system, not individual people. White people do have the power to uncover the system, the unconscious set of beliefs and biases that privilege whiteness. We’re not responsible for creating it, but if we choose to do nothing about it because of misguided assumptions of guilt, then nothing changes. As D’Angelo writes, “I don’t feel guilty about racism. I didn’t choose this socialization, and it could not be avoided. But I am responsible for my role in it.”

We all inherited the racist system originally created to justify the enslavement of Black people in order to enrich white colonists, a system that continues in myriad forms to this day. White guilt does nothing to change that inheritance. The actions of white people do.

(Grace Mattern lives in Northwood.)