calendar February 5, 2021 in anti-racism

No White Guilt

On a local community website, I read a post that said signs have been popping up in my community that say “No White Guilt”.  A lively discussion followed in replies to the post.  My mostly white neighbors had varied reactions, and some of them were apparently too much for the moderator of the site, because many were quickly removed before I had an opportunity to read them. The phrase, “White Guilt” evoked a visceral reaction for some.

When I first encountered the term “white privilege”, and began to recognize that it meant I had unknowingly benefited from the color of my skin, I felt guilt. I suspect it is a common reaction.  White privilege feels like a catch 22. It is clearly sin for people to be treated unfairly – but the unfair treatment wasn’t asked for, or sometimes, even noticed. Am I responsible for the preferential treatment I received, when I never asked for it? What about when it comes at another’s expense?

Guilty feelings create an internal conflict that can result in two, not very helpful, reactions.

One reaction is to reject the term “white privilege”, or at least reject the possibility that it might be applicable to me. “Privilege”, I might say to myself, “can’t apply to me because my life has been hard. I’ve had to work for everything that I have. Nothing was handed to me on a silver platter.” This reaction tamps down the internal conflict, but fails to recognize how much harder it could have been if I had also faced the additional systemic barriers that people of color routinely face in our society.

A second unhelpful reaction is shame.  When we feel shame we believe that there is something wrong, not with what we do, but with who we are.  Our complexion becomes something that we want to distance ourselves from, or that we feel a need to defend.  When we recognize our privilege, but that privilege is something that brings us shame, it is a thing that we want to put out of mind.  I can’t change the color of my skin, or how others react to it, so I feel powerless.  A sense of helplessness tends to lead to either despair or anger, feelings most of us try to avoid.

Shame over skin color isn’t particularly helpful – no matter what our color is. None of us chose our skin color. Yet it is a reality that people of different skin colors are often treated differently, and certainly history teaches us that the color of the skin of one’s parents, and previous generations, impacted what opportunities were available to them, and those opportunities have impacted what has been handed down to us. Privilege exists, whether we want to look at it or not.

Examining privilege, and understanding it, doesn’t make us more culpable for the unfair discrimination in our society.  It just allows us to see it more clearly, and gives us more choice about how we will use our privilege. It frees us from being swept along by unseen forces, and give us a chance to divert the course of events toward greater justice.

I no longer feel guilt over my skin color, but I do feel, since I have had opportunities that have not been available to those with more melanin in their skin, I have been given both power in society, and responsibility, to make things fairer.  The thing that motivates me to want to be anti-racist isn’t “white guilt”, but faith. Faith calls me to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with my God.” If I want to live out my faith I can pursue actions to help level the playing field.

I don’t know who is promoting the “No White Guilt” signs, but I suspect that they are missing the point. Those who are fighting racism don’t want white people to feel guilty. We want white people, and all people, to join in building a society that is truly just for everyone.

– The Rev. Serena Sellers, a member of the Anti-racism Team, is pastor of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, Kulpsville

Have questions or comments? Contact