– from the play JB by Archibald MacLeish
Over the past decade that I have been active in the Movement for Racial Justice I have heard, countless times, the claim by some white people that my colleagues and I are just trying to make them feel guilty about the persistent and pervasive existence of racism. I am here to state without reservation that this is not the case.
Yet, we do want to move all of us beyond an intellectual understanding of what racism is and what it does, and to feel its powerfully toxic impact on all of our lives. We do want to drive home the troubling truth that those of us who are white have been inescapably placed in a racially privileged position, and that our humanity has been compromised as a result. We do want to move all of us from Spectator to Actor. And as with most transformational change, that takes breaking through denial and going to a place of discomfort.
In my personal experience of it, guilt refers to my cognitive and spiritual dissonance with my unearned privilege and advantage in an unjust society. It is a call to action from my very soul. I honor my guilt as the moral gift that it is. Its presence reminds me I am capable of empathy and connected to my highest aspirations as a human being. I see my feelings of despair, sorrow and guilt about racial inequity and injustice as a temporary state I go through – and cyclically go through again and again – as I witness more, learn more, make mistakes, and grow in my anti-racism.
I know I need not let these feelings paralyze me or fool me into thinking I am powerless. I know I cannot afford to let guilt lead me to a place of self-hatred and hatred of other white people, lest I become unable to compassionately care for myself or reach out in compassion to my white sisters and brothers from a place of humility and genuine concern. I cannot afford to turn the focus from what needs to be done, to what it’s doing to me. And I know that if I do allow these feelings to legitimize a retreat from the work, I will be exercising perhaps the greatest privilege of the privileged in doing so.
I think that resistance on the part of white people to experiencing guilt about racial injustice reaches to the depth of what The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond refers to as Internalized Racial Superiority. We whites have been indoctrinated over the centuries to believe the reason we have privilege and the (alleged) success we enjoy is our individual superiority, and not the rigged system of a racial structure that places and maintains us at the top. One of the many manifestations of internalizing this myth is our thin-skinned addiction to comfort and the deeply held belief we deserve to be comfortable at all times. When faced with a truth that challenges our notions about our position in society and reveals the reality that we enjoy these privileges at the expense of our fellow humans, we become disturbed. And that is NOT supposed to happen. So we console ourselves and return to our equilibrium by dismissing these truths as unfounded. Either we claim bias on the part of the people who confront our unearned merit or we accuse them of “trying to make us feel guilty” – an offense that both external and internal messages have encouraged and entitled us to avoid. As white people, we need to recover from this addiction, for we indulge it at our own and others’ peril. We will not only survive the anguish of the truth. We – and our entire nation and world – will, in fact, thrive in the light of it.
Ultimately, I am convinced – as an organizer, educator and therapist of 25 years – that no one can do racial justice work and live an anti-racist life coming from a static place of guilt. We must, instead, be grounded in a longing for the full expression of our humanity, and the realization of a just and loving world.