Posts Tagged ‘White Guilt’

The maldistribution of guilt

July 21, 2013

One of the things I decided at a young age was that although I would take moral responsibility for my actions, I would never let anybody make me feel guilty about what I am.

This was partly a reaction against my early religious upbringing.  I learned many good values in my church, such as respect for the dignity and worth of all persons and the duty to stand up for what is right when everybody else disagreed.  But I also took away a belief that guilt holds positive value.

At age 13 and 14, I believed, because I failed to love other people as myself and failed to love God with all by heart, soul and mind, I was a sinner and that it was because of sinners such as me that Jesus had to suffer and die on the cross.  I noticed that in the Gospels Jesus was forgiving of repentant sinners, but condemned people who took satisfaction in following religious rules.   I concluded that the best thing I could hope to be is a repentant sinner, but repentance was of no value if I took satisfaction in being repentant.

I do not claim this is an accurate account of Christian teachings.  But it is what I believed at age 13 and 14, and I do not think I was unique in these beliefs.

guilt2Guilt has a positive function.  If you feel bad about doing bad things, and good about doing good things, you are motivated to do fewer bad things and more good things.  But if your sense of guilt is so highly developed that you feel bad about feeling good, you are trapped in a Catch-22 vicious circle.

Guilt, like many other things, is badly distributed.   Some people have much more than is good for them, but those who need it the most have none at all.

I knew a woman, a person of no explicit religious beliefs, who came as close as anybody I know to being a saint.  She spent decades of her life as a volunteer teacher in New York state prisons, ministering to society’s outcasts just as Jesus did.  From time to time she would talk about how rewarding she found her work and the relationships with the inmates.  Then she would bring herself up short.  She thought that if she found pleasure and satisfaction in her volunteer work, her reason volunteering was selfish and had no moral merit.   Neither she nor anybody else benefited from this kind of reasoning.

I am highly suspicious of anybody to tries to persuade me to do or believe something based on the guilt I supposedly should feel for being white or middle-class or American.  This approach leads me to believe that the persuader has no valid argument.

I think that white guilt—the feeling of guilt for being a member of the white race—is a subconscious version of Christian original sin.  It is based not on what you do, but what you are.

I have listened to liberal white people in workshops confessing that they are all a bunch of racists.  I think such conversations reflect the subconscious notion that feeling guilty has moral value in and of itself, regardless of whether the feeling leads to constructive action.   If you are concerned about civil rights, it should be because you want everyone’s basic rights respected, not because you are trying to get rid of negative feelings about yourself.