Should white people feel guilty about racism?
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With the Black Lives Matter marches, maybe the tide is turning for racism. We have had false dawns in the pasts so let’s try to ensure that this is not another. Many white people are coming out on the streets to support black people in their fight against racism, but they often express an unease that they are not sure what to do to make a difference and are looking for answers.
When I started my research into whiteness, the first thing I became aware of was my own sense of guilt and that of other white people. Nevertheless, many find the idea of guilt a useless, self-indulgent emotion and black people are sick and tired of being urged to forgive the white people who declare themselves anti-racist. They are not interested in white guilt or giving absolution, just in getting rid of white domination and privilege, a situation that is systemically sewn into western societies. Of course, they are right to feel irritated, particularly if guilt only leads to hand ringing.
However, if society is to change, then white people need to understand their own culpability, particularly the way they unthinkingly partake in a system which is so skewed in their favour that they don’t even notice it. In my book, White Privilege Unmasked, I show how a process of coming to understand our inherent, systemic racism should include an understanding of, and actually experiencing, our own guilt.
The trouble with guilt is that it is a very painful to experience. There is a tendency to turn away from it or deny it, rather than face it, thus reaching a transformative experience. The antidote for those who are genuinely guilty is acceptance that there is something amiss to be attended to. This can be the force that leads to meaningful reparation. Even apparently well-intentioned white people are not often prepared to repair the harm. This harm is still perpetrated in the present - such as the Windrush scandal - and even past racism still advantages us today. We need to act in a way that shows our determination to make the future different to the past on personal, organisational, and national levels.