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Maja Tosic: If you've ever felt white guilt ...

By Maja Tosic, Columnist
Published April 17, 2014

Stop.

Stop right now and reflect on the power of your guilt. See the privilege that is embedded in possessing solely guilt. Notice the mobility you retain despite your guilt. Question the impact of your guilt.

All of these individual reflections are necessary as white guilt burns rampantly among our vast white student population. The emotion is infiltrating individual minds, but this is not an isolated incident. White guilt is a socially constructed reaction to socially constructed racial divisions. It is a purposely instilled emotion that is taught to be regarded as an appropriate and beneficial reaction. But who is it appropriate and beneficial for?

By gathering several accounts from my white peers at the University on the inner workings of their white guilt, the list of what situations bring out guilt is endless. Here on campus, some mentioned that white guilt crawls up when they go out to a party and see one person of color among a sea of whiteness. For others, guilt wiggles in when a person of color is serving them in a restaurant. Some stated that it sneaks out when they notice themselves as one of the few white people in a space. These situations and many more cause white guilt, because in that moment individuals are attaching misconceptions and wrongful perspectives onto students of color. In these many moments, people of color are seen as perpetual victims.

As students of color live and learn alongside their white peers, they’re seen as unfortunate and victims. Their very presence ignites white guilt in some folks. People of color are regarded as victims even in situations that don’t directly place them in the hands of victimization. As students of color enjoy their time going out, working and attending classes, some white people regard their experiences as lacking and tragic. Yet, some white students who feel guilt believe they’re being good white people by recognizing racism in those situations.

As a collective, we’re misguided to believe that solely recognizing the victimization of people of color is anti-racist and progressive. In reality, personifying “victim” into a body of color is dehumanizing. It attaches a suffocating narrative and ignores the beauty and wonder that comes with all racial identities. Believing people of color are perpetual victims is another perpetuation of white supremacy. Those moments that elicit guilt don’t signal instances of racism. Instead, they’re moments in which white individuals have the power to reduce an individual to the oppression that they face. As white guilt rises, so does the notion that people of color are walking tragedies that cannot be joyful and take pride in their identity.

In today’s society, the first lie white people are collectively socialized to believe is that racial oppression and white privilege no longer choke our nation. But as some rise above this notion and learn that, in fact, these constructs influence our very being, white guilt quickly scurries to the top. The second lie we learn implicitly is that white guilt is a good and useful emotion. A powerful narrative exists that aligns white guilt with racial awareness and empathy. However, white guilt functions to keep individuals crippled from feeling real empathy and enacting real change. The goal of white guilt is to absolve white guilt. It’s not to create meaningful and selfless change. And perhaps the most powerful aspect about white guilt is that it’s able to blind people into believing that the change they’re trying to create is dismantling structures of racism. Ultimately, white guilt aims to inflict change that’s rooted in preserving white privilege, dissolving the accompanying uncomfortableness, and restoring the belief that we are “good” people.

In addition, white guilt stifles our interactions. When white guilt creeps into conversations, it turns the focus away from the experiences of people of color and onto the emotions of the privileged. Instead of listening and empowering people of color, the space becomes dominated by the need to comfort white people. Once again, whiteness expands to assume control.

Dangerously tied to the feelings of white guilt is the amount of power and agency that’s being used as the emotion arises. White guilt shows its face when an individual independently regards a situation as racist or an individual as oppressed. This means that white people ultimately assess which facades of our society and existence are problematic and racist. Even if a person of color were to state that something is oppressive, it takes white individuals to decide if their words are true. This sounds an awful lot like the workings of a corrupted police force. White guilt gives agency to white people to act as moral authorities and saviors. It gives white people the power to turn on their sirens and flashing lights as they push their way into communities. It gives white people the power to decide what is defined as a crime and who needs to be saved.

White guilt is harmful. It does not allow white individuals to see people of color as equals. It detracts from the conversations and actions that need to happen. It’s a display of power, not empathy. The emotion comes from classifying people of color as less than and as doomed victims. This is very problematic, yet it remains hushed and unchallenged. We need to question the existence of white guilt, because its aim only further blinds us and keeps racist structures in operation.

Go back to the top of this article and revisit my commands. Revisit them again and again until they sink in. Until they challenge your definition of justice and humanity. Until they dispel you of your intoxicating guilt. Until you too reach a place beyond guilt.

Maja Tosic can be reached at tosimaj@umich.edu.