Viewpoint: The guilt toolkit


Published April 9, 2014

In conversations surrounding liberation or “social justice,” we talk a lot about feelings of guilt on the part of those with privilege. I would argue that we talk far too much about these feelings, so much that we (and I say we because I, too, am guilty of being expressively guilty) silence others in the process. What’s worse is that we silence those whose (already marginalized) voices we should have been listening to all along.

Guilt is an extremely passive emotion — perhaps the most passive of them all. I would know — when I feel guilty, I’m usually in this lazy limbo phase where I’m very emotionally invested in my role as an activist, but I’m not quite righteous enough to feel resentment and I’m not quite courageous enough to truly own up to my silencing behavior. So I feel guilt. Which is cool, because guilt is an emotion and I believe that honoring our raw emotions before we are able to unpack them is necessary and beneficial to our well-being and our personal growth.

It’s how we express our guilt that is important.

Not all emotions need to be unpacked — sometimes I just don’t have, need or even want the language to describe what is going on in the depths of my soul. Similar to the way blood only turns red when exposed to oxygen, trying to put a name on my emotions can strip them of their true colors. So I keep them inside and let them do what I believe they will naturally do for me — so long as I remain cognizant of the connection between my mind, body and soul in the process.

I am currently in the process of learning what to do with my guilt, and I figured I would share my insights with all of my fellow guilty people who also want to be more socially responsible:

1. Recognize that guilt in itself is a privilege.The fact that I feel guilty right now means that I am complacent in a dynamic whereby I am (directly or indirectly) the oppressor. I’ll say it again so it sinks in: in certain circles, my very existence (as a straight, upper class, American, able-bodied, cis-gendered, college educated person) is oppressive. Guilt is a privilege.

2. Sometimes, expressing things is overrated — some things I should just keep to myself. Let me tell you, I never thought I would ever say that, and those closest to me are probably still rubbing their eyes. I believe in the power of language as transformative, revolutionary and cathartic, I do. But that’s just it; in truly coming to understand the jarring effects of language, I’ve learned that some things are just better left unsaid, especially when my motivations for expression are because I’d feel more credible or welcomed in certain spaces. Expression of guilt is self-serving.

Here are a few examples for us both to follow: If I feel guilty that my parents are rich, that’s not really something I need to bring up in a circle of friends who come from a low socio-economic background. If you feel guilty that your conservative Christian parents would hate me because I am Muslim, that’s not really something I need to hear. What are these statements accomplishing? Nothing productive. Some things we should just keep to ourselves, let our feelings fester inside until we come up with our own answers instead of seeking answers from people whom we will hurt and silence with our inquiry and confession — expression of guilt is insensitive.

3. My guilt should be a sign that I am not an expert in the space where I feel guilty. Building from my last point, I am learning that the spaces where I feel most guilty should also be the spaces where I speak the least and listen the most. My guilt in itself is an indicator that my narrative may be one that dominates and marginalizes voices that cannot be heard until I shut up. While my guilt may urge me to speak up to “compensate” for being privileged, I should actually just keep quiet and stop trying to center myself because this conversation isn’t about me, not everything is about me. Guilt is selfish, guilt is self-centered.

4. If I am still guilty, that’s fine. But I need to seriously reflect on how I envision my role as an activist. This one is a tough one, mostly because I am still thinking and working through it. I believe that my guilt means that I am still trying to reconcile my role in a given movement. I am uncomfortable with the role I am currently playing, so I rely on guilt to make me feel better. As a self-proclaimed “activist,” I am learning that guilt has the power to stymie growth and nurture complacency by making me feel that my feelings of guilt alone are productive. Guilt alone is not productive.

I couple this lesson with toolkit item #2: I’m learning that if my activism is in the form of a Facebook status, a Michigan in Color article or any other form of public expression, it should be reflective, respectful and responsible for it to be productive. Guilt without self-reflection, honesty and respect cannot be productive. “Guilt as productive” and “guilt as passive” are mutually exclusive statements, therefore guilt is fallacious, guilt is deceiving.

5. My guilt does not make me an exception. I’ve learned that constantly criticizing those who are racist, homophobic, classist, ageist, etc. does not magically dismiss me from being those very same things. Guilt is a cop-out. If I am not directly oppressed by a system — whether it be anti-Blackness, heteronormativity, even American exceptionalism — I am complacent in those very systems of oppression. This does not mean that I cannot play a role in helping deconstruct them; it just means that my role needs to start within myself before I should even think about how to criticize others, about how to operate in that space. Guilt is lazy, guilt is passive.

All that said, I can speak from personal experience when I say that consciously reflecting on all of these things is no easy task. In fact, it is exhausting, emotionally draining and extremely confusing. Still, it is absolutely necessary — especially on a campus so hostile to minorities, LGBTQ communities, those who come from low-SES backgrounds, and individuals with other targeted identities. I truly believe our world would be a better, less hurtful place if people stopped focusing on the discomfort that often comes along with recognizing their privilege, because feeling uncomfortable is a hell of a lot better than having to bear oppressive blows day after day like many of my peers do. When I contextualize my discomfort that way, I realize how petty and self-centered my complaints are. We would all be more responsible if we let our feelings of discomfort and guilt marinate for a bit, if we truly reflected on why we feel uncomfortable to begin with.

This year has been a challenging one for all members of the greater campus community in very different ways. Many people have just recently been introduced to this discourse on identity politics and the ways we are all directly and indirectly affected by them, while many have been forced to have this conversation — internally or expressively — every day of their lives; others, like me, are somewhere in between — having dealt with some issues firsthand while being completely blind to others.

Because I fall in the latter group and can therefore understand both perspectives, I would like to urge those new to this conversation to recognize and respect this fact: issues like racism, classism, sexism, etc. are nothing new to some people. Speaking personally, I know that this recognition has helped inform my approach walking into various conversations, and I hope that it does the same for you. Guilt is a very natural emotion for those of us faced with these conversations for the first time, but as Wolverines, before we can “expect respect,” we must hold ourselves to the same standards of respect (for self and others) to which we feel so entitled.

Rima Fadlallah is an LSA senior and a managing editor of Michigan in Color.