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White guilt is a distraction in the fight against racism

On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

White guilt is a distraction in the fight against racism

Stephen H. Provost

White guilt is a better look than racism ... but that’s not saying much.

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing by white people about privilege the past few years, and the more I see of it, the less I think it does any good. Hand-wringing in general isn’t the best way to get things done, for one thing.

So, it’s not surprising that all the guilt and self-flagellation over racism isn’t accomplishing much. If anything, the battle for equality has taken a few steps backward since it’s become fashionable among whites to bemoan white privilege. Take a look at who occupies the White House, at Charlottesville, and at racists emboldened by the president’s ambivalence become more vocal/active.

None of these racists are people who would have been the least bit guilted by talk of white privilege. They’re people who were just waiting for an opportunity to come out of the woodwork and promptly declare that they were all for it. Hand-wringing doesn't do anything to keep them from spreading their hatred.

Why are privileged whites spending so much energy guilting other privileged whites – energy that could be spent fighting against police brutality, discriminatory prison sentences, unequal pay and other very real, very damaging consequences of racism? And why do they seem to be wallowing in their own guilt?

Guilt is a human response designed for one thing only: to alert us that something needs to be fixed. That we need to do something differently. The Civil Rights movement alerted us that we needed to fix our warped ideas about race back in the 1960s, and occasionally, we need reminding of that, now especially. But hearing a reminder is different than wallowing in guilt, because wallowing is the exact opposite of what guilt is supposed to promote: action.

The real problem with white guilt over white privilege is it puts the focus ... on white people. Sounds pretty egotistical to me. Shouldn’t the focus be on the people who are getting beaten up by police or bypassed for jobs? Shouldn’t we be trying to empathize with them, rather than becoming so wrapped up in our own “awareness” that we forget to be aware of the actual problem? The actual problem is not white privilege. It’s racism.

Mesmerized by the mirror

The problem isn’t that white people have it too good; it’s that people of color aren’t given the same opportunity to reach those heights. All this talk about white privilege might even be a form of racism in itself – because it keeps the spotlight on white people. It’s a lot easier to say you’re “looking at yourself” than it is to look at the results of poverty, poor health care and discrimination. Instead of looking in the mirror, we should look at what’s happening in the communities affected by racism. That’s where the problem is.

That’s where we must focus our attention.

I know if I have a problem, I’m a lot more interested in getting it solved than hearing someone express regret. If someone served you a dish that gave me food poisoning, how would you feel if he spent the next 20 minutes bemoaning what a terrible cook he was rather than giving you a ride to the doctor?

Awareness is a good thing. So is self-awareness. But any protracted infatuation with white guilt on the part of white people is self-centered and distracts from the real issue: People are being treated unfairly, and they’re suffering for it.

Want to help someone with food poisoning? Take her to the doctor. Want to end racism? Improve the lives of those affected.

Don’t waste time gazing mournfully at your own reflection.