My name is Christopher. I’m “white.” I was raised by White America. My life was shaped by a culture rooted in the assumption of white supremacy. I have been the beneficiary of a society that rewards my skin pigmentation. I have enjoyed the benefits of “white privilege” every day of my life.
I don’t feel guilty about that. I would like to explain what I mean when I say that, but I want to tell you a story.
Between 2009 and 2014 I lived in the Columbus neighborhood of Franklinton, more commonly known as The Bottoms. Across the street from my duplex was an apartment triplex, one of whose units was notorious for 24/7 traffic in and out with drug customers and a steady parade of prostitutes coming in to rest before heading back out into the neighborhood alleys.
I would sometimes sit on my front porch or the stone wall between my front yard and the sidewalk where I could observe the buzz of activity in my neighborhood. From time to time the girls walking down the sidewalk would speak and I came to recognize a few of them on sight. One girl in particular really caught my attention. I made a point to speak to her when she would walk by.
She was young, probably 17-19. She had Dirty Blonde hair that was uncut and hung to her waist. She never wore make-up and was typically dressed in a t-shirt and ripped jeans. The thing that was extraordinary about her was just how ordinary she was considering everything. She had a sweet, almost shy, smile. And she was friendly. Unlike many of the other girls coming and going from that apartment, she usually looked clean.
What struck me was how much she reminded me of a young girl who attended the church my uncle pastored in central Indiana. It was a Pentecostal church and I could imagine this young girl wearing a blue jean skirt and white tennis shoes fitting in seamlessly with the other youth at his church.
Seeing her in this surrounding totally unnerved me. Her familiarity caused me to have a very strong emotional reaction that I did not expect. She couldn’t be dismissed as “just another hood rat.” She was someone’s little girl. Her humanity was on full display. There was no way to simply look past her vulnerability in this situation.
Early one rainy Saturday morning, I was going to the store to get some milk. I was just a couple of blocks away from my house when I saw this girl walking slowly down the sidewalk carrying an armload of clothes with a trash bag slung over her shoulder. She was sobbing and entirely drenched by the rain. I was going the opposite direction but I quickly turned around and pulled up beside her. I rolled down the window and offered her a ride. She threw her bag and clothes into the back floorboard and got in the passenger seat.
She tried to gather herself but she was clearly in a terrible emotional state. I offered to buy her breakfast and she accepted so I drove her to a nearby McDonald’s and we ordered some food. We sat in the parking lot while we ate and she began to open up to me.
She told me that she had a 2 year old son who was staying with her mom. She proudly told me that she was only 1 credit hour away from getting her Dental Hygienist certification before she got hooked on drugs and turned to prostitution to support her habit.
That morning her pimp had discovered someone had stolen some money from him. She told me it was one of his other prostitutes but the other girl had lied and told him it was her so he threw all of her belongings into the dumpster behind their apartment and had beaten her and pistol-whipped her.
The left side of her face was red and scraped and you could see that she was quickly developing bruises over most of her jaw. She showed me her side which was also bloody, scratched, and quickly bruising. She was in pain, both physically and emotionally. She was scared and alone. I asked her if she was ready to leave that life behind and she said that she was.
As it so happened, I had recently performed at a benefit for some local humanitarian agencies and one of them, Rahab’s Hideaway, was founded specifically to meet the needs of those who have become victims of sex trafficking. I had one of their business cards in my wallet so I gave it to her and she gave me a phone number to pass on to their counselors. I prayed with her and then dropped her off at an apartment of someone she said she knew who would let her get cleaned up and stay with them until she figured out what was next for her. She thanked me and I drove away with a broken heart.
Later that day I spoke to a representative at Rahab’s Hideaway and passed along her number. They promised to follow up with her and offer her help if she was really ready to make a change. I never saw her again.
A couple of weeks later the apartment across the street was raided by police and the owner cleaned out the furniture and garbage left behind. The drug dealers and pimps moved on to their next location.
So, what does this have to do with White Guilt?
I shared this story because it illustrates a larger point. Even though men just like me had abused her and taken advantage of her vulnerability, I wasn’t her oppressor/customer. I was not a john paying her for sex. It was not my fault that she had somehow ended up in prostitution. It wasn’t guilt that made me want to help her. It was awareness. I could see her pain and her condition and I felt empathy for her. And feeling that, knowing her plight, I felt compelled to offer any help I could. It wasn’t from guilt but from compassion for another human. Knowledge and awareness compelled me to do the right thing.
We can look around us and see people in pain every day. They may have made poor life choices or they may have been abused or victimized without their permission. Or they may simply have been born with the “wrong” color of skin according to a society built on the assumption of white superiority.
I have had many conversations with my white friends/acquaintances/relatives/coworkers, etc... who personalize any suggestion that American society has codified systemic racism and immediately become defensive. We (the collective we) know that Racism is wrong. We know that Racism is bad. No one wants to think of themselves as bad. So when we are faced with the harsh reality that the history of this nation was literally founded on a premise of white supremacy (slaughter of indigenous people, African slaves, etc...) and that it was codified in the laws of the land, even into the 20th century, we don’t know how to live with that knowledge. We fear that if we acknowledge that racism currently exists and we benefit from it, we must claim ownership of it and, by extension, admit that we are bad people.
When the subject of race comes up in American conversations, it’s not uncommon for people of European descent (aka, “white” people) to respond by trying to change the subject, using inappropriate humor to deflect, becoming defensive or irrationally angry, or suggesting that we “focus on something positive” rather than actually addressing the uncomfortable truth.
We all want to be the hero of our own personal narrative. We tell our stories from a perspective that leaves us blameless and even valiant. So when we are forced to confront anything that exposes the awful parts of our heritage, we cringe. We are immediately uncomfortable and looking for a way to restore our precarious notion of Self.
Some degree of our individual identity is shaped by our community and our relationship to that community. There is a South African word, ubuntu, which means roughly, “I am human because I belong.” How we define our community provides us some context in which our beliefs were shaped and our values were formed.
How are we supposed to reconcile our national pride if racism was such a part of the fabric of this country? Since we are shaped by this country as our community, are we inherently racist? We know that racism and racists are bad and we don’t want to be defined as bad people. Therefore, we reject the notion of racism having any part of our lives and we acquit ourselves of the sins of the fathers of this nation. The easiest way to do that is to distance ourselves from the reality of the world in which we live. That’s why we say things like:
• “Slavery ended 155 years ago! Move on!” • “I never owned a slave and you never picked cotton!” • “I’m not racist. I don’t see color. I treat everyone the same.”
What you’ll seldom hear white people discussing are the consequences of centuries of
slavery and codified racism. In order to get that far, we have to be able to acknowledge that racism was as horrific and pervasive as it really was and is. That’s hard to do because of the entanglement of our self-identity with our community and our internal fear of the “guilt by association” mentality.
What many white people need to realize is that no one is blaming us personally for slavery or its repercussions. We are being asked to recognize that racial oppression did legally exist for centuries and has created a systemic bias against black people which continues to this day. The inequality in our society was created by our forefathers and we’ve done little to change the path we’ve been on for hundreds of years.
The second paragraph of our Declaration of Independence says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” In Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the opening line says, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” But we’ve never had equality in this country.
Oh, we’ve changed the language of our laws, but we still have the mindset of “white is right” and minorities are somehow less equal. So we have learned to couch our words and guard our actions to be less obvious about our intent. Too often the language of the rules against discrimination are simply guidelines on how to avoid detection for racist policies.
Racism isn’t about bad behavior by individuals. It’s about systems and laws that created wealth and educational inequality which exists to this day. It’s about policies which allowed white people to build lives that were almost unattainable for people of color in this country for centuries. It’s about a mindset that says if our society is going to actually function as though all men are created equal, white people are somehow losing something. We are losing something, of course. We’re losing the advantage of being white. We’re losing the “white privilege” that we don’t want to acknowledge even exists.
We must first realize that acknowledging it exists and that we’ve been the beneficiaries, even if unwittingly, doesn’t make us inherently bad people. Our society can no longer afford to remain ignorant. We must take a long hard look at the reality of the world in which we live. We must become aware of the pain and suffering around us.
We must realize that there are “ghettos” and poor neighborhoods mostly populated by black people and it is no accident. And when our education system is funded by property taxes in local neighborhoods, it’s no surprise that schools located in those intentionally poor neighborhoods are horrifically underfunded. Our “justice” system offers all the justice you can afford. Bail bonds and sentencing are administered with an obvious bias toward people of color.
Just like the girl in my story, I didn’t cause these problems but once I am aware of them I have a responsibility as a citizen to do the right thing. Once I am aware of the inequality, it is incumbent on me to work to make it right.
It’s not enough to simply not be actively racist. We must be actively anti-racist. We must rebuild social systems and design them to treat everyone equally. Literally.
And we must do this, not because we feel guilty about the past but because we see injustice and inequality in the present.
White Guilt is not simply acknowledging that this country was founded on a false notion of white supremacy. White Guilt is not recognizing the obvious inequality created by systems designed to provide advantages to people with white skin over those with darker skin.
White Guilt is ignoring those realities and refusing to do anything about it.
“If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”