White guilt

Apologies in advance for the simplistic nature of this post.

I learned a lot in grade school history class. Unfortunately, many lessons surrounded (accurate yet) horrible incidents of slavery, exploitation, racism, and oppression.

A few of my memories (apologies for any inaccuracies):

  • European entrance to North America: many native peoples were oppressed and/or killed off.
  • American slavery and slave trade: Africans were collected from other places on the globe and forced into slavery by and for Americans.
  • Civil War: United States North and South territories warred against each other largely over the issue of slavery. Southern plantation owners wanted to keep the practice legal.
  • Holocaust: Hitler killed six millions Jews.
  • Martin Luther King, Jr: African-American civil rights activist who was assassinated during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

Many of these incidents involved a “white” person/”white” group oppressing a minority ethnic group.

I remember noticing this when I was young and developing a sudden, overwhelming shame for my unavoidable whiteness. My mix of European ethnicities made me able to relate to any of the oppressor groups, leading me to feel a heavy weight of responsibility for the sins of my ancestors.

It didn’t help when we visited the Museum of Tolerance in seventh grade, and my mother, a volunteer chaperone, informed me that I was one-part German. I remember suddenly feeling huge regret for what “my people” had done to Jewish people during World War II. I know; it doesn’t make sense logically. But I remember vividly the pain and guilt that overcame me.

It sounds ridiculous, I know. But to this day, I can’t read an article about an impoverished minority community without feeling a twinge of guilt for having the “standard” race– the statistically wealthier race, the more secure race, the more socially acceptable race. I can’t hear about a racist incident at Santa Clara without feeling guilty for being in the majority ethnic group that was so insensitive. I feel guilty by association.

Is it just me? Has anyone else ever felt guilty for being “white”?


5 thoughts on “White guilt

  1. No, I do not. I think there is generally a certain arrogance to white guilt as if cruelty is merely a consigned to those of European descent. It shows how little we learn of other parts of the world and their histories – Mao Tse Tung, anyone? The capacity for infinite cruelty and infinite love is within everyone REGARDLESS of ethnicities.

    Besides, why should you bear on your shoulders things which are not of your creation? Our forefathers did both wonderful and incredible things – are we also patting ourselves on the back for the great things, too? We should earn our own guilt and our own achievements and worry less about history – something we neiher control nor change.

    PS It also shows how lucky we are to worry about such a topic when many in this world worry about more pressing matters like if they’re going to eat today. 🙂

    1. N: Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you that “white guilt” is a frivolous worry. The post was written honestly from personal experience about something that has affected me. I hope that I am one of the few. I disagree with you, though, that everyone has the capacity for infinite love; I think we are naturally selfish people.

  2. I don’t feel guilty for being white at all. Slavery is as old as war, and probably even older, and it wasn’t invented by white people. History is riddled with examples of victors enslaving their conquests, and some were used for sacrifice in some cultures (see South American civilizations, for example). As for the “Americans enslaving Africans,” it was the African tribes who went out and captured their enemies to be sold into slavery. There may have been a market for slaves, but its needs would have remained unmet without the facilitation of African tribes. These issues are not defined in black and white, as much as some would like to portray them that way. Slavery as you picture may have a distinctly American flavor, but many factors went into building and maintaining that system, and among were the tribal blacks of Africa, and the truth can’t be escaped: Blacks sold themselves into slavery. This doesn’t mitigate the (what we would consider) atrocious acts of the buyers, but the issue is not as simply defined as most would lead us to believe.

  3. Jazz: I think you make a very valid point. The “Americans enslaving Africans” idea was one that stuck with me throughout grade school and (clearly) still lingers in my mind today. Perhaps the truth was skewed by the public-school state standards, or the general public’s memory of colonial American slavery? Is it fair to blame them, or was it my eight-year-old misinterpretation? Who knows.

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