Do you or a loved one use social media to post repeatedly about the same social issues, despite having no solid academic study or personal experience with racism or xenophobia? Do they constantly try to “appropriate” different cultures by bragging about how they have the newest faux Indian jewelry — despite the fact that they are ardently anti-appropriation? Or do they constantly quip about how they — as a white person — are “marching side-by-side” with Native/ Black/Hispanic social justice movements? Yet they’ve never ventured far into minority-dense communities because they’re “sketchy”?
All of these symptoms originate from a social disease that’s not so much a disease but the oldest form of unconscious ignorance. It’s called white guilt — “the unusual amalgamation of fear, pride and over-compensation for historical injustices towards “communities of lesser privilege.”
White guilt is, at its surface, annoying. In short, it’s the reactionary behavior of white persons who don’t want to acknowledge internal or subconscious biases regarding race or culture. Social justice activists try to undo these unconscious biases by addressing the prominent historical oppression committed on behalf of Europeans and examining how the cultural perceptions of previous generations have carried on over time. However, this often results in feelings of guilt for whites, even those who are friendly or allied with social justice movements.
White guilt has unintended and counterproductive consequences. Firstly, it creates a self-loathing attitude by pressuring whites to constantly remember the injustices of their ancestors. While this may be a good thing on the surface, this self-loathing can backfire and create feelings of ethnomasochism.More and more whites will despise their native cultures or family lines due to a feeling of “guilt by association.” Such feelings are comparable to the collective guilt of Germany following World War II, “self-hating Jews” for conflicts between Jewish identity, stereotypes and/or political issues regarding Israel, and the broader “western guilt” felt by many of European descent for injustices carried out by European nations.
This ethnomasochism — or observance of it — can sometimes create fierce backlash. It helps construct a narrative that European peoples are becoming entrenched in self hatred. It can also imply that the appropriate reaction is to forge a new “European identity” movement to protect the land, culture and values of European peoples by pushing back against social justice movements. This in turn generates “pro-European” enclaves to protect against the ideological assault. Just like that, white guilt becomes the fuel for a paradoxical yet threatening resurgence of genuine white supremacist ideologies.
Secondly, white guilt should be criticized as it avoids dealing with the desired focus of social justice organizations. It sidetracks the focus from recognizing past injustices and understanding how they still have social, cultural and economic effects, regardless of whether or not whites feel “accepted” by their peers simply for being politically correct. It makes white people more concerned with not appearing racist or innocent to racism, rather than having a genuine understanding of what racism is and how it affects their daily lives. White guilt isn’t just annoying, it’s one of the greatest obstacles to the progression of civil rights because it makes room for ignorance — intentional or otherwise.
While white guilt seems casual or blase in terms of other social issues currently facing our country, it should be considered a major player in how we identify and how we relate to others. Promoting self-loathing in others has no benefit, and at worst can drive others away and create an “us-vs.them” mentality. We — white and nonwhite — should stamp out white ethnomasochism where it spreads and find better ways to address race relations. Finally, we shouldn’t always hinge our perceptions of one another based on our ancestors perceptions or attitudes, but rather focus on our current predicaments and find reasonable solutions — based on current trends, attitudes and perceptions of one another.