What Do I Do with My White Guilt?
Guilt can be helpful. Listen to it deeply. But don't stop there.
Posted Jun 26, 2020
Q: I’m white and, like many other white people since the death of George Floyd, I have immersed myself in reading, listening, and learning about racism—the racism around me and within me—and committed myself to the ongoing work of anti-racism. I know I don’t understand what that commitment means and where it will take me, but the fire in me is strong about this, and I trust it.
What I’m struggling with is guilt. Why did it take me this long to wake up? Why did it take yet another killing of a Black man to get my attention? I’ve read that white people don’t need to ask Black people to assuage our guilt for us, that we need to talk with other white people about this. So that’s my question. What do I do with this sickening feeling of guilt?
A: First of all, you’re not alone. I’m white and I’m with you. So is a white man whose picture I saw on Facebook last week. He was holding two signs. One said, “Black Lives Matter.” The other said, “Sorry I’m late. I had a lot to learn.” And I’m guessing a lot of other white people who read your question here are also nodding their heads. This is a collective spiritual struggle moment larger than any I have ever witnessed.
Second, I want to lift you up as a model of reaching out for support. The struggle for racial justice is Priority One in the country right now, and we need each other to build the knowledge, skills, and stamina for this work. It’s also important, as you say in your email, that white people not turn to Black people as our only resource in this struggle. We need to listen to Black people, absolutely, again and again and again. But we also need to do significant emotional labor in conversation with other white people.
Third, please remember that awakenings often begin or advance by exposure to tragedy or trauma. At the center of two of the world’s great religions, in fact, are people living in a bubble of privilege whose lives change forever after they come face to face with suffering and violence.
Siddhartha Gautama, who would become the Buddha, was kept cloistered in the palace by his father, who did not want his son to know of the suffering in the world beyond. He was 29 when he wandered outside for the first time, and there he saw an aged person, a sick person, and a corpse. It was this traumatic-for-him exposure to aging, sickness, and death that set him on the path of spiritual transformation.
Moses was also raised in a palace, and his awakening is also connected with trauma. Moses witnessed a state-sponsored act of terror, an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, he intervened and killed the Egyptian, and from this encounter with brutality, another’s and his own, he began his spiritual journey.
My point is: You are more than not alone. You’re actually in some pretty esteemed company.
But to your question: What do I do with this sickening feeling of guilt?
Here I need to say the paradoxical opposite of what I said previously: You are alone. Your struggle with guilt will have much in common with that of others, and listening to their experiences will surely be of help. But there’s not a manual for guilt that we follow in 1-2-3 order. As with grief—which is quite often interwoven with guilt, and which I hear in your guilt—you have to find your way your way.
So, as you read what follows, do so meditatively, prayerfully, and mindfully. Listen for what resonates with you and what feels dissonant. Notice the “yes, that feels right” and the “no, that doesn’t” that happen in your body. Remember that it’s normal to feel uneasy or uncomfortable in relation to new perspectives. But stay present with yourself, and keep listening. Listen for the inner knowing that’s deeper than comfortable or uncomfortable, deeper than yes or no. And trust this deep knowing. It’s what’s gifted you with this question and the wisdom to seek support. Let it help you as you feel your way forward into a different relationship with guilt and with yourself as a white person.
To begin, please remember that guilt is usually a good thing. It helps us know when we’re doing (or have done) something wrong. It’s a sign that our conscience is alive and that the channel between conscience and consciousness is open. Guilt weaves together empathy, remorse, awareness, and responsibility in a way that changes our hearts and opens our minds. So, sick as it makes you, give thanks for guilt. It knows something’s not right.
Also remember that this particular guilt, the guilt of being asleep to racism (and also, made sleepy by racism, and kept sleepy by racism), is one you’ll need to get used to feeling. The racism in you and me and every white person is not going away. We’ve been socialized into racism our whole lives, as were the 20 generations before us. It’s in the air we breathe. It’s in the muscle and bone of our bodies. So, we’re going to keep on finding racism in ourselves that we’ll be right to feel guilty about and that, as with grief, it will be important not to hurry through.
Once more, give thanks for guilt. It is an honorable ally in the journey of transformation.
But be careful with it, too. Guilt is tricky and can run astray in several ways. We can have an initial reckoning with guilt, find it overwhelming, and dissociate from it. We can project our guilt onto others, finding someone “more guilty” than we are (at least in our eyes), and make accusing them and changing them the focus of our energy. Or we can get stuck in the sick-of-myself stage, which I think is the heart of your question.
Guilt that gets stuck in sickness can be a way of avoiding an actual change of behavior. What we white folk are learning is that the changes of behavior required to counter racism are going to be way more costly and way less enjoyable than having Black friends and going to protests. Racism is embedded in every institution there is—healthcare, education, religion, entertainment, business, banking, neighborhoods, the political system, the legal system—and changes in these systems, which tend to work favorably for us, will almost certainly involve sacrifice.
The feminist theologian Letty Russell once wrote: “The poor do not ask us to feel guilty, for they can’t eat guilt. What they ask is that we act to address the causes of injustice so they can obtain food." Feeling bad is an inadequate substitute for doing good.
So, earn the trust of your healthy guilty conscience with action. This is 12-step wisdom, a wisdom of people who know well the territory of guilt and what it takes to make good use of it. They speak of making a searching and fearless moral inventory (Step 4) and admitting to God, to yourself, and to another human being the exact nature of your wrongs (Step 5). Those are the owning-your-guilt steps. But then they add recommendations for action: Be willing to make amends to those you have harmed (Step 8) and, when possible, make those amends (Step 9).
There are many incredible, credible resources that might help you know what anti-racism amends-making will look like in your life. Both the content and feel of your email suggest that you are already connecting with them. But if you’re looking for another, check out Showing Up for Racial Justice. They do a great job welcoming white allies to anti-racism work in a non-shaming way and helping white people listen to the wisdom and guidance of Black leaders on matters of action.
There’s plenty more to say about all this, but this is a blog, not a book. Thanks so much for your question, remember this is a marathon, not a sprint, and keep listening to your own deep knowing.
I’ll close with a quote from Cynthia Bourgeault’s Wisdom Way of Knowing: “[T]here is no bad place to begin. Simply open your heart and ask, trusting that the gift will come. Do what you can where you are. And be alert for the next step. However it leads you, your heart will know the way home.”
This is a question-and-answer blog for therapists, therapy clients, and others interested in the intersection of psychotherapy and spirituality. If there's a question you'd like to see addressed, please contact me through my website.
Bourgeault, C. (2003). The wisdom way of knowing: Reclaiming an ancient tradition to awaken the heart. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.
Russell, L.M. (1988). From garden to table. In L.M. Russell, P. Kwok, A.M. Isasi-Diaz, & K.G. Cannon (Eds.), Inheriting our mothers’ gardens: Feminist theology in third world perspective. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press.