White Guilt

White guilt is the individual or collective guilt felt by white people for the racist treatment of people of color by whites both historically and presently. The term is generally used in a pejorative way (and in a partisan fashion within American political circles).

White guilt has been cited by some conservatives and libertarians as a way for liberals and others to induce white Americans to support the policies of affirmative action and redistribution of wealth. White guilt has been described as one of several psychosocial costs of racism for white individuals along with the ability to have empathic reactions towards racism, and fear of non-whites.

Judith Katz, the author of the 1978 publication ‘White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training,’ is highly critical of what she calls self-indulgent white guilt fixations. Her concerns about white guilt led her to move from black-white group encounters to all-white groups in her anti-racism training. She also avoided using non-white people to re-educate whites, she said, because she found that this led whites to focus on getting acceptance and forgiveness rather than changing their own actions or beliefs.

A report in the ‘Washington Post’ from 1978 describes the exploitation of white guilt by con artists: ‘Telephone and mail solicitors, trading on ‘white guilt’ and on government pressure to advertise in minority-oriented publications, are inducing thousands of businessmen to buy ads in phony publications.’

Shelby Steele, a conservative black political writer, discussed the concept extensively in his 2006 book ‘White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.’ Steele criticizes ‘white guilt’ saying that it is nothing more than an alternative interpretation of the concept of ‘black power’: ‘Whites (and American institutions) must acknowledge historical racism to show themselves redeemed by it, but once they acknowledge it, they lose moral authority over everything having to do with race, equality, social justice, poverty and so on. […] The authority they lose transfers to the ‘victims’ of historical racism and becomes their great power in society. This is why white guilt is quite literally the same thing as Black power.’

George F. Will, conservative American political columnist, wrote: ‘[White guilt is] a form of self-congratulation, where whites initiate ‘compassionate policies’ toward people of color, to showcase their innocence to racism.’

Commentator Sunny Hundal, writing for ‘The Guardian,’ stated that it is ‘reductionist’ to assign political opinions to a collective guilt such as ‘white guilt’ and that few people on the left actually hold the views being ascribed to them by the conservative writers who expound on the concept of ‘white guilt’ and its implications. Hundal concludes: ‘Not much annoys me more than the stereotype that to be liberal is to be full of guilt. To be socially liberal, in my view, is to be more mindful of compassion and empathy for others.’

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