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White Guilt - Emily Monroy

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White Guilt

One term that's been floating around the public consciousness for some time now is "white guilt." This refers to the guilt that whites, particularly white liberals, feel about racism, imperialism, colonialism and other forms of oppression. Proponents of white guilt explain that while whites may not necessarily be racist on an individual level, they live in a racist society that automatically grants them certain advantages at the expense of other people.

The concept of white guilt has not gone unchallenged. Some minorities are skeptical of white guilt in the same way they're wary of the notion of interracial marriage as a panacea against racism. In an essay in the anthology The State of Asian America: Activism and Resistance in the 1990s, Filipino-American activist Steven De Castro points out some shortcomings of white liberal guilt. He himself feels more comfortable with whites who oppose racism out of a sense of justice rather than one of guilt. In his view, whites' feelings of culpability prevent them from recognizing and condemning racial discrimination by minorities. He cites as an example the killing of a black girl in Los Angeles by a Korean storeowner, an incident many liberals dismissed as "interethnic conflict."

A number of whites have questioned whether they should feel guilty about racial discrimination solely because of their skin color. They note that not only should they as individuals not be blamed for racism but that even as a group many whites are not that much better off than their black brethren. In his book The Redneck Manifesto author Jim Goad argues that the so-called rednecks - the white working class often portrayed as the bastion of racism in North America - a.) don't possess any more social power than blacks and frequently find themselves in the same economic position as the latter, and b.) are descended from people who didn't promote and perpetuate institutions like slavery and Jim Crow laws because they themselves were oppressed by the same individuals - generally rich whites - who did.

But some whites' repudiation of white guilt comes off as awkward, defensive, and overly dramatic. For example, French-Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise makes the point that minorities can be racist, which is undoubtedly true. The examples she uses to illustrate her statement, though, are less than convincing. She describes a visit to Japan and Korea during which the locals, considering her something of a novelty, stared at her, touched her skin and hair, and asked to take her picture. As uncomfortable as these experiences may have made her feel, they can't be equated with being called a racist name by the occupants of a passing car or being denied a job or promotion on account of one's skin color.

It's also worth mentioning that much of the racism exhibited by non-white groups is directed not at whites but at other minorities. Take Koreans' traditional resistance to intermarriage. While today many Korean parents would prefer their children to marry within their community, they tend to be far more open to marriages with whites than with blacks, Hispanics or even Asians like Vietnamese and Filipinos. And some minority communities may actually be biased in favor of whites. A good number of Filipino and Hispanic parents, for instance, are more than happy to see their sons and daughters pair off with whites (in the words of one Mexican journalist, for many Hispanic families marriage to an Anglo is as good as a college education). In short, the majority of whites today, with rare exceptions such as Jewish Holocaust survivors, just don't have the first-hand knowledge of racism that minorities do.

Having been in a number of interracial relationships myself, I've come face to face with white guilt more than once. One time a Mexican boyfriend of mine told me he was sensitive to anti-black racism because he was a minority himself. It struck me then that I'd never know what it was like to be a minority. Certainly I'm conscious of racism and the importance of treating everyone equally. But as Cheri Register, the author of a book on interracial adoption, says, colorblindness is "a luxury enjoyed only by members of a dominant group." Therefore my partner's experience with racism was something with which I could sympathize but not empathize.

My Mexican boyfriend wasn't deliberately trying to make me feel guilty; his remarks simply spurred me to reflect upon the situation. At other times, however, I've resented being put on a white guilt trip. Once a Lebanese ex-lover angrily told me that through slavery and constant discrimination I was responsible for the present state of the American black population. By "you" he was referring not to Emily as an individual but to Emily as a member of the white race. I suppose I could have churned out the usual spiel that my ancestors were colonized themselves (both Ireland and Sicily were under other powers for much of their history) and were in no position to oppress anybody. But it wasn't the accusation itself that bothered me. If it had come from a black, Asian or Hispanic I would have understood his or her reasoning. But here the so-called white guilt trip was being laid on me by somebody who didn't look much more ethnic than my Italian father and who, due not only to his skin color but to his six-digit salary, probably hadn't experienced any more discrimination than my dad had as a foreigner in the United States in the 1950s. I wanted to tell my former boyfriend that according to his logic he should be held just as responsible as I for the oppression of blacks because after all, Arabs were involved in the African slave trade, both in selling slaves to Europeans and bringing them to Middle Eastern countries. Yet modern-day Arabs shouldn't be made to feel guilty about this period in the past.

In the end, I can say that I don't feel guilty about racism just because I'm white. On the other hand, I recognize that in this society the color of my skin gives me privileges my non-white friends, colleagues and lovers don't have. I've kept both points in mind in my relationships with minority men. And as I have shown by the examples of my former Lebanese and Mexican boyfriends, it's important to keep both things in perspective.

- September 2000



Emily Monroy is a freelance writer and lives in Toronto, Canada. She wrote a serie of essays on racism and identity, published on various on- and off-line magazines.

Read another essay on the subject of the West and the Islam.


Notice © 2002 IP and the author

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