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White guilt is the concept that white people who support policies to further racial equality are plagued by shame for crimes committed by whites in the past. In psychology it is an subset of "collective guilt".
The term is popular in the American right and is used to undermine white liberal support for the improvement of the status of non-whites.
The advancement of white guilt is a consequence of racist ideology. Since many people deny that racism exists any longer, any attempts to address racism must be the result of white people feeling guilty, rather than combating the effects of institutional and historical racism.
White guilt has been correlated with more positive attitudes towards black people, support for affirmative action and greater likelihood to attend protests. Collective guilt encourages people to fix problems, but white guilt can decrease the mental well-being of people who experience it. The negative effects of white guilt might be alleviated with self affirmation, which also has the benefit of further increasing support for programs that help black people.
Some anti-racism activists have argued that it is not particularly helpful to people of color for white people to feel guilty, as this can be a trap that paralyses white people into inaction and leads them to center their own feelings in the conversation about racism, to the exclusion of the feelings of people of color. Joan Olsson's 1997 paper Detour Spotting for White Anti-Racists identifies guilt simply as part of the "common patterns of guilt, denial and defensiveness" that can cause many white people to spend their energy deflecting the uncomfortable feelings and trying hard to look like "one of the good ones", rather than actually being productive.
Feminist YouTuber Marina Watanabe (marinashutup) emphasizes the need to go beyond the initial (and natural) instinct to feel guilty, and translate that feeling into action instead:
But ultimately, white folks feeling sad or guilty about racism doesn’t actually help people of color experiencing that racism. And I think in order to truly challenge racism, people experiencing white guilt need to move past that initial feeling and find ways to channel their emotions into change. Solution? A better alternative to feeling white guilt which PoC don’t even want you to feel anyway is turning discomfort into action. If you see the way the people of color are disproportionately affected by racism then don’t center your feelings in these conversations. Seek out resources if you can. Being informed and reading up on police brutality, white privilege, representation, racial stereotypes is essential to being a helpful ally. You need to know what you’re fighting before you’ll be any help fighting it.
- The social psychology of collective guilt by Mark A. Ferguson and Nyla R. Branscombe
- Perceptions of Racism in Hurricane Katrina-Related Events: Implications for Collective Guilt and Mental Health Among White Americans by Alison Blodorn and Laurie T. O’Brien
- Collective Guilt and Shame as Motivation for White Support of Black Programs by Richard D. Harvey and Debra L. Oswald
- Olsson, Joan. Detour Spotting for White Anti-Racists.
- marinashutup. Should White People Feel Racial "Guilt"?. YouTube, August 1, 2017, 5:54.