The Jaws of the Great White Guilt

I need to walk a particularly fine line here, and I hope you’ll indulge me if I slip off from time to time. I would like to discuss white, male guilt. I’ve thought of this for a long time, and I’ve decided that too much of such a thing is destructive. (You can scroll away now, and I will never know. You can also disagree with me, and I’ll be happy to talk.) 

I will be the first to say that, as a group, white males have a lot to answer for. Somehow they got the might and the position to benefit from centuries of atrocity. The momentum of that depravity will take centuries to stop—and that’s because there persist those who fight to defend the white patriarchy, by, for example, vowing to Make America Great Again. Black lives most certainly matter, and we all have work to do. That said, however, I think that an excess of white, male guilt actually helps to feed the patriarchist’s cause.

I love a lot of good-hearted, progressively-minded, white men. My life is teeming with them. But ever since my years at Oberlin, these men have seen fit to debase their demographic. They target not just white, rich men. Not just white, conservative men. But white men as a mass, whom they call ignorant at best, and sheet-wearing at worst—who, as a group, apparently need to be taken down, silenced, or at least corrected. According to my college friends, this white man becomes a part of our national problems, simply by virtue of being white. And the tragedy here is that the rest of us require the white man to be part of the solution.

I just read an article by a black woman who was trying to explain white privilege to a white friend, “First, of all,” she said, “nobody’s mad at you for being white.” So please, let’s try to internalize this. Guilt, by itself, can become an excuse. This is in part because people mistake it for penitence. Society finds a man guilty, and it renders him inert for a set amount of time. But when a church—or whoever—addresses the penitent sinner, it prescribes action. If you feel guilty for what you’ve inherited or enacted, you will help no one by hating yourself or your brethren. That’s a waste of energy. And frankly, it’s self-indulgent.

Every progressive movement needs support from the ruling class. This is in part because the ruling class has social clout—and it’s also because the non-oppressed have more power, by having less skin in the fight. Whether it’s fair or not, this outsider status makes them appear more objective. Progressive, white males need to aid those with whom they ally by empowering themselves to act on the minority’s behalf. This stance doesn’t grow from patriarchy; it doesn’t act *for* another. Instead it acts *with* a group who deserves everyone’s own best effort.

And here’s another thing: If, as a self-ashamed white man, you get too vocal about how you hate who you are, you play right into the white patriarchist’s hands. If you talk about “shutting up the white man,” or “putting him in his place,” you give the Trump-ass all the license to point to you as evidence of the Coming War™. Don’t talk like that. Defeat an ignorance, or a social pattern, or a campaign—but don’t say you’re going to stick it to Mr. Whitey. You say that to a patriarchist, and he’ll be gratified. You say that to me, and I’ll think of all the white men I know, and call it prejudiced.

And that’s because it is prejudiced. It assigns a single agenda to hundreds of millions of people. It dismisses their potential for good and their desire to help. Before I left for North Dakota, a friend rightly corrected me for assuming that the Sioux are all of one mind about the oil pipeline. First of all, there are many tribes under the Sioux name. And secondly there are many divisions among the tribes. Apparently they even differ about whether they want to be called Indian or Native American. We liberals accept all this correction readily enough—so why not accept it about ourselves? Certainly the Standing Rock tribes have extended that courtesy to me. Very few of them see me, and assume that I’m on the side of the bulldozers. They let me help—and they don’t expect me to hate myself while doing it.

If you’ve read this far, I thank you. This isn’t my best writing—in part because I have so little distance from the material. White men have done terrible things. They may need help in seeing how they’ve been harmful. But as both a group and as individuals, they are capable of wonderful, even necessary, things. If you are a white man, please don’t be so prejudiced against yourself. No prejudice is helpful. As soon as you say that no good can rise from any group of people, along will come a Samaritan.

(Originally posted October 10, 2016)

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