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Guilt is a bad thing.  How many times have we heard that one?   There’s often a bit of wisdom in what “they say,” yet I’m to prone to wonder.  In doing so, I recall my first reading of Peggy McIntosh’s essay on white privilege.  I was most struck at the time by her example concerning “flesh color[ed] bandages,” probably, because it involved an issue that seemed so trivial. (If racial injustice consisted of the fact that black people can’t get bandages to match their skin tones, what a lovely world we would live in.)  I’m fascinated by those blue bandages worn by players in the NBA.  Justice personified: they look equally awful on everyone!

Frankly, I don’t feel much (read: any) guilt when it comes to bandages, but if I’m truthful with myself, I must admit that I do feel certain pangs every now and then with regard to white privilege.  Sometimes I’m a bit afraid to relinquish those feelings because without them I’m not sure what I might fail to do.  Guess I need my guilt.  Before you decide that I’m a prime candidate for psychiatric help or, worse yet, that I’m spiritually bankrupt, please let me explain.

There is no virtue in feeling guilty for things I don’t do.  I’m not representing all white people or apologizing for everything that anyone might happen to do at any time.  Not me.  Neither do I feel guilt concerning things that I once did, but that I am making a genuine effort not to do now.  I do not expect perfection, even from myself.  Let’s face it: theologically and literally, I believe in the forgiveness of sin.  I’m clean.  That’s not what I am talking about.

Perhaps there are readers who will take issue with my choice of words.  I have determined (after many years of experience) not to argue about words.  If the word guilt weights heavily upon you, please, feel free to substitute one that will make you feel more comfortable.  I am interested in concept above term.

White people (even, maybe especially, those of us who have made a commitment to strive for racial justice and equality) know that without something to keep us going, we can stop struggling for this justice any time we choose.  It’s a part of the privilege we inherited when we were born white: privilege that we must consciously and continually reject for it will not stay gone.  This privilege returns every time we sleep –  or whenever we let down our guard – so we must reject it anew every morning.  Rejection requires a conscious decision before it can become an action.  And herein is the danger: forget (just once) . . . and you are someone you do not want to be.

It seems that for black people to stop struggling is to give up, but for white people to stop struggling means only to stop struggling.  When we reflect on this insane inequality, we do feel guilty.  We can stop: others can’t.  We enjoy unmerited privilege even as we struggle for equality.  For this reason, I think white people know that some little bit of guilt is absolutely necessary to keep us from lapsing into complacency.  We need that twinge to keep us sensitive to the injustices that daily confront those who do not enjoy a privileged status.  We need reminders so we will make the conscious rejection of privilege that we know we should make.

Pangs of conscience cause us to look into the face of another human being and to see his or her pain.  And the twinges remind us that we have much to lose, for if we give up the struggle, we may well lose ourselves in a welcoming, but wickedly consuming, cloud of whiteness where we cannot find (or help) ourselves or others.  It is a fearful thing to me to consider that in the eyes of many I am a generic white person.  We often feel that stereotypes are less destructive when they are applied to others that to us.  Human nature?  Yes, and stupidity.

Guilt can serve as a badly needed wake-up call.  Our failure to advance in the area of race relations in our country will have dire consequences for everyone, not just for blacks who have (historically) borne so much of the brunt of our failure to implement equality and justice, but for all Americans.  My destiny, and that of my children and grandchildren, is, indeed, a part of our common destiny.  King was right. . . . is right.

Maybe guilt keeps me from living my life so selfishly.  Maybe it’s the push I need when I get out of bed each day.  Maybe it’s the catalyst for change (when heeded).

Or maybe that small twinge that I feel is not truly guilt at all. . . .  maybe it’s an angel pulling on my heart stings reminding me to reject a privilege based on a false superiority, challenging me to strive to become someone more than just a generic white person. . . . maybe it’s God hoping that I will dare to go beyond the declaration that the color of bandages is trivial (to whom?) – on to a more inclusive understanding of just whose needs are significant – on to a stand that acknowledges all human beings as God’s children – on to struggle for justice and equality for everyone.  Perhaps guilt is not a bad thing.  Sometimes I wonder. . . .                                                                     Helen Losse

 

first published in The Winston-Salem Chronicle, March 20, 1997

 

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