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White guilt refers to the concept of individual or collective guilt often said to be felt by some white people for the racist treatment of people of color by whites both historically and presently.[1] The term is generally used in a pejorative way (and in a partisan fashion within American political circles).

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.[2]

Non-political usage

Judith Katz, the author of 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 reeducate 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.[3]

Statements about racial inequality may be framed as either white privileges or black disadvantages. When framed as white privileges, a 2005 study found that the statements resulted in greater collective guilt and lower racism compared to a black disadvantage framing. The findings suggest that representing inequality in terms of outgroup disadvantage allows privileged group members to avoid the negative psychological implications of inequality and supports prejudicial attitudes.[4]

A report in the Washington Post from 1978 describes the exploitation of white guilt by con artists:[5]

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

Partisan politics in the United States

Conservative usage

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.[6]

George F. Will, a conservative American political columnist, gives this definition of "white guilt":

[White guilt is] a form of self-congratulation, where whites initiate "compassionate policies" toward people of color, to showcase their innocence to racism.[7]

Liberal criticism

Commentator Sunny Hundal, writing for The Guardian, states 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.[8] 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.

See also


Further reading

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