Black rage and White guilt are intertwined and inseparable. It’s always been that way.
Actually, the phenomenon dates to the early 1960s, the advent of the Black Empowerment and Civil Rights Movement that were spawned at the time by the likes of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Black Muslims, and the Black panthers.
The individuals and groups cited above varied significantly in their approach and rhetoric, but all were ready to combat racial segregation and the American caste system.
Prior to this, many Black people merely accepted their social standing as “how things are,” born into a bad situation. Likewise, White people just accepted American life before the Civil Rights Movement as “the way things always were.”
Once the focus became the plight of Black and Indigenous peoples back in the 1960s, that all changed.
Black people realized there was a lot to be angry about. And White people…responded with guilt.
This did more to keep everything fixed in place, to keep the “same old” system going, than might be apparent at first glance.
Should guilt be the motivating force of a White person getting behind movements to help minorities escape the cycle of poverty and discrimination by dismantling the remnants of an overtly racist society?
It depends. If guilt pushes a person to actually act, to do something helpful, then the answer is yes. However, that’s often not the case. There are better motivating forces.
James Baldwin asked White people to acknowledge, and examine, their White guilt.
The 1978 book White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training, author Judith Katz, criticized what she refers to as “self-indulgent White guilt fixations.”
To summarize, Katz felt that it’s not about White people gaining acceptance from Black people and other marginalized groups, but rather changing actions and beliefs.
Will it help anyone for White demonstrators to put on makeup that simulates injuries from a slave master’s whip and parade around a demonstration?
There was a Black Lives Matter protest in Charleston, South Carolina where this actually happened last week.
Embarrassingly, White protesters showed up in chains, replete with make-believe scars, led by a Black “slave owner.”
The group, known as Stand As One, was scolded by BLM and told to leave. Good move, BLM.
Do actions such as those by Stand As One lead to change, or just provide an opportunity for White folks to indulge themselves in activity that feels good, feels like it’s helping, regardless of whether it actually does anything positive or leads to change?
In other words, is it just campy dress-up, a fun old time? Or, is it a form of performance art, really effective at getting the message out?
What about White people getting on their knees and begging Black people for forgiveness for past ills caused by racism? Is this not demeaning to all? Some kneel and bow only to GOD; others to no one. In this instance, an overly dramatic display solves nothing and provides a false sense of resolution. What is the subtext here? Is this edifying to anyone?
Emiliano Zapata Salazar, one of the key Mexican Revolution leaders, famously said, “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees.” That goes for every person, but especially Americans. We have a heritage of both independence and interdependence; the best moments in our history incorporate both.
Does kneeling before others really bring people together and make all feel as equals? It’s truly questionable. In some instances, perhaps this does lead to a cathartic healing for all involved. There’s no questioning that emotional healing may take place. And, that may be a good thing. But at the end of the day, nothing’s really been resolved except White people absolving themselves of collective guilt.
Slave owners were the 1% of their day; it’s fair to assume most White folks caught on camera prostrating themselves before an assembly of Black men and women did not have any ancestors owning slaves. Perhaps a few had racist ancestors. But even then, how does this show of White shame help any Black person to overcome systemic racism? Is it all OK now that White people deigned to bow?
Of course, it’s all in how it’s done. Was it prayerful? Not overly showy? Sincere? Admittedly, there may be times when a simple gesture like this may do a lot to help individual Black people feel a little better about life. Whittling away at racism, in any way we can, is a good thing.
However, there’s the danger that such activities may stray into destructive and divisive territory. It’s probably best that White people refrain from bowing or kneeling, as a group, before any other group, and the same goes for Black people and all other people.
According to Dwight McBride, editor of James Baldwin Now, this fits perfectly with Shelby Steele’s ideas about the questionable nature of White guilt, expressed in the pages of his 1990 publication entitled The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America, a neoconservative tome centered on American race relations.
It this book, Steele writes:
“…white liberals, eager to escape discomfort of White guilt, set up and agree to short-sighted programs…[upping] the ante on White guilt…White guilt…springs from a knowledge of ill-gotten advantage…White guilt was Black power…”
McBride disagrees, questioning whether affirmative action programs created in the 1960s and afterwards, could really be linked in any provable way to White guilt. He considers it a gross over-simplification.
White guilt is often wholly unproductive and has no consequential effect on our present issue of racial inequality. It doesn’t lead to direct action. It doesn’t lead to change.
Tom Wolfe, perhaps the most keen and perceptive chronographer of American life in the 1960s and 1970s, explored this theme in his essay entitled “Radical Chic,” first appearing in the June 1970 issue of New York magazine, the noted biweekly that’s won more National Magazine Awards than any other publication.
The essay was also published along with another essay of Wolfe’s as a soft cover book, with the title of “Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers.” Both essays concern similar topics; both look at the 1960s Civil Rights Movement from the perspective of a White American man.
A Time magazine interview from the era featured a Black Panther stating about Wolfe, “You mean that dirty, blatant, lying, racist dog who wrote that fascist disgusting thing in New York magazine?”
In Radical Chic, Wolfe writes, “But it’s all right. They’re white servants, not Claude and Maude, but White South Americans. Lenny and Felicia [Bernstein] are geniuses. After a while, it all comes down to servants. They are the cutting edge in Radical Chic. Obviously, if you are giving a party of the Black Panthers…well, then, obviously you can’t have a Negro butler and maid, Claude and Maude, in uniform, circulating..and…serving drinks and canapes…”
In this way, Wolfe reduces these White guilt-associated efforts to insincere at best, social posturing rooted not in the underlying basic want for human equality and respect for all, but pandering, motivated by White guilt.
To any serious student of American life in the 20th century, these essays, and other works of Wolfe, such as The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test and The Pump House Gang, are an essential read.
In Radical Chic, Wolfe writes about a party held at Leonard Bernstein’s posh split-level Park Avenue Manhattan apartment. Bernstein was famed as a composer, conductor, author, music lecturer, and pianist, a longtime supporter of Democrats and their ideals.
Radical Chic is so important, culturally, that the phrase has become part of our very language, entering the lexicon as a term to identify, and poke fun at, upper class supporters of grassroots radicalism and social advocacy.
Black rage is real. It’s a sentiment that’s developed over centuries of slavery, segregation, covert racism, and inertia concerning change for Black people in American society.
Black rage can be positivity channeled. James Baldwin explored this theme in a letter to his nephew entitled The Fire Next Time (See Article: “Staten Island Protest For George Floyd Brings People Together, While In Other Cities Chaos Reigns”)
However, there is an unhealthy cycle of Black rage followed by White guilt, which actually keeps the status quo in place.
White guilt defuses Black rage; rather than helping to focus these feelings into meaningful methods of altering our social scene, instead there is dissipation.
It’s the water that puts out the fire, leading to a smoldering mess.
It’s a way of White people bringing themselves back to the center of attention. Wasn’t that the initial problem, after all?
Here’s a clue: it’s not about you! Instead of saying “Look at me! Look at me! I’m not a racist!” maybe there’s a better alternative.
White people cannot reverse 400 years of slavery by saying they are sorry. Or by running around with faux-whip marks on their bare backs.
These events really happened; turning it into a Halloweenesque travesty is about as bad as it gets.
In fact, most White folks never owned slaves in the past, and the White people living today likely aren’t even descendants of slave owners.
In the social hierarchy, most White people, like most citizens of all ethnicities and races, were poor (and still are). They did not make the laws and had few protections. Many came to the U.S. as penniless immigrants and did not benefit from slavery or segregation. Some were even indentured servants or regarded as lessers by the White ruling class.
The majority did not benefit from “White Privilege” or even any sort of class privilege. These are not the people who were possessed of the colonialist mentality, these were the “huddled masses, yearning to be free.”
And so, it makes little sense to think that such reconciliatory sentiment will help anyone.
While it’s commendable that so many White people care about Black lives, it’s time to reexamine how to turn those feelings into something that can bring real change.
Unfortunately, feeling redeemed of your White guilt is meaningless. You aren’t personally to blame for the wrongs that still exist in this current social scene, and the probability is, neither were your ancestors, in their own time.
This brings us to a third phenomenon, often overlooked and misidentified when spotted: White resentment.
When we see White folks tweeting out “WHITE Lives Matter!” the knee-jerk reaction is to think White supremacist. In fact, this is the diametrically opposing pole of White guilt, summoned to conscience by Black rage.
Many White people didn’t benefit from “White privilege.” Or, any privilege, for that matter. They worked hard for what they have, trading their sweat and time for a paycheck, toiling in the mines, as it were. Sometimes literally, as was the case with the White Appalachian coal miners.
Many were dirt-poor. Some still are. And so, such individuals and groups resent being told that they’ve somehow been given a golden key to the city. When? Where? They just don’t see it.
Police are White, Black, Latinx, Asian. They police the underclass impartially. More Black men are harmed in police custody, shot even, by Black officers than by White. If you’re impoverished, expect the police to be on your case. It’s equal opportunity oppression, as it were.
And so, we have White resentment. Impotent to communicate anything, really, just about as useless as White guilt in its myriad forms.
But it exists. Just as White guilt and Black rage do.
It’s real, but not all real emotions and thoughts are meritorious.
Help Black people to get out from under the wheel. Help all people needing aid to get out from under the wheel.
Is that statement diluting the message? Definitely not. Oppression comes in many forms. Sure; some of it is organized along racist lines, but bias extends to everything.
Do something of consequence. Help Black people. But don’t stop there. Help anyone in need. There’s no need to confine your largess of altruism to Black peoples, only.
Indigenous Americans suffer greatly. But so do Latinx peoples. The list goes on.
Don’t just feel good about yourself because you acknowledge your White guilt.
It’s a dead end and accomplishes nothing.
Do you want a medal? How about some ego-feeding praise?
Get over yourself; go out and do something!
If you’re Black, it’s quite likely you’re going to continue to feel enraged. About life. About what’s been done to your ancestors.
About ongoing racism.
It only makes sense.
But keep that rage going on a slow simmer, rather than burning out in an explosive blast.
Help your White allies; together we all can make meaningful change.
Using marches, protests, and looting as a “release valve” for your pent-up feelings will only serve to keep ongoing injustices in place.
Our society has come a long way; it’s undeniable. But we must go further.
Institutional racism has been largely dismantled, though there are yet many, many areas where this insidious practice remains.
Help to shed light on injustices, and help to end racism in all forms, whether by individuals, groups, or anyone else.
We either enter the future in Unity, or we risk losing everything that White, Black, and every other American group helped build together.
If we don’t joins arms now, our descendants will surely be taking them up against one another.* And, that will be a sad, sad thing.
Black British journalist with the English newspaper The Guardian summed it up thusly:
“[White guilt] won’t close the pay gap, the unemployment gap, the wealth gap or the discrepancy between black and white incarceration. It won’t bring back Walter Scott, Trayvon Martin or Brandon Moore”. Coleman Hughes has suggested that White guilt causes the misdirection of anti-racist efforts, writing that ‘where White guilt is endemic, demands to redress racism will be strongest, regardless of how much racism actually exists’.”
* Phrase inspired by Commodore 128 Easter Egg: ” Brought to you by… Software: Fred Bowen Terry Ryan Von Ertwine Herdware: (right, with an “e”!!) Bil Herd Dave Haynie Frank Palaia Link arms, don’t make them. “
To find this: At the BASIC prompt on a C-128 machine, type “sys 32800,123,45,6” (without quotes)