Last month, a clip of Tim Wise speaking on “guilt versus responsibility” for racism appeared on both Sociological Images and Womanist Musings, where it drew diametrically opposed reactions. Sociological Images posted it without comment from the bloggers, but reader comments were strongly positive, apart from one obvious white-supremacist troll. By contrast, Renee at Womanist Musings was scathing:
Isn’t that nice? No guilt, only responsibility. I think the problem with this little speech is that from the moment that White people are born, they do take advantage of every single ounce of privilege that is bestowed upon them. They don’t have to feel guilty about slavery, or Jim Crow, but they should sure as hell feel guilty for the perpetuation of Whiteness. Tim may have gone to multicultural daycare, but his Whiteness made that an option, rather than a necessity. When he was streamed into university courses and the teachers worked hard to ensure that Blacks were not, he didn’t feel the need to question.
Here’s the clip, so you can judge for yourself.
The discussion on Renee’s post made the important and valid point that white people shouldn’t dominate our conversations about race. Ultimately, a person who has grown up white needs to make the effort to read what people of color have written and listen to what they have to say. They can’t just listen to Time Wise and stop there.
But I would take issue with some of the other criticisms that Renee makes. First, Renee says that Wise should feel guilty about the unearned privileges he enjoys – about advantages he did not personally choose or seek. He should feel guilty about his daycare experiences? Really? How is he culpable for choices his parents made? Should he have foregone college, just because black and Latino boys are funneled away from it (and often into prison instead)?
Fighting privilege – or even “renouncing privilege” – shouldn’t mean voluntary abjection. Privilege comes in two basic forms. The first relies on power over others; it’s a zero-sum game. An example of this type of privilege would be the tendency of many audiences to take white middle-class male speakers more seriously than speakers from a marginalized group. (See, for instance, some conservative pundits’ dismissive comments on the Native American blessing given at the Tucson memorial service last week.) The second form of privilege need not entail the degradation of marginalized groups. Attending college falls into this category. These privileges shouldn’t be abolished but should be made so widely available that they cease to be privileges. (That doesn’t mean that every kid should attend college, or that colleges couldn’t be selective about admissions; instead, we would need to mitigate poverty, substandard K-12 school, dangerous neighborhoods, etc. until the racial makeup of colleges – including highly selective ones – looks very much like the demographics of the U.S. in general.)
More basically, I do not think guilt is a helpful emotion. Guilt paralyzes. It focuses attention right back on the feelings of the white person. It leads to inaction. It can even help perpetuate white privilege. As long as I wallow in guilt, I may have the illusion that I’m achieving solidarity with people of color. But that’s bullshit. Guilt is solipsistic. It’s a natural reaction, but if it’s more than transient, it’s toxic.
When I reject guilt, am I just shoring up my own privilege? After all, I’m a white woman who grew up in a practically all-white farm town in the overwhelmingly white state of North Dakota, dimly aware as a child that the civil rights and black power movements were taking place somewhere else.
So please consider, instead, the words of Audre Lorde:
Guilt and defensiveness are brick in a wall against which we all flounder; they serve none of our futures. … (124)
Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness. …
I have no creative use for guilt, yours or my own. Guilt is only another way of avoiding informed action, of buying time out of the pressing need to make clear choices, out of the approaching storm that can feed the earth as well as bend the trees. (130)
(Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, pp. 124, 130)
In fact, Lorde saw guilt as an obstacle to white women acknowledging difference, which in turn stopped them recognizing their own role in perpetuating racism.
In my teaching about racism, I’ve consistently tried to reframe the discussion as about responsibility rather than guilt. I try to show how racism is structural and systematic, rather than limited to outright bigotry. Most of my students are white, with backgrounds varying from rural poverty to suburban affluence, from highly integrated schools to all-white gated enclaves.
This past week I used the Tim Wise clip in my intro to Women’s and Gender Studies, and I thought it was very effective. More effective, in fact, than my teaching alone. Does it trouble me that may have Wise resonated with some of my white male students in part because he can draw on male privilege? A little. But I’m also pragmatic enough to see the value in male allies in anti-sexism. If Wise’s analogy of the manager who can’t ignore the debt side of the ledger makes some students more receptive to Patricia Hill Collins and bells hooks, then that’s a good starting place.
Many of the commenters on Renee’s post seemed to assume that Wise’s voice is crowding out the voices of people of color. I can understand why people of color would resent his earning an income as an anti-racist educator. I agree he has a responsibility to promote the voices of people of color, and I honestly don’t feel qualified to judge whether he does this adequately or not. From my perch here in Appalachia, I think Wise could do better in understanding the nuances of white poverty (in this otherwise useful piece, for example.) Overall, though, Tim Wise is helping to challenge young white people, especially, to see anti-racism as a cause that should matter to them.
Allies don’t have to be perfect. They/we need to be willing to listen. They/we need to be willing to speak up. They/we need to be willing to examine their own privilege. We’re all a work in progress. We all have opportunities to be allies. We’re all called to engage constructively with potential allies. Guilt doesn’t advance any of these processes. But a sense of responsibility sure does.