White Guilt and Honoring Mistakes

Date May 5, 2009

I was privileged to spend a weekend last month in a conference with a small group of folks from all over the US exploring our dilemmas around race and gender relations. The seminar loosely followed the Nag’s Heart framework and participant backgrounds included African-American, Latino, bi-racial, foreign national, and a few caucasians (like myself, for example). I’d like to offer two takeaways that were significant for me.


Honoring Mistakes

We each presented a ‘dilemma’ — an issue or discomfort that we were facing in our relationships with people of other races, gender or sexual orientation. My line of work involves helping people identify the patterns of thought that hold them back in their lives. This can often take the form of challenging clients to question their views of other people and the world. When a situation involving race comes up, it is a delicate proposition for me as a white man to support, for example, African Americans to question how they are interpreting or reacting to the problem — not because they are closed to such reflections, but because it is more ambiguous coming from someone with my background (with all the historical and cultural meaning the color of my skin connotes). 

I can fear in these moments (and I heard this concern echoed in different ways by other caucasians throughout the weekend) that I’ll inadvertently say something offensive (or be perceived as racist). We all internalize our cultural norms differently, but for me, being seen as a racist or an ignorant white person by an African American is on par with being morally wrong — and it would do irreparable harm to the relationship.  There seems to be no room for a mistake in this arena. Simply look at how violent the reactions are in the media when an incident with racial overtones is exposed. 

We came back to this tension a number of times over the course of the conference, and the last night one of the black members of the group shared a view that opened new space for me around the topic: “The test for me with a white person is how they deal with mistakes. Do they stay engaged? Do they care enough to take responsibility for it?”

Entering into a delicate race conversation with no room for error felt too much like high stakes gambling on impossible odds. Being able to stumble forward, and to stay in dialogue even if the communication derails — that I can do. I’ve made an uncountable number of mistakes in my life and have spent decades working on my ego defensiveness, so although I am certainly not perfect, I feel very grounded in my ability to recognize my responsibility or culpability in a conflict, even if it (gulp) were to involve race. This realization was primarily emotional; afterwards, I was thinking, “of course, that’s obvious.” But emotionally and behaviorally, it felt like a new operating paradigm.

Upon reflection, here’s the rub. What would it look like to acknowledge a misstep? To admit to ignorance or insensitivity — or even inadvertent racism (since we all have it)? Would I really have the courage? Would the other person really be able to stay in the dialogue with me, without throwing me away like a redneck rag? We are in a cultural paradox in which blacks often don’t feel acknowledged regarding the racism they experience, and yet whites would never be willing to admit to it, for fear of being shunned. We’re all miserable and disconnected; healing awaits us in our words. 


White Guilt

The words ‘white guilt’ were tossed out in the middle of a sentence by one of the African-American members of the group, while describing an incident at work. I knew right away what it meant. A few minutes later, however, another member of the group asked for a definition — and three different participants offered three different explanations. All very real and personal, yet with divergent angles: historical guilt (eg, centuries of slavery), current day privilege guilt (eg, the majority of white people have fewer barriers to ‘success’ in modern America), and micro-interaction guilt (eg, ‘Oh my God, was that insensitive? Did I hurt their feelings? Should I say something? Would that just make it worse?’).

My feelings of white guilt are directly connected to a fear of blame. Like so many of our most pernicious unconscious behaviors, guilt has that great ability to make us feel really bad inside while masking the oh-so-comfortable benefits it provides us. (Depression is another powerful example of this ego mechanism). My white guilt allows me to feel pre-emptively repentant so that if you accuse me, I can defend myself with an “I know, I’m so terrible.”

The problem with guilt is that it allows us to abdicate, in good conscience, all co-responsibility. It supplants my sense of empathy with a black person regarding how difficult some of their experiences have been. I don’t actually engage them or their pain in a meaningful way; it becomes about me, instead of about them. Most of all, I have found that my guilt eventually leads me to lethargy. I may act for change for a while, but my yard stick of how much effort is ‘enough’ is whether or not my guilt has been assuaged — not the end result of racial equality.

I was struck again during this weekend how much potential healing and connection goes to waste in our lives. The painful feelings that we hold in boil and fester; we withdraw from the people, under the duress of a dramatic sense of threat; and yet, when we are able to create a communication space of safety and trust, even the most taboo topics are within reach.


Shayne Hughes 



5 Responses to “White Guilt and Honoring Mistakes”

  1. Jenny said:

    I found your entries on the race conference really interesting and helpful, and I can really relate to what you wrote. I think its great that you took the risk to put the issues out there.

    I had a thought about the white guilt issue. It’s interesting that white guilt makes the issue about me, the white person; I think its the opposite of empathy and learning. And I think there’s an additional thing that often goes with white guilt. As you say, white people can affirm their virtue by criticizing themselves–I’m so terrible!” But they sometimes (often?) use this as a way to separate themselves from other whites (at least I know I’m so terrible; you’re oblivious to how terrible you are) in a way that makes them feel superior. White folks are bad, but I’m one of the “good ones.”

    I often hear people involved in intergroup relations, for example, trash talk the people who “don’t get it.” I find it really uncomfortable, partly because I’m afraid they will include me in the “unenlightened” group, and also because if I speak out, then I’m proving I’m in that group. But there is so much judgment in this framework, it seems to create more conflict than it solves.


  2. Shayne said:

    This is helpful, Jenny. What you’re saying really speaks to the morally right/wrong issue that can be at play in race relations, which makes it extremely threatening to talk about it.

    It reminds me how much racism is much about superior/inferior (especially historically in the US); in your example, we see whites continuing to perpetuate this system of judgment, but on each other. The starting point of this is actually non-racial: we tend to spin ourselves as superior to other less (enlightened, intelligent, civilized, developed) people in many realms of our life, and one of the most pernicious separators is race. A painful, painful example of a much bigger system of evaluation, perfection, and one upsmanship.

  3. Charles said:

    In the classes that we do at Michigan on racial dialogues, one of the first things we do, even before the content begins to be discussed, is to “normalize” error and conflict. We suggest that because of our socialization and the complications of the topic, everyone (instructors included, and people of all races) will surely say things that seem to others insensitive or uninformed or otherwise hurtful. We use a set “groundrules” (created by Ruby Beale) about how “errors” will be processed in the dialogue. I’ve attached a copy of the groundrules, in case they are of interest to you. In additiion to these groundrules, we ask the group (before dialogue begins) to make commitments about staying in dialogue even if there is conflict.

    Thus, we much agree with your obsevarations about “honoring mistakes.” I think you’re right on the mark about this, and that steps can be taken in racial discussions to define “mistakes” as both normal and productive.

  4. Charles said:

    Here’s a copy of the groundrules that I mentioned. We distribute these at the beginning of our courses. We ask students to use this as a model to create their own set of groundrules for their upcoming discussions.


    Our former colleague in psychology and business at the University of Michigan, Dr. Ruby Beale (now at Hampton University) has devised the following “MULTICULTURAL GROUND RULES FOR DISCUSSION.” She uses these ground rules to help her classes and workshops discuss issues of diversity and justice.
    Would some ground rules help our own group establish a safe and productive space for our discussions? If so, please consider Dr. Beale’s ground rules as a sample that may help us devise our own proposals for how we will interact with each other.

    1. Our primary commitment is to learn from each other, from course materials and from our work. We acknowledge differences among us in backgrounds, skills, interests, values, scholarly orientations and experience.

    2. We acknowledge that sexism, classism, racism, heterosexism, and other forms of discrimination (religion, age, ability, language, education, body size, geographic location etc.) exist and may surface from time to time.

    3. We acknowledge that one of the meanings of sexism, classism, racism is that we have been systematically taught misinformation about our own group and members of devalued groups (this is true for both dominant and dominated group members). The same is true about elitism and other forms of prejudice or bias –we are taught misinformation about others and ourselves.

    4. We will try not to blame people for the misinformation we have learned, but we hold each other responsible for repeating misinformation or offensive behavior after we have learned otherwise.

    5. Victims should not be blamed for their oppression.

    6. We will assume that people are always doing the best they can, both to learn the material and to behave in non-biased and multiculturally productive ways.

    7. We will share information about our groups with other members of the class, and will not demean, devalue, or “put down” people for their experiences or lack of experiences.

    8. We will actively pursue opportunities to learn about our own groups and those of other groups, yet not enter or invade others’ privacy when unwanted.

    9. We each have an obligation to actively combat the myths and stereotypes about our own groups and other groups so that we can break down the walls which prohibit individual development, group progress and cooperation and group gain.

    10. We want to create a safe atmosphere for open discussion. Members of the class may wish to make a comment verbally or in an assignment that they do not want repeated outside the classroom. Therefore, the instructor and participants will agree not to repeat the remarks outside the session that links a person with his/her identity.

    11. We will challenge the idea or the practice, but not the person.

    12. We will speak our discomfort.

  5. Bobbi Owens said:

    This set of ground rules is profound. I can clearly see that everybody in a group has blind spots: Some characteristic of their personality that they don’t know that they don’t know about themselves. This set of behaviors, beliefs, attitudes can drive the group’s reaction and thwart risk taking. I agree and would like to see these rules altered for our manager’s meeting. Even though we (Mini House mangers) have all taken LaL we still resort to the same behavior and progress oftentimes seem slow to me. But then, maybe I’m in judgment and unaware of my own blind spot as well. Bobbi