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  • Jamie McCarthy

White Guilt is Useless - Action and Change Are What's Needed.

15th June 2020.


I was brought up an Irish Catholic, so I know quite a lot about guilt. I know how destructive it can be and I also know it can be a good way of actually avoiding any kind of change. One of the things about guilt is that it can very easily become all about ‘me, me, me’ and not about righting the wrong that has been done or making positive change for the person who has been wronged. I think guilt is really different from increasing your awareness about what you’ve done or been part of that isn’t good and acting differently in the future.

So, I’m white and I’m addressing this to other white people. Let’s make sure, that whilst we look at the ways in which we have been and are implicated in a system that does harm to black people, we don’t fall down a guilt trap. It’s not about us! Whilst self-flagellation can be enjoyable for those with a BDSM turn of mind, let’s not mistake it for actually supporting change.

Guilt can also have a strong performance aspect to it: a loud profession of guilt can also be a great way of covering for the fact that you’re not really doing anything to change the behaviour that you’re professing guilt for.

This moment of intensity WILL pass, as I heard Angela Davis say the other day, this kind of intensity just can’t be sustained for very long. Let’s do our best for it not to have just been a time where we as white people gave ourselves a ‘good telling off’ and felt ‘appropriately’ guilty, cleansed by our profession of guilt and then went back to business as usual. Let’s not make it about us, but about small practical changes in our lives and working towards bigger systemic change. Let’s make it actually about the lives of Black people and not the performance of guilt for white people.

I think we can check with ourselves: is what I’m feeling and doing about me or is it about doing my best to make things more just for black people?

I think too, guilt is a way of focusing responsibility on the individual and although I believe we CAN work to bring about change on an individual level, I’m really wary of a sort of ‘privatisation’ of racism (and indeed other ‘isms’). We need to change systems of oppression, not ‘cleanse ourselves of our guilt’ and ‘individually purify ourselves of racism’. That doesn’t mean it’s not good to educate ourselves and make the changes we can in our lives and the worlds we’re in on a day-to-day basis, but just that it’s ultimately not about us and how we feel about ourselves.

No to guilt. Yes to change!

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