What Is White Guilt?

white-woman-looking-sad-as-she-stares-out-window

Justin Case / Getty Images

 

What Is White Guilt?

White guilt describes the guilt brought upon by "the recognition of unearned and unfair racial privileges, the acknowledgment of personal racist attitudes or behavior, and/or the sense of responsibility for others’ racist attitudes or behavior." 

On one hand, this guilt can lead people to unlearn racist attitudes and fight against white supremacy. On the other hand, a person may disengage from the feelings of guilt and shame and become defensive.

White Guilt and the Holocaust

The term white guilt is frequently used in the context of racial divides between white and Black people but it's also referenced with respect to the Holocaust.

An article, "Other Nations Could Learn From Germany's Efforts to Reconcile After WWII," published in Johns Hopkins Magazine stated that the U.S. Office of Military Government in Germany surveyed Germans about their perspectives on Germany's history of anti-Semitism.

Some of those surveyed did not feel the need to take responsibility for bigotry against Jewish people. There were many, however, who admitted that the German population should bear some blame for Nazi crimes but they were divided on how to do so.

Konrad Adenauer, the first postwar chancellor of West Germany, petitioned for financial reparations to Israel by stating that Germany had a debt to pay.

The Educational System and White Guilt

White supremacy is deeply embedded throughout the educational system, not just solely an issue of teachers but all of those that have a role in the system from curriculum creation and maintenance to politicians in charge of setting standards through legislation.

Teachers in the United States still largely fail to acknowledge the harms of white supremacy in their curriculums. This decreases the likelihood of any potential attempts at taking responsibility for the systems that harm BIPOC folx—a term used to include all genders.

The public school system has the potential to be an early context for learning about how to do better when it comes to equitable outcomes for all folx.

Unfortunately, white comfort often takes precedence over much-needed discussions regarding how white supremacy continues to hurt BIPOC communities.

White Shame

White shame differs from white guilt. When people feel guilt, it is related to thoughts of feeling bad about some action. Shame, on the other hand, is "a more unpleasant and painful emotion, targeting the entire self" and lacks any "adaptive properties."

Guilt says "I feel bad about what I did" and shame says "I am bad."

Because shame attacks the self, it becomes very difficult to use that shame to foster the kind of attitude and behavioral changes needed to address racism. In fact, using shame in this way can cause the opposite effect.  

Shame is a natural and expected circumstance for some people, in particular in our society it is something that is encouraged a lot more than it should be. In fact, people may be made to feel shame for things that they had no role in creating. 

Younger People and Racial Prejudice

In a study of white college students, feelings of guilt and shame were associated with lower levels of modern racial prejudice, but shame did not lead to a better understanding of structural racism, as emotions can be a barrier to learning.

To address this, it can be helpful to target emotions as well as cognition to challenge a deeply rooted white supremacist belief. Early exposure to different cultures and people from different cultural backgrounds from a young age could combat the situation going forward.

Reflective journaling can be helpful given how shame is self-deprecating and limits progress. Therapy with an appropriately trained, culturally relevant therapist may also be beneficial to challenge long-entrenched understandings of BIPOC communities as inferior.

Can White Guilt Lead to Anti-Racism?

Some have suggested that white guilt can be used as a motivation for some to address white supremacy, and there is potential for this, but there are also challenges and risks associated.

Guilt Is Uncomfortable

The U.S. has a longstanding history of a lack of accountability regarding how white supremacy harms BIPOC folx despite clear violations of humanity. This unwillingness to acknowledge the genocide of Indigenous communities and the enslavement of Black folx demonstrate a lack of remorse and a limited experience with processing white guilt. This lack of willingness is a big challenge for most of society and is holding us all back from reaching our full potential. 

While it is understandable that people may want to avoid the experience of any uncomfortable feelings, this hesitation only reinforces the problematic status quo that has historically harmed BIPOC communities.

If people decide to use guilt as a motivation for change, the ability to be a part of a shift in how the U.S. treats and perceives marginalized groups will outweigh the temporary feelings of discomfort.

Limited Research on Behavioral Change

In assessing the impact of a race-based course on counseling students, changes were reported in the participants, with differences across gender. It is worth noting that there was no verification that the course had a positive impact on the counseling students' clinical work with BIPOC clients.

Additionally, white counselor's brief service work with and limited exposure to BIPOC clients can confirm stereotypes held by white folx, which would only reinforce the problematic status quo.

A great deal of harm can continue to be done when white folx engage with BIPOC communities without understanding the historical and ongoing negative impacts of white supremacy on their lives, as they may silence, derail, and gaslight them.

In a study of white undergraduate students, men and women were assessed for guilt, fear, and empathy, whereby white guilt encompassed feelings of remorse following new awareness of racism and unearned white privilege, and results suggest that racial affect patterns are similar despite gender.

White folx of all genders need to take greater responsibility to address how they have benefitted from the rigged systems that have harmed BIPOC folx, even if it means working through such unpleasant feelings.

Research has demonstrated that the desire of white participants to feel a positive sense of self can dissuade them from framing racial inequity in terms of their privilege, despite some willingness to acknowledge anti-Black discrimination.

The needs of white folx to maintain positive self-regard continues to serve as a significant barrier to addressing the inequitable outcomes of BIPOC communities.

It is extremely necessary to acknowledge the continued harms of white supremacy otherwise BIPOC folx may internalize their understandable struggles in this country's unequal systems as a negative reflection of themselves and even their ancestors, who were much worse off. This is a necessary step in the process of us all healing as a national community.

BIPOC Folx Know the Need to Address White Guilt

White folx are often deemed to be experts in all things, including anti-racism work, which only allows further profit from the white supremacy that has benefitted them and their ancestors for centuries.

Instead, the work of BIPOC scholars who personally understand the harms of white supremacy should be centered. For example, educational expert Dr. Tanetha Jamay Grosland uses a critical approach to unpack issues of power and oppression in the classroom to dismantle white supremacy.

Grosland's paper, "Through Laughter and Through Tears: Emotional Narratives to Antiracist Pedagogy," concluded that critical engagement with emotions in the classroom can help provide insight on how to allow for participants to challenge their thinking.

A Word From Verywell

In order to dismantle white supremacy in America, it is important to address the biases and stereotypes that you hold about BIPOC folx.

If you are white, this may mean reflecting on your complicity with white supremacy.

Guilt is an emotion that can be used to promote growth—it can be a motivator to help combat white supremacy in America. While this guilt may be daunting and uncomfortable at first, the reward—equal treatment for all—is worth the temporary discomfort.



Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Grzanka P, Frantell K, Fassinger R. The White Racial Affect Scale (WRAS): A Measure of White Guilt, Shame, and NegationCouns Psychol. 2019;48(1):47-77. doi:10.1177/0011000019878808

  2. Rienzi G. Other Nations Could Learn from Germany's Efforts to Reconcile After WWIIJohns Hopkins Magazine. 2015.

  3. King J. White Teachers at the CrossroadsTeaching Tolerance. 2000;(18).

  4. Wakefield C. What does the term "folx" mean?. For Folx Sake Podcast. 2019.

  5. Estrada F, Matthews G. Perceived Culpability in Critical Multicultural Education: Understanding and Responding to Race Informed Guilt and Shame to Further Learning Outcomes Among White American College Students. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education. 2016;28(3):314-325.

  6. Paone T, Malott K, Barr J. Assessing the Impact of a Race-Based Course on Counseling Students: A Quantitative Study. J Multicult Couns Devel. 2015;43(3):206-220. doi:10.1002/jmcd.12015

  7. Spanierman L, Beard J, Todd N. White Men’s Fears, White Women’s Tears: Examining Gender Differences in Racial Affect TypesSex Roles. 2012;67(3-4):174-186. doi:10.1007/s11199-012-0162-2

  8. Lowery B, Knowles E, Unzueta M. Framing Inequity Safely: Whites' Motivated Perceptions of Racial PrivilegePersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2007;33(9):1237-1250. doi:10.1177/0146167207303016

  9. Grosland T. Through laughter and through tears: emotional narratives to antiracist pedagogyRace Ethnicity and Education. 2018;22(3):301-318. doi:10.1080/13613324.2018.1468750