White guilt is a thing. The concept goes all the way back to Judith Katz’s work in 1978. In fact, back in the ‘70s there were con artists using white guilt to trick white business owners into buying ads in fictional black newspapers. If you’ve been on Tumblr long enough you can spot plenty of demographic guilt as the worst users battle for the greatest martyrdom for internet points. I’m not doubting white guilt exists.
However, like many useful concepts the status quo warriors have long since twisted it until it’s an orcish reflection of reality. Too many conservatives say any white person writing about racial injustice must be exhibiting signs of racial self-hate and seeking to alleviate it. There could be no other reason.
The root of that is terribly sad because it reinforces the idea that all motivation must be primarily ego-driven in nature. There’s very little room for empathy in that worldview.
When it comes to social justice, many conservatives operate on what I call the Christie Principle. Chris Christie was a New Jersey governor and one-time presidential hopeful who has since sunk to the bottom of the dumpster fire that is American politics. He is also considered an arch-conservative in most areas.
Except one: addiction. To hear Christie speak of addiction is to marvel at the ability of a man to feel for others. His stance is famously personal thanks to the loss of a close friend to addiction, and where others of his political bent look to lock up drug users and throw away the key Christie sees a public health crisis destroying lives. The fact that something actually affected him in a deep, personal way made him see things in a non-conservative, compassionate manner.
I’ve noticed this happens with conservative standpoints. Hardcore positions change when confronted with the reality of a close friend or family member. Heck, that was more or less the moral of the Roseanne reboot. “Weirdos” could find understanding from their conservative loved ones and neighbors, as individuals if not as groups.
There’s an old observation from the Civil War that southerners liked blacks as individuals, but not as people, and that northerners liked them as people, but not as individuals. It’s that dichotomy that led to individual racism from the Yankees against free blacks and also allowed for black slaveowners. This is the Christie Principle in action. Compassion can break through social walls.
The frustrating thing is that compassion just doesn’t translate past those individual instances. It’s why when we recoil in disgust and horror over what is happening with children at the border many Trump defenders rush to find some way to blame it on Obama as part of a game they don’t realize the rest of us aren’t actually playing. The compassion isn’t there because what is happening is remote and distant from them, and therefore anger at it must have some self-serving motive rather than an honest emotional basis. The horrors of our immigration failures reaching their terrible zenith under Trump remain simply ideas for many conservatives to the point that people accused Rachel Maddow of faking tears over “tender age camps.”
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t write angry articles denouncing the defacement of the Rothko Chapel and white supremacy masked as an “okay to be white” campaign out of guilt. Being white doesn’t cause me any pain in and of myself. I like being white just fine.
However, all those white heroes I was raised on told me that where there is injustice I am supposed to feel pain and wish to make that injustice cease. As my personal white savior once said, “There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things. Things which act against everything we believe in. They must be fought.” There’s no room in good hearts for turning away from hatred and bigotry on a societal level. It cannot be a game where the only emotions that matter are those of the players. The pawns are people.
Guilt is a privilege change can ill-afford. Where it happens on the liberal side it turns a search for justice into a pointless redemptive arc for the self-obsessed. Those are the minority, though. Most people who look at the lopsided statistics of racial deaths at the hands of police or hear immigrant toddlers crying for their mothers aren’t hoping to win some sort of Bestest White Person award. There is no such award. They just want the crying to stop. It’s not white guilt; it’s compassion.