White guilt, white pride and white privilege are all terms that get thrown about quite a bit these days. What do they really mean? How do they all fit together? To answer that, we must look at the behavior and mindset of those who enjoy (if that is the correct word) white privilege.
What defines “white privilege”, anyway? In the past, it was an easier phenomenon to identify. White privilege meant being able to vote. It meant being able to live in the neighborhood you wanted to live in, go to the school you wanted to attend, work at the career you wanted to work at. It meant being able to drink from the same water fountain and use the same toilet as everyone else. It meant not having to worry so much about being lynched.
Today, these blunt injustices have been (mostly) eliminated. But that doesn’t mean white privilege is extinct too. It’s just a bit more subtle — at least usually. Today, white privilege means not being stopped by police as often. It means not being reported as suspicious if you enter a white neighborhood. It means having one person describe you to another person without referring to your ethnicity. It means maybe a car dealership will offer you a lower price than they would offer an African-American. (Yes, this has been known to happen.) It means being able to speak your mind — even in an uninhibited fashion — without being perceived as violent, angry or thuggish. It’s absolutely unthinkable that a black president could ever get away with the kind of toddler tantrums the 45th White House occupant does. Or that a black Supreme Court nominee would get away with the kind of unhinged self-indulgent hissy fit that Brett Kavanaugh threw. Or that a black senator would be able to play the childishly petulant game of threats that Lindsey Graham did because Democrats were trying to vet a Republican nominee. (It’s also unthinkable that a female of any race could get away with these behaviors — male privilege is closely allied with white privilege.) White privilege means being able to bask in “white pride” while rejecting “white guilt” (both of which are actually misnomers, as we’ll see shortly).
Those born into white privilege are often quick to ridicule what they refer to as “white guilt”. Conservative pundit George Will, in a typical right-wing combination of smugness and cluelessness, said:
[White guilt is] a form of self-congratulation, where whites initiate “compassionate policies” toward people of color, to showcase their innocence to racism.
The trouble is, “guilt” is being misused in this context, summoned forth because there isn’t a single word that adequately expresses the concept. It really isn’t about guilt as such, but about moral indignation and civic responsibility. It’s certainly true that we cannot be expected to bear the burden of culpability for actions committed by our forebears several generations ago. The very suggestion is preposterous. But that doesn’t mean we have no responsibility to clean up the messes they left — particularly while we’re living on land forcibly taken from Native Americans and enjoying the benefits of a society built on the backs of African slaves. British journalist Sunny Hundal had an excellent response to people like Will:
Not much annoys me more than the stereotype that to be liberal is to be full of guilt. To be socially liberal, in my view, is to be more mindful of compassion and empathy for others … to label that simply as guilt is just… insulting.
But while liberals are not really advocating guilt per se, it’s fascinating and illuminating to see how reactionaries react to any such implication. They often will say that they “refuse to apologize for being white” — as if anyone asked them to. When Chelsea Clinton was the nation’s First Child, her school teacher offered as a possible essay topic the question “Should white people feel guilty?” It apparently was one of those devil’s advocate type of topics meant to provoke debate and reflection — to encourage independent thinking, in short. I once had a teacher assign a discussion group the task of explaining, on short notice, the benefits and positive things about slavery; and I seriously doubt if anyone assumed he was promoting that institution. But if a professor instead assigned students the task of defending reparations for slavery and word got out, you can bet the right-wing media would go on a rampage.
Indeed, the right-wing media went bonkers — well, more bonkers than they were already — declaring Chelsea’s teacher’s assignment to be yet another instance of supposed “liberal indoctrination” at schools. And they emphasized their point by embellishing the tale in the retelling, even altering the proposed title to “Why White People Should Feel Guilty”. It was pretty clear that what was raising their hackles was not just the suggestion that white people might feel guilty, but the suggestion that white people had ever done anything wrong.
And there are a couple of glaring ironies here. First, those partakers in white privilege who so loudly protest that they want no truck with “white guilt” are quite often Christians. And one of the core principles of Christianity –if not THE core principle — is the tenet of original sin, which holds that we bear the burden of guilt for misdeeds not just through a few generations, but through all generations. According to this dogma, which a great many Christians adhere to in one way or another, we are all guilty just by being born human; and yet many folks who believe that also vociferously reject the notion that we might be “guilty” by being born white humans.
Second, these individuals generally also are embodiments, even if subtly and indirectly, of white pride. Some even openly declare this, and put white pride in the same league with “black pride” and “gay pride”. But there is of course a huge difference. The latter two categories are celebrating how demographic groups have persevered in the face of discrimination, persecution and oppression; the “white pride” folks are celebrating a demographic group that has been on the dishing-out end of discrimination, persecution and oppression.
Even many people who don’t march around displaying swastikas and Confederate flags, are often jingoists; they display their American flags (sometimes alongside their Confederate flags) and make an issue of standing for the National Anthem — and watch carefully for anyone who doesn’t do likewise so they can heap on the condemnation. They vigorously apply the technique of flag waving — which is to say they equate their own ideology with “patriotism”, and the ideology of anyone else with anti-Americanism. Anyone who dares to criticize the government, they declare, is a traitor — if and only if the government is controlled by Republicans. But they are, of course, hasty to do a total about face the instant a Democrat and/or a black person is elected president. They shout “America first”, and try to come up with spurious justifications for keeping out (non-white) immigrants.
Jingoists loudly proclaim that they are “proud to be American”. But what does that really mean? Generally, pride is a word properly applied to a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction at one’s accomplishments and attributes. But being American is neither an accomplishment nor, really, an attribute. It’s merely the result of being fortunate enough to have been born in the United States.
One certainly can feel grateful or happy to be an American. But proud? That implies that you were somehow involved in the Constitutional Convention or the Battle of Concord. In other words, if you are “proud” to be American, but refuse to feel “guilty” for being white, you are implicitly taking credit for the good things done by your ancestors, while explicitly disavowing any blame for the bad things they did. “American pride” is very closely allied with “white pride”; the word nationalism is almost inextricably linked with the word white. And in both cases, “pride” more properly should be called arrogance.
This tendency to embrace “white pride” while rejecting “white guilt” — and being able to get away with it — is white privilege in a nutshell. Today, white people whose most significant achievement is being born in America are in a position to determine the fate of hard-working immigrants who take great risks in an effort to become Americans themselves. They also are in a position to restrict the voting rights of ethnic minorities — including NATIVE AMERICANS. It doesn’t get much more white, or more privileged, than that.