The Myth of "White Guilt"

Ken Rumble

Thinking of myself as a European-American and thinking about how to resist the systematic oppression of other ethnicities isn’t about “white guilt.” “White guilt” is something European-Americans accuse other European-Americans of when they want to ignore history and context and the ongoing oppression of other ethnicities in the US. I think of myself as European-American not because I feel guilty but because I want to truthfully understand the world I live in and work for increased social justice.

The prejudice, discrimination, and oppression of ethnic minorities in the US is bigger than history. It is not simply that in the past European-Americans committed genocide against the Native American peoples or that European-Americans enslaved millions of African and African-American people. The point is to recognize that we, European-Americans in the US right now, were born into a culture, an ethnicity, which continues to embrace a system of beliefs, philosophies, and logics which enable and encourage the oppression of millions of people based on their ethnicity. We were born into a white supremacist world. 

After this election, it is clear to me now, and in hindsight I’m surprised I didn’t see it clearly before, that white supremacist culture has never been the fringe of US political and philosophical beliefs but instead has always been its center. White supremacism existed long before the creation of the KKK, long before Hitler and the Nazis, and long before the current president-elect. For example, President Andrew Jackson was a white supremacist in the early 1800s. He enslaved hundreds of people; he murdered Native Americans in Florida, and he forced the exodus of Native people’s from their homelands so that other European-Americans could claim their land, causing the deaths of thousands of native men, women, and children. That so many European-Americans thought Jackson’s actions were “normal” and that they elected him president, doesn’t change the evil, abhorrent, and criminal nature of what he did. 

Since Europeans began colonizing the world beyond Europe, “white supremacy” has been the philosophy undergirding the European and, subsequently, European-American world view. That world view has never stopped prioritizing the value of European and European-Americans above all other ethnicities anywhere on the globe.

I do not consider myself responsible for the atrocities committed or condoned by my European-American ancestors. However, I do consider myself responsible for my role in the white supremacist culture they created and which persists to this day. I claim and investigate my ancestors and the culture I was born into as a way of better understanding myself and as a way of being true to my ethical and moral beliefs. This investigation isn’t about guilt; it is about self-knowledge. 

My investigation is also concerned with advocating for the best intentions of my ancestors and humanists across the globe and across time: that all people are created equal, that we all deserve an equal opportunity to create a life for ourselves which is fulfilling, that we all have a right to live, love, work, and praise in a manner which fulfills our souls and does no harm to others, that the oppression of one of us means the oppression of all of us. 

European-American culture often praises those ideas even as it mostly acts in direct opposition. I was raised with those high ideals in a home which embraced the Civil Rights Movement as one of the great moments of US history. I was also taught, indirectly, inside and outside of my home, that European-Americans were superior to all others, that other ethnicities deserved what they received, that the way of the world was “natural” and “normal.” Despite being raised in a socially liberal household which upheld ideals of social justice, I was taught to value and devalue people of different ethnicities in the same ways generations of my ancestors did. I inherited those ideas despite the frequent messages I heard to the contrary, and for many years, I acted on those ideas in ways I’m still trying to understand, unpack, and unlearn.

Prejudice is so normalized within the European-American world-view that it seems “natural.” It was “natural” that Africans and African Americans were enslaved. It was “natural” for European American settlers to murder hundreds of thousands of Native Americans, to destroy the environment, and steal the land of native peoples. Those prejudices and discriminations were the result of “nature” rather than an active and deliberate choice by some people to view other people as lesser than themselves. 

That philosophy of oppression, discrimination, colonization, and bigotry, the philosophy of white supremacism, lives on inside all European-Americans born and raised in the US, despite lip service paid to notions of equality. Most European-Americans don’t even recognize the prejudice which pervades their lives. 

Despite that ignorance, there are many people from many ethnicities in the US today, and historically, who have actively worked to dismantle white supremacy, working to create a truly equal and just society. That there is still so much to be done to create that world is an indicator of the size of the task and not the failure of those fighting oppression.

I do not point out the size of the task to suggest patience to those working for social justice. Quite the opposite. I point out the size of the task to say to all concerned, sympathetic European-Americans, “Work harder! Work faster! Work smarter! Work together!” We cannot stand on the sidelines and expect oppressed minorities to do the work of ending oppression alone. If there is an arc to history, it bends towards justice only under the collective will of those who believe in equality and freedom. 

If we don’t understand the fundamental prejudices and bigotries we have inherited, we can’t, however, effectively create a different world. To change the world we have to understand, reveal, keep conscious of, our history and current events. That effort is not derived or inspired from guilt; it is driven by a desire for a better, more moral, more just, and more ethical world. It is driven by an understanding of myself as a part of a European-American ethnicity with a bloody history and present moment of white supremacy which can be transformed, through consciousness, collective effort, and cross-ethnic connections, into an era of justice and equality.