John McWhorter has written extensively on issues of race, language, and culture. His opinion pieces in the New York Times explore the complexities of race in America and our ability to discuss them in respectful and productive ways. McWhorter’s columns make an important contribution to American society – they encourage critical thinking. He doesn’t seek to polarize or reinforce partisan ideology. He presents both sides of an issue, shares his view, and invites readers to come to their own conclusions.
In his most recent column, McWhorter questions if white guilt is a necessary prerequisite for creating a better, more equal society. He asks, “What purpose does fostering white guilt serve?”. How does guilt reduce racism and address the issues that affect Black America?
It is a straightforward question, albeit not one that has a simple answer.
Racism is a multi-dimensional construct and can be experienced on multiple levels: individual, interpersonal, institutional, or systemic. The display of racist views can be active or passive, public or private. Racism could be reflected in failing to empathize with others’ experiences, denying that certain groups have been historically excluded or oppressed, relying on stereotypes, or choosing to not learn about implicit bias. These are just a few examples.
The complexity of race and racism might explain, but not justify, why there is a general unwillingness among Americans to confront racism in their daily lives. A 2021 Pew study found that slightly over half of Americans think the recent increased attention on the history of racism in American will have positive effects. Of the remaining respondents, 26% said the increased attention will have a negative effect and 21% said it would have neither a positive nor a negative effect.
It’s unclear if having neither a positive nor a negative effect is the same as having no effect.
While the findings from the Pew study are informative, they do not explain all the individual characteristics that correlate with expectations about the effects of increased attention on racism in America. Each respondent has his/her own individual identity – a unique view individuals form of themselves as a result of their development. Not surprisingly, our individual identities affect how we talk about race.
The factors that influence an individual’s identity development are too numerous to list but include race, poverty, family composition, experience of trauma, prejudice, and health, among others. Identity development is also affected by emotional experiences including happiness, fear, and guilt.
Returning to McWhorter’s question: what purpose does foster white guilt serve? The Pew study does not explore respondents’ expectations about the effects of increased attention on the history of racism in America in relation to their individual identities or sense of guilt. One approach to answering McWhorter’s question could be to research if respondents’ sense of perceived guilt correlates with the effects they anticipate – be they positive, negative, or possibly none.
It remains unclear how guilt affects an individual’s identity and, consequently, how that individual engages with issues of race and discrimination. If making someone feel guilty affects their sense of identity in ways that make them more open to resolving the issues that face Black America, then the purpose of fostering white guilt could be to make white people more open to talking about race.
But, as McWhorter points out, those who harbor a sense of guilt are not the only ones who take action to address individual and systemic racism.
Universal statements about the effects of guilt fail to recognize the diversity that characterizes humankind. It’s not easy to explain how guilt influences individuals and. Guilt is a dynamic construct and individuals’ experience of it is anything but uniform.
A person’s capacity to experience guilt develops over time as they grow through developmental stages and is affected, in part, by their life experiences. For some people, feeling guilty increases motivation to correct a wrong or comply with social norms. But some studies show that these responses are more likely is when the wronged individual can notice the correction. Other studies have found that guilt has a greater influence when it is experienced in the context of a relationship. Thus, it’s difficult to connect feeling guilty and subsequent action in a way that applies uniformly to all individuals in all contexts.
There is also evidence individuals’ responses to guilt depend on how they experience the emotion. For example, one person may have a private experience of guilt when they know they have violated a legal, moral, or ethical standard. A different person who committed the same violation may only experience guilt if there is a negative public reaction to the transgression. Additionally, some people only feel guilty for the things they are responsible for whereas others’ sense of guilt extends to things others have done. Individual differences also include an inclination to feel guilty because of self-imposed pressure or internalization of a societal expectation.
The inconsistencies that define the human experience of guilt highlight the insightfulness of McWhorter’s question. There is no conclusive evidence that guilt always leads individuals to take corrective action. By extension, feeling guilty does not necessarily mean a person is more likely to do something to address racism. Likewise, not feeling guilty does not necessarily mean a person is less likely to do something to address racism.
Irrespective of the influence of guilt, what actions should people be taking to eradicate racism in America? Recommendations abound. Think tanks recommend redesigning education systems through more equitable funding, expanded mental health services, and less putative and disciplinary programs. Public policy advocates highlight the need to modify laws, measure crimes differently, and address implicit bias to improve America’s criminal justice system. Scholars write books that encourage greater thoughtfulness about our own identity and more willingness to discuss differences.
All of these recommendations can lead to a better, more equal, and just American society. Implementing them requires action. If guilt does not determine an individual’s willingness to act, what does? Conversely, what prevents a person from taking action?
Research on guilt often includes an examination of shame. Findings suggest that people who experience shame are less likely to act or take responsibility for wrongdoings – either theirs or someone else’s. Some people are more prone than others to feel shame and this emotion is associated with increased anger and aggression. Interestingly, individuals can experience both shame and guilt at the same time and their feelings can shift back and forth between the two emotions.
Could feelings of excessive guilt about racism in America lead people to feel shame? Guilt that is transformed into shame is counterproductive if the goal is to leverage emotional arousal to motivate individuals to take action. If guilt does not consistently correlate with action, and shame correlates with inaction, do either of these feelings help America get closer to the goal of a more equal and just society?
A less straightforward question but possibly one with a simple answer. It’s better to feel something than nothing.
The inability to experience either guilt or shame is associated with psychopathology. Thus, individuals who experience some emotional reaction when asked to confront the harsh realities of racial inequality in America – be it guilt or shame – are demonstrating an adaptive psychological response. They do not remain indifferent. They have an emotional response in reaction to the suffering of another.
If we accept that most individuals will have some emotional reaction, the question then becomes how to help individuals understand, process, and channel feelings of guilt and/or shame in ways that lead to positive, constructive, and beneficial changes in American society.
How does any of this help answer McWhorter’s question? It could be that the purpose of fostering white guilt is to combat indifference; it forces individuals to feel something.
Maybe individual indifference is what feeds racism. Individual indifference – an absence of worry about doing the right things or lack of concern about how some things harm others – could be what keeps people from engaging in meaningful conversations and purposeful action to address racism in America.
McWhorter closes his column with a hopeful line that: “Maybe they can just help”. I think the ones who will choose to help will be those who cannot remain indifferent. They may or may not feel guilty. They may or may not feel ashamed. They may or may not feel some mix of guilt and shame. But they do feel something.
Those who will help will be those with a capacity to empathize, who are emotionally affected by the challenges others face and suffering that is not their own. Those who will help will be those who are incapable of being apathetic to the oppressive power dynamics that characterize American society and constrain human potential.
I may not be able to understand what every person feels, but I am capable of taking note of what they do.