Guilt and Shame: The Twins of White Privilege


As a nonwhite person I would like to comment on the phenomenon of what I hear discussed as White Privilege-in America. The more I hear the term the more I conclude that the first thing I must understand is that I cannot understand it. Or perhaps I should say that I couldn’t understand it except by way of comparison to something that I understand quite well. In a similar way I’m sure that a white person cannot really understand what it means to be Black. But it’s the difference in the way that black and white people relate to the term White Privilege that interests me.

My observation is that each group tends to speak of the term as defining something one has that the other doesn’t. Of course whatever the something is Whites have it and Blacks don’t. When I listen to the Haves discuss it I hear a tinge of guilt. When I listen to the Have-not’s discuss it I hear a tinge of shame. One of the reasons this interests me is that the Twins of guilt and shame also attend discussions of slavery in America. They attend to shut down any meaningful conversation on the subject. They are successful in doing so because the history of slavery in America is so distorted. That distortion affects every discussion of race in the same way because the foundation is bad.

Acknowledging the truth that Blacks were indispensable to America becoming the most successful nation in modern history and the truth that Whites are not responsible for all of America’s extraordinary success would be a starting place that would silence the Twins.

But let’s get back to White Privilege. What is it? From a black person’s perspective I believe it is what we call institutional racism. From a white person’s perspective I believe it is an unconscious recognition that Whites have an unearned advantage based solely on race. However I think to discover what is really going on we must attempt a view from the white perspective. Of course having already disqualified myself in that regard I turn to a white person to help me.

The other day as I rode in my car I heard a professor being interviewed. I’m not positive that White Privilege was the topic but she spoke to it. She said that she was 48 years old before she realized that she was White. She also said that although she has checked the White box on forms all of her life that her understanding of race as it applied to her never went beyond that. Race was always what someone else was and what someone else dealt with.

To me this is profound. What she really expressed is that anyone in a dominant culture does not and probably cannot easily view himself or herself in the context of the other. The other in a dominant culture is simply invisible. Others live in the world of the dominant. They do not live in theirs. This would have to be true wherever there is complete dominance of culture. If one does not speak Swahili or German in those cultures one is invisible in the same sense as Blacks are invisible in America.

Blacks in America understand this quite well. We live in two worlds and that’s where the rub comes. The world Whites live in in America was made for them. Only one of the two worlds Blacks in America live in was made for them. To the dominant one of those worlds we are invisible. Invisibility hurts when the giant of dominance goes traipsing around. However it is wrong to always interpret the traipsing as conceit or condescension or self-importance. It is equally wrong to curse those unnoticed by the giant for not getting out of the way.

So what is the answer in a social culture context? The answer is sight. Sight may be gained by getting the history right. The distorted history of America about every possible aspect of how the nation achieved its monumental success is killing us. Getting the history right is the necessary first step to diffusing our destructive cultural blindness. Acknowledging the collective contributions of African Americans in creating the wealth of the Haves is an essential building block to improved race relations. Through this truth, we can diminish (and ultimately eliminate) the Twins: the guilt and the shame that sustains White Privilege.