White Guilt vs White Responsibility

When I was in college a woman of color told me that white guilt helps no one. That feeling SUPER guilty about being racist or living in a racist society meant little.

And I got it.

Guilt sort of offers me a hall pass to racism.

I can feel really guilty and then go on with my life. I can draw attention away from people of color and their struggle by making a big fuss about my guilt.

That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t feel guilty and when I think and reflect on race and privilege I do feel guilty, but often that’s as far as it goes.

  • I feel bad, I wish I could do something,
  • I think ‘I don’t know where to start.’
  • I think ‘I’m worried I’ll do it wrong.’
  • I think who am I to try and stop racism?’

Then in a mix of fear and avoidance and doubt I just stop thinking about it.
Or I try to.

And I can. Pretty easily actually, because I’m a white man and I live in a world designed to shield me from any impact or responsibility for racism.

  • All I have to do is NOT wear white sheet or burn a cross and I can believe I’m not racist.
  • All I have to do is NOT laugh out loud at racist jokes and complain about Trump and I can believe I’m not a racist.
  • All I have to do is FEEL GUILTY about racism, wish I could do something, try to use inclusive language like people of color, African American, and first nations people, and I can believe I’m not racist.

It’s not true, but I can believe it.

Such is my privilege as a white person.
(PS I can also do this is about gender, class, and sexual orientation as well)

But feeling guilty doesn’t create responsibility. In fact, it tends to hide and obfuscate responsibility.

To be responsible means to acknowledge that I have created a racist society.
Not by myself, not with intention, and actually not through very many of my own actions.

I have created a racist society by my inaction, complicity, and willingness to allow myself to stop at guilt, cynicism, and resignation.

Race is simply another place where I get to play the blame game if I want to.

I can blame my ancestors, the establishment, the police, and other ‘bad’ white people who didn’t realize that racism is ‘bad’. This helps because the problem ends up being ‘out there’ it’s someone else’s problem and all I have to do is NOT be them.


I can blame myself. I should be doing more to end racism, I’m so blind to my privilege, I should have more friends of color, hire more people of color, march in more rallies. Man, I suck so bad because I’m white. The problem is all me and I’m hopeless. Maybe I try really hard for a bit but then I burn out, or I simply give up from the start. Thinking feeling really bad about myself is enough or ALL I can do.

Pushing blame on others or pulling blame into myself isn’t being responsible. It doesn’t create much space for action. It doesn’t create any sense that I can do anything at all.

This isn’t just true of racism. But it is especially true for racism when it comes to being white.

Being responsible means I accept my part, my complicity, my ignorance, my blindness, my fear, my doubt, and my uncertainty at what to do. I accept that I have played a role to create a racist society.

I look at the part I’ve done, thing words I’ve said (or haven’t), the ways I’ve contributed to (or failed to interrupt) racist thinking and doing, the way I’ve voted (or haven’t), the causes I’ve donated to (or not), and the people I’ve chosen to spend time with (or not).

I really look and choose it. I say I did this. I am responsible. I have created this.

Then I’m clear on what’s happened. Or at least what I’ve seen of what’s happened.

Once I’m there I can see what’s missing.
* My willingness to be with racial discomfort.
* My ability to notice where my privilege shows up.
* My ability to see my whiteness and how it touches everything I say and do.
* An understanding of racist vs anti-racist policies.
* Authentic relationships with people of color.
* A willingness to be with the heartbreak racism causes.
* Gratitude at being shown where I’m racist vs defensiveness at having my blindspots revealed
* And more

And from there. I get to choose what’s next.

I get to create who I am going to be. Or at least I get to declare it.

  • I can declare that I will become anti-racist more often than I’m not.
  • I can declare that I will be informed and attentive to the impact of race.
  • I can declare to talk and teach about the context of race when I work with my clients or train other coaches.

This is possible because I choose to be responsible.
It’s the same tool I use around money, leadership, and integrity.

But it works. Because my guilt is nothing.
I can certainly feel the heartbreak, the pain, the frustration that we live in a racist society.

Yet it’s not enough.
I have to get responsible.
Well, I don’t have to, I GET to.
And when I do I become empowered, to work towards what it is I say I care about.

So when I write about being racist I want to be clear.
I’m not expressing guilt. I’m intending to express responsibility.

The guilt might be there, but it’s not at the center.
At the center is the animating force of responsibility.
The thing that helps me live the life I say I want to live and begin to create the world we truly all deserve.