I've been thinking a lot about racial guilt lately--most likely because I'm on a listserv discussing race and power. There are some pretty heavy academic arguments that easily bring on racial guilt. And while there is reason to feel a certain amount of sadness, I tend to think what it really should be about is feeling personal responsibility, not racial or historic responsibility.
What do I mean by this?
I'm a woman who looks kind of "white" (or olive, as my husband puts it). "Whites" (and I use the term loosely) have been oppressors for centuries. In this country, the oppression has been directed against Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanics, Jewish people, Middle Easterners, Asians, etc. Ironically, however, these same oppressors have treated the Polish, the Irish and the Italians the same way. Hatred doesn't seem to understand racial boundaries. It's too hard to tell at this point who the purely racial "oppressors" are when we have such ethnic mixes in our country.
Actually, I don't like the word "oppression" or "oppressed." It reminds me of Monte Python, dressed as a woman digging in a pile of crap: "Help! I'm being oppressed!" And while that's really what oppressed people have to do on a daily basis, I don't think it's specific enough.
I've likened the way we treat other ethnic groups to dysfunctional families. We abuse one another physically, emotionally and psychologically. We neglect one another. We divorce ourselves from one another, ostracize, break down communications, gossip to the point of division and then wonder why our human family is falling apart. The personal family unit is no different from the human family--these things destroy the group, fester misery, and thwart happiness.
We hear horrid stories of children murdering their parents, parents murdering their children, elder abuse and child abuse. These are the same things we have seen throughout history: the lynchings, the concentration camps, the ethnic cleansing of whatever group is unpopular at the time. This is the history we must remember and never repeat.
Yet, this is where we are right now in the world, right here in our country, and right here in our county.
Still, I refuse to feel guilty for being born into this world a "white looking" person.
But I do not refuse the shame I feel for being a human being related to a species that too often chooses to destroy rather than to create and protect.
This shame isn't all bad.
It makes me want to do something.
It makes me want to prove that human beings are not all evil, that we CAN live up to our "inherent worth and dignity."
It makes me want to join with the millions of others who struggle to see the "we," not just the "us" and "them."
It makes me want to shout down the "We the Select People" with "WE the PEOPLE! ALL the people!"
I don't think we should feel guilty for what our fore fathers and mothers did. But I do think we should feel guilty if we don't take personal responsibility for our world, for creating equity and justice, and for making the world a better space where we can all live together.
"WE the People."
As it should be.