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How Helping Whites Overcome Guilt and Shame Will Heal Society

Our highly racialized society has most everyone questioning their racial identity, and many Whites—now more than ever—are in need of help to overcome the quagmire of shame and guilt they are feeling about being White. I want to help. Just like many standardized tests lack cultural and demographic fairness toward certain groups, this unspoken social question surrounding whiteness appears unfair to Whites: What does it mean to be White?

Most Whites have never had to answer that provocative question. The few that have grappled with it are most likely to be the Whites who ventured outside their paradisiac resorts when vacationing abroad, or lived overseas as a racial minority, or lived stateside in multiracial communities that were socially integrated. Those whites are in touch with their whiteness and are not laden with guilt or shame. But no one should have to carry the burdensome load of shame over their race. No one!

As racial minorities, the social norm in our country requires that you become adept in answering the self-reflective question: What does it mean to be an Asian American? What does it mean to be Latino in 21st century America? And for me: What does it mean to be an African American? So, I have a huge advantage in matters of race as it relates to self-identity—in other words, the way others see me and the way I see, define, and understand myself.

With the incessant messaging that systemic racism must end and White silence is complicity, I am empathetic with Whites who struggle with making sense of feelings of guilt and shame. Some psychologists call the unpleasant feelings of guilt: a “moral emotion.” Shame on the other hand is a dark emotion that whispers the devilish statement to you: “I hate myself.” These twin emotions are often mistakenly conjoined. To overcome them, they need to be separated and dealt with individually because they are not identical.

“Guilt” is defined as a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, or wrong. And “white guilt” is “a general reaction to the realization that racism is a system from which they (Whites) benefit while others suffer,” according to Robin DiAngelo, author of What Does It Mean to Be White? Race relations scholar and author Shelby Steele draws the same conclusion by defining white guilt as the awareness of “ill-gotten” advantage.


The George Floyd protests are different than other Black Lives Matter rallies largely because the crowds are more interracial than we’ve ever seen. The eye-opening reality of police brutality aimed at people of color resulted in many White protesters holding placards that read: White Silence Is Complicity. How true!


Consider this idea: White guilt is a positive emotion. It produces the revelation that one’s White ancestral heritage is culpable for slavery in America, fostering systemic racism that produces an unfair disadvantage to Black Americans and other racial minorities. This realization leads to positive action.

The George Floyd protests are different than other Black Lives Matter rallies largely because the crowds are more interracial than we’ve ever seen. The eye-opening reality of police brutality aimed at people of color resulted in many White protesters holding placards that read: White Silence Is Complicity. How true! For some it was old news. But dare I say for most it was an epiphany—a tipping point which demanded public acknowledgement of their realization that white guilt is only remedied by taking action. Their action is already proving helpful to improve and even the advantage of minorities in America.

Scores of businesses also rushed to remedy corporate white guilt. They issued statements outlining their corrective action to right the historic wrongs of racism and the unfair advantage their whiteness produced. These companies recognized that, along with millions of private citizens, restitutive action satisfies white guilt. On an individual level, you can take action to satisfy personal guilt through volunteering at a community-based organization, mentoring a minority within your field, donating to a social justice cause, or some other action that says: I want to level the economic playing field for people of color.

While white guilt brings sharp focus to past actions, behavior and thoughts for correction, white shame sets its crosshairs on the person’s soul. Shame is self-talk that says: “I’m so damaged and worthless that I hate myself.” White shame leads to social and emotional isolation from people of color because of self-blame for the historic wrongs. June Price Tangney, an academic and psychologist, argues that feelings of shame lead to detachment by avoiding whatever is provoking it and insulates oneself from any related controversy it brings. The other way detachment is manifested is by passing blame to someone else.

Shame is a dark and painful emotion filled with self-deception. It feeds off negative thoughts, a damaged racialized imagination and an insulated perspective found in the idea that people of color hate you, want nothing to do with you, and are blaming you for their pain.

While there should be some self-awareness of past wrongs, shame is so damaging because like a monster, it will drag its prey into a dark, dreary hole and slaughter it. The only antidote to defeating this monster is to provide clarity—through cross-race conversations where the aim is to be reconciled, not to be right.

Victims of white shame have already beat themselves up with their dark thoughts. What they lack is the medicinal clarity that people of color can bring to annihilate their shame. Click to Tweet

Clarity speaks of knowledge and understanding that’s presented in peaceful ways. Victims of white shame have already beat themselves up with their dark thoughts. What they lack is the medicinal clarity that people of color can bring to annihilate their shame. Most people of color are not militant, racial anarchists seeking to create more mayhem and social destruction. The majority of us seek to enjoy a life of equal economic opportunities, rich interracial relationships, and mutual co-existence. That’s it.

For that to happen, I must remind you of the Golden Rule: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Notice, to love your neighbor you have to first love yourself. That means, true justice cannot create a society where whites despise themselves on the basis of their racial identity. The outcome of justice is that each race loves whom God created them to be. Period. Anything less is a miscarriage of justice. Let me offer this straightforward clarity to help victims of white shame find peace and freedom: People of color love you!

The good society lies in jeopardy if white guilt and white shame is allowed to spread like an unwanted outbreak of COVID-19. In this instance, social distancing must be avoided.


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    Participant

    Written by David D. Ireland

    David D. Ireland is the senior pastor of Christ Church, a multisite and multiracial church in New Jersey with a membership of 9,500 people spanning over 70 nationalities. He is a former diversity consultant to the NBA and author of some 20 books, including One in Christ. Follow him on Twitter @DrDavidIreland.

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