Racist guilt and the defensiveness of the privileged

A few weeks ago I was at a festival in Australia that had honorably tried to incorporate an indigenous element: a ceremony called ‘Welcome to Country’. Hundreds of people, mostly Caucasian, oddly dressed and festively face painted, gathered around a fire in the hot sun of the late afternoon. Children handed out branches of eucalyptus leaves and we waited. Two white men, both founders and organisers of the festival talked, and talked. I wondered when the aboriginal presence would be heard in this supposedly aboriginal ceremony. The cult of the individual in Western ideology was boldly displayed as the second man pointed to every single participant requesting they shout out their own name.  All the while the aboriginal speaker waited patiently for his turn to speak.  When he finally did the flood-gates opened.

He explained that, traditionally, the eucalyptus leaves were placed in the fire by visiting people as a token of peace.  He went on to speak of the atrocities committed in the colonisation of this land, of the countless people slain in vain, of rivers running with blood, of stolen children, and also of his optimism for the future. He spoke of tolerance, of social change, of healing and restoring the vitality to indigenous communities. At his request, we came forward, one by one, throwing our branches into the blazing fire where they were immediately claimed by the flames, releasing their camphoraceous sent.  

Clearly his speech was powerful.  I have no doubt that everyone in earshot was moved, but I was surprised at the reaction of a new friend standing next to me. “I feel so guilty” said the white male Australian. “I hate it when I hear stuff like this.”  I couldn’t help but ask why. “Because it feels like it’s me he’s attacking – the coloniser – the white man.” I was taken aback. The speaker had been acknowledging the atrocities of the past, not condemning the participants in the present. Then I remembered that this kind of guilt is really common. Lots of while people in New Zealand get up in arms at the mention of the Treaty of Waitangi or colonisation, as if they are being personally attacked.  I don’t feel this kind of guilt, probably because I was raised by white people who have worked along-side and supported indigenous people, possibly because my loyalties and politics are more closely aligned with the underprivileged than the privileged.  I don’t feel guilty about being white. I don’t think anyone should feel ashamed of the way they are born – although, I do sometimes feel ashamed of racist, bigoted people who sometimes share my ethnicity.

This got me thinking about privilege, guilt, shame and defensiveness. I wondered whether this type of guilt, of feeling blamed, is a sign of latent racism (or ethnic insecurity) because the sentiment is often expressed by people who also express opinions along the lines of ‘I just with those natives would shut up and get over it’.  It certainly echoes sentiments of not wanting to face the past, of preferring to take something personally (‘that man is making me feel guilty for being white’) and feeling victimised rather than acknowledge the harsh reality and trying to take positive steps forward, as the speaker was actually encouraging us to do.  

It also brought to mind the concept of privilege being invisible to the privileged because, intentionally or not, white privilege was being challenged. Maybe all it takes is a challenge to the legitimacy of privilege to bring it into awareness.  Then again, people tend to close up when they’re feel under attack.  

Australia is a white-dominated country, notorious for its awful treatment of indigenous people and daylight racism. The friend standing next to me wasn’t being ‘racist’. He was genuinely distressed about the atrocities his ethnic forefathers had carried out in much the same way that young Germans are sometimes still burdened by the legacy of their history. The atrocities of WWII have left their mark on generations, but not everyone is weighed down by the mistakes of the past.  I don’t think guilt is particularly useful in any of these instances, unless it helps to serve as a reminder not to repeat the past.  


One thought on “Racist guilt and the defensiveness of the privileged

  1. This is really well written, and I really enjoyed your commentary.

    I have been talking a lot about privilege and guilt recently, and the more I get attacked for not feeling guilty about my privilege (by equally privileged people) the more I am confused as to why.
    My mom always taught me that guilt was one of the more useless emotions. If you screw up, apologize, try and fix it, deal with your mistake, but don’t just wallow in guilt as that doesn’t do anyone any good.

    I think you brought together a lot of really big issues and explained them well. In the US we have a similar problem with the white people and the African Americans. Anyone who is white is supposed to feel guilty that slavery happened and I’m not sure why. I didn’t do it, my parents didn’t do it. I was in no position to stop it. My role now is to fight to ensure that sort of thing doesn’t happen to any ethnic group, and to fix any current inequalities, not to sit and feel guilty about a past I had no control over.

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