Misplaced Contrition: The Psychological Origin of White Guilt

“Yes, I am a white woman, and yes, I have white privilege — too many privileges to count and many of which I do not consciously know,” wrote Christina Wyman in Detroit Free Press last year.

Ms. Wyman – who is an adjunct professor at Michigan State University – is one of many white Americans whom we have watched in the course of the last twelve months lamenting, kneeling and beating their chest in public acts of contrition over the allegedly inherent racism of American society.

One cannot but be startled by this behavior, not least because the charges of racism against America are plainly untrue. Whatever faults the Unites States may have, it is certainly not a racist society, which is something that should be obvious to anyone with the eyes to see (see here).

Rather than being racist, the American system actually favors black people at the expense of the rest. Black people in this country enjoy special rights, protections and privileges that are unavailable to their white counterparts. For a quick reality check, we need to go no further than the admission departments of American universities. Most of them engage in gross forms of discriminatory practices against white and Asian candidates in order to advantage black applicants. This kind of pro-black discrimination is endemic throughout American institutions. Tracing the roots of this bias to the legislation passed in the 1960s, the great commentator Paul Craig Roberts observed that

“A system of racial privileges for blacks was forced on universities, employers, and the population. Less qualified blacks were given preference over more qualified whites in university admissions, employment and promotion. Freezes are used against white admissions, employment, and promotion until racial balance is achieved.”

Roberts’s comment is an apt summary of America’s present-day treatment of black people which is decidedly preferential in nature.

It is true that racism has played a role in the history of this country (as it also did in the history of nearly every other country). America, however, has not been institutionally racist for a good half a century now. During this time, it earnestly sought to redress past injustices. Fred Reed, another astute observer of our societal scene, expressed this fact well when he wrote last year: “In truth, America has made the greatest effort ever essayed by one race to uplift another.” Thanks to this effort we have now reached the point where American blacks are one of the most favored minorities in history.

This is one of the reasons why the United States is the number one immigration destination of black people worldwide. Just ask yourself this: If America truly were a racist nation would black people really want to come and live here? Neither do we see African Americans – whether rich or poor – running away from this country. Why? Because they know they would not have it better anywhere else.

Why, then, are so many American whites so eager to confess their society’s non-existent sin of racism? There are several different reasons why white people do this.

Some do it out of fear. It is a sad fact that many of us now live or work in an environment which is so politically correct that not agreeing that America is racist may result in negative repercussions or outright punishment.

Others do it, because those around them do it, and they do not wish to stand out or draw unwanted attention to themselves.

There is another set that subscribes to the doctrine of racist America, because they wish to make the impression of being good, compassionate and enlightened. These are your notorious virtue signalers.

Then there are those whites who keep pushing the idea of America the racist because they receive some benefit from it, be it political power, money, influence or just the plain satisfaction of wreaking havoc in their country. This category would include, for example, white politicians who seek to increase their share of black vote through this kind of demagoguery. Activists, professors and intellectuals who derive their livelihood from writing and speaking on the subject of racial struggle likewise belong here. Included here are also officials and employees of various governmental agencies, non-profits and NGO’s whose purported mission revolves around the issue of discrimination and whose levels of funding depend directly on the perceived severity of this “problem.” And then there are the perennial malcontents and revolutionaries who seek to cause as much discord as possible in order to destabilize the society they detest.

There is, however, a distinct subset of American whites who genuinely seem to believe that they and their society are racist. Their confession is all the more remarkable for the fact that most of these people are not known to have done or said anything that could be construed as racist. This is the group we want to focus on here, because their claims and actions signify profound moral confusion.

There is something clearly ill-conceived about their chest-beating and tear-filled confessions. The guilt that these people experience could not have originated from racist transgressions either on their part or on the part of the society in which they live.

The question is this: What is the real source of this guilt and why do they so eagerly embrace the false charge of racism as an excuse for their public acts of self-flagellation?

Human sense of guilt

To understand the psychological process behind the white guilt complex, we have to recognize an important aspect of our existence: a deep-seated sense of guilt is an indelible feature of the human condition. It is experienced by all people throughout their lives with various degrees of intensity at different times.

This sense of guilt comes from regrets about having done things that we know we should have not done and from not having done things that we know we should have done. When examining the course of our lives, honest people will have to admit that we have taken many actions that we knew were improper, wrong or outright immoral. At the same time, we have also many times failed to fulfil and carry out our obligations and duties.

Because of the way human conscience works, every lie, every wrong action, every misdeed, every act of omission gives rise to guilt. But we rarely face and process this guilt properly, because the human mind has a strong tendency to gloss over and suppress such negative emotions. Yet it is impossible to get rid of guilt by evasion. If not admitted and repented, it lodges itself in the subconscious regions of the psyche. Over the years and decades this pool of guilt keeps accumulating and its dark presence weighs heavily upon the conscience.

Yet most of us are reluctant to confront this head on. We are afraid to honestly admit our transgressions, because we fear that such an act may expose us for the selfish manipulative person that we are, which would not be an easy truth to accept. To prevent this from happening, the mind tries hard to avoid connecting our sense of guilt with its true source.

This brings us back to the question of why some white Americans are so eager to plead guilty when charged with the (nonexistent) offence of racism: it gives them a convenient scapegoat on which to pin the sense of guilt that gnaws on the human psyche. Since confession and repentance of one’s sins is the way of purging guilt, these whites unthinkingly seize on this false opportunity in hope of cleansing themselves of their sense of sinfulness.

By pleading guilty to the fake sin of racism – a most grievous sin these days – they try to evade looking at their real moral failings and thus avoid the unpalatable truth of our fallen human existence. This is the psychological mechanism that lies behind the seemingly incomprehensible manifestations of the widespread white guilt complex which so glaringly defies the reality of the situation in the United States. It is misplaced self-guilt that is the driving impulse behind this phenomenon.

Graphic credit: The Noun Project CC BY 3.0 license

Vasko Kohlmayer was born and grew up in former communist Czechoslovakia. He is the author of The West in Crisis: Civilizations and Their Death Drives.

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