Privilege, guilt, and names

Mar 13, 2015

On Youth Voices LIVE this month, we're talking about advantages we have.

In Adam Falkner's spoken word piece, he talks about feeling guilty for something he didn't do (in this case, as a white, he never owned slaves or otherwise discriminated against blacks personally).

As a white and otherwise often privileged person, I can relate to this. I often feel guilt (remorse? regret?) for the actions of others that share my ethnicity or even my humanity, even though I didn't do anything myself. When I don't get stopped at the Border Patrol checkpoint, I have felt guilty. Throughout the incidents at Ferguson and related events, I have felt guilty. When I have heard random strangers make racist comments, I have felt guilty. Even though I'm not responsible for this and don't share their feelings, there is some kind of association that makes me cringe and feel bad personally.

On the hangout today when Charles said that having a "white name" gave him an advantage, I felt terrible. Even though I don't think I'd react to someone differently if their name was Charles or Jermichael, I feel awful that others would judge on that basis. (Also, I love unique names and dislike the thought of people being moved to take conformist names in order to fit in.)

At Ask Big Questions, they quote Terry Smith, a high school social studies teacher and activist who said, “If we inherit injustice, we should never feel guilty. We are not responsible for that past. However, if we choose to do nothing about it going forward, then we have plenty to feel guilty about.”

But still, I feel guilty. And sometimes I don't know how to make things better going forward.

What do you think? Is guilt an appropriate response?