Sunday, September 17, 2006

On Guilt, What it Is, and Why it Sucks

My post on teaching white students about race really got me thinking about guilt. I read through many of the journal entries of my students and was fascinated by how many of them expressed a sense of guilt for being white. Then I thought about comments to my post from Bitch/Lab, IsThatLatin and Lindsay, and I realized that guilt is an odd reaction to structural racism.

What makes us feel guilty? Trained as a phenomenologist, my instinct is to start with my own experience and see if I can glean more universal features of that experience. So, if I think about when I feel guilty, I mean really guilty, it is always after I have done something rather horrific: lie to a friend or say hurtful things to someone. I may have lied, for example, because I was ashamed about something else I did, or because I wanted to hurt. And, because the intention is either malicious or springs from shame, guilt creeps in. When guilt creeps in, I have a few options: overcome the shame of what I did, apologize, confront the anger of another in the process, and move toward healing OR I can deny, minimize or rationalize what I did. Some people are fantastic at the latter move. I have noticed, that those who are particularly skillful at denying, minimizing or rationalizing, are those who are the most fragile; they cannot handle criticism to their character because they have so little sense of self.

Now, this kind of guilt that I just described seems wholly out of step with the recognition that one has more privileges in the U.S. because one is White. I think Lindsay is right that one should feel hopelessness and frustration, but self-hate, shame or guilt seem off the mark. Except if you think about this in the framework that humbition did: a sort of religious guilt. Many of us are taught to feel guilt by our religious faith. In the Christian tradition, we are guilty when we sin. When we sin, we are failing to emulate God. Only by confessing to a priest or directly to God, can we find forgiveness for our mortal failings. We feel guilt without confession because we know that God sees what we have done wrong. God is disappointed in us.

From this framework, guilt makes more sense as a response to structural racism and the privileges it inequitably confers on White skin, but guilt is the wrong response. If my students feel guilty, in this religious sense of guilt, then they are interpreting their privileges as a kind of hubris, a defying of God's will. They are chastising themselves for not disavowing such privileges and doing more good works to emulate God. Many of my students wrote about how they shouldn't buy expensive products, made by slave labor or they shouldn't have attended private school, where they were isolated from poor people and people of color. If they were good humans, their reasoning goes, they should have given up all earthly possessions and badges of privilege and lived among those who were less fortunate with compassion and love.

If you are dogged by this kind of religious guilt, then learning about instiutional racism is bound to cause a great deal of anger. If you think you are being told by your professor that you are a sinner for not disavowing your white skin privilege, then you resent your professor's confessor role: "why should I have to confess my sins to this moralizing White professor who thinks she is better than me because she has disavowed her white skin?" Or, if your professor has convinced you that she too is wracked with this sinner's guilt, then the lot of you are paralyzed by your inherent failings. Both of these reactions are deadly for any sort of justice or education. Moralism, at the end of the day, does more to inspire hatred than goodness.

Guilt--whether issuing from one's shame at harming another or from one's sense that she is a sinner--is a paralyzing emotion. It tends to turn us into narcissists. We become absorbed with our wounds, with others' attacks to our integrity, or without our own nagging sense of our inadequacy. Narcissists spend all of their energy repairing their own damaged ego. They do so either by finding someone worse than they are and elevating their self-worth by comparison, or they rail against all institutions that would dare make them feel incomplete or sinful. Narcissists have no energy left over to do something that might make a difference to others.

By thinking through this problem, it appears to me that the only way to successfully teach students about race is a way that circumvents sinner's guilt. This was, of course, humbition's point. And Bitch/Lab smartly pointed out that one way to do so is to immediately illustrate how to fight structural racism.

But, I guess I am far more concerned that sources of sinner's guilt are so endemic to our culture in the U.S., that avoiding this sort of response from students is impossible. There are plenty of institutions that are quite happy fostering moralism.

To get my students over guilt requires, maybe, pointing out how narcissistic it is. But, alas, that can certainly add fuel to the fire. So, what do we do?