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Scholarly Personal Narrative: Navigating White Guilt

Eden Driscoll

Western Illinois University


Scholarly Personal Narrative: Navigating White Guilt

I grew up in a very strong Christian household where care and compassion were prized

above all else. The Golden Rule of treating others how you would like to be treated was

ingrained in me by my parents. My upbringing is still a very powerful force in my life; I am

choosing to work in a helping profession because I want to spread God’s love to others.

Unfortunately Catholic guilt is also a strong influence from the past that I struggle with today,

especially as I wrestle with the social justice concepts centered around race that we have been

discussing in my college student personnel (CSP) program.

From elementary school onward, I felt more and more ashamed of being a member of the

White race as I kept learning about all the atrocities that White people have committed. Even

though I had not even been alive when White Europeans were massacring Native Americans and

enslaving Africans, I still felt guilty by association. As I realized that racism had not ended with

the Civil Rights movement, my shame further increased. One way I have attempted to deal with

the guilt has been to try to distance myself from other White people. From my experience,

anyone describing others as ‘acting White’ never intends it as a compliment. ‘Acting White’

means being uncool, ignorant, or racist. In order to be liked by people of color, I often feel the

pressure to be perceived as a ‘good White person.’ For example, I have often noticed myself

bringing up the fact that I have an African American sister in conversations with other African

Americans. Although her race is usually relevant to the discussion, sometimes I realize that I am

talking about her in an effort to prove to others that I am not racist without saying it outright.

This desire to prove that I am not a stereotypical White American applies to my

interactions with international students as well as domestic ones. I strongly identify with the

sentiments of one participant from Linder’s (2015) research on White guilt when she describes

wanting to communicate to others that “I’m a cool person, I know about these books...I traveled

to another place, I know that you’re wearing the state sari of Cara, and I lived there, so let’s talk

about it” (p. 546). I want to work in international education because I love learning about

different people, but I now realize that it is easy to use my work as proof that I am a ‘cool White

person.’ I love amazing international students with my knowledge of their countries just as

much as I love learning something new from them.

As a result of all the personal reflection that being in the CSP program has forced me to

do, I am now realizing that my crushing need to be liked is making my work about myself

instead of the people I want to serve. “The desire to be liked by people of Color re-centers White

people and their experiences in anti-oppression work” (Linder, 2015, p. 546). In Catholicism,

guilt is assuaged by confessing sins and doing penance. I am now aware that I have taken a

similar approach to alleviate my White guilt. Although I am committed to striving for racial

justice out of genuine care and compassion for people, I am also discovering that another motive

is doing penance for the sins of my White ancestors, my fellow White contemporaries, and

myself. As Linder (2015) so aptly describes, “Aspiring allies for altruism often feel guilt for the

privileges associated with their identities, which becomes a primary motivator for the work” (p.


I am only now becoming aware of the very bleak outlook I have had on living in a

racially divisive country. Unconsciously, I believed that there were only three choices for how

White people could exist in the oppressive society they had created. First, one could own up to

the mistakes of White people and choose a life of atonement, living with the guilt and discomfort

that inherently comes with this option. Secondly, people could push aside this guilt and live in

blissful ignorance by claiming that the actions of other people have nothing to do with them and

that systemic racism is over. The final choice would be embracing both the past and an identity

of being part of a ‘master race,’ therefore living a life guided by the principles of White

supremacy. Since I was taught by Christianity that suffering for the sake of others makes one a

‘good person,’ I chose to embrace the first option. Just as Catholic teachings emphasize the fact

that everyone is a sinner who must constantly ask God for forgiveness, I believed that I would

always be part of an ignorant, racist group of people doomed to compensate for the mistakes of

our ancestors for eternity.

I never understood how harmful this conviction was until doing the readings and

participating in my cohort’s conversations for my theory class this semester. I began recognizing

that the martyr-like attitude I had adopted towards social justice work was extremely patronizing

towards marginalized groups as well as damaging for myself. I thought that by acknowledging

my role in perpetuating oppression I was helping deconstruct systemic racism for the liberation

of targeted groups, but I was mostly trying to redeem myself. It never occured to me to think

about how oppression affects me so that I could work ​with​ people with marginalized identities

rather than ​for​ them. As Adams et al. (2013) describe, “Many people who are members of

groups that benefit from oppression live with a burden of guilt, shame, and helplessness and are

never sure whether their individual accomplishments are earned or the result of advantages

received due to their social group membership” (p. 34). Considering how I am hurt by

oppression too can help me become a true partner with other groups in the fight for liberation.

Of course, I need to remain wary of centering my struggle with guilt over the extreme suffering

of oppressed people.

I have been wrestling with several other new conceptualizations of social justice that had

never occurred to me before this semester. For example, I had always considered privilege

walks and poverty simulations to be an effective method for developing empathy among students

so that they would be inspired to fight against social issues. I never thought that these activities

were actually reinforcing oppression by educating privileged people at the emotional expense of

those with the very identities for which the activities were supposed to be advocating. Kendall

and Wijeyesinghe (2017) warns that “care should be taken to avoid placing people from

marginalized groups in the role of educator for people with MPIs [multiple privileged

identities].” I know that I have personally done this, believing that I was being a good ally by

wanting to hear oppressed people’s stories. I also thought that by just listening I was making

room for normally marginalized voices to be heard; I never realized that my silence could be

taking up space. People of color should not be the only people talking about race. Now I am

grappling with when to speak up and when to stop talking.

Furthermore, people of color should not be the only ones engaging in racial identity

work. I need to also investigate my own socially and historically constructed identity as a White

person to disrupt its normalization and better understand how I participate in and benefit from

systems of oppression. By concentrating more on exposing and dismantling the cultural,

societal, and institutional systems of racism rather than considering racism solely on a personal

level, I may be able to step away from feeling so guilty. I have been born into a broken society

that conditions everyone to host racial bias at least subconsciously. Hosting these biases does

not automatically make me a bad person; whether I choose to confront and challenge these biases

is of paramount importance. By viewing myself and other White people as products of

institutional and cultural socialization, I can be more compassionate. Instead of trying to

dissociate myself from other White people who I perceive as embodying the ignorant,White

racist stereotype, I can understand them as being exposed to the same racist structures as myself,

which in turn can give me greater motivation to engage them in teachable moments rather than

simply dismissing them. This attitude is extremely critical when developing students.

Overall, my understanding of racial justice has become much more nuanced because of

the CSP program. I want to acknowledge that although I focused on racial identity in this paper,

I hold multiple privileged identities as a White, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied person. The

concepts I have discussed can be applied to my experience with these other intersections of

identity. I also want to clarify that I am not trying to completely escape White guilt. It is

important that I remember the past and how I still benefit from the systems of oppression that

currently exist because of it. I just do not want to be an advocate out of guilt; I want to embrace

my genuine care, compassion, and sense of justice for others as my primary motivators for

liberation work. In order to center my student affairs practice around social justice, I will have to

continually critique my beliefs, attitudes, and praxis like I have done this semester. I am still

wrestling with how best to put the revelations I have discussed in this paper into action, but my

one certainty is that I intend to serve students out of love, not guilt.


Adams, M., Warren, B. J., Castañeda, C., Hackman, H. W., Peters, M. L., & Zúñiga, X. (Eds.).

(2013). ​Readings for Diversity and Social Justice​ (Third ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Kendall, F. E., & Wijeyesinghe, C. L. (2017). Advancing Social Justice Work at the Intersections

of Multiple Privileged Identities. ​New Directions for Student Services​, 91-100.

Linder, C. (2015, September). Navigating Guilt, Shame, and Fear of Appearing Racist: A

Conceptual Model of Antiracist White Feminist Identity Development. ​Journal of

College Student Development​, ​56​(6), 535-549.