White Guilt and a Misunderstanding of Racism

Guilt and shame are poor motivators and excellent silencers.

When many white people think about racism, shame and guilt wash over them and more often than not, paralyze them. The idea of talking about racism makes many white Americans feel vulnerable and exposed.

Our history lessons have given most of us just enough to know that slavery and racism were really bad. But shame keeps us from digging too deeply because it feels like you will drown in shame.

I grew up in an incredibly diverse school system with friends of all races nationalities and sexual orientations, which in the 80s was unique. While there were certainly issues (we were teenagers, after all) my friend groups were diverse. It gave me a great foundation to see how things could be — but it also created denial. I was in a bubble, privileged by my very unique circumstances. Ironically, it delayed my wrestling with racism, just as going to a women’s college allowed me to ignore sexism. I was lucky to experience such empowering environments.

At college, I was surprised by how separated the racial groups were. I was confused when I faced anger in response to some of my attempts at conversation so I didn’t push friendships with too many Black peers, although I had some. After college, I lived in Washington D.C. and tutored kids every weekend — taking the bus into the southern end of Anacostia. I was usually the only white person on the bus and it was a really good experience. I never felt threatened or scared — but I never felt like I belonged either. I felt like I was an interloper.

And then life interceded, I got into the tech industry and was often the only woman in management and board meetings — I WAS the diversity. Diversity was… an afterthought. Moving to a mostly white, upper-middle-class suburb and having a child was what brought race back into focus for me. I did not want her to be surrounded by people who look, acted, and had the same experiences as her — it’s no way to learn good perspective, judgment, and relationship skills. So we sought out diversity more intentionally.

I also started The Community Roundtable about that time — because I saw communities as more equitable models for coordination and collaboration, made possible at scale by the Internet. I saw in digital communities the opportunity to give more people access, education, mentoring, and opportunities — all things hidden because of the limitations of the physical world and the hierarchical structure of organizations. Only four people can play a round of golf — but those same four people can have casual conversations online in a way that others can see what they are thinking about and how they are thinking about it. That is the privileged access and opportunity that so many people lack today. The potential to break down barriers was tantalizing.

However, talking about race explicitly was still uncomfortable for me — I didn’t know what my role was or how to do anything about it — because I still misunderstood racism largely as an individual failure because we focus so much on ‘racists’, although few admit to being one. Applying that term wholly to a person suggests they are intentionally working to diminish others based on the color of their skin. I felt guilty, ashamed, and conflicted. The idea of diving in further increased my anxiety because I thought it would mean I would just feel more guilty and ashamed.

A few years ago — I don’t remember what prompted it — I started seeking out and following more Black voices on Twitter, I followed Black photographers on Instagram, and Good Black News. I wanted to change the visual default in my mind of what Black looked like, which in spite of all of my Black friends over the years remained a mug shot of a young Black man. I read a lot of the 1619 project. I started having more conversations with Michael Eatman, the Director of Community Life at my daughter’s school, about how to ensure an inclusive and welcoming community there. I read more of Anand Giridharadas and Umair Haque. I listened to Joy Buolamwini and Shireen Mitchell. Elizabeth Warren eloquently tied structural racism to federal policy. Slowly, my emotional perspective changed — more reading and practice increased my comfort in exploring race without feeling like it was a personal judgment. I started to understand it more as a structure and governance issue than a personal one.

Over my winter sabbatical, someone pointed me to the 1619 Projects article American Capitalism is Brutal, which was mind-blowing and lead me to read Accounting for Slavery. These two books helped me see the direct connection between the work I do in building community structures to its impact on dismantling structural racism — because the root of racism is how we think about human value. Current accounting, legal, and educational standards are all based on a production-era mentality that people’s value is their production capacity. Diversity is structurally discouraged, not rewarded. In community structures, however, diversity is rewarded and optimized so people can come together to address a common objective. Community structures allow for self-efficacy, distributed leadership, and self-management.

Once you stop seeing racism as a personal failing or characteristic, you can explore the topic with curiosity — and better understand how you can change your own behavior to counteract the systemic abuse. It is empowering rather than shameful because it is not about me or you. We didn’t build the system — but we do have a responsibility to help change it.

CBS This Morning had a similar message today and it’s worth a watch.

Here’s to more conversations, more compassion for ourselves, more learning about each other, and more reflection about how we support or dismantle inequities.



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Rachel Happe

Rachel Happe


Connector of ideas & people. Fascinated by social dynamics & false truths. Founder of Engaged Organizations and co-Founder of The Community Roundtable.