As a Catholic, I understand guilt. It has the power to make us better men and women of God. As we examine ourselves and come before the Lord to seek forgiveness, guilt can be a pointed and personal reminder of the redemptive power of Christ and the need for the Sacrament of Penance. Guilt, however, is not a positive thing in and of itself. Neither does false guilt represent a power for good. There’s a popular term these days called White Privilege. It holds that we as Caucasians owe a debt of sorts to African Americans in particular. Here’s how essayist and author Tim Wise articulates it on his website.
White privilege refers to any advantage, opportunity, benefit, head start, or general protection from negative societal mistreatment, which persons deemed white will typically enjoy, but which others will generally not enjoy. These benefits can be material (such as greater opportunity in the labor market, or greater net worth, due to a history in which whites had the ability to accumulate wealth to a greater extent than persons of color), social (such as presumptions of competence, creditworthiness, law-abidingness, intelligence, etc.) or psychological (such as not having to worry about triggering negative stereotypes, rarely having to feel out of place, not having to worry about racial profiling, etc.).
That’s all very interesting, but why should my family (and your family) feel guilt for a bigotry never thought or expressed? Where is the justice in that? In the sixth chapter of my novel, The Blood Cries Out, I briefly address the related issue of collective guilt through a passage of dialogue between a priest and the story’s protagonist.
“Collective guilt is what a society or people may have concerning painful events or historical periods. In this case, for example, do we as a people bear a guilt today for the deplorable way the Chinese immigrants were treated in the nineteenth century--and later? There may indeed be something to collective guilt, but it’s not the same as sin. It would be a lens through which you might advocate for certain political measures, but it does not by itself make you personally guilty of any sin or wrong. In fact, I remember an author arguing that collective guilt or national repentance might even distract the Christian from his real and true sins, blinding him to that which he should truly confess. The bottom line is for something to be a sin for you, it must involve a conscious and informed decision. Unless you’ve got a time machine handy, that’s impossible here.”
White Privilege is a form of racism in the guise of empathy and compassion. It's saying that nothing, or less, should be expected from a class of people. I suggest instead...we expect more, much more. White Privilege, then, is a lie by the affluent to assuage guilt and meaninglessness of their own lives. The well-paid Ethnic Studies professor, the author...they are financially and morally exploiting the false narrative of victimhood for material gain, ego reinforcement, and narcissistic aims. Expect more, not less. Enough with the excuses.
Besides being a spurious theory, it does a disservice to poor and struggling whites—not to mention other ethnic groups. When my wife and I were first married a quarter century ago, we were poorer than church mice. I simultaneously worked three jobs…just to stay poor. How did White Privilege help our struggling family? There are Native Americans in the South, for instance, who quietly live amidst the most deplorable conditions; clean water doesn’t even exist for all of these communities. How does White Privilege convey struggles like these, or shed light on the problems of the poor? White Privilege not only teaches a false narrative, but it supports a view that ultimately weakens and injures those for whom it was ostensibly created to protect. For example, an advocate for this theory, Melissa Harris Perry, recently objected on an MSNBC interview to the term hard worker, as she claims it’s racist because of the history of slavery.
At this point, it’s helpful to briefly mention a great black author by the name of W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963). Reading The Souls of Black Folk has been instructive on several independent levels for me. On the one hand, Du Bois' treatment of the problem of racial injustice at the turn of the 20th century is not a terribly simple thing to pigeonhole; he is more than an activist or organizer. While W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington didn’t always see eye to eye publicly, their hearts were not so far apart. In the third chapter of The Souls of Black Folks, a vigorous criticism of Booker T. Washington is articulated, and it is helpful to reference here. One example of this section follows. “And so thoroughly did he learn the speech and thought of triumphant commercialism, and the ideals of material prosperity, that the picture of a lone black boy poring over a French grammar amid the weeds and dirt of a neglected home soon seemed to him the acme of absurdities. One wonders what Socrates and St. Francis of Assisi would say to this.” (Du Bois, 893)
While Booker T. Washington argued that higher education for blacks was a waste and a disservice, writers such as Du Bois championed the intellectual freeing power of education. Washington observed a black boy studying a French text amidst poverty, and he saw a waste of time. Du Bois, on the other hand, saw something altogether more profound, meaningful, and infused with beauty. The bonds of slavery to false ideas and principles remain strong in this day and age, because, in short, we have all been indoctrinated with the mantra to expect less from African Americans.
Slavery, of course, continues to take place within the continent of Africa and elsewhere; it’s hardly a unique problem. The only difference, with regards to the United States, is that we cared enough about righting those wrongs through legislation…and even war (the Civil War was about more than slavery alone, of course). As a consequence, slavery no longer exists within the borders of the United States. Diversity by its nature implies that we are not all the same. If we’re not all the same, then it’s only natural some adapt more easily to some situations than others. As I recall an article recently suggesting, we all could hold varying degrees of envy towards one another—from the pregnant woman to the athlete. Should we advocate for young man privilege now? It's silly and distracting from authentic issues of substance. Different situations are easier or harder for different people; it's what makes life interesting and diverse. Those in support of white privilege--and other closely related social positions--appear to desire a colorless and genderless class of automatons, everyone equally boring. Stop the whining and, instead, do good, because the answer to racism should never be more racism.
In conclusion, reflect on this important passage from The Catechism of the Catholic Church. “Celebrating diversity” shouldn’t mean we strive for an existence where all of us are the same, and false guilt is pursued as a form of secular penance.
1935 The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it: Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.
1936 On coming into the world, man is not equipped with everything he needs for developing his bodily and spiritual life. He needs others. Differences appear tied to age, physical abilities, intellectual or moral aptitudes, the benefits derived from social commerce, and the distribution of wealth. The “talents” are not distributed equally.
1937 These differences belong to God’s plan, who wills that each receive what he needs fromothers,and that those endowed with particular “talents” share the benefits with those who need them. These differences encourage and often oblige persons to practice generosity, kindness, and sharing of goods; they foster the mutual enrichment of cultures:
'I distribute the virtues quite diversely; I do not give all of them to each person, but some to one, some to others.... I shall give principally charity to one; justice to another; humility to this one, a living faith to that one.... And so I have given many gifts and graces, both spiritual and temporal, with such diversity that I have not given everything to one single person, so that you may be constrained to practice charity towards one another.... I have willed that one should need another and that all should be my ministers in distributing the graces and gifts they have received from me.'