White People, It’s Okay To Feel Bad About Privilege

“The next time a white person blusters at you, ‘Oh, so I’m just supposed to walk around feeling bad about my privilege all the time…?!’, think about what they’re actually saying to you.”

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Every so often, I hear (probably well-meaning) black people say things like “White people, nobody’s asking you to feel bad about your privilege” when having conversations about race and politics, economic inequality, and how that can affect people’s lives right down the color line.

I know that they mean well when they say it, and I know that it’s probably just a response to memes like the that insist that no living white person was responsible for slavery and no living black person was enslaved, and other things like that.

But I don’t think that they should, and that’s because I think it’s okay to feel bad about privilege.

The next time a white person blusters at you, “Oh, so I’m just supposed to walk around feeling bad about my privilege all the time…?!”, think about what they’re actually saying to you. They’re asking for permission to live without empathy.

Empathy is looking around and realizing that other people do not have all of the things that you have. It’s feeling that uncomfortableness that comes from knowing you have a home to go to when others don’t, that you have an education when others don’t, or that you have cool gizmos and gadgets that others don’t. It’s also a complicated system of managing how we interact with the world, how we help others, and how we balance our desire for justice with competing interests – namely our own.

But as they’ve described it, they don’t WANT to have that feeling. “Feeling bad” for people is icky, and they want to live without icky. Definitely without icky. They don’t wish to be reminded of the inequality that exists in the actual world, and instead, prefer a cloistered reality where they don’t “feel bad” because they’ve noticed something outside of themselves.

All of those things that I mentioned are real levels of privilege that I personally have, by the way.

I once had a friend ask me why black people don’t like to swim. Off the top of my head, my first guess was, “Well, black people do tend to live in more impoverished communities that are in the urban centers without much access to bodies of water like pools or lakes, and often lack the monetary resources to be able to afford things like lake houses, ski doos, tubes, boats, etc., and that probably just creates a habit of not swimming very much.

She looked at me, confused, and said, “Are you saying that black people are poorer than white people?”

I’m not going to lambaste her for ignorant, but clearly she lacked exposure. And what people are saying when they ask to not “feel bad” about their privilege is that they like it that way.

Let’s get one thing straight: “Feeling bad” can be a really good thing. What I’m about to say may be heresy in some atheist/freethinking circles, but there are some problems that logic does not crack.

– Americans weren’t always outraged about Vietnam, and were only more outraged when they could see it. That’s “feeling bad.”

– The Civil Rights Movement made grand use of the media to sensationalize the brutalization of black bodies to the general public. That’s “feeling bad.”

– “Feeling bad” is the kind of thing that makes a person realize their LGBTQ son or daughter is a real person, because that’s what empathy does.

Empathy can overcome miseducation and break through barriers that raw logic is not able to penetrate. It can also be a useful surrogate for exposure, because just because you don’t know something doesn’t mean you’re a bigot. It means you’ve been sheltered from it, and empathy is often a great way to build that bridge to someone about something that you may not know a lot about, whatever it is (racism, sexism, or tapioca.)

But you’ll never learn any of that if you run around insisting that it’s wrong that you have to notice other people’s pain, or that it’s wrong for other people to bring that to your attention.

That’s not empathetic. That’s not human. And if you’re gonna feel that carelessly towards other people, that’s what you really should “feel bad” about.

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Photographer: Johnny Silvercloud
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3 thoughts on “White People, It’s Okay To Feel Bad About Privilege”

  1. You seem to be encouraging me, a white person, to feel guilty for being born with a certain shade of skin in a country where the people of my shade of skin are predominantly better off than people of other shades of skin. Should I also feel guilty for being born without colorblindness or deafness or some other condition which the majority of society treats as a “defect”? It’s a hard fact of life that people are not born with equal circumstances. And it’s a sad fact that in America, darker skin is treated as a defect by many. I realize that statistically black people are treated worse than white people are, but I have never requested or expected special treatment so I have nothing to feel bad about. At times I have noticed myself personally treating black people differently from how I treat white people, but as soon as I recognize that behavior in myself I feel guilty for it and I take steps to not repeat that behavior in the future. Notice: I feel guilty for my own actions, for the things which I have control over, not for the circumstances in which I was born.

    I’m sure the reason why some black people are saying “White people, nobody’s asking you to feel bad for your privilege” is because only an asshole would ask somebody to feel guilt for something which they had no control over. People should feel guilty for actions which they’ve done, for mistakes which they’ve made. Being born to white parents isn’t a choice, and thus shouldn’t produce guilt. And you are sorely mistaken if you think that the only way people can empathize with one another is through guilt. Empathy is good. You should stick to encouraging empathy in others, and stop encouraging people to feel guilty when there are no mistakes to feel guilty about.

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    1. The whole point is that we should all think about the circumstances in which we were born, and that’s not a wrong thing to do.

      I also pointed out that I myself, while disadvantaged in a sense of being a minority, have enormous advantages over other people, and why should I ask to live without that knowledge? That uncomfortable feeling, that many of the advantages that I have are NOT because of my actions or intelligence or anything I do, but just how life is for me, and that some people drew the short end of the stick. That doesn’t require hating yourself, and it doesn’t require being sorry for being white, because privilege is certainly not just a white/black thing. But when people say “I shouldn’t have to feel bad”, in my opinion, they’re doing their best to stave off that watershed, possibly perspective-changing moment.

      I remember being a Christian, and having my opinions change about LGBT people when I thought about what it must be like to pray to be straight, or be called “abomination” every day, and I “felt bad.” We might not be using the same language here, and you might call that “guilt”, but I much more closely associate that feeling with empathy, and I think that’s where it breaks through. You can say that we should “encourage empathy in others”, but that argument is a moot point when dealing with people that people that don’t see or realize the inhumanity of the conditions of many others. My argument is that this feeling that I’m describing can bridge that gap from cool detachment to human connection.

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      1. Fair enough. I did bring some baggage to the table in my response, since I’ve heard people talk about having white guilt, and so I interpreted you saying “feeling bad” as feeling guilty. If you’re just talking about the uncomfortable knowledge that life isn’t fair, then I agree that people shouldn’t shy away from that discomfort. To me it makes sense to feel bad about the unfortunate situations which others have to face. But it doesn’t make as much sense to feel bad about the fortunate situations which I face. Being white, I am probably more often treated with decency and respect by strangers than the average black person is. But I don’t feel bad that I am being treated with decency. I feel bad that black people aren’t being treated with decency. And what upsets me isn’t the fact that people are being treated unequally, it’s the fact that people aren’t being treated well. If everyone was treated like shit, we’d all be treated equally, but there would still be a problem. People should be treated with decency and respect and the fact that some people aren’t being treated that way is a problem. Knowing that the people who aren’t being treated with respect are being discriminated against because of their race, or sexual orientation, or religion, or whatever can help us diagnose the root cause of the problem and potentially help fix it. But there’s not much use in feeling bad because you happen to not be discriminated against. Everyone has parts of their lives which are truly bad, while are worth feeling bad about. If people start feeling bad about their fortunate circumstances on top of feeling bad about their unfortunate circumstances, what is there left to be happy about?

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