Guilt has been called a useless, wasted emotion. We’re told to not waste time dwelling on the past. You can’t change what happened. Live without regrets. Move on. Let it go.
Our language is full of these nice phrases that attempt to absolve us of guilt. When nagging regrets keep us awake at night, we tell ourselves, “Oh well, there’s nothing I can do right now. Maybe tomorrow I’ll right my wrongs, or perhaps I’ll just forget about it.”
So why is our culture so wracked with guilt? Michael J. Formica said, in his 2008 Psychology Today article “Guilt is a Wasted Emotion,” that guilt in the Western world stems from Abrahamic religious traditions about sin, judgment, and punishment. But this guilt isn’t limited to only practicing Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Formica calls guilt a “hidden cultural imperative,” made so through acculturation.
Long story short: everyone can feel guilty! Well, duh.
One of the most popular forms of guilt in the United States today is “white guilt.” While I understand where this cultural phenomenon comes from, and sympathize with those overarching aims, I don’t find it to be a productive exercise, as it doesn’t really solve any problems.
Like most Americans, I am disgusted by the history of slavery and racism in this country, which was founded on supposed democratic values. While knowing this history is important, it is equally important to see its repercussions, some of which, unfortunately, resonate in our culture today. I really hope that this goes beyond saying.
However, guilt exists on many different planes throughout space in time. If white Americans should keep in mind that there is a long-standing history of racism in this country, on the same token, shouldn’t men remember that there is a long-standing history of rape, abuse of women and sexism? Shouldn’t women keep in mind that throughout history, some women have killed their children? Shouldn’t we, as a species, keep in mind that some humans have committed truly horrific crimes against humanity? You get the point: guilt goes on forever.
Who does this serve? Feeling guilty doesn’t make us better people.
Sometimes guilt can even make us worse people, especially when we project this guilt onto others, and force them to share in our self-perceived shame. In one incident I will remember forever, when teaching us about treatment of Native Americans by President Andrew Jackson, a middle school history teacher of mine asked the predominantly white class, “Aren’t you ashamed? Aren’t you ashamed of being white?” My jaw dropped.
Was her heart in the right place? Most likely. But does making me feel ashamed of something I was not partial to make you, or me, a better person? No. Projecting your guilt onto children and making them feel ashamed of themselves is never a good thing, unless, I suppose, those children did something worthy of shame, but I can’t even imagine what that could be.
One might say that acting to absolve oneself of guilt is better than just displacing your guilt onto others. But there’s an example to counter that.
A few weeks ago in one of my classes, we started watching a documentary called Traces of the Trade, which was about modern members of the prominent Bristol, Rhode Island family the DeWolfs who recently learned that their family was the largest slave-trading family in American history. Ten members of the DeWolf family decide to uncover their family’s past by traveling from Rhode Island to Ghana and Cuba.
One cringe-worthy scene happened when the trip to Ghana coincidentally overlapped with a large Ghanaian ceremony in memory of those who had been enslaved. I guess they missed that very important detail while planning their (guilt) trip. At the ceremony, one of the men of the DeWolf family tried to shake the hand of an African American woman attending the ceremony. She refused, and said she was hoping not to see any white people at the event. Later in the documentary, he called the event humbling to say the least.
We never finished the movie, but according to a synopsis on the film’s site, the experience seemed to pose as many questions as it had answered. The DeWolfs’ hearts were in the right place, but did their guilt do anyone any good? They embarked on a painful, humbling journey that probably left them feeling guiltier than they did before it. The Ghanaians didn’t benefit as the DeWolfs imposed themselves upon the Ghanaian people their family had once helped to enslave; even worse, they imposed upon a serious ceremony commemorating those very slaves. And what did the DeWolfs expect? To be accepted with open arms simply because they showed guilt at their family’s past? It was doomed to be a lose-lose situation from the start.
So, if talking about guilt doesn’t always help, and acting on guilt doesn’t always help, what’s the solution? The best thing we can do, especially as Americans with a bad reputation for ignorance, is increase our knowledge of the history of the world outside our borders, both the good and the bad, and pledge to do more of the good and never allow the atrocities of the past to happen again. It’s as simple as that. No hand wringing, no crippling shame, but with a glance back every so often to make sure we’re still on the right course. Guilt will not be our compass.
Hannah Sparks is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.