Guilt is the ambient noise of American culture.
Humming away in the background of our lives like really low-quality elevator music, it ferments inside of our unconscious at all hours — as a result, most of us have begun to feel more than a little…on edge.
Maybe this emerges as anxiety, or perhaps it bursts free as embarrassing levels of defensiveness. It can show up as a pervasive sense of uncertainty, swinging between these two extremes as your mind attempts to protect itself from painful, guilty feelings. This is natural.
But that doesn’t mean it’s healthy. It’s not.
So, what are we to do, those of us who occupy one or more spheres of privilege and who have found ourselves at a loss about how to approach this fact?
In my ongoing experience, the answer begins with looking back into the repressive shadows of our nation’s history.
Folks, it’s time for my favorite game: Let’s Blame the Puritans.
John Winthrop Was A Dick — Reflecting Upon Our Inherited Neuroses And “That Time” White People Were Hypocrites
Look, I know it sounds ominous (not to mention counterproductive) for me to begin a guilt-facing exercise with a tirade about collective white hypocrisy…but hear me out, y’all.
Now I’m no fan of Freud or his weird thing about penises, but I will say that he broke some important ground when it came to the ways in which our brains try to make sense of competing realities.
Life is absolutely chock full of contradictions, and dealing with them constructively is a lot to ask of a bunch of mutated primates with species-wide daddy issues.
The Puritans took normal human neuroticism to a whole new level, though. And frankly? The vast majority of them were a bunch of a**holes. Seriously.
(Privileged, wealthy, white) men like John Winthrop paraded around with their sermons about “shining cities on hills” and “freedom to practise our weerdly punitivee religione” — and then promptly turned Massachusetts Bay into an authoritarian hellscape.
Justifying one’s unhealthy, obsessive, and deeply contradictory beliefs — humility before God vs. thinking you’re literally better than every other group of people on Earth, for example — requires quite an array of mental gymnastics. And controlling a bunch of hungry, increasingly oppressed people who are starting to question the whole program?
Well, that requires powerful manipulation tactics.
Guilt is the best of the best when it comes to tools for manipulating large groups of quasi-religious go-getters. Especially when all they’ve gone and gotten is, like, a bunch of cholera.
I could write a whole book about how authoritarianism, privilege, and guilt go hand in hand — but that’s already been done. Several times, in fact. Suffice it to say that guilt is a well-established and extremely effective control tactic that elites have regularly and consistently used to keep the “masses” in line (with their interests, that is).
To put it bluntly, the Puritan leadership was really, really good at wielding guilt like a weapon against dissent of any kind. Other, later leaders followed suit, and in a combination of both knowing and unknowing collaborations over the following three and a half centuries, guilt became a convenient, established facet of white culture.
Of course, most of the guilt the masses felt (and continue to feel) is a projection courtesy of said leaders…who cheerfully perform the evils that the rest of us are [eventually] made to feel terrible about.
And, to put it lightly… There are a LOT of things to feel terrible about.
Reflection And Change Are Too Inconvenient — Let’s Use Entitlement Instead
Oh, Puritans, you silly, unbathed kids. You aren’t God’s chosen people — you were Winthrop’s chosen suckers!
Do you know what happens when people stop spending all their time mired in guilt, defensive entitlement, and denial? Change. Change happens. Authoritarian leaders don’t like that kind of change one bit, and over the course of history, they’ve become experts at preventing and redirecting it.
In one of those fun life contradictions I mentioned earlier, entitlement happens to complement guilt perfectly when these leaders want to prevent moral change.
Whip these two seemingly opposed attitudes together, and you’ve got a recipe for neurotic, fearful, easily manipulated people who are just dying to find scapegoats for their system’s collective wrongs.
I’m not kidding. Historically speaking, people really will die for the sake of preserving their mental defenses — especially when they’re avoiding guilt. So, basically, they’ll die for entitlement, which is usually how that defense plays out.
And so here we are, living in a white culture that has firmly mired itself in an endless guilt — — > entitlement — — > freak-out cycle that keeps us from actually dealing with society’s problems.
It’s a convenient little system for those who have an interest in preserving their power and mega-privilege, of which most whites receive the crumbs (or at best, the thrice-reheated leftovers).
We work hard to preserve our mental defenses and collect those crumbs, and when less or categorically non-privileged groups kindly ask us why the hell we’re doing this, we tend to hiss at them like Gollum from his cave of iniquity and sin. It’s a bad scene.
As a self-professed and societally accepted mini-Gollum, I have an (again, contradictory) attitude of both frustration and compassion for those of us trapped in this guilt-to-entitlement-to-anxiety cycle. It’s frustrating because it is blinding — I mean, seriously, don’t you think oppressed groups feel freaking anxious? — and it’s a source of compassion because, well, in a relative sense these feelings just plain suck.
Balancing these seemingly competing truths has, oddly enough, been my own first step toward exiting the toxic privilege-guilt cycle. So kiss my a**, Puritan dudes!
We Aren’t Entitled To Our Privilege, But We Also Aren’t Obligated To Feel Guilty About It 24/7
Let me preface this conclusion with a very important statement: before you can even take the first of first steps in exiting your own guilt or entitlement cycle, your number one task is to listen to the voices of the (at least relatively) unprivileged.
The people who helped me begin my escape from a state of perpetual white-hand-wringing were, without fail, black and brown women. Reading, hearing, and working with these women provided me with the “permission” I needed to confront my own neuroses and address them.
Guess what, other privileged peeps? It turns out our guilt is just as useless as our entitlement.
Whichever side of the neurotic scale you fall on — anxiety/guilt or entitlement/defensiveness — what you’re really occupying is the space authorities rather intentionally shoved you into. And those spaces simply aren’t constructive…or even destructive, most of the time.
They are preservation spaces. They keep us inert so those in power don’t have to endure change.
As privileged people, relinquishing guilt is as important as relinquishing entitlement. Both of these things act as inaction traps that give our primitive minds permission to avoid, avoid, avoid meaningful interaction with the world.
Guilt/anxiousness and entitlement/defensiveness are both forms of denial in that they each provide our weaker, passive selves with reasons to not act as sentient organisms sharing a reality with other, equally sentient organisms.
We get to run in circles — the centers of which are, of course, our own selves — and ignore the perfectly good but phobia-inducing pathways leading out into new terrains all around us.
As the less-than-privileged know and have told us endlessly, the solutions to our systemic problems are already there. We just aren’t using them. If you think guilt is bad, try living in their state of unending frustration. No one is gaining anything from our white-privilege-AAAAAAAAAAA cycle.
No one except those who would very much like to live above us all and snicker as we trip over our own feet for their entertainment and gain.
Finally, I can return to the initial question at the center of this piece: how do we, the privileged and confused, navigate this longstanding conundrum?
What’s the end game? Well, I have no idea, obviously. But I do have a few theories…
Addressing Guilt Releases Entitlement — A.K.A ‘Calm Down Gollum, You Can Keep Your Precious Crumbs’
One of my favorite writers, Jessica Wildfire, inspired this article through one of her own recent pieces (linked below). One of her most poignant statements was, in my opinion, her observation that American society has a bizarrely all-or-nothing perspective about privilege.
It’s Time for All The Highly Successful People to Come Clean
True gratitude means admitting your privilege.
I’d venture to say that we’d both agree that this is highly beneficial for those in power. The stinky, allegedly boner-phobic John Winthrops of the world, if you will.
Relinquishing denial and/or entitlement as a defense reaction is seemingly impossible for large swathes of our society. From what I’ve learned in my exploration of privilege — mostly guided by the under-privileged and their work — this is likely because those same people view the only alternatives as either paralyzing guilt or its related action sequence of “renouncing” privilege in a dramatic, painful way.
This delusion is a monster created by our privilege — — > guilt — — > anxiety/entitlement cycle, and as frustrating as this kind of defensive denial is, it’s also an extremely normal way to react to a perceived mental threat of this nature. All of us have reacted the same way to some challenge or other at some point in our lives.
The fact is, though…these are not the alternatives to privilege denialism/entitlement/defensiveness.
There is no mystical dichotomy where you have to live life on one “side” of privilege or the other. There were never any sides to begin with, besides that of malignant authority vs. those they seek to control and use.
As Miss Wildfire so eloquently indicated, the “alternative” to privilege is just…well, to be privileged. To own it. To accept it. To be at peace with it so that you can use that privilege, those myriad advantages that so often send us into paroxysms, for the collective good. So you can use it to support change.
Listen to the voices of the non-privileged. Are they really asking you to feel terrible all the time? Are they demanding that you give away your worldly possessions and flagellate yourself in the street? No. That’s not rational, and frankly, it’s way too kinky for the issues at hand here. From what I’ve heard and seen, our less privileged future-sharers are really just asking us for one small thing: awareness.
Awareness of your privilege doesn’t mean you have to feel guilty about it. Frankly, it doesn’t even mean you have to “give it up” in the unrealistic sense of physically renouncing it. There’s no way to actually do that. Privilege isn’t an object, so how could anyone be asking you to treat it like one?
For the vast majority of us, privilege is a passive thing — and it exists in relation to us without our conscious intent.
By being aware of your privilege without resorting to guilt, denial, or entitlement, you allow yourself to address the discomfort of knowing that the system in which we live is unequal, unfair, and in need of moral change (and all the socio-economic changes that go with that).
You can be grateful for your privilege and unhappy about the relative evils it exists in conjunction with. Is that contradictory? Maybe, maybe not.
Despite our brains’ best efforts to defend against contradiction, it turns out that we’re pretty decent at handling it once the walls come down. Trust in that innate ability to balance and exist without collapsing beneath contradictions’ illusory weight. Get comfortable with it.
Once you accept where you stand, you can begin reaching down to pull others to their feet. That balance can spread its light onto all of us, and your privilege can go from passive reality to active change engine.
And guess what, Gollum? You don’t even have to give away your crumbs to make it happen!
Also, to reiterate: f*** the Puritans. Seriously.