It is what lies behind statements like these by white Americans:
- My family never owned any slaves.
- It is too late to give back the land to the Indians.
- My family was not in the South during all those lynchings.
- The Arabs took part in the slave trade too.
- Blacks owned slaves too.
- Most societies throughout history have had slaves.
And so on.
For white Americans this sort of talk comes up in relation to blacks, Native Americans and sometimes even American foreign policy. It has become a part of colour-blind racism and the blinder sorts of white patriotism. For the British this sort of talk comes up with the British Empire. I imagine white South Africans do something like it too.
These statements may be true so far as they go. They make sense too: you cannot blame someone for the sins of his father - or even for the sins of others of his race.
And yet something is not quite right. Even white people sense it. Why else bring up the Arabs or slave-owning blacks? Why make the defence just in terms of one’s own family and not white people or America in general? And why does the subject come up at all?
A sense of guilt is at play. White guilt.
But if one’s family never owned slaves then why feel guilty? Or even if they did own slaves it was long ago, so again, why the guilt? What is going on?
It is like this: if your father robbed banks before you were born, it would be unfair to put you in prison for it. You had nothing to do with it.
But what if you knew that your family’s fortune, your wealth, came from the banks he robbed? You would feel guilty. And you would be right to feel that way: by knowingly benefiting from the crime you have become party to it.
The easy thing to do is the keep the money and push the sense of guilt to the back of your mind, trying to soften it or cover it over with statements like, “I had nothing to do with it”, “That was a long time ago” or “Back then even the police chief and the mayor were on the take.”
The hard thing to do would be the right thing to do, the only way to get rid of the sense of guilt in an honest way: to somehow make it right with the banks he robbed.
Edward Ball, whose family did own slaves, something he wrote about in his book “Slaves in the Family”, said it best:
To live with the advantages of white skin in America is to benefit from the old slave system.
Many whites know that in general they are better off than blacks and deep down they know why.