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The Pervasiveness and Perception of White Guilt

Updated on August 7, 2016

Feeling guilty over the plight of blacks in this country doesn't mean you have white guilt, it just means you have a heart

So this happened.

I was outside on our front porch and yard watering plants and flowers. I was still dressed in my jammies which means no bra.

I mention that for no other reason than that its pertinent to the story!

Im a self avowed vain person. I dont like people seeing me until Im put together. Basically, Im my mother's daughter. She was from a different era (I guess I am too) and her grooming habits rubbed off on me. Put your best foot forward and try to present yourself as someone who cares about their appearance. Try as I might to change it, that advice still lingers in my mind.

But....Im within the confines of my own home and my own property and its only 9:00 am on a Saturday and our neighborhood is what writers describe as "sleepy suburbs" and "bedroom community" so Im not thinking I need full stage makeup and every hair in place.

As I was in the driveway watering, I was aware of a man's loud voice down the street and I glanced up and noticed a black man standing in a neighbor's yard. He seemed to be yelling, but I couldnt hear what he was saying so I hesitate to put the term "yelling" on him when he may just have been talking loudly. The neighbor was still inside his house and talking thru an open window. I watched long enough to realize that the black guy was walking up the street in the direction of our house. He was carrying a plastic bag in his hand which had something in it.

He stopped at the neighbor next door to our house. Thats when I realized he was going door to door. I closed the garage door, put away the hose and came inside and closed the front door. Within a few minutes, our doorbell rang and sure enough it was him. He stood on the front walkway for awhile and I could hear him muttering to himself before he turned and walked away.

My husband got dressed and was going to open the door to find out what the guy wanted and I am sure to tell him to get off our property because that's what he does with all solicitors in our "no soliciting" neighborhood. But by that time, the man had gone on to the next neighbor.

This brings me to why the entire incident bothered me.

I didn't run and hide inside my house because he was black. I know emphatically that that isn't the reason. I know this because I have done the same thing when white solicitors etc. come walking up the drive or I see them in the neighborhood. Again..it was morning and I wasn't dressed for "company" and as I've already mentioned, that "not being dressed" included not having a bra on. I would have reacted the same way if the man had been white, or brown or purple.

This is our home. For most of us, homes are our sanctuaries and our safe places. This is where I dont have to be bothered by people selling anything. This is the place where if I want to be outside, in my yard, running naked thru a sprinkler, I can. Although Im not likely to do that and believe me you would be glad Im not likely to do it. But my point is that its my right to NOT have to engage with people entering my domain. And especially since we live in a "no solicitation" community.

However, the importance of this post is that I am now feeling guilty. Guilty because why? I know this has nothing to do with his skin color and yet Im feeling guilty.

It was 85 degrees and about 200% humidity and my heart is kinda breaking for this guy who is walking up and down the street of an exclusively white neighborhood, knocking on doors and finding no one home, or no one answering because of all the same reasons I just mentioned. He might be trying to earn some money to buy food or pay his rent. I don't know because I didn't talk to him.

And why am I feeling guilty? I know in my heart of hearts, as Ive said already, that my actions had nothing to do with his race.

I am feeling this guilt because our society has conditioned me, as a white woman, to feel guilt when it comes to black people. It makes no difference if that guilt makes any sense or not. Its there whether we realize it or not and whether we want it or not.

I was in tears as I explained to my husband how I was feeling. Tears for a man Ive never met and will never meet and for a man I could have given a few minutes to but chose not to. Ive never felt that same guilt or shed a few tears when the same thing has happened with a white person. So I know that the only logical explanation has to be that we as a white society have been subtly soaking in guilt for decades.

I didnt do anything in my lifetime and neither did my parents or grandparents or even great grandparents, to hurt black people. And yet here I am, at the age of 65, having lived thru the Civil Rights era and all that has happened since, aware that (and surprised by it) society and especially the media has influenced me more than I realized.

Logically, I know that I have tried to live my life showing kindness to others no matter who or what they are. Its how I was raised (thank you Sisters of Charity!). And also logically, I know that I am not at fault for slavery or discrimination or any other transgressions toward black people.

So again...why the guilt?

As white people in this country, we have been saddled with perceptions about ourselves that we aren't even aware of. The most subtle of all of those perceptions is that we are ALL, as white people, responsible for the plight of blacks.

And we don't see it or notice it until it smacks us right in the face.

And that is exactly what happened on this hot and humid summer morning as I watched that man walk up the street and knock on doors finding "no one home".

But I was reminded by my husband of another time when another black man came to the door selling his wares on another hot and humid summer day and even though I didn't buy what he was trying to sell, I did offer him a cold bottle of water and I gave him a cold cloth to wipe his brow.

Some would say that its my white privilege showing.

I prefer to think its my kind heart.

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