What to do with your white guilt when you want to dismantle white supremacy

Eight people, six of whom were Asian American women (Soon C. Park, Suncha Kim, Yong A. Yue, Hyun Jeong Park Grant, Paul Andre Michels, Xiaojie Tan, Daoyou Feng, and Delaina Ashley Yaun) were murdered this week by the hands of a white terrorist.


(image from @therealphilliplim)

It was evil, racist, sexist, and another one of the 3800+ hate crimes committed towards the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community this year alone. The murder itself and the dialogue from authorities that ensued soon after, contribute to a much larger narrative that says whiteness determines whose life is dignified, whose story is centered, and who gets to live.

In response, Asian American Christian leaders are urging faith leaders (and specifically white leaders) to “step in” and to own our history and participation in shaping the theology and culture that leads to racial and sexual violence. They are calling us into resilience: to “not allow paralysis from blame and shame to prevent us from inaction, and to not grow weary in well doing” (paraphrased from Vivian Mabuni and Dr. Jeff Liou in Christianity Today).

So how do we, as white people, own our collective and individual sin while also not letting shame and guilt weary us in doing what is right? What do we do with our white guilt?

The answer is rather simple. We have to feel it. Just like any other emotion — anger, sadness, joy — guilt it is there to teach us something. And the best thing we can do with the guilt is to welcome it. And to listen.

I am taking a class right now on BioSpiritual Focusing (taught by lovely Irish Jesuits), and in my last class we talked about the psychological term, “process skipping.” The idea is that, with any emotion, rather than going all the way through the process of feeling the emotion, down into our bodies, we skip over the process with quick fixes, cheating ourselves from experiencing wholeness.

My version of process skipping when I feel white guilt, is being an inclusive, responsible, communicator (my top 3 strengths). I text all my friends and ask if they are ok. I write blogs and sermons. I post on Instagram. When I do these things, there is a temporary relief from the guilt. Even though it is great to use my strengths, I deceive myself in thinking “I’ve done my part. I don’t have to feel bad anymore.”

There are many ways we, as white people, process skip. We say “Jesus has forgiven me so I’m good…right?” Or we look to a Person of Color to validate that we are “woke.” Or, worse, we dismiss stories of suffering and re-write them so we feel better about ourselves.

We will never be whole until we stop trying to get rid of our guilt and start listening to it. Underneath the emotion of guilt is a deeper story within us that deserves attention. There is a story of our collective history and our relationship to power and privilege. Perhaps there is a narrative we have internalized about our lack of worthiness, our terror in receiving correction, or our desperate need for approval.

Ignoring the guilt will not make the story go away. It is only when we stop long enough to hear that deeper story within us, that our whole selves can come to Jesus. It is from this acknowledgement of emotion, and of our whole story, where repentance and healing are birthed.

And as we do the work of bringing our whole selves to Jesus, we are freed up to bring our whole selves to our Asian American siblings (and to Black, Indigenous, People of Color), without getting stuck in our own emotional paralysis.

Questions for Reflection:

What is your default way of responding to guilt or shame? Where do you carry it in your body? How do you need to recognize it and allow it to speak to you? How do you sense Jesus’ care for you as you hold those emotions?

What are your strengths? How can you bring your whole self to your Asian American friends and family right now? (not out of a need to feel better about yourself, but out of a shared desire for Jesus’ thriving wholeness?) Here are a few invitations to start:

  1. Watch the PBS documentary “Asian Americans” and learn more history.
  2. Learn the stories and names of the people who died this week. Consider contributing to the families left behind.
  3. Support an InterVarsity Asian American woman minister. (I know many I can connect you to!) They are working overtime right now ministering to so many people. Invest in their long term thriving in ministry.
  4. If you hear racist or sexist language or jokes, or bad theology, say something!

Published by K.Aalseth

Kelly J. Aalseth is the Coordinator for Leadership Development for InterVarsity in Greater Los Angeles. She is an author, coach, preacher, and trainer.

3 thoughts on “What to do with your white guilt when you want to dismantle white supremacy

  1. This was a very interesting article. I liked how it was written from a Christian stand point of view, as I am a Christian. However, I cannot say I agreed with everything in it. I certainly don’t condone or support violence or any other type of negative actions toward Asians, Blacks, People of Color, or anybody who is different. On the other hand though, despite the fact that I am White, I don’t think that I should feel any guilt or shame for actions that I did not commit. I accept the fact that many people of my race have committed horrible crimes against people on the basis of hate, however, I did not commit any of those crimes. Tying all of the crimes committed by a number of White people (I am aware the number is high) to the entire White race, would be the same as saying that all Muslims share part of the blame for the 9/11 attacks. That being said I totally see where your coming from, while I may not feel guilt or shame over such things, that doesn’t mean other people wont, and I think this article will be useful to others.

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    1. Hi Alexander,

      Thanks for your reply on my post. I think what you expressed is something a lot of white people feel, and something that is really important for us to talk about, especially as Christians. Here are a few additional thoughts:

      1) In Nehemiah 1, Nehemiah gets news that his people are suffering because the wall of Jerusalem has been broken down. Nehemiah is living a life of much more privilege than his people as he serves as cupbearer to the king. But his response to this news is to mourn, fast, and repent. He says “I confess the sins of the people of Israel, which we have committed against you. Both I and my family have sinned.” As white people, the idea of confessing the sin of our family or ancestors doesn’t make a lot of sense. But it’s very Biblical. We can learn from more communal cultures about what it means to identify with our people, to celebrate what is beautiful and to mourn what is broken. Taking time to lament and grieve is a first step in healing.

      2) What I hear from my BIPOC friends, and what I read in Scripture, is the call to repentance. Repentance is not just confession, though that is a start. It is actively turning around and doing the opposite. Individually, we may never do awful racist things, but if we aren’t actively working against systemic injustice then we are still contributing to the racism. True repentance means to own our sins of omission and to follow Jesus’ invitation to do what is right, seeking justice for the stranger, hungry, prisoner, etc (Matthew 25), for those are the people with whom Jesus identifies himself.

      3) In general, as white people, we often avoid this call to repentance. For some of us, that avoidance comes by feeling so guilty we become inactive (this is the type of person I was writing my post to). We go through a cycle of feeling guilty and then defensive, and never actually move through that guilt, and we end up hurting our BIPOC friends even more by our inaction. For others of us, we avoid by not owning the collective sin at all. We say, well that’s not my problem, and then we do nothing as well. In either scenario, we contribute to the suffering of the collective community, and are still not obeying God’s commands to love our neighbor.

      Happy to keep talking. I know I do not know you or your particular situation or things you’ve been thinking about, but those are some additional thoughts for now.

      Like

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