Why White Guilt is wrong and harmful.
September 17, 2001 11:52 AM   Subscribe

Why White Guilt is wrong and harmful. (Written by Shelby Steele.)
posted by Steven Den Beste (37 comments total)
That's a real gem, Den Beste. Thanks for pointing it out.

More on the same topic here.
posted by dagny at 11:56 AM on September 17, 2001

A bit disturbing how they keep saying "whites" when they mean "wetern culture".
posted by phatboy at 12:04 PM on September 17, 2001

I think that the writer's logic is flawed. Its trueness in other contexts is debateable. But in the context of Tuesday's attacks, it is definitely lacking. This article once again takes the discussion away from the true reasons and the political agenda behind Bin Laden's actions. If it is Bin Laden that is.

People with believes that they would recieve the highest rewards by sacrificing their lives do not care about having no history and surely this causes no shame.

Secondly the "shame" theory does not hold because every possible civilization today, has its moments of glory. The west is just witnessing its high point. History tells us about the great Romans, and Greeks, and the Islamic era. Throughout history, there have been times when one nation, ideology or civilazation has achieved leaps and bounds above their counterparts. So, for every nation, there is a rich well of history and glory to pacify its thirst.

The real issues in Tuesday's attacks are more or less highly concentrated in the events of the last 50-60 years. Although one can always go back to the crusade era and find issues with it.

As members of humanity, and for the betterment of it, we should focus on the true reasons behind such attacks. These attacks are based on rage and anger caused by prior events of rage and anger. Lets discuss them and build solutions. Shame does not end in rage or anger. Shameful people hide in the dark corner of their rooms.

God Bless All
posted by adnanbwp at 12:13 PM on September 17, 2001

Phatboy, go look at Shelby Steele's photograph (second link). He chose his words very carefully.

Adnan, I disagree. This struggle started in the Renaissance.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 12:19 PM on September 17, 2001

adnan: every possible civilization today, has its moments of glory

You missed Steele's point. There is a reason a civilization has its moments of glory. It is because it embraces certain principles and ideas.

Observe, for instance, the Islamic world (which you mention). Writes Edwin A. Locke:
Islam came to govern the Arab world in the 10th century, when the leading Arab thinkers -- led by an influential "reverse Aquinas" -- explicitly repudiated the philosophy of Aristotle in favor of the mysticism of religion. Thanks in part to the Arabs, however, the works of Aristotle reached Europe through Spain and helped foster the Renaissance in the West. Thus, the West progressed toward a rational, secular society--while the Arab world stagnated and changed little over the next millenium".
posted by dagny at 12:19 PM on September 17, 2001

> A bit disturbing how they keep saying "whites" when
> they mean "wetern culture".

Learned it from all those folks who have claimed, so loudly and so long, that Western culture is synonymous with oppression by Dead White Males.
posted by jfuller at 12:20 PM on September 17, 2001

Don't Call Me White
posted by bk at 12:26 PM on September 17, 2001

I do love his cultural narrative that extends from the Greeks ar Romans through a "renaissance of reason", which curiously neglects to mention the sources that brought Aristotle and Ptolemy back to the west, and propelled the humanist revival of the 1500s into the scientific revolution of the 1600s. Having spent three months of my thesis reading Kircher, Kepler, della Porta, it's interesting to see that the re-assimilation of Arabic scholarship came from both Lutheran and Jesuit sources.

The great white advantage has been living inside history, adapting to its constant demands, nurturing the values and the habits of life that allow one to keep pace.

Utter space-filler. "Living inside history?" The string of abstractions is so attenuated as to be meaningless.

This doesn't just mean that Western moral authority is hostage to helping the Third World overcome inferiority. More importantly it means that Western culture is inherently sinful, that its superiority is a measure of its sinfulness.

No, it doesn't: he's imposing the straw-man argument of the fundamentalists. Moral authority involves making judgements on a case by case basis.
posted by holgate at 12:27 PM on September 17, 2001

I am sorry I don't understand what Dead White Males means. Please explain some one. Thanks in advance.
posted by adnanbwp at 12:27 PM on September 17, 2001


The race of the writer is unimportant (but interesting). It is a huge mistake to group all of the gains of western civ to a single race. What about black or asian americans? What about Japan (could be argued to be non-western, however the have adopted almost all of the ideals)? What about mexico?
posted by phatboy at 12:37 PM on September 17, 2001

if you were to ask me, i would prefer not to attach measured judgments to civilizations, be they western or eastern. for example, i could claim that western civilization is great, and provide many reasons for my support -- and yet someone could come up with a counter argument in favor of the east, or perhaps suggest that the west was built upon the backs of slaves and colonialism (and quite rightly, for it certainly was, even in roman and greek times).

the sad thing about civilization, i think, is that it is something to which we are all participants whether we like it or not. by that, i mean that when i go to europe, i am an 'American' -- someone who, for some, should be ridiculed for all of the failings of my country. that, in spite of the fact that i may agree with many or all of the points of view that those europeans may hold. that is also the reason why, i think, muslims in america as well as throughout the world are concerned with the terrorist attacks on the US that have occurred last week. too often, muslims are defined in the media as a civilization built upon their religion, as a people unified in spirit through ways that christians and jews alike do not, if not cannot, claim. and, whether you agree or fervently disagree with what bin laden has done, muslims face the prospect of violence: in the US, as the form of racism brought on by ignorant civilians; in Afghanistan, as the form of revenge brought upon by a deeply enraged, if not ignorant, government of the united states of america.

why can't we just be ourselves? maybe, in the accusing eyes of perception, such is not possible.
posted by moz at 1:01 PM on September 17, 2001

I think that "just being ourselves" is a great idea. Unfortunately, those who believe in "White Guilt" won't let us just be ourselves. We have to be white and we have to feel guilty because of it.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 1:05 PM on September 17, 2001

Wow. What a singularly inappropriate, innaccurate and incoherent essay.

To begin with, as holgate alludes to, big heaping bits of what we Steele smugly refers to as Western culture came from other sources. One of the largest sources was early Islamic culture, which was busy being a major center of artistic, scientific, and cultural progress when most of Europe had gone back to barbarism. (We do remember where the word algebra came from right? From the arabic al-jabr (the reunion of broken parts), specifically the treatise by Abu Ja'far Muhammad which is one of the foundations of mathematical thought? Right?)

Secondly, the naive view that contemporary Western economic and cultural supremacy is due to cultural 'Darwinism' but is somehow magically unconnected to colonialism and slavery is . . . ridiculous. And to then turn around and lecture the poor people of the world by telling them that really, it's all in their minds because they haven't adopted Western culture fast enough is to return to the sort of tautological empire-by-divine-right "We're on top because we deserve to be on top, and we deserve to be on top because we're on top" language of Victorian Britain.

Which, luckily, contemporary Westerm culture is mostly better than these days.

A better title: "Why Western Smug Self-Congratulation is Wrong and Harmful," with the text of the column being prime evidence.
posted by feckless at 1:06 PM on September 17, 2001

> I am sorry I don't understand what Dead White Males
> means. Please explain some one. Thanks in advance.

Try this.
posted by jfuller at 1:15 PM on September 17, 2001

As a Muslim American, I tend to differ with Steve. The whites do not have to feel guilty. They just do not. If it is any condolence, just review the comments coming from most Muslim countries. They have all codenmed the WTC attacks and announced their sympathies with the American Public. Not the American Government, but the American Public. Its the Government that people have issues with. Otherwise people around the world dont dislike the American public. They watch american movies, watch sports events and have heroes like Neil Armstrong and Martin Luther King.

The white men, well most of them, do not in my humble opinion have to be ashamed of being white. As long as they genuinley agree in heart and philosophy and ideology, that what happened in the past was wrong and shall not be repeated.

God Bless All
posted by adnanbwp at 1:16 PM on September 17, 2001

There is a reason a civilization has its moments of glory. It is because it embraces certain principles and ideas.

Or because history is written by the winners.
posted by rcade at 1:16 PM on September 17, 2001

Thanks, feckless, for pointing out what an incredibly badly written piece that is. Is anyone going to point out that one the greatest influences on Western culture, Christianity, comes from the Middle East? Yes, I am.
posted by Summer at 1:23 PM on September 17, 2001

The war of values that Shelby Steele advocates strikes me as a lousy idea for us westerners, for the simple reason that we have everything to lose and little to gain. We're already working with a mix of 95% arrogance to 5% guilt, and we're sitting relatively pretty. He seems to imply it would be beneficial for non-western societies; I think that choice should be up to them.

Also does he think such a war could actually be won, so that every human on the planet embraced his ideology? History would suggest otherwise. Empathy is a part of our capacity for self-preservation, cultural as well as personal, at least in my western view.
posted by liam at 1:24 PM on September 17, 2001

This is totally not the time or place for this discussion, but:

"Have to accept that no matter how hard they try they can never have breasts or a womb or produce children...in this specific sense boys/men are not creative and have to create other things outside themselves to compete with the potent symbol and actuality of women?s biological and emotional creativity."

What is the actuality of greater emotional creativity among women? Or, for starters, does the phrase "emotional creativity" have any meaning, and in what way is it related to the womb or breasts? I must be missing something extremely basic here...
posted by Ptrin at 1:48 PM on September 17, 2001

feckless, Summer, et al: Maybe I'm too optimistic, but I think that you're misinterpreting the point of the article.

Steele doesn't believe that Western culture came into it's own all by itself, or that it has been or always will be the epitome of All That Is Good. His point is that Western Culture is great right now, not because it was built on the evil and deliberate exploitation of other societies, but because it has adapted and changed with the times.

This is what I think he means when he says "The great white advantage has been living inside history, adapting to its constant demands, nurturing the values and the habits of life that allow one to keep pace." And again, "Western success is the result... of three millennia of cultural evolution (much of it enhanced by contributions from what today we call the Third World)"

In other words, much of our knowledge was based on "discoveries" from Islamic cultures... but while Europe built on that foundation to develop reason, individual rights, and the scientific process, many Islamic cultures insulated themselves from the rest of the world. By choosing to embrace isolation and mysticism, they stopped progressing. As a result, they lost the lead in the darwinian struggle for cultural dominance. But we needn't feel bad about that, he says; if they don't want to embrace the values (personal responsibility, individual rights, reason) that make for material success, that's their choice; but then we're not obligated to share the fruits of our culture with them.

I'm not quite confident enough in my history to know where I stand on all that, but I think that's what he's trying to say.
posted by gd779 at 2:00 PM on September 17, 2001

I'm not trying to be anti-american, but weren't the vast natural resources of America a huge part of the reason it became great? And a strong manufacturing industry?
posted by Summer at 2:08 PM on September 17, 2001

Social Darwinism? You can do better than that, Steven.

Of course you cannot change the color of your skin, but you can work to change the implications of that color. Do you deny the existence of systematic white privilege in the U.S.?
posted by sudama at 2:11 PM on September 17, 2001

gd779: Steele's trying to have his cake and eat it by arguing that there's a coherent "Western culture" that can be valorised as a discrete entity, and as a model of adaptability. It's a sleight-of-hand, because he defines the term "Western culture" in malleable enough terms for it to apply to whatever he chooses to label superior at a particular point in history.

It's retrospective historicism, old-style teleogenic Whig history: "all this and so much more converging to make the American and Western way of life successful in so many ways. " Or as rcade says, writing history as a winner.
posted by holgate at 2:22 PM on September 17, 2001

I agree with feckless totally. Steele's attribution of Western cultural dominance to its philosophy and ethics is naive and insulting. Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel makes a superlative case that the dominance of European culture is due primarily to environmental factors that permitted the rise of a sedentary farming culture that enabled people to live in groups that could then develop art, disease, politics, etc. Once the ball of exploration and colonialism got rolling around the 16th century, the superior technology and more virulent germs of the Westerners let them rule the day.

What really bothers me is Steele's (ironic) observation that "Western success is presumed to have come at the price of Third World inferiority." Um, well, yes it did, Mr. Steele. Spain's beautiful gold Renaissance altarpieces? Gold stolen from Mexico. England's 18th and 19th century dominance? Squeezed from the blood of countless Indians and other colonials. The ancient Greeks? Slaveowners and exploiters. It would be impossible to make a case for Western civilization to have developed to the degree it has without the luxury of slave and underpaid laborers to support it and the resources plundered from around the world.

Finally, this whole discussion is at bottom about money. Steele asserts that "American civil rights organizations almost entirely live off white corporate and foundation money despite their total ineffectiveness in solving black problems." Really? Total ineffectiveness? Hey, blacks don't have to drink out of colored drinking fountains anymore. I think that was pretty effective. There hasn't been a lynching here in my state for many decades. I think that's pretty cool too.

How can Steele and others like him assert that personal responsibility is the key to solving black problems when most poor public schools are filthy, understaffed disgraces, healthy food is hardly to be found in poor neighborhoods, and the only place many people have to take their kids when they are sick is the emergency room? Or assert that countries need to take responsibility for their own declines when (as in the case of Nicaragua) we've sent in the CIA to stir up rebellion and cause chaos?

I don't know about reparations. But I do know that in order for the bootstrap argument to work we have to make sure that ALL people in the United States start with the same level of care.
posted by jfwlucy at 2:26 PM on September 17, 2001

I'm not trying to be anti-american, but weren't the vast natural resources of America a huge part of the reason it became great? And a strong manufacturing industry?

Mainly no to the first, at least. Consider Russia, which has many more natural resources than we do. Then consider Japan, which has virtually no natural resources at all. Natural resources certainly contribute, but they are not the main part of economic strength.

Yes, a strong manufacturing industry helped form our economic strength. But why did we have a strong manufacturing industry? Steele argues that it's due to our values of personal responsibility, individual rights, etc.
posted by gd779 at 2:33 PM on September 17, 2001

gd779: Absolutely true - thanks. The USSR had more people and more natural resources than any nation (save China), and yet collapsed under the weight of totalitarianism/statism/communism. China, too, with so many people & immense natural resources, lags behind most of the modern world in many ways. The culprit, again, is statism (by any name). The US, on the other hand, flourished, as did other freedom-loving countries that hold liberty & free markets as ideals.
posted by davidmsc at 2:42 PM on September 17, 2001

adnanbwp, it would be really awesome if you (and other new members) would put an email address in your profile for offline contact. I've been wanting to write you several times to tell you how much I have appreciated your presence on Mefi in the last week, but have been unable to do so.
posted by fooljay at 2:52 PM on September 17, 2001

But why did we have a strong manufacturing industry? Steele argues that it's due to our values of personal responsibility, individual rights, etc.

Sure, if you throw in the effects of the division of labour, domestic stability after 1865, and the chance to avoid the mistakes of European industries and refine their inventions courtesy of a sympathetic patent regime. Ideals are useful, but assembly lines are more productive.
posted by holgate at 2:52 PM on September 17, 2001

Damn it, when will people and cultures enslaved in one form of another for hundreds of years just get over it. There is no racism today. Period. There is no exploitation of the Third World by the First World. Absolutely not. Believe us.

Sure, it happens to be extremely profitable for us if we can get people to believe us, but believe us anyway. Why would we lie? We in the "West" don't actually care about profits. We really care deeply about the human rights of every being, and that's what is really driving all our best efforts. From the chairman of Firestone tires down to the lowliest retail merchant gouging you for the price of an American flag, business and capitalism exist for the sake of human rights. Didn't you know that?

This fellow Steele means exactly what by "the West"? Is he talking about America? If so, let us gloss over the genocide of indigenous peoples all over this continent, from Columbus to Wounded Knee. Yeah, that was really a triumph of the "utterly decisive heritage of Western culture." The dead are pretty much "out of history" for sure. Let's only whisper about how the enslavement of millions solely to make more money for their Western hosts contributed to our "civilization". Keep it quiet.

And of course, as I already stated, there is no racism in America today, despite what you may hear of annoying health, economic, political, and educational statistics, bedsheet cowards, the spontaneous combustion of mosques and synagogues, and turban-wearing clerks gunned down to keep America "pure".

Oh, he's talking about "the West" as in Europe and America. Few people realize that when the flag was furled, the damage for hundreds of years of oppression was magically and instantaneously lifted. No long-term problems with the fabrics of whole societies torn apart. No economic destitution from lands raped of their natural resources. No interference in Third World politics designed to benefit "the West" at the expense of local peoples. No propping up the terror-wielding governments of Iran, Chile, El Salvador, South Vietnam (to name a few) for the sake of "the bottom line."

What's with these Third World countries? For the very grossest national product, they need to understand that enslaving a few dozen generations of people and nations, and terrorizing generations of citizens on behalf of a few right-wing dicators improves the "bottom line" dramatically. That's business acumen. That's what made America what it is today.

Oh. The Jewish people as metaphor for African Americans. The Jews suffered in the Holocaust and didn't need any help to get back on their feet...so why should these pesky former slaves of ours need any? Gosh, that is so true. We have a long and glorious history in this country of financing, arming, defending, and steadfastly supporting our former slaves, just like we do for our Israeli friends. Martin Luther King must have just forgotten to humbly thank America for its years of support. He really meant "I Have A Huge Air Force/Army/Military-Industrial Base/Homeland/Annual Foreign Aid/Generations of Politicians Kissing My Posterior To Get Elected/SCUD Base/Nuclear Weapons Arsenal" instead of his simple "I Have a Dream."

For Steele, the World Trace Centers were "emblems of demonstrable Western superiority." Yep. Concrete and steel and wall-to-wall carpeting and organizational charts, air conditioned Muzak-ed cubicles and lovingly-tended ledgers and by God "the bottom line" are what have made America what it is today. Not sharing and caring for all our brothers and sisters. Not the common welfare and the common good. Not firefighters rushing up stairs and digging out victims (hell, haven't we privatized emergency services and the post office YET?). The damned towers are the emblems.

Shelby Steele. What utter and complete drivel. What a fairytale of generalizations from the perennial nitwit darling of the bean-counting, racially-offensive right. Steele writes "After this, America and the West should unapologetically pursue their self-interest, let others take the lead in their development, and allow the greatness of Western civilization to speak for itself." By all means. Correct me if I'm wrong, but that definitely will mean more profit. Profit uber alles. That's where Steele lives. That's where much of America lives.

After learning to count, their learning and understanding stopped.
posted by fold_and_mutilate at 2:57 PM on September 17, 2001

How can Steele and others like him assert that personal responsibility is the key to solving black problems[?]

To find out, I recommend you read some of the work by John McWhorter, Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell, to name a few.

Examples: Let me quote Walter Williams (from the second linked column by him):
The victimization vision teaches young blacks they have no choice or control over their own lives. Success depends not on their own efforts, but on handouts, concessions and leg-ups given by white people. As a black person born in 1936, who's witnessed and experienced gross discrimination and seen the personal sacrifices made by both blacks and whites to create today's opportunities, I find the victimization vision not only offensive and racially demeaning, but a gross betrayal of the monumental bravery and sacrifice of those who came before us.
That's the spirit, indeed.
posted by dagny at 3:05 PM on September 17, 2001

fold: You do realize that Steele is an African American, don't you?
posted by gd779 at 3:21 PM on September 17, 2001

So, by the way, are the trio of McWhorter, Sowell and Williams.
posted by dagny at 3:29 PM on September 17, 2001

Do bear in mind, it is possible for black people to incorrectly evaluate the causes of some of the problems facing black people.

I agree that feeling guilty for being white won't help anything. On the other hand, it would be foolish to deny that being born black in America does tend to bring with it certain disadvantages. Not that these disadvantages cannot be overcome, but they should not have to be overcome, and I see nothing wrong with working to eliminate them. The articles dagny cited speak of one class of disadvantages that arises--and can be resolved--within the culture in which many black people are raised. There are other disadvantages that arise elsewhere. In particular, black people face prejudice from some white people. Since this is irrational and generally nasty, it should be stopped.

Making a fetish of western culture won't help anything either. Certain very good ideas have been very strongly developed in the west. In particular, reasoning as a way to discover the truth, and freedom and democracy as a social order, were both powerful notions among the ancient Greeks, and were reinvigorated in Europe during the Renaissance. They have also been developed independently of this culture, and this culture has also been the source of some extremely foul ideas. It is the good ideas that should be cherished and improved, not the incidental details of a society in which they happened to arise.

As for multiculturalism, there have been many silly things said of it. It is a popular topic among academics, and academics can often be quite silly. On the other hand, it seems obviously good to attempt to understand and respect someone regardless of what culture he comes from. And, as a more trivial benefit of multiculturalism, it really is quite pleasant to be able to get Indian, Thai, Chinese, or even middle-eastern food here in California, and this would not be possible in an environment of absolute cultural purity.
posted by moss at 4:26 PM on September 17, 2001

would it make any difference if he was of native indian descent? or a scientologist? whatever.

fold has it, but cannot disagree with dagny in that blame and shame have a part to play but recriminations cannot go on for ever.
posted by asok at 4:38 PM on September 17, 2001

Do bear in mind, it is possible for black people to incorrectly evaluate the causes of some of the problems facing black people.

Of course it is. While I can't speak for dagny, my comment was directed specifically at fold; some of his comments (the analogy about Jews springs to mind for me) seemed to border on accusing Steele of racism.

And thank you, moss. I've been struggling to articulate my thoughts on this; I think you hit the high points nicely.
posted by gd779 at 4:54 PM on September 17, 2001

recriminations cannot go on for ever.

No, only as long as the injustice continues.
posted by sudama at 8:36 AM on September 18, 2001

Which wholly depends on your definition of "injustice"...
posted by fooljay at 6:39 PM on September 18, 2001

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