Tim Wise On Guilt Vs Responsibility

Wise made a speech in Detroit on October 6th.  The following clip is in response to a question from the audience.


As a White male, should I feel guilty for the sins of my fathers? I affirm that they exist but should I feel guilty for them? No.  You should feel angry and you should feel committed to doing something to address that legacy.  It’s like with for instance with pollution right, we think about the issue of pollution right — now none of us in this room to my knowledge are individually responsible for having belched any toxic waste into the air, or injected toxic waste into the soil, or done any of the thing — you know we don’t put led paint into the housing. Individually we are innocent of that but someone did that stuff and we’re living with the legacy of that right now or as the case may be dying with the legacy of it — getting ill.  So it isn’t about feeling guilty about someone did, even if you were like the direct heir of the chemical company that did the pollution but it is about saying that all of us in this society have to take responsibility for what we find in front of us.  There’s a big difference between guilt and responsibility.  Guilt is what you feel for what you’ve done, responsibility is what you take because of the kind of person that you are right.  So if I  see a set of social conditions that have been handed to me and which not only did wrong by others but elevated me and give me advantage that I did not earn — it isn’t about beating myself up.  I am not responsible for that having happened.  I am not to blame for it, so guilt is totally unproductive but in order to live live an ethically life, it seems to me, to live ethically and responsibly, I have to take some responsibility for the unearned advantage, which means working to change the society that bestows that advantage.  Not guilt but it is responsibility.  It’s no different than someone looking at the issue of pollution, or if you became the CFO company, you wouldn’t be able to come in and say, “Well I intend to use the assets of this company and I intend to put them to greater use and I intend to use the revenue stream that we’ve got going but that whole debt side of the ledger, no I’m not paying any of that because I wasn’t here when the other person ran all of that debt up. You should have gotten them to pay it before you gave me the job.  Now I’m here and I’m innocent.”  We would realize that, that made no sense.  So, it isn’t about innocence, it isn’t about guilt; it’s about responsibilities we all have to take.  White folks have to take it, people of colour have to take it, men and women have to take it, everybody has to take it because we’re living with that.  If we don’t do it, then it doesn’t get done.  We’re the only hope we have.  

 Isn’t that nice?  No guilt, only responsibility.  I think the problem with this little speech is that from the moment that White people are born, they do take advantage of every single ounce of privilege that is bestowed upon them.  They don’t have to feel guilty about slavery, or Jim Crow, but they should sure as hell feel guilty for the perpetuation of Whiteness.  Tim may have gone to multicultural daycare, but his Whiteness made that an option, rather than a necessity.  When he was streamed into university courses and the teachers worked hard to ensure that Blacks were not, he didn’t feel the need to question.  He was allowed to remain a child for longer than any child of colour, because Whiteness was his shield. Even as Tim was standing there making his little anti-racist feel good speech, he was taking advantage of his privilege.  How many people of colour are given the opportunity to speak candidly about race, though they are the most well educated to do so based simply in lived experience?  Tim Wise, would not be who he is today, were it not for Whiteness and his continued acceptance and perpetuation of his privilege.

To me, his entire response was designed specifically to evade the issue of the ways in which Whiteness benefits from birth due to its privilege.  The issue isn’t slavery or Jim Crow; the issue in the here and now, is that Whiteness ought to feel guilty for everything that it continues to do to people of colour.  Whiteness ought to feel shame that little Black children are dying, even as their babies go to designer pre-schools intended to set them up for a lifetime success.  Saying that it isn’t my fault that these conditions exist, ignores the fact that every step along the way, that Wise benefited and continues to benefit from his White skin. 

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One comment on “Tim Wise On Guilt Vs Responsibility
  1. Michael Paul Goldenberg says:

    That might be the single most narrow-minded, ignorant comment on Tim Wise’s answer imaginable. I’m not sure if it’s possible to miss the point and turn it into something it wasn’t more thoroughly than you’ve done here. I was lucky to be sitting a few seats from the college kid who asked that question. I thought that Wise’s answer was remarkable.

    Anyone who would have responded to the question the way you seem to think needed to happen would have been only serving the interests of his/her own rage. I’m not sure how doing so would have helped or enlightened anyone else, and I include in that the many, many people of color in attendance.

    The whole talk is available online. You should listen. You might learn something.