Guilt Deflates, but Responsibility Empowers
Yesterday’s white nationalist rally in Washington, DC, showed these deplorable supremacists as far fewer and weaker than they’d promised. That’s a positive development, but only a small one on the much deeper and longer journey to confront racism and establish social justice in our country and our communities. Rev. Dr. Cari Jackson, RCRC’s Executive for Religious Leadership and Advocacy, suggests a starting point for white people — avoid getting mired in guilt and instead focus on taking personal responsibility for change. She explains her ideas in this interview with RCRC’s communications director, Mollie Katz.
Q: How do you define the difference between guilt and responsibility?
A: The distinction for me between guilt and responsibility is whose action it was and when the action was taken. I often find that people are feeling guilt about things their ancestors have done in the past. We cannot undo that. Guilt doesn’t break down racial barriers. To do that requires taking responsibility for our own actions in this current moment and the way it may influence the future.
Responsibility means “I accept that I’m called to do my part.” That requires having a clear assessment of the situation. For example, a white person should acknowledge “I don’t really know what it’s like to be a person of color.” You need to really listen to the voices of people of color speaking about their experiences. And you need to not minimize those experiences or see them as caricatures to make yourself more comfortable.
Q: What else can people do to take responsibility for racial injustice?
A: Responsibility requires us to look within and ask, “God, family, friends, are there any ways in which I am unconsciously using my privilege that is on the backs of someone else?” Responsibility requires living with intentionality in a culture in which many of us have been lulled into automatic pilot. Responsibility requires us to ask what’s the one thing we each feel called to address so we don’t get overwhelmed by the plethora of issues.
Responsibility requires you understand what it feels like to deal with the risks of being a person of color whose skin color does not allow anything but taking risks.
It requires risk-taking with people who are in your own religion, race or class group and those who aren’t and to delve into experiences of our shared humanity.
Q: What kind of feelings can help us to take responsibility?
A: What keeps me going is I see everyone as my family. Just as in a family, there are people who hurt you, but you still love them. You relate to them differently, but you still love them. When we are motivated by fear, we can only move so far, but love sustains us. While guilt can leave us feeling overwhelmed and deflated, responsibility uplifts and empowers us to accomplish more than we could imagine.