White Guilt: How to move into responsibility for white child welfare workers

by Jana Vinsky, MSW, RSW, Social Worker, Psychotherapist

In reading current social work literature, it is clear that the Ontario child welfare system is recognized as systemically racist. There is a lot of discussion regarding the system’s gross over-representation of Indigenous and African Canadian people. The literature also points to the reality that it is white people who continue to constitute the majority of child welfare workers in Ontario (Anti-Black Racism, Bio-Power, and Governmentality: Deconstructing the Suffering of Black Families Involved with Child Welfare, 2018).

Although academics note the larger structures and processes of whiteness producing the racism, white people continue to enter white, personalized guilt, when such topics are raised.

What is white guilt? White guilt is the guilt those of us who are white often feel and express when we first learn that we perpetuate racism and benefit from unearned white privilege. We might feel guilty that we or our ancestors caused harm. We might question what this means about us personally in terms of our goodness, and how much responsibility we need to take individually. White guilt is particularly strong for those of us who think we have been doing good, especially in terms of helping children.

White guilt can take various forms. For those of us who are white, we each engage differently with guilt based on our individual life experiences and our specific backgrounds.  For myself, my great grandparents and grandparents were involved with the fur trade in Thunder Bay. When I first began learning about colonization I felt guilty that it was my actual family benefitting from such oppressive relations. In my own life, I felt guilty that my daily life was so easy compared to my Black friends. Witnessing the struggles my friends faced, compared to the effortless living granted to me simply for being white, had me feel guilty and confused about how to take individual responsibility for my unearned privilege.

White guilt often becomes a problem for racialized people when we white people get stuck and mired in this guilt. When we are confronted on racism, and our responsibility to stop racism, we often feel and express the guilt that surfaces within us. The impact is often frustration and pain for racialized people because we turn the focus back on ourselves and our guilt, rather than the racism, and we leave people having to take care of us in this guilt. This guilt is one component of what Robin DiAngelo discusses as white fragility, which she says often functions to prohibit addressing racism, thus sustaining the status quo. See Robin DiAngelo for more on such functionality here.

When I first began to learn about racism, and hence my white privilege, I felt a lot of guilt and would share this with my racialized friends. I was told to get over it because “it’s unhelpful”. Like many other things in my life, just trying to “get over it” didn’t work. I learned to stay quiet about my guilt and felt guilty for feeling guilty.

I also learned it could be aggravating and offensive for racialized people to hear about white guilt, especially when having to watch these same white people continue to cause harm. I realized that the responsibility for my feelings and unlearning did not rest with racialized people to answer or solve.

My journey of letting go of white guilt, and moving into responsibility, was done with the support of Black women who were my friends, as they helped me sort out the systemic nature of oppression and helped me move beyond an individualized understanding of racism.

It’s unfortunate these women had to do such racial labour, and I deeply appreciate their generosity. However, this work needs to be done between white people. I think “white guilt work”, unfortunately, is necessary because many white people get stuck in this guilt, which can lead to defensive immobilization on issues of race, or the opposite, an over-mobilization on issues of race, which often gets expressed as thoughtless rescuing, low expectations and coddling. If our work comes from a place of assuaging our white guilt, then it continues to be about us (white people’s needs), rather than a genuine contribution.

Addressing white guilt in child welfare is essential to good practice. I know this because I continue to have many private conversations with white people in child welfare, and what gets said in public spaces is very different from how we talk with one another in private. Often there are two conversations amongst white people about race in child welfare – one private, one public. The two are quite distinct. In public we might present as if we agree, understand, and are coming along in our learning but behind closed doors discussions include struggles in understanding, feeling blamed and guilty for being white and an admission of choosing silence, shutting down and withdrawing from discussions on race in fear of being labelled as bad (For more discussion on types of reactions of white people learning about racism see The elephant in the room: Addressing racial anxiety of white social workers in child welfare).

I have worked for years with white child welfare workers. It is my practice wisdom that white guilt remains a central barrier to addressing issues of race in child welfare. This guilt often stops white workers from receiving feedback and reviewing their practice in authentic ways, which stops an openness required for professional growth and responsibility. This harms children, youth, families and communities and as racism continues to go unchallenged, our work continues to be substandard, which is not what any of us want.

As I mentioned, my white guilt dissipated as I recognized the systemic nature of racism and when I moved beyond understanding racism as something done by bad people. For more on this understanding check out Robin DiAngelo’s work: (here and here).

Each white child welfare worker must come to a place where they can acknowledge racism, from a structural, individual and professional lens and then see what capacity we have or need, to work towards its end; as it is a necessary function for our everyday social work practice.

Beyond growing a systemic understanding of racism, I began to use my psychotherapy knowledge to work with this guilt. As narrative therapy is my foundation I was able to externalize guilt and break it down into many aspects rather than one large taken-for-granted narrative called Guilt. It had me get curious about “the Guilt.”

Taking a step back I began to notice the operations of the Guilt within me. I also wondered if there were any positive messages attached, and if any aspect of the Guilt could be used for good? I questioned: do all aspects of the Guilt have to be banished? Which aspects can I simply witness? Which ones can I befriend? Which ones must I fight? Are there any aspects that can grow me in a helpful direction?

I think a textured and multiple view of guilt can lead us white people into a more complex and fruitful process of taking racial responsibility. In my coaching with many white child welfare workers, I have found some aspects of guilt to be helpful in the beginning stages of learning about race. A heightening of one’s conscience and an invitation into responsibility, due to guilt, can lead to remorse, a commitment to make reparations, and a desire to learn.

Fundamentally the goal of white guilt work should be to get over one’s self, rather than to get over the guilt. It’s when we as white people continue the focus on ourselves and how we feel at the expense of acknowledging and addressing the harm we are doing, that the work of addressing racism gets thwarted. We can move into responsibility when we recognize how guilt can operate to keep whiteness and white people’s needs central and superior, acting to maintain a distraction from our perpetration of racial violence. For this reason, we need to stop and pause when guilt visits us. We need to ask what action or inaction the guilt is inviting us into. We need to then ask what the best course of action is to address racism. From there, we can live out our commitment to doing good social work practice.

How white people can address the white guilt:

  1. Notice when guilt is present
  2. Do not react from the guilt. Get curious about it – what is it asking of you?
  3. Normalize the guilt – know it is a common response for those learning about privilege
  4. Know the guilt is fleeting – the feeling will pass and will probably dissipate over time
  5. Find other white people to help you understand and work through the guilt
  6. Ensure your actions are not from guilt; address racism because it is the right thing to do and essential to good social work practice
  7. Come to terms with  the fact that you are not innocent and that our “helping” is not always simply “good” but often contradictory, i.e. both helpful and harmful
  8. Use critical reflection in your everyday work; reflect on the systems you work within, don’t take things so personally, while taking personal responsibility
  9. “Don’t lose your privilege, use your privilege” – see how you can be helpful as a white person in addressing racism
  10. Become feedback friendly – be able to take feedback on racism any way it comes to you. Don’t focus on “how it was said” and the skillfulness of the person giving the feedback. This is often a defense response of a fragility that requires so much care that stops people from bothering to give feedback.