Perceiving White People: Part 1

South Africa is a diverse nation. Part of the diversity includes white people like me. If you are going to effectively witness and preach to this people group it is incumbent upon you to understand them. What their idols are and what motivates that; what drives them to worship, and what they worship

There are two key features that I would like to highlight, but for today I will look specifically at ‘guilt’.

While I believe that guilt is a universal problem concerning all races and cultures, there is a very special guilt that white people bare and it drives them to one of two poles.  The special guilt I am referring to is a consequence of the horrors in history that have been  whiteguiltinflicted by  (though not exclusively) white people groups: the crusades, the western slave trade (as opposed to Arabic or African slave trade), colonisation, systemic socio-political racism, apartheid. This is not an in-depth look at the topic of white guilt, but a surface touch on the issue to get you thinking. There seems to be two key ways this corporate historic guilt is dealt with…

  1. The Conservative approach

The first way is not very popular at the moment; it involves trying to rewrite the damages done in the past in the most positive ways possible. The argument always follows a sort of, “Yes we did that, but look at this good that came out of it” sort of line. While this conservative approach does highlight some unpopular points that you could do well to take note of, it doesn’t actually deal with the guilt. If you had to narrow it down, their argument would sound like this, “Yes I know I raped 20 women, but I gave half of those women children that will look after them in their older years, plus I improved their standard of living by taking them to a fancy hotel. – I acknowledge that it probably wasn’t the best thing to do”. Crude but true.

The conservative approach mistakenly thinks that if you acknowledge you are bad, and can also see enough good in what you do then you are okay. You are absolved. The good scale outweighs the bad scale. But this approach fails to see the true evilness of evil. They are applying on a large scale a standard they would not apply in a criminal court.

  1. The Liberal Approach

On the other hand, the far more popular view due to its apparent virtue, is the ‘liberal’ approach to white guilt . This approach can be summed up well in the words of French philosopher Pascal Bruckner “Nothing is more western than hatred of the west[i]“. This hatred manifests itself in many ways. One is religion: as one author, Christian Lander puts it, “White people will often say they are ‘spiritual’ but not religious. This means that they will believe in any religion that doesn’t involve Jesus[ii]”. Because Christianity has in some form been dominant in the West in recent history, this generation closely associates it with the violence and sin of the previous generations; so in order to somehow get away from the guilt, they throw out anything associated with it. Perhaps one could say that if white people do accept some version of Christianity it has a Jesus who basically only said the same stuff as Ghandi. Another way to express separation of one’s self from the west is through choices of friends. Lander generalises but hits the nail on the head when he writes, “… White people love having black friends. They serve many valuable functions. The most important role…. Is that they can be used as physical evidence that white people are not racist[iii]“.  Or consider a third option in recreation. Even though yoga started in India, it is now a main past time of many rich whites. Lander continues, “…Yoga feels exotic and foreign. …deep down, white people feel that their participation makes up for years of colonial rule in India.[iv]” Through these somewhat caricatured and satirical images a bigger picture begins to emerge.

imagesWhat constitutes something as good? For example, what is a good movie? Any movie so long as Eastern, African or  anything but western wisdom  is seen as profound and deep; where the native of a foreign land nobly sacrifices him/herself in defiance of the corporate destructive western machine. The only good whites are the ones that immerse themselves in the native culture and abandon their own culture (Avatar? Dancing with Wolves? Pocahontas? The Last Samurai?).

Che Guevara (though he would have killed the majority of whites who wear his shirt) was ‘cool’. Though essentially he was as tolerant of other cultures and nationalities as Hitler, but fortunately less successful in slaughtering large groups of people. He was not white, so he must be right.

Here in South Africa this is demonstrated in much the same way, but with the comparatively recent apartheid regime fresh in people’s minds. However, Steve Biko the anti-apartheid activist, pointed out that the liberal approach to dealing with white guilt just ‘provides vague satisfaction for the guilty-stricken whites.[v]

In fact I am rather sure that much of what is being said in the emergent church movement regarding hell, and the exclusivity of Christ, can be traced back to a motivation  of white guilt (after all, for all their talk of diversity, the emergent ‘leaders’ and movers/shakers are streaming out of one little niche demographic i.e. White, middle to upper-class, current/ex/transitory techno-nerd.) This guilt manifests itself, because the ideas of hell and the exclusivity of Christ has an exterior that looks just as intolerant and arrogant as the way whites have behaved in much of their destructive patterns in the world. I say exterior, because I believe it is only a very superficial understanding of the Christian gospel that leads to this view.

Without going into a full diatribe and investigation on the liberal approach to dealing with guilt, you can see something of it. Here the approach to dealing with guilt is to again, perform some good works; look at how tolerant I have become; look at how accepting I am. These good works necessarily lead to ‘a new kind of arrogance’, “thank you God that I am not like those Pharisees over there; I am so loving. They are so judgemental and bigoted”.

The aim is also selfish. If we do something because it is the cool/in/popular/tolerant/conscience appeasing thing to do we are still living a self-centred life. You are living with yourself as the centre of the universe, with your culture as the centre of the universe. Everything from global warming to an ethnic uprising in Central Africa is ‘white fault’. And the more we bathe in the blame, the more we place our ethnic group in the centre of the world. Everything happens or occurs because of our group. Not only are we the soul arbiters of evil, but we think pointing it out and creating awareness’ absolves us of the wrong that’s been done[vi].

The problem with both approaches is that they are motivated by guilt in the first place. We try  to do some good things, but with the wrong motivation. We create idols to appease our guilt; we serve tolerance, freedom, and individuality blindly. Or we are a slave to nationalism, tradition and morality.

How can I love the good in my own culture without feeling bad and yet still rejoice in the image of God in another culture? How can I acknowledge the guilt of my forbears and yet still see that this doesn’t let others off the hook for the wrongs they commit? How can I in a balanced way call out the sins of the west and rejoice in the goods that it has done without trying to justify the wrongs it has done?  Or lets be real for a  moment, How can I talk to a black person or any other race that is not mine, befriend him/her and take an interest in their culture, without feeling superior to those whites who don’t take the time to do it, without being filled with pride at my “enlightened and progressive” way of thinking?

The answer must be to see that this collective guilt is actually just a manifestation of an actual guilt that all humans feel to some degree for having broken God’s law. We are an unclean people in the midst of an unclean world. In all our strivings, even those that are goodsoldiercross we merely plunge ourselves deeper into pride and selfishness. Its only when you realise that Christ was oppressed by the mighty, that he was downtrodden by the influential, and that he cried out to the Father, “Forgive them for they know not what they do” and that very night the same Roman soldier who plunged the killing spear of oppression and organised systemic oppression into Christ’s side, was saved and forgiven. He was never the same again.

Now when the Roman Soldier, who not only comes from a people group who had been oppressive, but was one of the agents of that oppression, saw someone from the subjugated ethnic group, he would not take money from him by force or accuse that person falsely (as John the Baptist commands repentant soldiers). This is because he did cling to his ‘guilt’ of having been an oppressor. Instead he saw in the oppressed the image of the God who gave him life. He realizes that he as an individual is far more evil in his heart than he ever dared believe, but far more loved than he ever dared imagine. He loves for loves sake, because he has been shown love.


[i] The Tyranny of Guilt. Pg 33

[ii] Stuff White People Like. Pg 4

[iii] ibid, pg 15

[iv] Ibid pg 17

[v] I Write What I like. Pg 23

[vi] Stuff White People Like. Pg 21

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