Created By: hbi2k on October 18, 2013 Last Edited By: hbi2k on March 4, 2014
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White Guilt

A character from a historically-privileged group feels uncomfortable or guilty about their status.

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This trope is when a character from a currently or historically privileged race, class, religion or other group feels very guilty about their (real or perceived) position of privilege. They will be made very uncomfortable when dealing with characters from less-privileged groups. They live in fear of being Mistaken for Racist, but their every attempt to prove that they aren't will be chock full of Unfortunate Implications, and they'll just wind up digging themselves deeper. May manifest as Positive Discrimination toward people of less-privileged groups.

May result from Political Correctness Gone Mad or Everything Is Racist, or be a self-inflicted form of it. Can overlap with Innocent Bigot when the character is accused of bigotry and doesn't quite understand why, or Boomerang Bigot when the "guilty" party lets their guilt lead them to treat members of their own group unfairly. Can overlap with White Man's Burden if the character attempts to help the poor underprivileged minority. Expect to hear cries of "Some of My Best Friends Are X!" Some characters may even seek out a Black Best Friend for this exact purpose, which of course has Unfortunate Implications of its own.

Compare Sins of Our Fathers, where punishment is externally imposed whether or not the punished feels any guilt or responsibility for their ancestors' actions, and Must Make Amends and The Atoner, where a character is driven to make amends for their own crimes rather than the crimes of their race, class, or social group. Compare and contrast Intolerable Tolerance, where someone from an "underprivileged" group demands special treatment beyond what is reasonable. A specific variant of Cultural Cringe.

As there is a fine line between a normal level of sensitivity to those of other backgrounds and this trope, please limit real-life examples to those in which the person self-identifies as experiencing White Guilt.


Examples:

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     Film 
  • The entire point of The Help, where Skeeter, a Southern Belle in The '60s who doesn't quite fit in, decides to write a book from the perspective of the serving black maids. The potential Unfortunate Implications of the (well-meaning) movie were fairly well explored by critics of pop culture around the time it was released.

     Live Action TV 
  • In one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Scoobies do a lot of hemming and hawwing about how to handle a Native American spirit bent on vengeance against the white man. On the one hand, he's hurting more-or-less-innocent people. On the OTHER hand, it IS true that his people were horribly oppressed.... It takes an epic "The Reason You Suck" Speech from Spike to goad them into decisive action.
  • Leslie Knope shows occasional signs of this on Parks and Recreation, especially when dealing with Ken Hotate, the leader of the local Wamapoke Indians.
  • Lampshaded in the Frasier episode "Dr. Mary''. Frasier hires an African-American call-screener who takes over his show by calling herself "Dr. Mary", spouting ghetto-psychology; but he's afraid to say anything because she's black and came from an underprivileged background. Eventually she gets her own show spouting more ghetto-psychology, but finds out about his guilt and tells him, "God bless your guilty white ass!"
  • Liz Lemon of 30 Rock has her fair share of this, as when she finds it difficult to break up with an annoying black boyfriend played by Wayne Brady for fear of being thought racist. She also admits that she voted for Obama primarily out of White Guilt. She mostly gets over it after a couple seasons of Tracy playing the Everything Is Racist card a few times too often, although characters like his wife Angie can still throw her off-balance by playing off of this trait.
  • In The Big Bang Theory episode The Raiders Minimization Sheldon tells Amy "I heard they were illegally squatting on Native American land. Personally, I think what we did to the Native Americans was wrong," hinting that he may experience some amount of this... insofar as Sheldon is capable of feeling guilt about anything.
  • In Community, after Jeff and Troy find out their new friend Joshua was a blatant racist, Jeff offers to buy Troy frozen yogurt as his white guilt was driving him nuts.
  • 3rd Rock from the Sun: Professor Dick Solomon, one of a group of aliens who is sent to Earth to study it, after making several comments regarding one of his African-American students that came out in a way he didn't intend, later studies on the histories regarding colonialism and imperialism. He is found revolted by the way humans have treated each other based on their skin color and utterly regrets the things he said earlier. In effect, he has White Guilt despite being "white" through happenstance rather than birth.

     Music 
  • This is the theme of the song "Guilty of Being White" by Minor Threat.

     Real Life 
  • Stephen King has admitted in interviews that his tendency to overuse the Magical Negro trope is likely due to his own White Guilt.

     Standup Comedy 
  • Louis C.K. has a standup bit where he extols how wonderful it is being a white male in a world that's basically run by (and for) white men. He admits that he's going to enjoy this while it lasts, because he figures karma is going to bite white men in the ass soon (and that they're going to deserve it when it does).

     Webcomics 
  • Bobwhite has a story arc where Cleo goes mad with political correctness and worries that, as the only privileged white person in her circle of friends, she may have unintentionally oppressed everyone she knows. She starts apologizing for this to everyone. Everyone just finds this annoying.

     Web Original 
  • Django Unchained causes "Django Guilt" according to College Humor; an amusingly short-lived wave of guilt among white people for the era where black people were subjected to slavery and death.
  • Yahtzee from Zero Punctuation mentions feeling this during his review of Condemned 2, which casts you as an upper-class person beating up the homeless, being "British, middle class, and whiter than a snowman with a bukkake fetish."
Community Feedback Replies: 38
  • October 18, 2013
    Paradisesnake
    Isn't this just White Mans Burden?
  • October 18, 2013
    hbi2k
    They're related, and there can be overlap, but I don't think the tropes are identical.

    • If a white character helps a black character out of a sense of guilt, it's both White Mans Burden and this trope.

    • If a white character helps a black character but never regards their respective races with a sense of guilt, it's got a White Mans Burden subtext but is not this trope.

    • If a white character tries to help a black character out of a sense of guilt but the black character replies that he can get by just fine on his own, thanks, and the white character goes home believing that he may have been inadvertently racist, it's this trope but not White Mans Burden (although arguably a subversion of White Mans Burden).
  • October 18, 2013
    Bisected8
    Compare Sins Of Our Fathers (which is essentially this trope for a direct ancestor rather than a group of ancestors) and Must Make Amends.
  • October 18, 2013
    DennisDunjinman
    Is this a subtrope of Intolerable Tolerance?
  • October 19, 2013
    DAN004
    It's about nobility rather than race, and I guess there's another trope for this... but I'll put it anyway
    • Sabo in One Piece comes from a noble family, but he preferred to live outside in the wild with his commoner friend Ace. Partly because he can't stand noble people oppressing those in the lower social status.
  • October 21, 2013
    hbi2k
    I haven't read that arc of One Piece in a bit, so refresh my memory: did Sabo feel guilty about his noble background or worried about offending his friends? Because otherwise I would think that would fit more under Defector From Decadence than this.

    As for Intolerable Tolerance, I don't think it's a subtrope, but it's definitely related. Intolerable Tolerance is when someone uses their "underprivileged" status as an excuse to demand special treatment or treat others poorly. White Guilt is when someone uses their "privileged" status to give special treatment to others or treat themselves or their own group poorly.
  • October 30, 2013
    DracMonster
    This would be a variant of Cultural Cringe.
  • November 6, 2013
    MetaFour
    Webcomics:
    • Bobwhite has a story arc where Cleo goes mad with political correctness and worries that, as the only privileged white person in her circle of friends, she may have unintentionally oppressed everyone she knows. She starts apologizing for this to everyone. Everyone just finds this annoying.
  • November 18, 2013
    KingZeal
    See also Sour Grapes, which are tropes that are meant to make the downtrodden feel more fortunate by saying being privileged sucks.

    (Also, I'm working on Underprivileged Privileges, which has a similar effect, except by saying that being underprivileged is, somehow, a source of power.
  • November 18, 2013
    TheHandle
    I like this trope. It should show up more often.
  • December 31, 2013
    PaulJohnson
    In Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, Newton Pulsifer is described as nervous around black people in case they blamed him for 200 years of slavery.

    In the Merchant Prince series by Charles Stross, at one point Miriam (who grew up in this universe) asks Brill (who grew up in a medieval parallel universe) if the destruction of her medieval culture by 21st century technology would be a problem for her. Brill responds with a rant about the privations of medieval life for women, and Miriam has to explain about white guilt.
  • December 31, 2013
    DAN004
    What about Bigot Guilt?
  • January 2, 2014
    hbi2k
    I don't think Bigot Guilt works. You don't have to be or have ever been a bigot yourself to experience White Guilt. The trope is about privilege, not bigotry.
  • January 13, 2014
    DAN004
    Oh okay... Superior Race Guilt?
  • January 14, 2014
    hbi2k
    That's problematic for a couple of reasons. It implies that the race actually is superior or at least that the character thinks it is. Also, the trope isn't necessarily about race; it could be privilege for any number of reasons (gender, sexual orientation, class, etc.).

    Not that "White Guilt" is any more exact in that sense, but it has the advantage of being a pre-existing term that most people know the meaning of.
  • January 14, 2014
    Larkmarn
  • January 14, 2014
    paycheckgurl
  • January 14, 2014
    CrypticMirror
    I suppose we could define the term, but it is such a heated subject that it ought to be example-less flamebait.
  • January 14, 2014
    Larkmarn
    ... what. That... makes no sense. This isn't even YMMV, let alone Flamebait. This trope isn't about claiming white guilt should exist, but just documenting examples of it being used. And it does see a fair amount of use.
  • January 14, 2014
    lakingsif
    • In The Big Bang Theory episode The Raiders Minimization Sheldon tells Amy "I heard they were illegally squatting on Native American land. Personally, I think what we did to the Native Americans was wrong."
    • The entire point of The Help, where Skeeter, a Southern Belle in The Sixties who doesn't quite fit in, decides to write a book from the perspective of the serving black maids.
  • January 14, 2014
    DAN004
    Privileged Guilt plz.

    Compare/contrast Mighty Whitey
  • January 17, 2014
    Larkmarn
    • In Community, after Jeff and Troy find out their new friend Joshua was a blatant racist, Jeff offers to buy Troy frozen yogurt as his white guilt was driving him nuts.
  • January 20, 2014
    Larkmarn
    • During Marvel Comics' Shadowland crossover, Misty Knight pulls a Bavarian Fire Drill to break into the medical examiner's office. First she claims her card isn't scanning, and when the man behind her asks if she really works there, she launches into a tirade about how he thinks a black woman can't have a medical degree and he thinks all black people look the same. After he caves, she snickers to herself about how white guilt is a useful tool.
  • January 21, 2014
    randomsurfer
    • This is a ploy Axel Foley uses in Beverly Hills Cop when he's trying to scam his way into a fancy hotel without a reservation:
      Foley: Don't you think I realize what's going on here, miss? Who do you think I am, huh? Don't you think I know that if I was some hotshot from out of town that pulled inside here and you guys made a reservation mistake, I'd be the first one to get a room and I'd be upstairs relaxing right now. But I'm not some hotshot from out of town, I'm a small reporter from "Rolling Stone" magazine that's in town to do an exclusive interview with Michael Jackson that's gonna be picked up by every major magazine in the country. I was gonna call the article "Michael Jackson Is Sitting On Top of the World," but now I think I might as well just call it "Michael Jackson Can Sit On Top of the World Just As Long As He Doesn't Sit in the Beverly Palm Hotel 'Cause There's No Niggers Allowed in There!"
      Manager: Excuse me sir, it seems we do have a last-minute cancellation. There is a room available. It's a suite, but I'll only charge you the single room rate.
  • January 21, 2014
    hbi2k
    On further reflection, I've deleted a couple examples that more properly fall under Intolerable Tolerance and/or Political Correctness Gone Mad and rewrote the Parks and Rec example to more clearly fit under this trope.

    I think the thing to remember here is that the White Guilt trope is about a "privileged" character who feels guilty, not about an "underprivileged" character who attempts to invoke guilt. The latter falls under other tropes.
  • January 21, 2014
    randomsurfer
    Well wouldn't it be Invoked then? Or Exploited?
  • January 21, 2014
    Larkmarn
    Way I see it, if they're intentionally shooting for it (and don't necessarily believe they're entitled to it), then it's an invoked example of this. If they legitimately believe they deserve it, then it's Intolerable Tolerance.

    For example:
    • Invoked White Guilt: "Hm, I bet I can get what I want by preying on this white guy's guilt, even if I don't believe it."
    • Intolerable Tolerance: "This white person owes me and I'm entitled to what I want."
  • January 22, 2014
    hbi2k
    ^ That makes a lot of sense, actually.

    The difficulty comes when we've got at least one character with vaguely-defined motivation. A lot of the time the trope is used as a one-off gag in which one or the other of the characters is only used for this one scene. In the Beverly Hills Cop example, for instance, we don't know for sure whether the hotel manager was actually experiencing White Guilt, or just giving Axel what he wanted to shut him up. And in other cases, when the viewpoint character is the one experiencing the White Guilt, it's hard to tell whether another character is cynically trying to invoke it or is sincere in their belief that they're entitled to special treatment (Intolerable Tolerance).

    To avoid too much overlap with Intolerable Tolerance, I think it is probably best if we limit examples to characters for whom White Guilt is either a recurring character trait or at the very least one that is central to at least one full episode or story.
  • January 22, 2014
    TheHandle
    Why not call this Privilege Guilt, to cover all the related stuff besides being White? Such as being Male, Rich, Upper-Class from an oppressively powerful nation, and so on. There's the Marxian concept of Class Suicide to designate the kind of guys who do the class version of Going Native, I suppose this could overlap. Bertrand Russel would be an example.
  • January 22, 2014
    DAN004
    Upping Privileged Guilt again.

    Would we count out real life examples or not?
  • January 23, 2014
    hbi2k
    Due to the Rule Of Cautious Editing Judgment, I would say that we should limit real-life examples to those in which the person self-identifies as experiencing white guilt, as in the Stephen King example. I'll add a note to that effect in the description.

    As far as the name goes, there are pros and cons to each, but I'm of the opinion that the benefits of using a pre-existing term already familiar to many site users outweigh the benefits of making up a new term that is slightly more exact. I'd be open to throwing it to a name crowner though.
  • February 18, 2014
    Larkmarn
    • Louis CK has a standup bit where he extolls how wonderful it is being a white male in a world that's basically run by (and for) white men. He admits that he's going to enjoy this while it lasts, because he figures karma is going to bite white men in the ass soon (and that they're going to deserve it when it does).
  • February 18, 2014
    FerrousFaucet
    This is the theme of the song "Guilty of Being White" by Minor Threat.
  • February 18, 2014
    nitrokitty
    • Yahtzee from Zero Punctuation mentions feeling this during his review of Condemned, being "British, middle class, and whiter than a snowman with a bukkake fetish."
  • February 18, 2014
    Larkmarn
    ^ For context, it was Condemned 2, and the issue was that Condemned had you play as an upper class guy beating up the homeless which was a bit awkward.
  • March 3, 2014
    BaffleBlend
    Web Original
  • March 3, 2014
    JesseMB27
    Live Action TV
  • March 3, 2014
    hbi2k
    ^^ That would be Intolerable Tolerance, not this trope.
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