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
(sometimes because the guilty person is concerned less about justice for the underprivileged and more about salvaging their own self-esteem
), 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.
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- Justified with Hob Gadling in The Sandman. In one issue he expresses tremendous guilt over slavery to his black girlfriend, who thinks he's being a knee-jerk politically correct white guy. What she doesn't know is that he's over six hundred years old and spent much of the eighteenth century as one of the original European slave traders, so he has good reason to feel remorse.
- 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. 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. Spike's speech itself actually deconstructs this concept, since he rather bluntly (and politically incorrectly) points out that the spirit simply doesn't care about their white guilt — it's pissed off and wants them all dead, and even if it was willing to talk there isn't actually a lot the Scoobies could say to defend themselves or make themselves better. Essentially, he points out that while the Scoobies might have reason to feel guilty, their embracing of this trope is just self-indulgent hand-wringing that's preventing them from taking any meaningful action to solve the problem.
- Leslie Knope shows occasional signs of this on Parks and Recreation, especially when dealing with Ken Hotate, the leader of the local Wamapoke Indians. The rest of Pawnee's government is similar, constantly kowtowing to Ken and letting him do whatever he wants because they're afraid of being seen as racist and to make up for what Pawnee's settlers did to the Wamapoke. The ironic part is that Ken couldn't care less about them or what their ancestors did to his ancestors; he just loves to exploit their white guilt to make them look like fools.
- Lampshaded in the Frasier episode "Dr. Mary''. Frasier hires an African-American call-screener and is unhappy with the way she is timid and quiet on the air, unlike the assertive Roz she is filling in for. He encourages her to speak up more on the air, but when she does so she takes over his show by calling herself "Dr. Mary". He is afraid to say anything because she is black and came from an underprivileged background, and imagines that any attempt to reclaim his show would be seen as trying to put her "in her place". Eventually she gets her own show at a rival station, and when she finds out that he refused to say anything because of his guilt she 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, studies the history of colonialism and imperialism. He is 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.
- Joked about in an installment of "Weekend Update" on Saturday Night Live in the late 1990s, with Colin Quinn reporting on President Bill Clinton sending the Reverend Jesse Jackson to Sarajevo to negotiate with Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic about bringing an end to the Yugoslav civil war. Apparently, Quinn remarked, "white guilt even works in Yugoslavia."
- On Orange Is The New Black, Piper is the target of jealousy after getting furlough days (basically a break from prison) when the other non-white inmates have been trying for years and failed. She initially tries to get the furlough days revoked, although Officer Healy points out that she should be grateful. Piper then has an outburst in the cafeteria about how she's not sorry that she's white and got the furlough days.
- This is the theme of the song "Guilty of Being White" by Minor Threat.
- Stephen King has admitted in interviews that his tendency to overuse the Magical Negro trope is likely due to his own White Guilt. Yes, even though he grew up in Maine - a state that abolished slavery very early and historically has barely had an African-American population against which to discriminate (even today the black population only just passes 1%).
- 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).
- Christopher Titus delivers a similar gag, but with the idea of atoning for it via "Slavery Rehab".
: Only 398 more years to go, and we've got that monkey off our back! (Beat)
That's not what I meant.
- 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.
- 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."
- In Glenn Martin DDS episode "Florida Keys" when Glenn finds out his mother is remarrying he is at first against it, but once he finds out his mother's fiance is black, his daddy issues are ousted by his white guilt.