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White Guilt

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"If you ever need to make a white person feel indebted to you, wait for them to mention a book, film, or television show that features a character who is the same race as you, then say 'the representation of <insert race> was offensive and if you can’t see that, well, you need to do some soul searching.' After they return from their hastily booked trip to land of your ancestors, they will be desperate to make it up to you. At this point, it is acceptable to ask them to help you paint your house."
Stuff White People Like, #101: Being Offended

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 things that only make them look worse (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. It may manifest as positive discrimination toward people of less-privileged groups.

It may result from Political Overcorrectness or Everything Is Racist, or be a self-inflicted form of it. 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. It can also overlap with White Man's Burden if the character attempts to help the poor underprivileged minority, and can also overlap with Opinion Override if said minority doesn't want or even need their help in the first place. Expect to hear cries of "Some of My Best Friends Are X!" Some characters may even seek out a Token Black Friend for this exact purpose, which would defeat the purpose.

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. At some point, it's possible an Angry White Man will stand up to provide an over the top argument against this trope.

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. And while the trope name refers to race, this trope can apply to any situation where there is one group which may hold a position of privilege over another.


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    Comic Books 
  • Justified with Hob Gadling in The Sandman (1989). 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.

    Fan Works 
  • The formerly-rich Shusui Naito from Megami no Hanabira, to the degree that he intends to die to rectify the situation...after mass-distributing the Demon Summoning Program around the world so that less privileged people will have a chance to use it to slaughter the privileged in the mother of all race wars. The appalled reactions from the lesbian main characters at the idea are scoffed at and promptly ignored.

  • The entire point of The Help (including the book on which the movie is based), 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 controversy of the (well-meaning) movie was explored by critics of pop culture around the time it was released.

  • Dave Barry's Claw Your Way To The Top (a business "help" book) has this scenario, where two women are equally qualified for a promotion, but one is black. Do you: a) give the promotion to the black woman to make up for centuries of slavery and racism; b), give the promotion to the white woman, otherwise people will think the promotion was only given out of an effort to be progressive? The book suggests option c): promote a man.
  • At The School for Good Mothers, parents are being taught a lesson in racial unity and diversity. Their "children" (really robotic dolls so they can practice parenting) take turns playing bullies who say racial slurs to others. Just like the parents of color do not respond well to being reminded of the racist bullying they got in the past, the white parents don't appreciate their "children" playing the part of racist bullies. Tucker, one of the fathers, says his real-life son would never say the N-word.
  • In his Red Dwarf memoir The Man in the Rubber Mask Robert Llewellyn often refers to his white middle-class guilt, considering it to be a rather self-centred emotion in that it makes him the main character. One example is when he has to take dehydration tablets due to the heat of the Kryten costume, and frets that this obviously means some kid in drought-ridden Africa doesn't have dehydration tablets.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer: In "Pangs", 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's 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 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 for what their ancestors did, their embracing of this trope is just self-indulgent hand-wringing that's preventing them from taking any meaningful action to solve the problem.
  • Parks and Recreation: Leslie Knope shows occasional signs of this 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!"
  • 30 Rock: Liz Lemon 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 of 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. Knowing Sheldon, he more than likely just said that to get back at Amy for ruining his favorite movie for him.
  • 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, white main character Piper is the target of jealousy after getting furlough days (basically a break from prison) when the 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.
  • On My Name Is Earl, one Misdeed of the Week that Earl needed to work on was "Made fun of people with accents." He does this (on advice from Catalina) by teaching English language classes at Camden's adult education center.
  • This was a plot point on Murphy Brown when the team, collectively the avatar of bleeding-heart liberalism, got a new black executive on the departure of their friend Gene. The newcomer saw it from a mile away and milked it for a while to win concessions, before confessing he'd used their guilt to advance his agenda. He explained that people treat him differently due to the color of his skin even if they don't mean to, the only thing he can do is try to get the best results for himself and let their discomfort be their problem.
  • In the Key & Peele sketch "Awkward Apologies from White People", Keegan and Jordan are sharing a drink at a bar and repeatedly have their conversation interrupted by White people tripping over themselves to apologize for the mistreatment of Black people in the U.S. and prove how not-racist they are in increasingly uncomfortable ways. The pair get increasingly frustrated until the bartender makes them feel better by defying this and admitting that Black people make him very uncomfortable.
  • The King of Queens: Arthur does some research on his ancestry and discovers some of his ancestors were once slave traders. He apologizes to Deacon (the only black person he knows, apparently), who tells him there is no need since he didn't do it. Later though he discovers he's wrong, and his ancestors were actually Irish travelers. He's now free of guilt and unabashedly tries to get Deacon doing unpaid chores as a means of paying off a debt he owes Arthur, outraging him with this about-face.
    You want me to become your slave?!?
  • Last Man Standing: Vanessa, Kristin, and Ryan all have a bad case of this that always crops up when they interact with the Baxters' black neighbors Chuck and Carol Larabee. Most of the time their efforts to convince the couple they aren't racist, such as Vanessa telling them how much she loves black musicians and films, only make them appear more racist.
  • ER. Dr. Carter often laments the corrupt way his family acquired its wealth and that the money is used for causes he considers frivolous. It's implied that he went into medicine to pursue a more worthwhile career and even working in an inner-city ER, he still doesn't feel he's doing enough. When he visits the rundown clinic of a patient who is a physician himself and writes him a check so that he can afford to buy better equipment, the man rudely declines, correctly citing his "white liberal guilt" (ironically, the man is also white).
  • Dickinson: Emily wants her black servant, Henry, to play Shakespeare (Othello) even when he doesn't want to, so she can feel good about herself. When it ends up going wrong and she complains life shouldn't be this way, he tells her that she's a relatively safe white woman with a nice house, where she can have cake and is looked after. It's particularly heartbreaking is how Henry notes that she has her father to protect her. Consider the time they live in and how awful things were for slaves, how frequently families were broken up and destroyed. It's very likely that Henry never knew his father, and he certainly wouldn't have been able to protect Henry from the circumstances of their lives (he could have been a free black man, although this may indicate otherwise-even then it's possible he'd been Born into Slavery).

  • This is the theme of the song "Guilty of Being White" by Minor Threat.
  • The Cree Summer song "Curious White Boy" is about a woman of color who believes a white man is dating her out of white guilt.
  • "Capitalism" by Oingo Boingo is, in part, about this.

    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).
    Louis: We're gonna pay hard for this shit, you gotta know that. We're not gonna just fall from #1 to 2, they're gonna hold us down and fuck us in the ass forever, and we totally deserve it. But, for now, WHEEEEEEE!
  • Christopher Titus
    • He delivers a gag with the idea of atoning for it via "Slavery Rehab".
    Titus: Only 398 more years to go, and we've got that monkey off our back! (Beat) That's not what I meant.
    • Before that particular special ("Neverlution"), he issued a formal apology for slavery during his "5th Annual End of the World Tour".
      Titus: Good evening, Black People. First of all, may I say you're right: you do dance better than us. But on the other hand, I also like chicken. Now that we've found some common ground, let me just say slavery was all my fault. I thought it was gonna be a fun trip! But we had this country to build and we needed some help! We could've used the Indians to help us... but we killed them. (Facepalm and extended Beat) To the Indian people. I also love whiskey - and hate trash on the freeway.
      • He concludes by saying we could have at least left them Texas.
        Titus: I mean hell, we cleaned out all the Mexicans! (Beat as he realizes what he'd just said before facepalming again) Pero los Mexicanos... muy... apologito?
      • But subverted when he brings up Japan.
      Titus: To the Japanese, about the A-Bombs and the internment fuck that, YOU guys started that! We were just chillin' in Hawaii and then all hell breaks loose!

    Video Games 
  • Dragon Age: Inquisition: Dorian Pavus is very aware of how much he (as a high-ranking human mage in The Magocracy) benefited from Tevinter's conquer and enslavement of elves, and expresses guilt about it on multiple occasions — particularly to an Elven PC and elven companion Solas. The first time an Elven PC talks to him after being recruited, Dorian expresses awkward guilt over what Tevinter did to the elves and sheepishly asks if it will be a problem. Some of his party banter with Solas also involves trying to apologize for how Tevinter destroyed Elvhenan. If brought to The Temple of Mythal, Dorian laments how many elvhen wonders Tevinter plundered and destroyed. If offered the chance to drink from the Well, he's tempted but pointedly refuses to be another Tevinter mage who stole more elvhen wonders.
    • Ironically, Solas is white, while Dorian is one of the game’s few major characters of color.

  • 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 CollegeHumor; 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: Bloodshot, 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 the review of Care Bears Nutcracker Suite, The Nostalgia Critic had Malcolm and Tamara browsing some movies to feed the Critic's Christmas addiction, and Malcolm mentions that he loves those "inspirational movies about black men trying to succeed in a racist world" that come out during december, because at the end the Critic always feels guilty and takes him out for dinner.

    Western Animation 
  • 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.
  • King of the Hill had an episode where a diversity councilor almost ruined the school fair by inflicting white guilt on all the students (even ones who aren't white), causing them to grumble about "How can we have fun when so many bad things have happened?" Making it even worse is the fact that the kids got along just fine until the councilor started trying to suggest there were racist/sexist/everything-ist undercurrents to their behaviors. Hank and the other grown-ups help put things back on track by telling the kids that they shouldn't beat themselves up for things that happened long before they were even born.

    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.
  • This attitude in general was parodied by T.J. Kirk (aka The Amazing Atheist) in a 20-second clip where he self-flagellates with a belt while shouting "Sorry I'm white! Sorry I'm male!" then finishes the clip screaming "WHY?! WHY AM I A MONSTER?!"