guilt and entitlement

I teach an “ethnic studies” course so I’m always in interaction with students about how to think about legacies of the past as the impact the present. I had a new thought this year in responding to the standard white student comment that goes “my ancestors weren’t here when genocide/slavery happened, so why should I feel responsible/guilty?” I asked the students: so who is more entitled to possess land or privilege in the US today, whites who are descended from the white people who participated in the genocide [slavery] or the whites who are benefiting from that past even though their ancestors did not participate? The students had no easy answer (of course), but it did seem to me to move the conversation in a new direction. Because maybe the people who went to the trouble to have blood on their hands in some way are more entitled* than those who just reaped the benefits of White supremacy without paying its material and moral costs.

I also called their attention to the way in which White Americans typically view themselves as the spiritual/national descendants of the Pilgrims and as inheritors of the national [White] dream, even when, in fact, their ancestors arrived after 1880. If you are going to claim the Pilgrims, you have to claim the whole package of Manifest Destiny and the White nation, seems to me.

* Since you don’t know me, I’d better make it clear that I’m trying to push a conversation here. I’m not actually arguing that White supremacists ought to be entitled if they committed murder, I’m trying to challenge the idea that there is no moral weight to inheriting and benefiting from a system created by past crimes. And I’m not comparing Whites to indigenous people or Afro-descent people here, either, but different groups of Whites to each other.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog --Pam Oliver

5 thoughts on “guilt and entitlement”

  1. As a person who wrestled with my whiteness in Madison at Malcolm Shabazz High-School, and felt deep seated white guilt for almost a decade after, realizing that the current-period distributive impacts of slavery are economically tiny has been wonderfully exculpatory of the doctrine of Original Sin I wash raised on, and that I spent years trying to wash off with racist jokes about whiteness and various purity crusades. So to me the question of whether I can absolve myself with the fact that my grandmother grew up on dirt floors and my other grandmother in a household of 9 children in NYC slums is a non starter.

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  2. Are the Pilgrims really a good example? I think there are a substantial number of people who see themselves as in some form of philosophical or spiritual descent from the people of the Revolutionary era, but I don’t see a lot of people identifying with the sort of religious fanaticism and theocracy represented by the Pilgrims, nor are they emphasized in the curriculum, in contrast to the well-known figures of the American Revolution.


    1. Hmmm. Thanks for the comment, Matt. Interacting regularly with students has definitely taught me that what students have learned in high school varies tremendously. I doubt very much that there is a single curriculum that US students have learned about much of anything. Students from elite high schools generally have more depth of knowledge than students from ordinary public schools, but even what they think they got out of the fairly standardized AP curriculum seems to vary a lot.

      I agree about characterization of the Pilgrims specifically, but I think most students don’t know that, just as they don’t know that most of the “founding fathers” were Deists, or that most of the original settlers were convicts or opportunists, not religious dissenters. I teach the Pilgrims as the starting point of the nation’s origin myth (or origin story): the story that the US was founded on religious freedom and personal liberty and make the point that White Americans today see themselves as inheritors of this tradition even if their own personal ancestors didn’t arrive from Europe until after the 1880s. SOME students have of course had a detailed enough history course to pull specifics out of this haze, but most agree that what I call the origin myth is a pretty accurate characterization of what they think they took away from their high school history classes. Students in my class have watched a film about the Lakota that includes an explanation of the idea of an origin story as a story that people tell about themselves that gives meaning to their society. For the Lakota, the origin story is about the Black Hills. In this context, they tend to agree when I say the origin story of the US is about the Pilgrims and religious liberty and Thanksgiving and American Indians welcoming the Europeans and giving them the land.

      In the way you were taught history (or the way you think “the curriculum” teaches history) would you say the origin story starts with the Boston Tea Party? Or the Constitutional Convention? Not the city on a hill and the new promised land and manifest destiny? I know the origin story doesn’t start with Jamestown, even if it was first. Nor do I believe that most US people exited their education without absorbing some version of the “origin story” of the United States that is about how Whites discovered a new land and created a new society that would be a beacon to the world.


      1. I’m late to the conversation, but I would guess that where (white) students draw their origins depends on what where in the country they grew up. Going to part of elementary school in Washington state and the remainder of K-12 in Maryland, I learned when “history” started as two very different points in time. In WA, we learned about colonialism but history didn’t “really” start until westward expansion of Lewis, Clark, and Sacajawea. In MD, we learned that the U.S. drew its origin from Jamestown and Williamsburg (screw those New Englanders who try to claim otherwise!) and the importance of religious freedom (given that MD was set up as a colony for Catholics who wanted to flee persecution in England). My friends from Texas (where I went to college) drew the beginning of history at the Alamo and Santa Ana’s assault into Texas.

        I’m not saying any of these are the correct answer, but it would be an interesting empirical question to examine how geography influences the origin stories that students bring with them.


  3. Interesting point, Mike. I grew up knowing about the missions as a child in California (state history being a 4th grade topic) as well as the ranchos, which persisted into the 20th century (Torrance was part of Rancho Dominguez), and Spanish settlement was definitely part of the “story” along with the Pilgrims and Jamestown. The early arrival of slaves was also part of my high school class, although the African slaves were treated as objects, not as as part of the “people” of the United States. Indigenous also not “people” of the US, while the Spanish settlers in California were named as part of the nation, I think. I’ll wager that the Mexican/Spanish part of the story is more contested in California schools today.

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