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Responsible for each other

Redefining white guilt and white privilege

Responsible for each other

People light candles at the site of a former synagogue in Schwerin, Germany, to mark the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. (Bernd Wuestneck/AFP/Getty Images)

A while ago, while working on a story about the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States, I met up with Rabbi Noah Farkas at Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles. There in his office, Farkas told me a story that I cannot ever forget.  

A little context: I had asked Farkas about his then-recent trip to Berlin to give a presentation on anti-Semitism. I told him I had visited a concentration camp in Munich a year ago, and that I was impressed to see how seriously the German schools taught students about their ugly history. This conversation came in the midst of Farkas expressing his anger and disappointment at our own U.S. government—both the White House and Congress, both our left-wing and the right-wing leaders—for condoning anti-Semitic rhetoric. That’s a big contrast to Germany, a country so horrified by its past that it has an entire department dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism. 

Then Farkas paused. There’s a catch to Germany’s hyper-sensitivity toward Jews and anti-Semitism, he said: “There’s this secondary level of anti-Semitism existing in Germany that’s riddled with guilt.” This subtle form of anti-Semitism is one where Jews have become so precious as mandated by state law that it’s ironically creating negative sentiments among Germans who feel like they’ve got to bear a national, ethnic stink forever because of Jews. Meanwhile, Jews remains a tiny minority in Germany—out of about 83 million people in Germany, only about 116,000 are Jewish, or about 0.14 percent of the population. 

“A Jew has become a unicorn,” Farkas said: “It’s a precious animal, very rarely ever seen. The narrative is that because we killed the Jews off, we have to take care of them when we see them.”

The problem with that narrative is that Jews are now perpetual victims, nor are they seen as fellow Germans. They’re some rare breed that don’t belong in Germany but must be handled gingerly and fearfully as one would treat a unicorn. Obviously, that doesn’t make anyone feel good—and signs of resentment and pushback are already brewing in Eastern Europe among people who want to tear off the guilt imposed on them since birth and freely declare themselves proud nationalists without public censure. 

Such is the limit of a government trying to wring certain social and racial attitudes out of a society through punitive laws and censorship: Sometimes, they backfire. 

During his trip to Berlin, Farkas also visited Dresden, a city that at its height in the early 1900s had 6,000 Jews but now has about 700. There, Farkas met with a group of high school students, many of whom had never met a Jew. Farkas told them that though not every German person actively participated in the Holocaust, for the Nazis to have even pulled off the magnitude of decimating 6 million Jews, there had to be millions of Germans at the time who were at least vaguely aware of what was happening but turned a blind eye. 

Later, a high school girl aged 16 went up to Farkas and told her she was working on a project researching the story of a Jewish family who had lived in the house she now lives in. That previous family, of course, had to leave that house because of the Holocaust. Some in the family survived, some didn’t. She came to him with tense shoulders and an expression wrecked with guilt. 

Farkas saw the burden she had shouldered and told her, “I don’t want you to feel guilty. I don’t want you to be born into the world feeling guilty for what your great-grandparents did. But I do want you to feel responsible for the living, breathing Jewish minority communities who are around you.” 

When the girl heard that, she visibly relaxed. Guilt, she could do nothing about except feel awful about herself and the past. But responsibility for those already around her? That seemed something she could uphold with integrity and dignity. 

That’s the difference between feeing guilty and being responsible, Farkas said. Constantly being made to feel guilty only perpetuates hate. Who wants to be born into the world guilty for the sins of our fathers? Eventually, someone will revolt and burn that guilt with the flames of hate. 

But we are born responsible, Farkas said: “That responsibility is just part of the fact that we’re created in the image of God, that we’re all created in the image of God, and so we’re all responsible for each other.” And that responsibility is greater when you know you have certain privileges and resources that others don’t have. 

I thought of this conversation often, particularly as I wrestle with issues of race. What Farkas said about guilt perpetuating hate makes sense in light of the rise of white supremacism and the legions of young, disgruntled white men arguing that they’re now the least privileged and most despised group in the country. I also heard echoes of that during my interviews with former white supremacists

I also saw how this guilt played out in another way. I’ve met white people who carry around with them “white guilt” like a chain around their neck and constantly lament their white privilege in some sort of twisted self-flagellation that really only serves to announce to the world how woke they are. That’s just annoying and patronizing. 

I even recently read a tweet by an actress that said: “I’m sorry I was born white and privileged. It disgusts me. And I feel so much shame.” Now that’s just ridiculous and purposeless. One black friend once told me, “I wish those people would just go and enjoy their lives rather than wring their hands moaning about their whiteness.”

The term “white privilege” triggers a lot of controversy, but I don’t think it should: It’s not meant to invoke guilt, but to remind someone that they may have certain advantages that others don’t have. Some of those advantages fall in racial lines, but we’re all born with certain undeserved privileges, or blessings—be it being born into a healthy two-parent family, or being raised in a good neighborhood with good schools, or being able to drive or shop without inciting suspicion, or enjoying citizenship in a free, prosperous country.

Being “responsible” means being aware of the resources and means we have, and using them for the good and empowering of others. That’s not just some social concept—that’s wholly Biblical: Freely we have received; so freely do we give. 


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  • SamIamHis
    Posted: Sat, 08/17/2019 10:42 am

    The word privilege has become a byword of our culture, containing the most derogatory tones imaginable.  The attack of "privilege" is intended to produce guilt that can only be assuaged by denouncing who or what a person is and somehow striving to make right what happened in a past that holds no actual identity with current individuals or groups.  It isn't that we can't or don't harbor wrong ideas and feelings toward others in this day but to be held responsible for a past that occurred before we were born is not an answer to the injustice of the past. The example of the unicorn effect is perfect.  It causes one group to be miserably held hostage to making right a wrong that cannot be changed and another to become imprisoned to an identity they can't live up to.

    The Lord rains on whom he will and the results of the blessings he bestows or withholds are part of his much larger plan to bring us to himself.  When we stop calling sin by its rightful name we have no avenue of repair except sorry manmade prescriptions.  The true answer is always that we need the Great Physician who has defeated this and more with his precious blood.  That blood overcomes the nature of being victimized and of being guilty of the sin we are born in. It also transforms us to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, minds and strength, and to love others as we love ourselves.   This is the only true RX for what ails the world today.

  • AlanE
    Posted: Sun, 08/18/2019 09:02 pm

    The term “white privilege” triggers a lot of controversy, but I don’t think it should: It’s not meant to invoke guilt, but to remind someone that they may have certain advantages that others don’t have.

    I am willing to believe that, for some people, claims of "white privilege" are not meant to invoke guilt. But, for a very large number of people they are. I don't think we can simply whitewash these claims. And, white privilege is not the only kind of privilege afoot. As mentioned elsewhere in the article, certain other kinds of privilege may be contributing factors in the growth of white nationalism.

    It's also worth pointing out here that there is no simple "white privilege" that all whites participate in. Privileges experienced vary a great deal from person to person, even within the same race and culture. There are plenty of white people in my experience who have seen little, if any, privilege come their way.

    We would probably do well to try to stop tallying and trying to measure privilege. That's not how God taught us to deal with sin. Generally speaking, it makes us really good at detecting and pointing out the privileges of others and not very good at recognizing our own. Which is to say it makes us tend toward self-righteousness. Jesus had some pointed words to offer about recognizing and dealing with our own sin before launching into campaigns to eradicate the sins of others.

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Thu, 08/22/2019 11:33 pm

    Sofia says,“The term “white privilege” triggers a lot of controversy, but I don’t think it should: It’s not meant to invoke guilt, but to remind someone that they may have certain advantages that others don’t have.”

    I can’t agree on this one! “White privilege” is all about evoking a guilt trip on whites and getting them on board with the multicultural victimhood train. It is all about making them shut up and go along with the perks given to minorities! It is all about stirring the racial pot getting them worked up about perceived injustice so they vote Democrat. The goal isn’t racial harmony but to get minorities on a political bandwagon focused on race. Why is the liberal mainstream media attempting to label Trump a racist? It is a dishonest effort to steer minorities into their political categories. We see how effective it is with the youth and younger voters, where whites decry their whiteness and play the desired multicultural part acknowledging themselves the guilty oppressors! Minorities become focused on race and outraged about perceived injustices. Unfortunately, this is pushing some youth into the white supremacy and white nationalists camps - which is racist and ungodly. Some minorities are becoming racists and they don’t even realize it. 

    “Being ‘responsible’ means being aware of the resources and means we have, and using them for the good and empowering of others. That’s not just some social concept—that’s wholly Biblical: Freely we have received; so freely do we give.”

    You seem to be saying that the PC multicultural-liberal bandwagon is biblical. I can’t agree! Creating racial friction for political gain is not loving nor kind! It is using people to gain power and advantage! It isn’t seeking racial reconciliation but is stirring the pot creating racism! It is about falsely labeling your political opponents as racist to win elections! How evil is that?