For seventeen years at Defiance College in Ohio I taught Cultural Diversity classes every semester to a collection of Education majors, Criminal Justice majors, Social Work majors, Religion Majors, and a smattering of others. The student population in my classes, like the college itself, was mostly but not all white. Many were first generation college students. My assigned task was to help prepare these students to work professionally in schools and agencies where they would be working with children and adults from every race, ethnicity, and economic background. I had one semester to make a difference in their personal and professional lives.
At the beginning of every class, we began by looking at the history of prejudice, discrimination and oppression in our country. We didn’t sugarcoat anything. Somewhere in the first several weeks it inevitably became clear that many or most of the Caucasian students in the class were feeling a lot of guilt. Not guilt for things they themselves had done. Rather, guilt for things members of their race had done historically. Or guilt for the advantages they or their racial ancestors enjoyed at others’ expense. This would typically cause them to show signs of shutting down; to parse every response they made in class discussion; to become very unsure of themselves. Open class discussion became more difficult. I did not and do not see this development as healthy. I could only imagine how tongue-tied they would be at the end of the semester and how limited they would be when helping a student or client in their chosen profession later in life.
My response was to share what I observed to be an empowering message. “If you actually have done any of the horrible things we are learning about, or if you have intentionally utilized your advantages, your privileges, to disadvantage or injure someone else, by all means feel guilty. If, on the other hand, you haven’t done these things, get angry instead. Get angry at racism and oppression wherever you see it.”
Guilt, I explained, is anger directed inward. If you let it build up, it will eventually either eat you up or burst out as anger directed toward others. If, on the other hand, you feel anger instead of guilt when you see injustice or discrimination, that anger can energize and mobilize you to fight oppression in all of its forms for the rest of your life. Anger at oppression can inspire you to speak up, to join with others to fight injustice. At the personal level it can inspire you to listen to victims of oppression, how they perceive their situation, and join them in rebuilding their lives and the world they and we live in.
Persons who see themselves as assets that can bring about needed positive changes will accomplish much more for the common good than persons who are overwhelmed by feelings of guilt. I am calling this the Asset-Based approach to Anti-Racism and Anti-Oppression. This name was inspired in part by the practice of Asset-Based Community Development as described by John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight in the book, Building Communities From The Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets (ACTA Publications, Skokie, IL, 1993). Their work is continued at the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University in Chicago, https://resources.depaul.edu/abcd-institute/Pages/default.aspx.