You are Guilty of Feeling Guilty

UVA students protest at the Jefferson statue. Photo/ Zack Wasgras/The Daily Progress

A University of Virginia activist group called UVA Students United this past weekend protested against and caused to be shut down a fraternity party that had a cops and robbers theme.  Why? Because the partygoers' costumes "made a joke of mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex, systems that disproportionately brutalize people of color."

Even in an era of heightened sensitivity, this one is hard to fathom.  In a statement posted to the group's Facebook page, the activists took to task the fraternity and its guests for being "willing to make a joke of systems that kill and brutalize marginalized communities."

I'm sorry, am I missing something? On the totem pole of importance, I would have to think that protecting inmates from hurt feelings has to rank pretty low. 

There is a longstanding debate as to the purpose of incarceration.  Is it to punish or to rehabilitate?  Numerous studies have shown that the rate of recidivism by federal parolees is about 50%.  That being the case, the rehabilitation argument seems a shaky premise. Notwithstanding any rehabilitative effort, prison is supposed to be penal.  That's why it's called the penal system. You do the crime, you do the time.  So for this group to be offended by this fact seems to smack of a group looking for a cause. 

And that's the problem.  There are just too many people wandering around looking for reasons to be offended.  Our society has become one big Festivus, a continuous airing of grievances. Wall Street corruption, the minimum wage, same-sex marriage, hate speech, Confederate monuments, prison conditions, police brutality, legal bias, transgender military service, immigration, foreign wars, the tax code, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton…it goes on and on. Yes, most of these are issues that need addressing, but in my opinion these efforts lose much of their thrust when the aggrieved party is as intolerant as the intolerance they protest. The irony is unbelievable. 

These activist groups employ guilt as their primary weapon. As a white male, it’s not easy or comfortable  for me to push back against accusations of bias or indifference when I know that the accusers have the benefit of moral high ground.  I can’t, for instance, disagree with the tactics employed by Black Lives Matter without appearing to oppose what they are trying to accomplish.  There is no delineation. If you agree with the issue then you must also agree with their approach.

Because of my race and gender,  I supposedly am the problem. I am expected to acknowledge my guilt without attempting to qualify it. To argue that I am not part of the problem implies that  I don't see a problem, that I don't believe white supremacy is an issue, or that black lives matter, or that minorities deserve equal protection or benefits, or even that “prison disproportionately brutalizes people of color. “ And that’s just not true.

It seems there is no limit to the potential scope of offense.  Well, there are limits—the “meat is murder” faction never has seemed to gain critical mass, for example—but on the issues of race, sexual preference, and equal opportunity, the perceived offenders almost always are compelled to backpedal.  It's quite difficult to defend oneself against charges of bias without being perceived as tone-deaf, disconnected, misogynist, racist, or, if possible, even worse.  You are guilty unless you can prove otherwise, but how does a person prove the innocence of a belief? These people will tell you that action is the only remedy. 

There’s a problem with this view, however. Emotions are subjective. We don't all react in the same way to external stimuli.  A movie that brings one viewer to tears may leave another unmoved. Your issue may not be my issue. Even while acknowledging that Confederate monuments are divisive, for example, it may be difficult for someone who has been laid off and is facing eviction to make monument protest priority #1.  Does that make them complicit?  Everyone has different priorities and views, but these groups don’t seem to respect that dynamic.  There is no middle ground.  You are either with them or against them.  It’s like accusing those who don’t attend church of lacking faith.  Ridiculous. People do their good work in different ways. 

In yet another protest on the UVA grounds last night, this one wide-ranging, “multiple speakers shared their thoughts with the crowd, many of whom criticized the university administration for its response to the (August alt-right) rallies and claimed the university was not paying its workers a living wage.  The crowd implored one another to remain steadfast in their protestations,” according to an article in today’s Charlottesville Daily Progress.

“‘There is only one side to this,” said one of the protesters standing upon the Jefferson statue.’” And that stance, coming from a college student with limited life experience, highlights the issue that many people have with these protests and the protestors themselves.

1 There is never only one side. 
2 College kids with limited life experience are perhaps not the best arbiters. 
3 The intolerance displayed by these protestors undermines their effort. 

It wasn’t easy for me to write this.  Publishing this will open me up to the claims I have just written about.  That I am part of the problem.  That I am tone deaf.  I’m just the opposite, actually. I am tuned in and paying attention.  I understand the issues, but I want to explore why there is so much resistance on issues that should find almost universal acceptance. Putting aside the issue of ignorance, I believe that it’s the tactics that people have little patience with, not the message.  

A sign at the Jefferson statue last night. Photo/ Tanner Hirschfeld

Last night, students who chose to attend the university that he founded branded Thomas Jefferson a rapist and a racist and repeated claims that the statue honoring his legacy is a monument to—and reminder of—white supremacy and thus has to be removed or at least "recontextualized to include that history (of white supremacy)."  This view completely ignores his hugely important societal contributions, contributions that made possible last night's protest.  This issue, like all of the ones before us, is not one-sided despite protestor claims that it is. 


  1. Any one of those kids who chose to protest last night needs to read more history. Most other places around the world do not offer a fraction of the privelages our protestors don't seem to appreciate. And NONE of them - regardless of life experiences or education - can understand what living in this extraordinary country really meant 200+ years ago. Without Thomas Jefferson it is a very real possibility that our finely crafted foundation - which was built on bedrock (our Constitution) - would not exist. Nor would our country! Is it perfect? Of course not. But look around today and one can't look far to see injustice in some degree or another. Does any of the protesters wandering around looking for reasons to be offended believe that their lives would be less scrutinized than they are demonizing Jefferson 200+ yrs from now???Thomas Jefferson was, and still is, one of the greatest Americans of all time. Go find something worthwhile to do to contribute to the world - and read more history.

    1. Isn't it reading of the history that has spawned all of this guilt? Or is it simply recent events. Blacks couldn't attend public universities until 53 years ago, which is barely beyond my lifetime. I heard racial comments and the N word casually used in my house by my grandparents and parents for years. And now that videocameras are ubiquitous, police mistreatment against minorities is coming to the fore. So yes, there's guilt, and it's recently sourced. As for the Constitution, it was far from perfect. Granting the slave states a 3/5ths credit for each slave when determining Congressional representation gave undue influence on the presidency, the SCOTUS, and our laws in the favor of the slave trade. This went on for decades. Jefferson, Madison, et al made a huge mistake in conceding on the 3/5ths clause. Counting slaves as citizens or even partial citizens was completely disingenuous.

  2. Really fantastic piece, enjoyed reading it. Well articulated and states what needs to be realized.

  3. There are certainly seemingly more important things to protest in this world, but you seem to be missing the point - POC are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated due to the disproportionate race class structure that still stems from the lasting traces of slavery and ever persistent racism. To poke fun at a system that skews its brutality and mass incarceration based on the color of people's skin is flawed and insensitive. Does it in any way hurt the students to have regular parties without ignorant themes? You're a white male - you can't fully comprehend the justified fear and hate POC have towards the police system and incarceration. Never once have I been afraid that a cop would point a gun in my direction because I'm a white woman (womp, there it is. I'm sure you've been wondering) and haven't done anything to warrant this response. Even if i had done something illegal, I'd probably have a better chance of getting away with it because of my race and gender. If I were a black male, I'd have seen countless incidents where innocent people who share my race and sex are killed or brutalized by why couldn't I be next. That's scary.

    Also, let the people who are being marginalized and killed tell you if you're part of the problem or not. It's not up to you to say you're doing it all right and listening and staying informed. People can be completely unaware and ignorant of personality flaws - it's up to those who are affected by the flaws to let the perpetrators know it's a problem. Whether you see your flaws and are willing to fix them is up to you.
    You bring up the fact that emotions are subjective and describe how people's reactions to movies shouldn't be judged - you miss the point yet again. Movies are fictional (some based on fact, but fictional works of art)...this is real life and actual people are killed and denied rights because of the color of their skin. There is definitely a wrong and right way to react emotionally to a certain social issue allowing for some gradation. For example, feeling satisfied when abusing animals is certainly not socially acceptable - I think that's a universal understanding, but of course one end of the spectrum. Feeling "nonplussed" by social issues like police brutality, systematic inequality based on race, gender, sexual orientation, etc simply because you identify as a white cis male who doesn't have to deal with these issues due to your privilege is...wrong. If you saw someone being mugged and beaten on the street and your reaction was one of indifference bc hey, it's not happening to you so why get involved...that would be wrong. You may feel horrified and disturbed but not brave enough to intervene for fear that you may be hurt in the process...which is still wrong, but at least you're not just "nonplussed".
    Lastly, "these activist groups employ guilt as their primary weapon. As a white male, it's not easy or comfortable for me to push back against accusations of bias or indifference when I know that the accusers have the benefit of moral high ground". This might be a new concept for you - feeling uncomfortable bc of your race and sex. Lucky you if so. Injustices are slowly starting to be called out and the playing field is slowly being leveled out, so it's gonna be uncomfortable for people that have reaped the perks of their privilege in order to make room of deserving minorities that have been uncomfortable for decades. My comments may even make you and other readers uncomfortable. I'm not trying to attack you, I'm trying to give you some perspective that even I don't fully comprehend because of my own privilege. Thank for sharing your opinion though - it creates (sometimes) constructive conversations as a result

    1. What a complete load of crap.

    2. In response to "what a complete load of crap" - please elaborate why you feel this way

    3. Both Seward Totty's piece and the anonymous response from 9/14 at 5:56 PM make really thoughtful points . One brings one's own experiences "to the table", and both these viewpoints deserve respect and thoughtful consideration. UVA Pres. Sullivan encourages thoughtful discussion. We had thoughtful discussion until the anonymous comment made 9/14 at 6:18 - Mr. (I assume you are male) "What a complete load of crap", YOU are precisely the problem- perhaps you don't have the intellect or possess the patience to back up your opinion. It is undeniable that you are too selfish to take the time to respond thoughtfully and/or are too small minded to consider any other views. You are the problem without any solution. Pitiful.

    4. Hi Anonymous,
      I appreciate your feedback on–my article. This type of discussion is so important to bridging the gap between ideologies, so I want to thank you. I'd like to address some of the points that you have made, especially your concern–repeatedly stated–that I am "missing the point."
      I'm no criminology expert. I commented on it only because it was the theme of the party. Our prison populations don't align demographically with the overall population for many reasons, racism included, but to imply that the criminal justice system is racist top-to-bottom seems fantastical to me. POC are imprisoned at higher rates than non-POC because they commit crimes at a higher rate. Why? Does a lack of opportunity drive them to crime? I'm sure that's the point you are trying to make. However, sentencing guidelines exist specifically to eliminate variation, thus removing the subjectivity and bias in sentencing. Data shows that drug-related crimes are more often committed by POC and that drug offenders comprise the largest segment of our prison population. Should we do away with all laws related to drug trafficking and use so that our prison populations can be reduced and brought more into demographic alignment with the general population? Of course not.
      No, I don't know the pervasive fear that POC feel with regard to the police. Neither do you, as you admit. I also know that my lack of fear is not based on my skin color, but instead on my status as a law-abiding citizen. I am not scared of the police because I have no reason to be. Yes, there are law-abiding POC who have become victims, just as there are non-POC who are law-abiding and have become victims. Our prisons are full of people–of all colors–who have been wrongfully convicted of crimes they didn't commit. However, were I to be pulled over or arrested, I wouldn't give the officer any reason to shoot me. It is rare when an officer approaches a car with his weapon drawn, but he/she always has the holster unsnapped and a hand on the weapon, regardless of the skin color of the occupant. That's protocol. (This is my opinion and I have nothing scientific to base it on, but I believe that some men feel compelled by pride to rebel against the authority they fear and distrust. They challenge because they don't wish to appear weak. That attitude is a contributing factor, in my opinion.)
      With regard to letting "the people who are being marginalized and killed tell you if you're part of the problem or not," believe me, I have been told. You as much said this yourself. The feeling that all white people, regardless of class or status, benefit from white privilege, is pervasive. The UVA protesters at the Jefferson statue repeatedly chanted "Fuck white supremacy!" That was directed squarely at me.


    5. I think it was you who missed my meaning about emotions and subjectivity. Does it matter if the source of repugnance is a real murder or a murder in a movie if the emotion is the same? I say no. The importance is in the response, not the source. Everyone has a different emotional hierarchy. One person may faint at the sight of a dead body. A homicide detective likely won't. Why? Desensitization. The detective is desensitized to the sight of a corpse. My point, which I stand by despite your challenge, is that we each have our own issues over and above the issues that are universal to us all. Just because the monuments issue doesn't agitate some people we shouldn't assume that the reason is because they are racist. That's too easy.
      And finally, about my being uncomfortable with unfairly labeled... to imply that I have never experienced criticism or bias is just dead wrong. I know what it feels like to be ostracized. If it's not okay for other ethnicities to be uncomfortable with bias, why should it be for me? I'm supposed to endure it because I've had it coming? Isn't the point of all of this is that we are all the same? Equal in the eyes of God? The effort should be in lifting everyone else up, not in tearing anyone else down, don't you think?

    6. Thank you so much for engaging with me and for continuing the discussion. Like I said before, I appreciate you sharing your opinions as it leads to important conversations.

      In my opinion, I still believe you are overlooking the bigger picture. The bigger picture being: POC are disproportionally represented in the lower class and are thus more likely to commit crimes (that's excluding the systematic racism present in the police system). Why, you ask? Their ancestors were once slaves, not legally allowed to own land and forced into unpaid brutalized labor. Once slaves were emancipated in the 1860s, POC had to then face Jim Crow laws until the civil rights movement in the 1950's. POC were literally denied human rights up until this point and the lasting effects and lingering systematic racism has left the majority of POC stratified to the bottom tier of the socioeconomic spectrum. It's not easy to rise up in the ranks when laws were in place about 60 years ago preventing people, based solely on the color of their skin, from attending quality educational systems, attaining jobs, and even using the same water fountains and restrooms. It takes time to heal these wounds. Due to the race class disproportionality, POC are more likely to grow up in environments where parents/caretakers are absent due to incarceration, drug addiction, death, etc. These children are less likely to have a mother or father figure to look up to and their parent(s) cannot afford quality educations for their children. I've heard of parents counter-productively stealing from their own children to feed their drug problems. I'm not saying every POC grows up in a fragmented household or cannot get into/afford a good school. And I'm not saying cohesive household units or private educations determine the success of an individual, but they can certainly help point young minds in the right direction.

      You bring up desensitization - if you or I were born black, we would have a higher chance of growing up in poverty - that's statistics. While growing up in poverty, it is easy to become desensitized to drug use, gang mentalities, violence, etc that are rampant in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods. Illegal activities become normalized and decision making for children/teens between right and wrong becomes difficult. Many of the "successful" adults in these neighborhoods engage in and fuel these illegal activities. They become stand in role models for the children whose parents/guardians give up what little money they have to buy drugs instead of textbooks or uniforms. The same drugs that were sold by the society's role models. There are multiple variations to the same story, but it's an overwhelming cycle perpetuated by class that leads to mass marginalization and incarceration of POC. I was lucky/privileged to have parents who were successful law abiding citizens - I looked up to them and they gave me every opportunity to follow in their footsteps...and I did. If I was born black, I would be less likely to be afforded the same privileges due to the disproportionate race-class structure combined with systematic racism. I agree with you, we certainly shouldn't do away with all laws related to drug trafficking. But do we need to find a way to improve affordable education opportunities for children struggling to get out of the cyclical lower socioeconomic spiral that often leads to incarceration...that's at least a start! It's so much bigger than just the prisons - I'd highly suggest you watch the documentary 13th - it's on Netflix. - some bias, but it's absolutely phenomenal and will do a better job than I ever could to explain the issue....

    7. Continued: Some issues cannot be viewed within the polarized spectrum of right/wrong black/white - it's part of white privilege that you & I have the luxury of having such clear cut answers to questions while we grew up. Part of the next step is acknowledging the gray areas that exist for those who grew up under different circumstances. When people choose not to acknowledge their privilege and continue to polarize the world's issues while looking through rose colored glasses, a butting of heads is bound to occur between the privileged and the disadvantaged. You state "simply that I have never experienced criticism or bias is just dead wrong. I know what it feels like to be ostracized. If it's not okay for other ethnicities to be uncomfortable with bias, why should it be for me?" We need to focus more on the lifting up of others who have been torn down throughout history even if it's at our emotional expense. We must address the nuances where race is concerned. No one has the power to make you feel guilty about being a white male, but that feeling could inspire you to do something rather than argue that acknowledging white privilege shuts you down. Doing something might not be high on your list of priorities, but you wrote this piece and are getting involved in the conversation, which is a start.

      And that brings us back to our emotions and how being aware of our emotions can help us enact change. I've never seen a dead body in real life but I'm sure it would evoke a totally different response than in a movie...I cannot equate the two. Being willing to focus on the issues themselves is what's important rather than your gut reaction to them. It is still important to question your reaction - why don't monuments of civil war leaders bother me? Why do they bother others? Is it because these glorified generals didn't fight to keep my ancestors in chains? Should I care more about the people who are directly affected by these images? I cannot know what it feels like for a black person to encounter a Civil War statue. It may mean something different to him/her than it does to me & that should be taken into consideration when deciding what to do with monuments and what type of parties to have around college campuses.


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