Select Page

The Exception to Exceptionalism: Why marginalized communities feel a collective guilt in America

“Black people had called the police again and again on [Jeffrey] Dahmer, and the cops looked the other way. Once they even returned one of his victims. So Black people looked at how little the police cared about their lives and said, “Reagan took all our jobs. Congress took our programs, and now white people are literally eating us, and you’re still not doing anything.” And even today, if you look up Jeffrey Dahmer, people don’t realize that he largely preyed on People of Color, especially Black people. So the lack of concern about Black lives has been visible forever, but Black Lives Matter was the moment where the system’s treatment of Black men caught the national attention because a lot of people who didn’t care about police brutality, didn’t care about young black men, didn’t care about people they perceived as criminals said,” Oh, wait a minute. Next it’s going to be me.” – Heather Cox Richardson, “Voter Suppression in U.S. Elections”

When the federal building in Oklahoma City was bombed in 1995, the authorities and all media outlets immediately blamed it on “Islamic terrorists.” Members of the Muslim community around the country were attacked, verbally and physically.

All Muslims and people assumed to be Muslim or Middle Eastern “looking” collectively were held liable for the attack. When it was discovered that the bombers were two White men, there was no subsequent verbal or physical attacks on White people.

Likewise when the 9/11 attacks happened the same group guilt was thrown onto Muslims and Middle Eastern people around this country. When Black people protest and one sets a building on fire, all Black people are blamed collectively.

Collective guilt is something that we see consistently in this nation by marginalized communities. As individuals, our actions are liable to be used to function as a collective group action. We are all made to feel guilty for the actions of individuals when the action is something negative but not when it is something positive.

I hear all the time Black people cringing when a crime occurs and Blacks say “I hope it wasn’t a Black person.” We cannot function as individuals without some collective guilt being fostered upon us by the greater society.

For White people the rules are generally the opposite. When a White person like Dylan Roof, Jeffrey Dahmer, Timothy McVeigh, Ted Bundy and others in the White community commit horrific acts White people do not have to accept collective guilt. Whites are not forced to answer for these individuals.

When people in the White community do great things on the other hand, the entire community is given credit because the White community is “so superior” to others we are told. We hear about the values of the White community and how these exceptional individuals like Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony, Jonas Salk etc. etc. represent the race. Not so for those previously mentioned.

The Latinx community does not hear acclaim when people like Cesar Chavez, Roberto Clemente, Ellen Ochoa, Octaviano Larrazola, Sonia Sotamayor and other wonderful people from that community achieve greatness. Yet when an individual comes to the country in some way other than by legal means all Latinx people are held responsible.

This double standard allows Whites to maintain their exceptionalism and not be attached to the collective White community. When people like me write or talk about the racism of the White community, whites mostly say “it wasn’t me”, “that’s racist”, “I never owned slaves”, “I’m colorblind” and things to separate them from the collective actions of the White community.

When we look at communities of marginalized people in this country it is very difficult to separate yourself from the collective. A sense of collective guilt is built into how society forces us to see ourselves and our communities.

I don’t accept this double standard and advocate for other members of marginalized communities to do the same. I will not be held responsible when someone from my community does something that is bad until I see White people doing the same.

About The Author

Reggie Jackson

As an award-winning Senior Columnist for the Milwaukee Independent, Reggie Jackson covers a range of African American issues. He is also a Consultant with Nurturing Diversity Partners, and volunteers as Head Griot for America’s Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM) in Bronzeville.