Healing White Shame: Choosing Responsibility

I’m writing this article for antiracist white folks whether you work in an affinity group — other white folks fighting racism — or not.

There are some patterns I notice in progressive spaces. I’ve seen several white people, who hold a profound shame of their own humanity. I know that feeling, I had it too. It’s painful to witness.

It’s a wound that revolves around this awful thought. If I show people who I really am, they will leave.

This isn’t something that applies just to the random stranger on the street or the colleague, it impacts friendships, too. You like me because I haven’t really shown you my ugly. If you saw my ugly, you would leave. And the festering wound revolves around the idea that my wrinkles, my warts, my ugly is uglier than anyone else’s ugly. This shame establishes a wall between us and the other person, where no one, or almost no one is allowed on the other side of the wall. It makes for an extremely lonely and excruciating life. Here are some components of this shame: trauma, ego, and collective.

1. Trauma. Shame is quite often the result of sexual trauma, which is why I wrote that Sexual Trauma is the Backbone of white Supremacy. When the origin of the shame lies in sexual trauma — as it did for me — the shame is a mix of carrying the secret of the violation during youth, of unexpressed grief for lost innocence, and the guilt of putting ourselves in harm’s way or of having experienced some distorted pleasure with the pain.

2. Ego. The illusion that my ugly, is so ugly, so unacceptable, so unlovable, so horrid, putrid, unforgivable, is a humongous ego trip. We commonly think of ego trips as people feeling so superior, perfect, outrageously above everyone else. In fact, both, are ego trips, because the ego is interested in maintaining separation, of any kind. You can think of it this way: it’s the ego saying:

“My ugly, is sooo ugly, it’s the ugliest ugly on the planet, it’s the biggest, baddest ugly anyone has ever seen.”

If this sounds like a Saturday Night Live comedy skit of 45, I’m not surprised, because he’s a reflection of how common our ego trips actually are. As long as that ego is running the show, we have a hard time connecting to anything bigger than ourselves, call it God, source, universe, or life. We also have a hard time in our actvism because that shame gets in the way of any real sense of community. As long as we see ourselves as separate, we act on that separation and make detrimental choices for the “whole”: be it community, nature, life, or humanity. And when we can’t accept our own humanity, life gradually feels more numb, more dull, and more lifeless. No wonder suicide among white youth is reaching record highs, when we hide our humanity, over time, life often loses the wonder of living at all.

3. Collective Shame. White progressives have an ambivalent and contradictory relationship with shame. On one hand, we hide our personal shame, as we become more and more miserable, more and more isolated. On the other hand, our collective shame is something we’re proud of. We study history book after history book and flagellate ourselves with the horrors of the past while we consider ourselves superior to the whites who don’t embrace this collective shame.

I think the alt-right reacts viscerally to our relationship with shame when they call progressives “snowflakes” and other insults. Understandably, a community grounded in blame, shame, and guilt around being white is not appealing to white people who don’t already have those feelings or don’t want to or dare to feel them. As progressives, we attempt to hide our individual shame, but are also self-righteous in the face of whites who dare have the collective shame. We return the judgment with judgment.

Here’s the piece that to me, is the biggest mindf*k. We do need to know our history to make different choices. But our collective shame has become a badge of honor in white progressive spaces, that is to a great extent unexamined. We talk about injustices, but not our real feelings about them. Because we experience collective shame in isolation, in our peculiar uglier than thou fashion, the shame, instead of being openly processed and collectively healed, festers and grows. It undermines our collective work, because when we don’t fully love ourselves, we keep a distance from others, allowing ourselves to be only somewhat invested, somewhat involved, somewhat committed. Or, we become subsumed to a cause thinking we’re putting ourselves aside, while in fact our self-neglect spills over in white fragility and microagressions all over the place. And we’re extremely judgmental of people who think, feel differently than we do. Unresolved shame makes us easily hurt, insulted, reactive. We end up merely tolerating our companions in the struggle: we can’t really accept their humanity, because we can’t accept our own. We create weak relationships and weak communities. Activist communities are laden with trauma reenactment.

So the mindf*k is that while we think our shame is fueling our activism. When we wear it on our sleeve, it’s actually fueling our isolation, because we emotionally distance ourselves from others in the work. Of course, the collective shame, is what brings many of us to the work. But that shame can lie unresolved forever. Shame fosters our obsession with fixing others: white people, society, people of color. It undermines our activism. So what would white communities that get beyond shame look like? How can we get there?

We can generate authentic, alive, humane communities that work together on our own sticky humanity to create a society that is different than what we’ve seen for centuries. Releasing personal and collective shame will mean being vulnerable and taking risks. It means creating spaces where we can talk about, cry about, and release the individual and collective feelings of shame. Shared discussions about shame when it comes up are critical to release it. It means we care enough about each other to listen to those feelings as long as it takes for them to blow over. It means building the trust that we can be vulnerable and our community will listen. It means creating vulnerable moments as sacred community, instead of pretending nothing happened and moving on. It means slowing down. So much individual and collective trauma reenactment happens when we go too fast.

I’d love to see us acknowledge, recognize, and deconstruct the connections between our shame and our white fragility. Shame fuels the fragility. White fragility is just the symptom. I’d love to see us discover the connections between our individual and collective shame. What lessons, what gifts may the shame provide? If we express the shame, grieve what was lost, acknowledge what we learned, we’ll be one step closer to taking responsibility and choosing something different. Healing shame involves being seen, feeling the feelings, and recognizing the gifts our wounds can bring.

With your white affinity group, you may reflect on these questions :

  • Personally, what are you ashamed of?
  • Collectively, what are you ashamed of?
  • What is similar or different in experiences of shame?
  • What gifts does the shame have for me personally? For us as a collective?

If we don’t heal the shame, we can’t really take responsibility and do better. We’re too stuck in the past to create a new, different future.

Previously published on Medium.com.

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Photo credit: Akshar Dave on Unsplash