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The Problem of White Shame

How does “white shame” factor into discussions about racism in America? What one means by the term “white shame” may vary, but I will focus on something particular. I do not indicate the idea that whites are ashamed of being white.

Rather, by “white shame,” I refer to the shame felt by white people (especially in America) that stems from the past and/or present mistreatment of non-whites by whites. This sense of shame often comes from a mixed array of reasons. Someone might subconsciously feel ashamed of being associated with a group of people who have oppressed minority groups. Others may be ashamed of benefiting from racial injustices (e.g., white privilege).

Good White Racist Shame?

In her thought-provoking book, Good White Racist?, Kerry Connelly analyzes the role that shame plays in perpetuating racism. She points out that white parents routinely and unwittingly plant seeds of racist thinking in their children. As provocative as this sounds, hang with me for a moment while I explain.

Consider how shame works. As is well-known, the feeling of shame typically produces a desire to hide, to cover up, or keep silent about some matter. We see this in Genesis 3 and still today. The converse can also be true.

What do we teach our kids to be quiet about? The things about which we urge silence can foster a latent sense of shame. If we are not supposed to talk about something, there is a reason, a problem, or flaw that we should be wary of. In other words, if we shouldn’t talk about something, then it must be shameful.

Think now about the common practice of white parents who hush their children from talking about anything that relates to race. “Why is that man’s skin so dark?” a child asks. Connelly says, “white parents will forcefully shut down their questions in an effort to maintain their own comfort levels –– because it’s never comfortable for a good white racist to talk about race. This results in internalized shame in children, who feel the tension between what they want (relationship with people of color) and what they need (protection offered by the [family] tribe). (p. 34)

The shame that emerges further fuels the adopted ideal of being “colorblind.” Sadly, however, this too easily results in “colorblind racism.” This type of racist stems from naivety or well-intended ignorance whereby a person does not realize how unconscious biases perpetuate false stereotypes and social inequalities.

White Defensiveness

There is a second way that white shame maintains racist perspectives and practices. People under the influence of shame are prone to react with defensiveness. This too is a well-known symptom of shame. Connelly again describes the problem well. She writes,

“When we look at the history of our nation and our people, something inside of us withers and cringes at the cruelty of white supremacy, but damned if we know what to do about it. So instead, we raise our chins, search for justifications and denials, and say, “Not my ancestors.”

But our defensiveness only perpetuates the reality that our success, our lifestyle, our happiness, and yes, even our perceived goodness as Americans were built on the backs of people who were kidnapped, enslaved, tortured, pillaged, and/or slaughtered.” (p. 48)

In other words, defensive people don’t listen well. Defensive people attempt to exonerate themselves at every turn. When we’re defensive, we don’t seek ways that we can contribute to solutions because we’re too busy deflecting blame.

Appeals to “White Shame”

White shame is not an effective, long-term strategy to change minds. Shame can sometimes serve as a sudden jolt to one’s conscience, but only if it is used well. Few people understand how shame works to use it in a healthy manner. Instead, common shaming tactics usually push people away, creating an us-versus-them mentality. Whether you are white or non-white, relying on such methods is counterproductive.

What about those who experience white shame? Don’t use the ideas in this post as a justification not to do some introspection. Even if you, as a white person, are not “as bad” as some people claim, few people are blameless. Few people are free of harmful biases about others. We all have blind spots.

I hope this post equips you to deflect white shame so that you can think more clearly, not defensively. Finally, we need to recognize how not talking about race issues can produce white shame and perpetuate the problems of racism.

How White Believers Can Address Their Shame

In a lot of ways, approaching race can be done in similar ways as approaching a relationship with God.

  1. Humility is a key value. Allowing yourself to acknowledge the areas where you are lacking education, experience or understanding is the first step in making progress. Those truly growing in their relationship with God aren’t insistent in all that they already know. They have to be open, willing to fail, and above all else humble.
  2. There is also no reaching the “all-knowing” phase. As a white person, there will never be a way to reach a full understanding of what it is like to not be white. All the reading, listening, and learning you do will still leave an experiential void. In the same way, we are never complete in the teachings of God, you will also never be complete in your studies and growth on race. That doesn’t mean you stop pursuing education though.
  3. Be comfortable with discomfort. Remember the early days of your introduction to God. You didn’t understand the language. You couldn’t see the meaning beneath the words. You couldn’t identify the shortcomings in yourself. This process is the same. You’re going to learn something new every day you pursue knowledge.
  4. Finally, white shame often comes with a need to “do something.” Even the best intentions can lead to harmful missteps. Approach action from a place of service. Listen, as you would in church, to the words actually being said. Consider the real-world application and consequences of what you are learning. Pay attention to the needs actually being addressed by those directly affected. What you think might be helpful isn’t nearly as earnest as answering when called upon.

Shame isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can lead to valuable pursuits if approached with modesty and grace.

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