One of the biggest barriers to people dealing with and confronting their racism is shame. Like most people, I feel great shame when I engage with the world in a racist way. The word racism and racist invoke abhorrent feelings in people and we do all we can to distance ourselves from such labels. It is unfortunate that the word racism has taken on such negative connotation that people can no longer confront moments of racism without experiencing significant and debilitating shame.
But wait, isn’t shame a good thing? Doesn’t it mean that the person will no longer engage in racist acts if they experience shame when they do these things? American culture norms have led us to believe that shame is a great motivator of change. However, the academic research, including Brene Brown’s work, demonstrate that guilt is the great motivator of change while shame is the inhibitor of change. Shame causes us to withdraw, retreat, and quite often, engage in the behavior more. When people feel shame around a racist action, they hide it and disengage from it. There is no change, only retreat.
I can attest to this from personal experience. In my last reflection, I mentioned how when I was living in Washington, DC, I was in a mixed race neighborhood which at the time was majority persons of color. Due to various circumstances, I stopped feeling safe in that neighborhood, though, truth be told, I had not felt completely safe to start with due to my racist ideas of majority persons of color neighborhoods being ghettos. Instead of confronting my underlying racist beliefs about the relative lack of safety in this neighborhood, I felt great shame. I had moved to that neighborhood specifically to experience a more diverse community, but instead, deeply ingrained stereotypes and prejudice impacted my view and I determined it was not possible to feel safe in that neighborhood any longer. I moved to a predominately white, upper class neighborhood and shoved my shame down as far as I could. I felt great shame about how I reacted to the various circumstances and my decision to leave. But because I felt the heavy burden of shame, instead of confronting these thoughts and making great changes, I was paralyzed, causing me to shove down the shame and move on to other things.
Partly through my work with Brene Brown’s books, I have begun to work with the racist stereotypes and prejudices that arise in my life. I am able to work with the shame of racism because I can now speak shame and know it for what it is – an emotion that I can choose to deal with. Now, I use critical awareness to determine where these thoughts come from. All of us, every day, see dozens of racist messages and stereotypes in the media, in how society is structured, in what the people around us say or do, and in most things around us. Being critically aware that these messages can come from outside us can reduce the feelings of shame and move us towards guilt. It is simply not possible to never have a racist thought or inclination. Instead, what is possible is that we learn ways to deal with, face, confront, and change our behavior and thoughts. For many of us, that may only be possible after working through our own shame issues, whether through Brown’s methods or some other method. It is vital in order for us to grow that we address and speak shame, stifling its power, and ensuring we move towards being better people.
Have you thought about the connection between shame and racism before? How have you addressed your shame issues? Are there particular techniques you use to work through racist thoughts and actions? Please share your experience below in the comment section!