White Shame

A recent post by Chuck Dunning making the rounds on Facebook had this to say:

If I say, “White privilege is real and it means White people have some unearned social advantages just because they’re White,”

and you think I mean, “White privilege is real and it means White people should be ashamed of themselves just because they’re White,”

we’re having a misunderstanding.

That’s a fine enough bit of insight. But as I think about it, I wonder.

Shouldn’t we white folks be ashamed?

Shame has taken a beating in the public consciousness in recent years, and for good reason. At least here in the States, shame does quite a bit of harm. Due to social pressure and messaging, people feel ashamed for being gay, for weighing more than a sack of flour, and indeed, for having dark skin. These are terrible failings of our society, and we are right to say, “you shouldn’t be ashamed of that.” By the same token, it’s not simply being born with pale skin that anyone should feel ashamed of, that being something we have no say in or control over–so as far as that goes, Mr. Dunning’s implications in his post are on point.

There’s real value in shame, though, and we lose out on it (baby, bathwater, etc.) if we reject shame entirely. Shame motivates change. When we screw up, that squirming, burning discomfort urges us to do better in the future. When someone we’re close to, or identify with, or admire, screws up, the shame mixed in with our anger and disappointment prods us to consider: ought I to call this person to task, or distance myself from them? And that very calling-out, especially when seen at a community or societal level, aiming to make the offending individual feel shame in turn, is how our social norms advance.

As a white person, I should feel ashamed when police, paid for with my taxes and ostensibly defending my safety, brutalize and kill people of color.

As a white person, I should feel ashamed when politicians, representing me in our government, make public remarks indifferent to Black suffering and enact policies targeting Black people for disenfranchisement and incarceration.

As a white person, I should feel ashamed when I take advantage of my privilege to keep my social circles empty of people of color, to sit at home instead of protesting injustice, to earn and spend without furthering any causes beyond my own comfort.

It’s useless if it remains at shame, of course. That’s why “white guilt” has a bad connotation: it’s white folks squirming over how bad people of color have it, making public shows of sorryness without ever doing anything of concrete worth. But as a first step, an impetus? Perhaps it’s better that we acknowledge and understand our shame, rather than deny and defend against it. Only then can we put it to work erasing the prejudices and inequalities worth feeling ashamed of in the first place.

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2 thoughts on “White Shame

  1. Abram B says:

    Guilt and shame have seldom made me not want to do anything but hurt myself, whereas with empathy/pride in integrity/righteous anger I’ve sometimes stood up for the right thing to some extent.

    So maybe I’m reading too much of how the world seems to me into this.

    That said:

    As far as emotions go, it’s not overly hard to make people feel shame, and it’s theoretically kinda useful to get people to not act in certain ways, but is not an emotion that tends to promote action. I don’t think it’s super useful in general, but particularly not in an ‘actively get things done’ sense. Shaming people can also make them your vehement enemies – if they can’t believe they can ever be good people without rejecting your belief system, they will often do just that.

    Guilt can get people to act sometimes, but it’s hard to get people to feel guilt, and even if you do… guilt about one’s society is more often crippling than it is action-inducing.

    Thus… I think emotions like empathy, pride in one’s own personal integrity, and righteous anger are more useful for this sorta thing.

    • SabreCat says:

      A fair criticism. Shame is probably most useful on the micro, personal level, like “ugh, what I said there was actually pretty racist and shitty, wasn’t it?” — the shame that drives one to apologize, make amends, do better in future. Less useful for, say, fixing police violence.

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