Addressing Shame As White Racial Justice Advocates

A couple of weeks ago I read Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly (2012 Gotham Books) and while there are several valuable points to be found in her work on shame, vulnerability, and resilience, there was one set of ideas in the book that had significant resonance with what I watch white people struggle with when addressing their internal responses to issues of race, racism and whiteness. But before I expound on them I want to be very clear that I am merely adding my own thoughts onto Dr. Brown’s work and I want to give full attribution to her, her research, and the voice she brings to an important and complicated conversation about shame, vulnerability, and resilience. As such, I ask that you honor the copyright agreements for these blog postings so that her work does not somehow get lost in any re-postings.


In my experience the resistance white people tend to put up around addressing issues of race, racism and whiteness is described variously as white peoples’ fear, guilt, shame, the preservation of their privilege, a manifestation of white entitlement, conflict avoidance, or simply ignorance. And while guilt and shame do often get mentioned, the conversation is more likely to be about the ways that white people “feel so bad” about what has happened to people of color, and as a corollary, how white people feel attacked or blamed by people of color for the current racial reality in the US. In her book, however, Dr. Brown differentiates guilt from shame and identifies the deep, corrosive nature of shame as opposed to guilt: guilt is “I feel bad for what I did”, shame could be described as “I feel bad for who I am”. And, in the case of white people’s resistance to race, racism and whiteness content, while both guilt and shame are operating, it is the latter dynamic which feeds the most substantial resistance. In her research Dr. Brown has identified many of the overt and covert facets of shame and how it immobilizes people, disconnects us from others and ourselves, and makes it nearly impossible to be open-minded let alone open-hearted…all conditions that freeze white people, stop racial equity from happening in their midst, and ultimately keep systems of racial oppression in place.


Her intent, however, is not merely to explicate the ways shame trips all of us up in our lives, it is to offer a countervailing idea she describes as “shame resilience”. Now, remembering that she is not specifically addressing social justice issues (and certainly not racial justice issues), here is what she says about shame resilience. I encourage you to make your own connections to racial justice work and the ways white folks can work through the trap of shame. “…I want to explain what I mean by shame resilience. I mean the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion, connection than we had going into it. Shame resilience is about moving from shame to empathy – the real antidote to shame” (p.74).


Again, though Dr. Brown is not specifically applying this content to social justice issues, it should be clear to anyone that this definition, and the disposition toward racial equity work that would arise out of it, are powerful elements in creating a racially just society. In this frame of mind, the privilege and benefits whites get at the expense of people of color is obviously anathema to achieving our fullest humanity. White privilege then becomes something not worth defending if its price is endless shame and our inability to connect to other human beings in empathy, compassion and care.


After defining shame resilience, she goes on to say that, “A social wound needs a social balm, and empathy is that balm…to get to empathy, we have to first know what we’re dealing with. Here are the four elements of shame resilience – the steps don’t always happen in this order, but they always ultimately lead us to empathy and healing” (p.75).

1. Recognizing shame and understanding its triggers

2. Practicing critical awareness

3. Reaching out

4. Speaking shame


In the pages that follow she goes into great detail regarding the application of these four elements in a person’s life. Here I want to tweek them a bit and talk about their utility in helping white people move through places of “stuckness” around their white privilege and racism in the service of racial justice and healing.


Recognizing (white) shame and understanding its triggers

There is a solid body of research looking at “triggers” as a general category of patterned response born out of our socialization. More specifically, however, there are some very general ways that white people in the US tend to get triggered around racial issues. Here are four (among many) that I encounter when doing racial justice training and education:

– Feeling attacked and blamed

– Feeling ignorant and unsure of what is true and not true

– Feeling scared to act for fear of making a mistake

– Feeling afraid that life will change in ways that they simply do not understand and might not like


In any of these moments white folks in my trainings will respond with varying degrees of defensiveness and anger. If this is something you have witnessed in yourself as a white person or seen white people do, it would be useful to stop and breathe and then ask some questions about what might be triggering you / them in that moment. Remembering that Dr. Brown suggests that empathy is the balm, this questioning should not reinforce shame through its tone or expected outcome. Rather an open-hearted inquiry is sometimes all it takes to get to deeper levels of honesty and a more responsive and reflective conversation.


Practicing critical awareness (regarding whiteness)

Dr. Brown suggests that this tool is about reality-checking the messages that are driving one’s shame. This is hard for white folks with respect to racial equity issues because we have been so badly and inaccurately educated about race, racism and whiteness in the US that we often do not have a place from which to differentiate true from false as we begin to learn more about these issues. One of the tools I offer in trainings is the notion of “critical thinking” and I have distilled that complex notion into three accessible ideas as a starting point for folks. In short, practicing critical awareness via critical thinking involves: 1) examining issues from multiple, non-dominant perspectives, 2) asking questions about resources, access, and power, and 3) asking myself how do I know what I think I know; have I been given all of the facts or do I just “think” I have?


Using these three questions when practicing critical awareness around white shame can help me as a white person to realize that a) I was, in fact, badly educated (which is not my fault), b) that I had never thought about access issues in relation to race before (again, how could I have if it was never modeled for me), and c) that I’m not really sure “where” I got all of my ideas about race from (and so perhaps they are not actually accurate or true). As you can see these questions afford me a little distance as a white person, which is quite helpful when looking at my part in racial issues in this society. As Peggy McIntosh says in the video Cracking the Codes, (I’m paraphrasing) “white people were born into a system they do not understand and were socialized to go along with; it’s not their fault, and they should not feel guilty but instead get busy.”


Reaching out (to other white RJ allies)

White privilege, and the ignorance, disconnection, fear and pain that support it, thrives in isolation. In fact, I imagine all dynamics that corrode connection and community thrive in isolation. As such, reaching out to other white people to ask questions, share concerns, and learn how to grow and work through racial justice issues is paramount. A caveat here is that the white person I reach to should be someone who is committed to racial justice issues, understands that shame is a horrible trap for white people, and who has a bit more knowledge than I. Without these elements, one is likely to stay stuck, or even exacerbate the shame of whiteness. Again, this is about connecting and being human and vulnerable with each other as we try to bring on line the elements of our values, hopes and dreams that have been silenced by systems of racial oppression and the impact they have had on our connections as white people.


Speaking shame (about being white)

When white people get caught in a shame spiral you can literally see them “leaving” the workshop. All of the defense mechanisms come up, their eyes close off a bit, their energy gets hard, and their faces steel somewhat. But, when I have watched white people name the shame, open up on a deeper level, the talons of fear do not seem to grip them and they can stay present (at least somewhat, anyway) in the training and basically “hang in there” with their discomfort. What it tends to do for people of color in the room, when the naming is done honestly, is make the training feel a little more authentic as a process and therefore a little safer to stay in the conversation. Importantly, this process of speaking the shame is not about white people becoming the victim of racial oppression through testimonials of how hard it is to be white at the exclusion of the pain people of color feel. Instead, there is a bit of distance here, relief against the sky if you will, where white people can see the shame arise, know that it is an impediment, and share about it from a desire to address the impediment rather than feeding the notion of how hard it is to be white. It may seem like I am splitting hairs here, but the distinction matters because it shapes the contours of the conversation and determines the level of wisdom, compassion and authenticity being brought to the table.


To be sure there are no “magic bullets” when it comes to addressing the barrier of shame felt by white people with respect to racial equity work. But, Dr. Brown’s shame resilience framework, when applied to racial equity work, can perhaps provide white folks some tools to get through those moments, stay connected to others in the room, and ultimately stay grounded enough to keep working toward racial justice in our lives, in our communities, and in this society as a whole.