I always picture “shame” like the pea-soup green fog that descends on the town of Chewandswallow in the book Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.
It kind of rises up inside of you and hovers around you like an icky blanket and of COURSE every rational human being would want to avoid it. You’d be crazy not to.
I want to avoid it. Even just writing that sentence makes me want to hide under a blanket or take a shower. Shame is just such an icky feeling.
I want to avoid it so much, that sometimes it’s hard for me to listen to things that are true. If I feel like some part of what that person is saying somehow implicates me, my armor goes up and I try to run away as far as possible.
Especially when it comes to conversations about race. If there’s one thing that no kind, decent human being wants to be called, it’s a racist. (There are some other people out there who maybe wouldn’t mind being called a racist, but that’s a whole different story). In the US, we immediately picture ourselves being lumped in the same category as the KKK, cross burning and all. In South Africa, we think of the atrocities committed under apartheid, the police interrogations, the shame of having the world hate us, and we want to flee the other direction.
We do not want to be called racist.
And I think that’s a problem. It’s not that we don’t want to be racist. We don’t want to be called racist. We don’t want people to think we’re racist. How much do we really want to be people who are not racist?
On the surface I always say, “Of course I don’t want to be racist! I’m not racist!” But I definitely want to avoid the horrible squishy feeling that comes up when there are conversations about privilege. And my built-in anti-shame mechanism can prevent me from hearing truth, because I can’t get past my own feelings.
And when I’m listening to black friends share their experiences of racism, or talking about some systemic injustice their dealing with, whether it’s in the academy, or in their interaction at a restaurant, I oscillate between two different reactions. On the one hand, the pea-soup-fog of shame is descending and I just want to cover my ears and run away. Or, I want to immediately jump in to the story and share some kind of anecdote that will completely disassociate me from “those” racist white people who are nothing like me. On the other hand, this disassociating myself from “those racist white people” is a process that requires some pretty crazy racist white people to exist. I need those crazy racists so that I look okay, and the focus isn’t on me. As long as there are still people who will kill black people in churches, no one is asking me hard questions about my unconscious biases, or the systems that privileged me. And I’m safe, because I can avoid shame for the moment.
But, there’s concrete evidence that shows white people in South Africa are still privileged.
- In a 2006 and 2010 study conducted in KZN (controlling for class-based discrimination), almost 1 in 3 black people will be discriminated against in booking holiday accommodation.
- White people continue to occupy the highest living standard measures in South Africa, (73% of white people are in the highest two groups, and none are in the lowest groups). (Institute of Justice and Reconciliation Study, 2014).
- Black/African people make up 41.2% of the educated post-school population yet only 21.1% of managers are black/African. The percentage of black/Africans is even smaller in highest level management and CEO positions, where 69.2% of management positions are held by white people (a reminder that we white people are only 10% of the population). (Institute of Race Relations).
There’s hard evidence of racism in America today as well… evidence about how often black kids are convicted for the same crimes that white kids just get a warning for. Evidence about how the police treat people that they pull over. Studies that show there’s still discrimination in hiring and admissions processes. A history of racism that trapped some people in cycles of poverty and other’s in an upward spiral of privilege (but I haven’t just finished a masters in that, so I don’t have tons of studies at my finger tips. But you could watch this TED talk) that references several.
But as a white person, it’s really hard to hear things like this. It’s really hard to hear, because we have this pea-soup fog of shame that hovers around statistics like that, and since we don’t want to walk into that shame, we don’t want to listen to those stats, or hear those stories.
“That can’t be right!” our gut anti-shame mechanism tells us. “That’s only one side of the story. They’ve got to be slanting that somehow.”
Because if those stories and stats are true, it means that we’ve got to walk through that pea-soup fog. Because the truth is that I don’t have to let the shameful things about my heritage or my people group, or my social group define everything about me. But if I really want to be someone who isn’t racist, if I want to be for racial justice, then I’ve got to be willing to take the plunge to work through that process.
Even if it makes me uncomfortable.
Even if I don’t like what I hear.
I love Brene Brown’s stuff. She’s a shame researcher, but her focus is on whole-hearted living– connecting with others, having meaning, and being vulnerable. All the wonderful things that happen when we take a risk and step into discomfort and are willing to listen and grow.
(You should watch them all, but the link above is a FANTASTIC one on this topic. She’s so funny and I wish I was her. In this talk, in a side comment, she says that conversations about privilege are so difficult because of shame. But she has great comments about how to process shame, to be vulnerable, embrace discomfort and be fully alive).
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be blogging more about race stuff. And I’m inviting to you journey with me. Don’t let the shame– real shame, or the specter of shame- keep you from engaging. Be brave. Watch Brene Brown. Or at least read Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. 🙂