White shame: How to convert guilt into action

"At a deep subconscious level, America is ashamed."

Spencer Platt

Over the last month, sparked by the murders of unarmed Black Americans and subsequent protests, the national conversation has turned to the country's racist past and present.

For some this conversation includes reckoning with one's self: Have I participated — actively or subconsciously — in a racist system that oppresses people of color? Am I racist?

Asking this question and facing the true gravity of America's oppressive history can plunge people into overwhelming shame, psychologists tell Inverse. This is a stumbling block in fighting racism.

Most people have engaged in racist thinking. If you're white, you have benefited from racism. Confronting this reality can make people shut down, feel deeply ashamed, and avoid taking responsibility.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Experts say that, by converting shame and guilt into productive action, people can channel these painful emotions positively and become more anti-racist.

"At a deep subconscious level, America is ashamed, and shame operates in really weird and insidious ways, interpersonally and structurally," Wizdom Powell, a psychologist and professor at the University of Connecticut who studies population health disparities, tells Inverse.

"America does not want to confront it collectively, because it's a mirror and it's hard to hold up that mirror and look at it," Powell says. "But if we don't, then we're going to continue to visit the same river twice."

Perfectionism is a characteristic of white supremacy culture, which can keep white people from taking action, Kira Hudson Banks, a psychologist and professor at Saint Louis University, citing Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun's workbook for social change groups, Dismantling Racism.

"Mistakes are seen as personal — they reflect badly on the person making them as opposed to being seen for what they are, which are mistakes," Banks tells Inverse. "Making a mistake is confused with being a mistake. Doing wrong with being wrong."

"I encourage white folks to work through the shame that they are feeling and find ways to loosen that up to not see themselves as shameful even though they might feel shame. Working with other white people might be a way to help them do that."

Shame spiral — When people violate moral, ethical, or religious norms, and then suffer hits to their "social self" — their social status or standing — they can feel shame.

Shame often entails judging yourself as "bad or worthless." When it comes to race, shame can manifest as an aftershock of discrimination, injustice, or violence for both perpetrators of racism and victims.

"Shame becomes how you define yourself, rather than an emotion that you are feeling that will come and go," Banks says.

This feeling often comes along with another painful emotion: guilt. When people feel shame, they feel bad about themselves. When people feel guilt, they feel bad about something they've done. Subsequently, a person might feel "shameful" rather than feeling "ashamed for this one thing I did," Banks explains.

Demonstrators hold a rally and teach-in outside of the Seattle Police Departments East Precinct, which has been boarded up and protected by fencing, on June 8, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. Converting feelings of guilt and shame into productive action, like peaceful protests, can help people overcome the challenging emotions.

David Ryder / Stringer

"Shame is a really threatening and painful emotion," June Tangney, a veteran shame and guilt researcher at George Mason University, tells Inverse. "The whole self is under attack. Not just my behavior that is something I can change. Shame is about who I am, which I cannot change."

Shame can be very self-focused and selfish, Tangney says, distracting people from focusing on others who may be affected by behavior. Often, Tangney says, it feels so intolerable that people quickly become defensive to cope. They rationalize, justify, or externalize blame for the shameful event to avoid taking a hard look at themselves.

Shame is so powerful that it's both an emotional and physical experience. It causes body language to change and stress hormone levels to spike. The negative health effects of shame can linger in the mind and body over a lifetime.

Some scientists argue shame is "so pervasive, so corrosive of the self and so potentially detrimental to health, that there is a considerable utility in considering it an affective determinant of health."

How to use shame to become anti-racist — Even though shame may initially be debilitating, it is possible to harness the negative emotion and make positive change — like dismantling racism.

Instead of ascribing yourself or others as irredeemable villains due to a mistake, acknowledge wrongdoing and recognize you or someone else is capable of change.

It's not about letting people off the hook or letting go of accountability, Tangney and Banks explain. It's about calling out people in a way that doesn't cause them to shut down or throw them into a self-defeating shame spiral.

". . . realize that staying stuck in your shame and not doing your work to manage that, is making it about you."

Tangney stresses humiliating others and labeling them as "racist" isn't an effective tactic to promote behavior change.

"There is something about giving people an out or a way to correct their behavior," Tangney suggests. "So not labeling people, but instead talking about a specific behavior because the behavior can change."

"It can feel overwhelming to some to feel like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm white in a racist system that systematically advantages white people. What can I do about that?'" Banks says.

To convert shame into action, Banks suggests people think about where they have influence and how they can leverage their privilege. That could mean changing practices within a workplace, working to hire a Black employee, or having race-related conversations with other white friends.

"If you are serious about anti-racism, and you are seeing that you want to be a part of the solution rather than the problem, realize that staying stuck in your shame and not doing your work to manage that, is making it about you," Banks cautions.

It is not helpful to remain locked into a cycle of self-reflection, without taking positive action. If you've committed a shameful act, instead of focusing on how that act might influence your own identity, try to pinpoint how it impacted others. Then find a way to repair that damage — apologize, advocate, donate, demonstrate, and learn ways to do better.

While shame can interfere with empathy and make people feel helpless, "guilt and empathy go hand in hand," Tangney explains. Guilt can push people towards forward-oriented actions, like apologies and reparations.

Ultimately, stopping systemic racism requires a collective societal awakening and sustained political will. Overcoming shame is just one part of building a more equal future.

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