The shame of it
Updated: Jun 3
I write this blog as a counsellor, but also as a white British woman.
“The less we talk about shame, the more power it has over our lives.”
Dr. Brene Brown, from her book 'Daring Greatly'.
Bringing shame into the open is hard but it can be the very thing that begins to allow us to move forwards and allows healing and change.
The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, like all the other unnecessary deaths that black communities have suffered, forces us all to look at the shame of insidious racism in a system that has existed for centuries in societies that were historically based on white domination of non-white cultures; a system we all allow to continue today whilst pretending it doesn't. We don't want the shame of it.
Seeing the protests and grief explode onto our screens over the past week is a difficult watch but an essential one. Seeing the denial of it is even harder. Watching the American President showing a total lack of empathy or understanding for what is happening at his front door but instead focussing on his own (white) power, was revolting. Seeing the silence from my own country’s leader, as communities here in the UK join in those protests, wasn’t much better.
Because it’s ‘over there’ in America, and we aren’t a part of it, right? It’s not really about us. Except it is about us. Not only because of the UK's historic connections to America (really not that long ago), not only because this connects us as human beings, but this also specifically connects all white people.
I have cried and felt angry. I’ve turned the screen off because I don’t want to see it (avoidance is a great protector of feelings), and felt disgust and righteousness and ranted and disbelieved. And I’ve berated myself for doing all those things too because although I can logically think about it and listen to others talk about it and academically discuss it, I couldn’t even begin to know what it feels like to be a victim of a racist society... because I am white. Am I even allowed to write this blog? Inner voices can be many and loud and at odds with each other.
I don’t proactively think of all the privilege I get from being white. I can enter into an argument with another person without fear they will call the police. I can walk down the street - any street in any place, really - without fear of being questioned for my motives. I can see works of art and antiquity from all over the world in my country because my country ‘owns’ them. I can be listened to and believed by those in authority. The fact that I am a woman changes some of those things too of course, but purely thinking in terms of skin colour, the list can go on and on and on.
A few years ago, there was a news story about a young university student who kept a sword in her room and often carried it around in college for a laugh. She was white so it was fine. She was eventually asked to remove it but only when it became a news story. Before that…totally fine. Just a pretty white girl with a sword. How very different that story would be if that student was black and male.
The system is shameful and in many ways it may be unconsciously so. In counselling, bringing the unconscious into our awareness can be a huge part of the work. Shame doesn’t want us to see it. Its work is much more powerful and effective if it is allowed to go about it in the dark.
We all carry the shame of racism but pretending that shame doesn't exist won't allow for change. Individually, we may not think we are racist and we may feel we live in a more modern time so it is not as relevant. We aren’t the people who sailed to other countries and used slaves and killed and stole from other cultures. Of course we are not those people but we are still allowed to benefit from that past and from the white privilege it created.
So we have to look the shame directly in the face and stare unblinkingly. It is unpleasant and stomach-churning but we have to look at it honestly and ask what part we all play in this system and how we can do it differently. I don’t know what those answers are. Perhaps all we can do right now it listen, and see and believe and support. Perhaps that’s a start. And let's not forget that we can VOTE. We made sure we have that right.
If we look at our collective shame, and accept it as real and true, then it can't pretend it doesn't exist. If we really see it, then we will want be without it, to diminish its power, and we will want to heal the wounds it has created and make change happen.
Shame is a powerful thing - but I believe, and I have seen, that the human capacity to overcome it is also powerful and often a force to be reckoned with