Freezing, Silence, and Shame

Hi Friends,

Happy Fall! I hope your school years have started well (for those of you caring for school-aged children) and that things are settling into a new routine.

I have been reading a lot and remembering some experiences and wrestling with the fact that there have been several times when a White person has acted in a racist way towards a Black person and I have been silent/frozen in the moment. I have not been walking the walk of my anti-racist talk. In response, I have been educating myself about bystander interventions and other strategies I can use to show up differently in public.

I’m finding that silence is really common, especially among White women. From my own experience, I have been socialized to avoid making anyone else uncomfortable (read, other White people) and I often feel socially disempowered in public spaces even though I’m not. My socialization can cause me to question what I’m observing and to make excuses or explain away someone else’s harmful behavior (read, if they are White). My/our tendencies to not get involved, to freeze or stay silent, need to be unlearned.

One of the books I read recently that really focuses on “nice White silence” is White Women: Everything You Already Know About Your Own Racism and How To Do Better by Regina Jackson and Saira Rao. I recommend this book with a caveat: If you are a White woman, this book will challenge and disrupt you. You need to have people or resources in place so that you do not get stuck in a disrupted state of shame or guilt. Before you read it, make plans to move through those feelings (advice heavily informed by Shelly Tochluk).

In my own processing of White Women, I turned to BrenĂ© Brown and her book, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough.” Brown focuses on the role of shame in our lives, particularly for women, although also for men, and I have found her insights to be absolutely essential for understanding my own journey of self-work in anti-racism and in understanding other White people’s barriers when doing this work (or to starting it in the first place).

For example, when White people start to learn more about their complicity in upholding White supremacy structures, they often respond with denial, bargaining, guilt, and shame. Brown says, “When we are experiencing shame, we are steeped in the fear of being ridiculed, diminished or seen as flawed. We are afraid that we’ve exposed or revealed a part of us that jeopardizes our connection and our worthiness of acceptance.” (p. 20) Fear of being branded as racist is very strong.

One of the things I have encouraged my readers to do is to always continue with our self-work, our own growth and healing. Brown says, “Empathy and connection require us to know and accept ourselves before we can know and accept others.” (p. 49) If we truly want to be in relationship with people in our communities, we need to be kind to ourselves and work on our own barriers to empathy and connection. And, it turns out that being afraid of saying the wrong thing to someone is a barrier to empathy and connection (p. 56).

Brown has struggled with the same things we do: “I’ve learned that it is better for me to accept the fact that I struggle with many of the same learned biases that other people do. This has allowed me to spend my energy unlearning and changing my prejudices rather than proving that I don’t have any.” (p. 59)

Beyond looking at how we treat ourselves when we are experiencing shame, we must also look at how we are treating others. Do we use shame to try to change someone else’s behavior? It won’t work. Brown says, “Are we using shame as a punishment because we think it will foster real change in people? Or are we shaming others because it feels good to make people suffer when we are in fear, anger or judgment?” (p. 66)

This past weekend, I participated in a “Depolarizing Within” workshop through Braver Angels. I’m still learning about this organization, and I found a lot of meaningful tips for rethinking a lot of my own polarization and how I can address that. One of the things I learned is how, even though I have diversified my media intake and authors I read from a racial/cultural perspective, I still mostly read people who I agree with. This reinforces my ability to “other” entire groups of people and is something I can and must address.

This is not a “both sides” argument. It simply means that if my goal is to encourage White people to engage in anti-racist/anti-oppression work in themselves and in their communities that I need to ensure that I approach those connections with respect and accuracy. If you want to learn more about the workshop, you can access the handout here (this is shared with their permission).

I would love to hear your thoughts about any of this. If you want to learn more about shame and the Black experience, I’m currently reading You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience by Tarana Burke and BrenĂ© Brown and it is such an important collection of work. And if you’re ready to move “away from individual learning and practice and into collective action that builds power,” check out this article from SURJ and/or find ways to support the UAW strike.

Listen. Amplify. Follow. In Solidarity.