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This post was written primarily for white people striving to dismantle white supremacy and I address the reader as ‘us,’ and ‘we’ to avoid separating myself from these noticings. This piece relies heavily on White Supremacy Culture by Tema Okun and The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown as frameworks.
Since the murder of George Floyd, a summer of uprisings, and the continued police, state, and vigilante violence against Black, Asian, Latinx, and Indigenous people, I have observed white people acting from an increased sense of urgency to restore a sense of ourselves as good. This urgency is more about avoiding our own shame rather than shifting violent systems.
When we are motivated by shame avoidance, white people perform anti-racism. Centering ourselves, rather than engaging in racial justice practice that changes material conditions for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. The combination of urgency and shame often creates a paralysis, a common place I find white funders and non profit leaders interested in working on dismantling white supremacy and the non profit industrial complex [Source: INCITE: Women of Color Against Violence]. My work focuses on supporting fellow white people in the shift from paralysis and into action. An essential step is to build our capacity to notice, name, and move through our shame responses of guilt, denial, and defensiveness. If dismantling white supremacy is our objective, having the tools to emotionally regulate ourselves away from shame is critical.
White Shame & Anti-Racism Performance
When working with white people on building resilience to shame, I lean heavily on the work of Brene Brown. She describes shame as “I am bad.” Conversely, guilt is “I have done something bad.” Shame gets to our personhood, “[corroding] the part of us that believes we can change and do better - we feel disconnected and desperate for worthiness” [Source: Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection, pg. 41]. Brown says that the fear of shame - that we are bad - grows through secrecy, silence, and judgement. We let white shame fester when we isolate ourselves from other white people and sit in our individual fragility.
Confronting our complicity in white supremacy sets off all kinds of defensive shame reactions for white people. When we feel shame, we numb and avoid. We center ourselves because we cannot get outside ourselves. We are not able to receive feedback or take an appropriate amount of responsibility for our impact - often we either overcompensate and take it all on or are not able to take any accountability. As a result, we aren’t able to enter into authentic, trust-building relationships with people of color.
Anti-racism performativity is motivated by a culture of perfectionism. We learn all of the checklists for how to behave, from characteristics of white supremacy culture to how white women weaponize white feminism, and we use this language to perform. This is rooted in the idea that if I behave perfectly, I can avoid feedback or critique. Feedback on our actions becomes analogous with failure, with being bad, and produces a shame response. Without attending to our high levels of shame as white people, we often go to great lengths to avoid feeling more shame - which ironically is a self-fulfilling cycle.
Shame Avoidance → Resilience
I was in that self-fulfilling cycle for a long time, dreading feedback and using a lot of energy to punish myself for my missteps and negative impacts. I became more risk averse, frozen in moments when I needed to step up, and felt generally stuck. Since I began practicing shame resilience, I am able to interrupt the cycles of shame, sit in a space of intentionally practicing and unlearning, and redirect my energy from self-punishment to challenging power structures. Brene Brown defines shame resilience as:
“the ability to recognize shame, move through it constructively while maintaining worthiness and authenticity, and to ultimately develop more courage, compassion, and connection as a result of our experience” [Source: Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection].
I like this definition because it highlights increasing courage to take risks, compassion for self and others, and connection instead of isolation. Pushing back on dominant, white culture, this definition challenges individualism by connecting with others. It combats perfectionism and punitive responses with maintaining a sense of worth and moving through shame.
Practicing shame resilience creates the emotional conditions for white people to be in authentic relationships with people of color, show up with humility and higher tolerance for risk in the fight against white supremacy, and cultivate loving and accountable relationships with ourselves and other white people. Building your own practices around shame resilience is an important way to take ownership for your emotions. I practice white shame resilience by:
- Noticing when I feel shame in my body through my physical cues and allowing myself to sit with the feeling. Getting connected to how I experience shame in your body. For me, my chest tightens, and I feel nauseous. When I start to feel it well up, I allow myself to feel the waves instead of pushing them away. What are your cues?
- Naming what happened, my thought patterns and shame spirals, and behaviors. Reflect on what happened from a space of compassion. Some questions to ask are: What did it bring up for you? What impacts did your behaviors have and on who? This might be a time to write out your thought patterns like the examples included below.
- Using tools for grounding. Rather than feeling shame that we are ashamed, we can interrupt these spirals using grounding tools. I use both/and thinking, breathing, and writing exercises (more below). Shame resilience tools, like using anything new, take practice to build the muscle.
- Calling a trusted white person to process and honor my feelings, give me feedback, and make a plan to take responsibility, accountability, or ownership, if applicable. We can’t do this work in isolation! Building our resilience to shame means reaching out for connection and processing.
Shame spirals often take the shape of agonizing over specific moments long after they have passed, rather than reflecting on what happened and how you may want to show up differently next time. Below are some examples of thought patterns from shame spirals when 1) you’re afraid to say something and 2) a blindspot has been revealed.
[Images courtesy: Both/And]
Either/Or → Both/And Thinking
Often shame spiral thought patterns oscillate between two seemingly contradictory poles, creating a high stakes, either/or scenario in our minds. In either/or thinking, all issues get cast as good or bad, right or wrong, with us or against us. We are not simply good or bad, and to be a white person striving to dismantle white supremacy is to sit with how our systemic impact will often not match our intent. Central to shame resilience work for white people is to sit with our contradictions.
Using both/and thinking revolutionizes many peoples’ relationship with themselves and others. Both/and thinking allows for seemingly contradictory things to coexist. Making this mindset shift allows us to hold complexity where we previously could not. To note, shifting from either/or thinking to both/and thinking takes practice AND it is possible.
Ways to practice:
- Notice when you say ‘but’ and substitute the word ‘and.’ You’ll be surprised how many oppositional statements you are making every day.
- Incorporate both/and phrases into your breathing [Source: Sandra Kim of Everyday Feminism teaches a both/and breathing exercise in her workshops!]. For example, before you might breathe in “I am going to be late” AND breathe out “there is nothing I can do about that now.” You will notice a shift in your body.
- Write out thoughts that feel in tension/conflict with each other. Using the thought pattern exercise above is a useful place to start. Rewrite them as both/and statements. Below are some of the both/and statements I wrote while crafting this piece.
Building White Accountability Relationships
Combating our competitiveness mindset and the desire to separate ourselves from other white people is a crucial part of building resilience to shame and working towards collective liberation. A person cannot practice resilience in isolation. I think of it as a way to reconfigure my white humanity, to undo so much of the ways I learned to numb in order to avoid my people’s continued legacy of violence.
By allowing yourself to feel and then appropriately move through shame with other white people, you build the emotional capacity to hold complexity, fight individualizing, and take an appropriate amount of ownership. I recommend cultivating relationships with a few people over a period of time so they can hold a mirror to your reactions, your growth, and your patterns. Pick other white people you trust to hold you when you feel vulnerable, listen without judgement, and give you real critical feedback. Who can both reflect back to you and support you to be accountable?
Processing vs Sharing
Learning the boundaries between processing and sharing is important to build accountable relationships with BIPOC folx. Sharing thoughts and emotions to create vulnerability and greater connection in mixed race spaces is important AND sharing emotions is different from processing them. Processing how we feel as white people (sad, embarrassed, shameful) with Black, Indigenous, People of Color puts a double burden on them to not only experience the violence of racism, but also to teach us about it and do the emotional labor of walking us through how surprised we are that it is so bad. As a general rule of thumb, process with white people first, share with BIPOC later.
Conclusion: Performativity & Perfectionism → Practice
Through practicing shame resilience, we can change our relationship to ourselves and to liberation work. As we move away from perfectionism and performativity towards racial justice practice, we are able to take bold action that requires risk, receive feedback, reflect and unlearn, and work in cross-racial relationships and multi-racial coalitions. Together, white people can increase our resilience to shame so we can work towards collective action that challenges white supremacist power.
Camelback Ventures’ Capital Collaborative works with white funders and social impact investors who want to deepen their individual and organizational commitment to racial and gender equity — but may not know how. Our unique approach brings together a community of white accomplices to engage in an introspective and concrete curriculum, to diversify their networks and make their grantmaking processes more equitable. You can learn more and sign up for Camelback Ventures’ next Capital Collaborative Cohort here.
Zara Cadoux is Co-Executive Director of Both/And. Zara trains and coaches white people in the social service/nonprofit sectors who are dedicated to moving against white supremacy. She is a current coach in Camelback Ventures’ Capital Collaborative, an invaluable new resource for white funders.