Do you have 5 minutes for some self-care?
Follow along with Vanissar’s new Youtube video:
Do you have 5 minutes for some self-care?
Follow along with Vanissar’s new Youtube video:
We have all experienced it. We have inflicted it on ourselves or others. Subtle and not-so-subtle shaming, blaming and self-righteous ostracizing undermine social justice work.
Here are 10 reasons to shift the shame-and-blame-game:
1) Shame and blame is experienced by our reptilian brain–our “flight or fight” brain–as a threat. When you shame yourself or allow others to shame you, your body is plunged into survival mode, accompanied by a blast of cortisol. The brain on shame responds automatically with defensive behaviors such as arguing, lashing out, passivity/paralysis, appeasing (being a “doormat”), avoiding responsibility or “spacing out.”
2) Shame undermines the qualities that inspire us to engage in social justice action, including the empathy and sense of interconnectedness http://letstalkmovementbuilding.org/forget-empathy-time-radical-connection/ that enable us to take responsibility, and the courage and confidence to take action.
3) Shame creates tunnel vision and absolutist thought patterns that stunt our ability to process nuance and complexity. With complex social problems to face, can our communities afford these creativity-droughts?
4) When blame is a habit, there is no end to it—because we will always find something–or someone–new to blame.
5) We become what we practice. The more we blame others, the more blame becomes our “go-to.” Do we want our group to take on a bitter, resentful persona?
6) If we allow blaming communication norms to thrive in our communities, sooner or later each one of us will be targeted by blame. These endless pointing fingers fragment and breakdown our alliances.
7) In a blame-shame climate, we can become so fearful of being “called out” or ostracized that we cannot acknowledge our ability to misuse power or make mistakes. We can become so defended that no one can teach or correct us.
8) Blame is a victim’s mood; blaming dis-empowers the blamer. Blaming thoughts are a clear indication that our energy is focused outside ourselves. Our attention is on what others are doing or not doing: “Look at what they are doing to us!” “If only they would change, then we could do what we need to do.” When our group places most of our attention on others, we abandon our collective power, and take on a victim identity.
9) Oppression produces shame, and this shame acts like a virus. Once we have internalized oppression and become “infected” with shame, it’s all too common to spread that shame to others through self-righteous attacks. When we attack others, we become vectors of oppression-driven shame.
10) My psychology of unlearning racism dissertation research revealed shame as the core obstacle that prevents white people from engaging in racial justice work. Shame likely obstructs other privileged groups in a similar way.
Antidotes to Shame & Blame
Let’s say our community or social justice group decides to take these habitual shame and blame pitfalls seriously. Changing old habits is possible when we are focused and persistent. With that in mind, what can we do?
1) We can take back that energy we habitually focus on the “other,” and use it for our own healing. We can practice stepping into our power and taking responsibility. We can imagine gathering up all our focus into the here and now, and then ask ourselves, what do we want to create? Then we can focus and re-focus on that!
2) We can do something else with our (rightful) anger about oppression. We can channel that energy into fierce love for ourselves, each other and the world we want to create. Instead of triggering each other’s “fight and flight” brains, we can wake up each other’s creative brains and courageous hearts.
3) We can start creating a compassionate and just world right now. We can practice treating all beings with compassion and respect, now.
4) We can set clear intentions before we offer our analysis of the blind spots of cis people, white people, able-bodied people, men, or straight people, etc.. What is our message? Who is our audience? Are we trying to motivate cis people, white people, etc. to engage in social justice work? We can habitually check our communications for any subtle shaming and blaming that could sabotage our intentions.
5) We can set a clear intention for our community healing work. Do we want to empower our beloved community by breaking silence about oppression, expressing feelings, and naming shared experiences? We can make sure we do not default to a climate of blame/victimhood by giving away our attention to privileged groups. We can make a collective commitment to focus on generating our healing and speaking our truth.
6) Refuse to be a vector for oppression! We can decide to break the vicious cycle of oppression-driven shame. When we are tempted to blame others, we can practice turning that attention inward. What needs to be loved and healed in us? Which of our strengths need to be nurtured? When we lovingly attend to building our own power, we are practicing liberation.
Thanks to Connie Burke, Valerie Batts, J. Elena Featherston, Victor Lewis, Visions Inc., Steven Wineman, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky for education and inspiration.
Part I: FINDING THE GROUND IN “GROUNDING”
In North American healing and spiritual practice circles, people often use the expression “grounding,” as in “I need some grounding” or, “I wish I was more grounded.”
Over-used, over-familiar expressions can lose their meaning. Let’s take a fresh look at grounding.
What is Grounding, Anyway?
To be grounded is to be in direct relationship with your aliveness, including your body’s sensations. This aliveness, rooted in the earth’s aliveness, is innately congruent. Truthful.
This direct relationship should come naturally to us: Our bodies are built to be in constant relationship with the earth. Instead of wings or flippers, we have feet. Our bodies are built to be in and of the earth, with butterflies and dragonflies, spiders and ants bustling all around us. We are meant to live among the flowers and herbs, bushes and trees.
Gravity’s steady embrace anchors us to the ground. We are part of this earth. Immersed in it. Just sit outside anywhere, even in the heart of the city. Sitting quietly, you begin to notice insects, birds, squirrels, and insistent weeds. The earth’s aliveness includes all of us, even if we live in green-less concrete. Life happily crawls all over us and through us as microbes and bacteria. As embodied beings, we cannot not be part of the living, breathing earth.
Yet we get cut off from that direct intimacy. Collectively and individually, we numb and distract. As we disconnect from our sensations, we lose our direct relationship to truth, vitality and other beings.
Collective Lack of Ground
Collectively we exist in a culture of dis-embodiment and dissociation. This nation is founded on the denial of First Nation genocide, the denial of the enslaved-African holocaust, and paved over with generations of dishonest rhetoric. It’s an American way of life. Just listen to the words of politicians, and then observe their actions.
James Baldwin illuminated these connections in The Fire Next Time:
“To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread…Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become. It is this individual uncertainty on the part of white American men and women, this inability to renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives, that makes the discussion…of…any reality — so supremely difficult. The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality — for this touchstone can be only oneself.”
In this environment of collective-delusion, even those of us who hold ideals of non-violence, inclusive, community-based accountability, and social justice can lose our taste and stamina for truth. It is all too easy for our muscles of courage, integrity, follow-through and responsibility, to atrophy.
Individual Lack of Ground
Individual fakeness, flaky-ness, and phony-ness all begin with self-delusion.
When we are disconnected from what our senses are telling us, we miss the moment when we let someone down; we sleepwalk through actions that are incongruent with our values. We compartmentalize. Our left hand—literally–does not know what our right hand is doing.
This fog of disconnection makes it almost impossible to feel our impact on others. To acknowledge harm, and make amends.
Finding Integrity in Your Ground
What does it take to notice when you fail to embody micro-non-violence, micro-accountability, micro-compassion in your day to day?
What does it take to say, “I messed up; I’m sorry.” What does it take to say, “I am sorry I harmed you.” “I’m sorry I spread gossip.” “I am sorry I judged you for no good reason.”
What does it take? You may say it takes humility. To me, humility means living close to the ground, immersed in the living earth. Our senses rooted in vitality, wide-awake to ourselves and others.
Grounding Within Discomfort
So we have plenty of reasons to cultivate—collectively and individually–a direct relationship with “what is” –with truth!—for the sake of all beings. What else is grounding for, if not this?
Like any other skill, alignment with living truth can grow through repeated practice—in our bodies.
This practice can be painful. Recently on retreat I was blessed with an intimate, microscopic view of my habitual defenses and self-obsessed thought patterns. Ouch. It was pretty clear that melting my entrenched defendedness would take patience and persistence. At the same time, I felt closer to the ground than ever before; unencumbered and sublimely alive.
Facing our integrity-lapses is not fun. Staying in direct contact with our “what is” takes courage, and humor. But it does not have to be an ordeal or a big deal.
Part II: REMINDERS AND PRACTICES
Here are some reminders and practices to directly connect us to vitality:
Reminder 1: Aliveness is Here and Now
The raw immediacy of sensations, emotions is always present; you just need to open the door that is in front of you. Vitality arrives through many different doors–myriad emotions, and all kinds of sensations and body states.
When the door appears, open it. Acknowledge the fear, the anger, the familiar chronic-pain. Is your head buzzing? Are your legs leaden? Is your chest warm? Are you enraged, despairing, or delighted? Listen to the stories you are telling yourself about this moment. Beneath the story, beneath the sensation or emotion is pure aliveness. Straight-up vitality, with no agenda.
Reminder 1 Practices:
Reminder 2: You Can Trust Your Aliveness
Many of us have learned to fear our unstoppered vitality. Here’s where Machig Labdron’s http://www.bellaonline.com/articles/art67742.asp advice, “Go to the places that scare you” applies. Using a gradual approach, you can acclimatize to being anchored in your raw aliveness. Just like starting a new exercise that builds unused muscles, or getting used to spicy food, you can increase your tolerance for aliveness little by little. As your fear begins to melt, you start to enjoy the inflow of the earth’s vitality, and the flow of your vitality.
Reminder 2 Practices:
Reminder 3: Aliveness is Simple, Small, and Local
Easy, modest, obvious practices are enough to reconnect us with our source/the Source. Try out some micro body movements; make sounds that match your feelings. Again, work with whatever is present. Simple, small, gentle approaches gradually build your fluidity and robustness, and help you sustain your grounding in aliveness.
Reminder 3 Practices:
Of course, the prerequisite to being able to trust and ground in your aliveness is to first establish a steady sense of feeling safely held. Those of us who have had that steadiness robbed from us by trauma or oppression need to go back and rebuild that foundation.
Some tools to help you establish safety can be found here: http://www.vanissar.com/blog/emotional-first-aid-for-the-holidays-or-anytime/
Grounding in Shifting Ground
But we can’t stop there! As these examples illustrate, true grounding is not static:
In these times of upheaval and possibility, we need to be able to find and re-find our ground within earthquakes, to blend—metaphorically and literally–with the earth’s cycles of quaking and stillness.
Familiarity with our own body’s shake-ups and resolutions primes this resilience. Small and large movements constantly unfold in our bodies. We can tune in to the rhythms of digestion and elimination, of breathing and sensing in our organs. When we are relaxed with our own internal movements, when we can enjoy being a body in motion, it is easier to dance with life’s unpredictability. When Life undulates, we can, too.
We can learn to return, again and again to that raw, direct aliveness.
It turns out that being deeply grounded in our bodies is earth-shaking. The more you embody your aliveness, the less predictable you become—especially to yourself! And that is just what is needed in these urgent, unpredictable times. Only the collective awakening of our deep, fluid being-ness can heal the earth at this point.
Happy September! My birth month has me feeling adventurous, so instead of writing, I made a couple of videos…
Finding Home in Your Bones I:
Finding Home in Your Bones II:
The videos lead you through 3 grounding practices I call “bones meditations.” I share these practices with my clients on a regular basis to help with grounding.
I invite you to watch and “try on” the practices. If one or more of them feel good to you, I recommend you practice them daily. Bones meditations can increase your self-trust and create a feeling of safe-haven in your body. Enjoy!
Can trauma be a doorway to Spirit?
Peter Levine thinks so. He writes in his book, In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness,
“Trauma represents a profound compression of “survival” energy…these same energies…can also open to feelings of heightened focus, ecstasy and bliss…it appears that the very brain structures central to resolution of trauma are also pivotal in various mystical and spiritual states.”
Levine also connects kundalini awakening with trauma:
“In trauma, a similar (to kundalini) activation is provoked, but so intensely and quickly that it overwhelms the organism.”
For me, trauma and spiritual awakening have been two sides of the same coin.
Childhood trauma forced me to dissociate from the deathly assaults on my body and turn my focus to communing with the stars, the wind, trees, animals, and the unseen Divine. This continual childhood practice of dissociation and spiritual wandering likely set the stage for the kundalini awakening I experienced in my twenties.
That same awakening eventually unearthed my long-buried memories of child sexual abuse.
Barbara Harris writes in her book, Spiritual Awakenings: A Guide for Experiencers and Those Who Care for Them,
“Children exposed to physical violence, sexual abuse, neglect or other mistreatment or trauma learn to dissociate. They tune out this painful reality and then can tune into other nonsensory realities where they feel safe…allow(ing) absorption into alternate, nonordinary realities.”
Harris believes this practice of childhood dissociation instills the adult capacity to become easily absorbed in altered states and mystical experiences.
Trauma can be a spiritual opportunity. A gift.
However, as Peter Levine notes,
“Mystical experiences that are not experienced in the body just don’t “stick”; they are not grounded.“
My own experience confirms this. I was not able to embody the mystical realizations of my twenties. I was too terrified of the trauma-sensation landmines to be able to stay present with my body.
It is only recently, after twenty years of hard work—trauma healing work–that I am beginning to bring some of these realizations into my habitual behaviors.
Through steady meditative and somatic practices, these mystical insights are gradually being integrated into my daily life, and incarnated into the cells and tissues of this body.
My body is teaching me that authentic spirituality is embodied.
Spirit wants us to dwell in the here and now of stubbed toes and kisses, money and dishes, kind strangers and unjust social systems.
Anam Thubten reminds us to
“Love life, and love it with all its messiness. Life is both beautiful and messy.”
Healing trauma also unfolds in the body; healing is also beautiful and messy. May we all heal into an ever-deepening relationship with Spirit.
SPIRITUAL EMERGENCE/Y BOOKS
Arching Backward by Janet Adler
The Experience of No-Self by Bernadette Roberts
Kundalini: the Evolutionary Energy in Man by Gopi Krishna
Daughter of Fire by Irina Tweedie
Hidden Treasure: Jesus’s Message of Transformation by F. Aster Barnwell
Energies of Transformation by Bonnie Greenwell
Spiritual Awakenings: A Guide for Experiencers and Those Who Care for Them by Barbara Harris
The Stormy Search for the Self by S. Grof & C. Grof
A Sourcebook for Helping People with Spiritual Problems by Emma Bragdon
The Black Butterfly by Richard Moss
**If you enjoyed this article, check out the Navigating Spiritual Awakenings Workshop in Oakland, CA on August 27:
Part II: The Virtuous Cycle of White Self-Compassion and Empathy for People of Color
In Part I we looked at the Vicious Cycle of White Racial Shame and Disconnection from People of Color. http://www.vanissar.com/blog/from-white-racial-shame-to-empathy-for-people-of-color-part-i/
Happily, white people can cultivate a virtuous cycle of compassion and empathy instead.
What is Compassion?
Compassion is all at once a practice, a state of being and a bodily experience. In practice, compassion is an attempt to be intimately present with oneself or others. Compassion is also a spacious, non-judgmental state of awareness. On a body level, compassion can feel like an expansive feeling of tenderness (sometimes emanating from the chest) that envelopes self and others in a palpable sense of connection.
How Does Self-compassion Lead to Empathy?
The seeds of empathy are always within us; given the right conditions, they will root and grow. If shame is like a drought; compassion is like sunlight, soil and moisture. Compassion supports empathy in several ways:
Compassion melts shame, softens denial and reawakens our childlike qualities of trust, curiosity, and our sense of justice and fairness. It allows our hearts to remember our connection with all beings. Receiving compassion from others helps us to forgive ourselves and start fresh. As we steadily practice receiving compassion from ourselves and others, our empathy for others grows robust, giving us the courage to listen non-defensively to others and look directly at suffering and injustice. This is a cycle we want to encourage!
Practices That Support the Virtuous Cycle
This virtuous cycle that shifts white people’s disconnection into empathy for people of color has some difficult aspects. Re-awakening empathy means thawing out from numbness about racism and white privilege. Just like when your foot has fallen asleep and the return of circulation feels like “pins and needles,” at times the empathy awakening process can be very uncomfortable. White people need all the help we can get.
Here are 8 practices that support the virtuous cycle of white self-compassion and empathy for people of color:
*Creating supportive white racial justice community
*Compassion and forgiveness practices and reflections
*Reflecting on how socialization into the oppressor role is systemic and involuntary
*Body-based and expressive arts practices to release shame
*Healing trauma in your body (personal trauma, social trauma/oppression)
*Racial justice action
*Developing a positive white identity
Creating Supportive White Racial Justice Community
When white people begin to thaw out from numbness about racism and white privilege, it is uncomfortable, to say the least! To thaw out and reclaim empathy for people of color, white people need the ongoing support and encouragement of community.
It is easier to heal the social emotion of shame in community—a compassionate community where white people can give voice to their personal or collective shame, and to any underlying feelings of despair and powerlessness. Speaking the unspeakable in a loving context is redemptive, especially if everyone present is “in the same boat.”
The best community for this purpose is a group of white people who are committed to ending racism, and who are willing to welcome each other’s wholeness, and all the complex emotions of the thawing out journey. Such a community can lovingly hold members accountable, and support everyone to keep engaging in racial justice work through mistakes and setbacks.
Compassion and Forgiveness Practices
The more you practice compassion and forgiveness, the easier it is to access these states. Also, as James Baraz notes in Awakening Joy, when we meditate on compassion, it stimulates our action-planning brain; this compassion-action connection sounds promising for anti-racist activism. Here are two Buddhist practices that help us to cultivate compassion and forgiveness for ourselves and others:
Tonglen (Sending and Taking):
It is important to note that practicing compassion while staying insulated from communities of color does not necessarily increase white people’s empathy for people of color. These practices need to be combined with exposure to information about systemic racism.
Meditation enhances awareness of self and others, minimizes the amygdala’s automatic fight or flight reactions, and opens up space for our mammal brains to generate compassion and empathy. However, white mindfulness practitioners who are disconnected from communities of color are not likely to have much empathy for people of color. Mindfulness practices need to be combined with racial justice education. When mindfulness practices are combined with racial awareness, white people become more present to the daily realities faced by people of color.
Reflecting on How Socialization into the Oppressor Role is Systemic and Involuntary
Racism is a centuries-old, inherited, systemic worldview and way of life. As children, white people involuntarily absorb a racist worldview through social conditioning, and passively benefit from racist institutions. Remembering the pervasive and involuntary socialization process can reduce individual blame and shame and increase a white person’s compassion and forgiveness for all white people, including themselves.
Body-based and Expressive Arts Practices to Release Shame
Shame cannot be healed by words or concepts alone; it is linked up with the amygdala’s fight or flight system, which speaks the language of sensation. This language can be accessed through Somatic healing modalities such as Generative Somatics, Somatic Experiencing, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, and EMDR, which provide strong containers for healing shame.
Bodywork can also shift shame when the practitioner embodies compassion for the client. Expressive Arts practices that engage the senses can transform shame into compassion. Authentic Movement, dance, journaling (with sensation awareness), making or listening to music, drumming, storytelling, painting, drawing, etc. can all be effective.
Healing Trauma in Your Body (Personal Trauma and Oppression Trauma)
Shame of any kind amplifies all shame. If a white person does their work to heal and release shame related to trauma, abuse and oppression, they will be less susceptible to shame in general, including racial shame. Since the journey of healing from personal and ancestral shame unfolds in the body; the modalities mentioned above can facilitate this journey.
Personal healing sometimes directly overlaps with racial shame healing. For example, when a white individual brings compassionate awareness to the racial shame coping strategies passed inherited from their family members (see Part I), they can simultaneously work with the personal hurts inflicted on them by these coping strategies, and begin to forgive their ancestors for their collusion with white supremacy. When personal and racial shame are brought together into an unflinching, kind light, both can melt and make space for empathy.
Racial Justice Action
Anti-racist action can play a part in addressing racial shame for white people. Some racial justice thinkers view anti-racist action as a way to ask for forgiveness or make amends, thereby reducing the sense of powerlessness associated with racial shame.
Using anti-racist action to heal white racial shame should be approached with caution, since action can be misused to cover over difficult feelings such as guilt and shame about racism. Intention is critical–if the action is motivated by an unconscious desire for absolution from people of color, then it may cause more harm than good. For this reason, it is critical to combine action with self-compassion practices.
Developing a Positive White Identity
All people need to feel good about themselves. Lack of self-esteem is not a viable way for anyone to be in the world, and it profoundly undermines a white person’s ability to challenge racism. Despite the many negative historical and current associations with whiteness, white people can redefine what being white means for them in ways that support racial justice.
This can be done by uncovering or re-connecting with one’s original ethnic and cultural roots, and finding inspiration there. What is wonderful about being Scottish, Greek, or Russian?
White individuals can also embrace the life affirming practices of their families. Most families have something to offer: maybe your lineage creates beautiful bluegrass music. Maybe your grandparents were always kind to animals; maybe the women in your family share homemade jam with their neighbors.
White people who do not know their parentage, who cannot find anything redeeming in their lineage, or whose cultural roots are long lost (one of racism’s costs to people of European descent) can still reclaim a positive white identity. Many white anti-racist writers, activists and artists, both past and present are waiting to be discovered.
If you are a white anti-racist lesbian, union organizer or musician, or an anti-racist Ashkenazic Jew, you are in good company. Why not adopt one or more of these proud lineages as your honorary ancestors?
In my case, I feel a personal connection to white anti-racist singer-songwriters. Here is a partial list of anti-racist songs sung by white singers:
My Country ‘tis of Thee; IQ; and
City of Immigrants (Although Mr. Earl forgets here that First Peoples are not immigrants): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWnGctWs4JM
Wasteland of the Free: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ak6E6IL4PT4
Black Boys on Mopeds: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zqHvAC-mDQg
Shame On You; Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (by Buffy St. Marie)
Nicaragua; Stolen Land; and
They Call It Democracy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=68zccrskOqQ
The 8 virtuous cycle practices described above are designed to heal white racial shame and awaken compassion, clearing space for white people’s empathy to bloom for self, other white people, and people of color.
Practical Applications of the Virtuous Cycle
If you are a racial justice educator, organizer, writer or activist who works with white people, you might want to incorporate some of the above practices into your strategies, messages, and trainings. Here are some specific applications of the virtuous cycle to: anti-racist education, anti-racist workshop design, and working strategically with white people.
When you want to educate a white audience about systemic racism, it is ideal to integrate as many of these practices as possible into your communication. People have different learning styles, so the more of these practices that you can include, the easier it will be for white people to “digest” the new learning and act on it.
Anti-racist Workshop Design
Racial justice workshops that include a mix of people of color and white people should ideally provide opportunities for these two groups to meet separately to build compassionate community, and heal from internalized oppression and dominance. Meeting separately is especially important to ensure that everyone’s learning and healing needs are addressed:
There are times when the needs of white trainees are in direct opposition to the needs of trainees of color. Initially, white people need to acknowledge their racist conditioning, behaviors and privilege in a compassionate, non-judgmental context. At the same time, people of color need to find their voices and express their anger and hurt about racism while having their experiences validate and respected. This delicate process of healing from internalized racism requires a sacred space set apart from the distraction of white people’s shame reactions.
It is often the case that just when people of color need to stop caretaking white people and focus on themselves, white people need to express racial shame and be met by forgiveness. At such times these two groups’ needs are completely incompatible. For these reasons, I believe that some separate unlearning racism work is essential, especially in the early stages, to ensure that the learning and healing needs of everyone involved—people of color and white people– are taken care of.
Working Strategically with White People
Racial justice educators and organizers may want to proactively add some of the virtuous cycle practices to their toolkits so that they can prevent and respond to white racial shame.
In addition, articles, blog postings and workshops that are designed to reach white people can minimize white racial shame by avoiding judgmental or condescending statements, or activities that keep participants “in their heads.” White people do not need any extra help to default to shame and denial!
On the other hand, expressing fierceness and anger about racism to white people can be cleansing and healing for everyone involved, as long as the overarching atmosphere is fiercely compassionate.
Final Thoughts: Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of White Racial Shame
Racial justice educators and activists who can recognize the signs and symptoms of racial shame will be able to tell when it’s time to cultivate the virtuous cycle. In addition, they will also be able to work more strategically with white people.
People of color who regularly interact with white people may wish to be able to identify the signs and symptoms of white racial shame in action. One of my colleagues of color finds it helpful to know when racial shame is motivating a white person’s behavior, because, “Knowing where their behavior is coming from gives me a choice to not react to them; I do not need to take it on or try to take care of that person.”
Finally, given the hidden nature of racial shame, it is easy to overlook or reinforce it. So it is worthwhile to learn about the typical behaviors that mask white people’s racial shame (and protect white people from feeling it). You can find a list of typical white racial shame symptoms here:
Thank you to all racial justice activists, organizers, educators and artists everywhere. You inspire me.
Much gratitude to my sources: Arminio, J. (2001). Exploring the nature of race-related guilt. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development; Baraz, J., & Alexander, S.; Butler, R. S. (Producer/Director). (2003). Light in the shadows; C. Clark, & J. O’Donnell (Eds.), Becoming and unbecoming White: Owning and disowning a racial identity; Featherston, J.E., personal communication; Howard, G. R. (1999). White man dancing: A story of personal transformation; Karen, R. (1992, February). Shame. Atlantic Monthly; Lee, M. W. (Producer/Director). (1983). The color of fear; McKinney, K. D. (2000). Everyday whiteness: Discourse, story and identity; O’Brien, E. (2001). Whites confront racism: Antiracists and their paths to action; O’Brien, E. (2003). The political is personal: The influence of White supremacy on White antiracists’ personal relationships; Paxton, D. (2003). Facilitating transformation of White consciousness among European-American people: A case study of a cooperative inquiry; Pritchy Smith, G. (1999). If you’re not standing in this line, you are standing in the wrong line; Rodriguez, N. M. (2000). What does a pedagogy of whiteness promise?; Rose, L. R. (1996). White identity and counseling White allies about racism; Segrest, M. (2002). Of Soul and White folks, in Born to Belonging; Spanierman, L. B., & Heppner, M. J. (2004). Psychosocial costs of racism to Whites scale (pcrw): Construction and initial validation. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 51 (2); Thandeka. (2000). Learning to be White; Thompson, B. (2001). A promise and a way of life: White antiracist activism; Willey, S. R. (2003). Expanding racial consciousness: A participatory study exploring White college administrators’ understanding of whiteness and racism.
Over centuries, white people have developed and practiced collective coping strategies to avoid feeling our shame about participating in and benefiting from genocide, slavery, internment camps, economic exploitation of prison inmates, and other historical and current forms of white supremacy and racism.
These shame coping strategies take the form of automatic individual and collective practices: as we have resorted to these practices over and over again, they have become default practices in the dominant white culture. When we see evidence of white racial shame, we are actually seeing these shame survival practices in action:
* Denial: mental or emotional dissociation from the realities of racism and white privilege)
Example: “Racism is in the past, we have a black president now.” Emotional denial can look like talking about racism in an abstract, heady or detached way. Or silence. Fuzzy brain (dissociation)
* Isolation: isolating ourselves, emotionally or physically from other white people; lacking and devaluing white anti-racist support. This can take the form of judgment (competition; comparison; shunning) and/or detachment (disconnecting from white and/or white ethnic community and white identity; having an individuality-based identity; failing to reach out to white people.)
Examples: getting angry at people of color when they point out racism; getting defensive; not listening
Examples: feeling responsible to correct everyone’s racism; harsh responses to white people’s racism; over-work/burnout; accepting mistreatment from people of color
* Under-responsibility–similar to denial: not being accountable for racism;
Example: “I didn’t cause this, it’s not my problem”
* Self absorption
Example: when in conversations about racism, changing the focus to themselves and their feelings
Examples: engaging in anti racist action so people will forgive us; “confessing” wrongdoings to people of color and expecting empathy and understanding
* Paralysis: freezing up
Examples: getting frozen or stuck when it is time to respond; unable to speak up or respond to racism
* Image management: Working hard to present/prove self as “enlightened” white person;
Examples: not being authentic around people of color; being silent around people of color; terrified to make mistakes
From Turning Wheel: The Journal of Socially Engaged Buddhism
Spring 2007 Issue: Building Alliances to Address Racism
Urusa Fahim: I met with Vanissar Tarakali who recently completed her dissertation in East West Psychology at CIIS. I decided to have a conversation with Vanissar about her work as it is not only timely but very relevant. In 2000, Vanissar created and cofacilitated “Compassionate Transformation: a Buddhist Way to Unlearn Racism” (CT), a 54 hour course for white people sponsored by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. CT incorporated community building, education, compassion, and spiritual practices. Vanissar’s doctoral dissertation is a case study of CT which looks at how to address three obstacles to white antiracist action: racial shame, denial and isolation.
UF: I am very intrigued by your research on Unlearning Racism using Buddhism.
What brought you to this work?
VT: A few streams brought me to the work:
I experienced child sexual abuse when I was a kid. It was an experience of having my
options and choices limited for a long time by someone with power over me. Ever since I
have hated injustice, particularly secret injustices and power differences that are covered
over while people pretend that everything is “fine.” A key piece to me is that I know in
my body what it’s like to be oppressed in that specific way and I don’t want to inflict
oppression on any group of people. It’s very important to me as a white person that I do
whatever I can to dismantle racism because I don’t want to be a perpetrator of oppression
in any way.
Another stream is that I’ve lost some significant relationships with people of color in my
life because of my lack of awareness of white privilege. There was a big gulf of
understanding about what reality was like between me and some of my friends and
lovers. There’s a lot of loss there that I regret. I don’t want ignorance of white privilege
to control whether or not I get to have close relationships with people of color.
Yet another stream of how I came to this work was trying to understand racism and to
understand how and why I keep falling asleep about racism, forgetting that racism is all
around me, benefiting me. Trying to understand racism, I exposed myself to concepts and
political analysis and yet I found that my behavior wasn’t changing very much. So for
example, I could be sitting on the BART train and maybe an African American man
would sit down beside me and my body would subtly flinch and shrink away. And this,
after years of knowing that I’ve been trained to think of black men as menacing to me as
a white woman. I knew that, but my body was still flinching.
I also noticed that I wasn’t doing much to change racism. I felt paralyzed. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t feel worthy to do anything.
UF: So what you are saying is that just knowing theories about what perpetuates
racism is not enough and one must actively do something about. Is that the
understanding that led you to this topic?
VT: After I became a Buddhist I started using Buddhist practices and meditations to help
me stay awake about racism, and also to relax any guilt or shame I might be feeling about
white privilege. I noticed that the more I focused my Buddhist practices on racism and
privilege, the more I could stay awake, and listen to people of color with less
defensiveness. I could act more spontaneously. That was a breakthrough for me.
So those are some of the things that brought me to my research. I wanted to find out if a
group of white people used Buddhist practices to unlearn racism if it would help them the
same way it helped me.
In my research about what I call the “psychology of unlearning racism,’ I looked at three
obstacles: shame, denial and isolation. I picked these because they were really up for me.
I looked at racial shame more than at racial guilt. Guilt and shame are often confused.
Guilt is about actions, whereas shame is about who one is. Racial guilt may come up if I
realize I said something racist. With guilt, I can apologize and change my behavior. But
racial shame is more complex. Shame is feeling as if there is something inherently flawed
about me that I cannot change. Racial shame can mean that I deeply believe that my
people are, or that I am, inherently oppressive and exploitative to people of color.
Denial is the second obstacle. I kept noticing I was falling asleep, and not noticing how
people of color were treated. Denial among white people is well documented.
Denial of racism obviously stops white people from acknowledging, taking responsibility for
And then there’s isolation. I noticed in myself and in other people this sense of not
wanting to have anything to do with white people who aren’t actively fighting racism. I
wanted to get away from them. Underneath it all, I was really afraid of my own inertia.
UF: There are many different theories and practices out there about unlearning
racism. Why did you choose Buddhism?
VT: Well, as I said, Buddhism works for me. And practice versus arrival is very Buddhist.
I see practice as a place where Buddhism and unlearning racism intersect. I
need to see unlearning racism as practice so that I can be ok with making mistakes. I need
to practice staying kind to myself when I think a racist thought. To me it’s all about
practice. Practicing listening to people of color. Practicing talking about racism and
interrupting racism. It’s about practicing these things so much that they become
embodied. Then I can behave in a spontaneous way. It’s also about the humility of
knowing I’m not going to “arrive.” I will always carry privilege, and I need to keep practicing.
Another connection with Buddhism is interconnectedness. If I practice Buddhism, and
come to an experiential understanding of interconnectedness, I realize I’m getting harmed
when I benefit from harming people of color being harmed. Out of that sense of
interconnectedness if I see injustice happening in the world that I contribute to, then I
realize that that person who is suffering…they’re me. I may not always feel that or
remember or understand that, but they’re me.
With white people the focus on the individual makes it difficult for us to see
institutionalized racism because we keep looking at “me” –what am I doing? What am I
not doing? There’s such a focus on the individual “me” that the ability to see the larger
picture of institution and the collective is impaired. So it’s difficult for white people to
see the institutional racism. Buddhism is a powerful antidote to that tunnel vision.
UF: Are there specific Buddhist practices that relate more directly with your work?
VT: Yes.. Awareness practices are useful, being present with yourself. The more white
people can be alive and present with their thoughts and their emotions and body
sensations, the more we can notice when racist assumptions inform our behavior and the
more I can choose how I want to act. So awareness practices are really key. At the same
time I think it’s really important to infuse those awareness practices with compassion and
kindness towards yourself so that that censor doesn’t come up.
The idea is to be conscious of what kind of racist stereotypes and assumptions am I
operating from. If I become aware of those stereotypes and immediately chastise myself,
I will probably stuff down that awareness because I want to see myself as a good person.
So the awareness must be a kind and compassionate awareness so that I can say, “Oh this
is what’s here, and I’m going to treat myself with kindness and with gentleness.” The
more I can incorporate that kind of compassionate attitude towards myself and towards
other white people the more I can notice racism in me, and I can keep questioning those
assumptions and breaking down those automatic racist behaviors.
UF: Directing the compassion outward is not enough, some of it has to be directed
VT: I would say that’s where it has to start. I also I think it is essential for white people to
practice speaking up about racism. There’s not a lot of environments where it’s ok for
white people to talk about racism. So we don’t get a lot of practice talking about it. So
you don’t have the vocabulary and it’s not a comfortable thing to do. How can white
people educate each other about racism if we can’t talk about it? So practicing talking
about racism, naming it, making it visible, those are really important, and that’s a
practice. It also prepares white people to not freak out every time a person of color talks
At first, this is about practicing being in community with other white people in the
service of talking about racism. A community practice of dialoguing and talking about it.
The sangha is really important. So it’s not only that each individual is practicing kind
awareness of what’s going on with them, but also extending that kindness to each other.
So that you are not sitting in judgment of each other because that’s going to shut each
other down. Instead, you’re actually cultivating this sense of kind awareness for
whatever’s coming up so it can come up, it can air out. I think it’s responsible to create a
space where there is this mutual respect to talk about this. And space for people to have
their mistakes. It doesn’t mean not challenging people, it means doing it from a space of
When individual white people start becoming more aware of racism and wanting to do
something about it, it’s really a common dualistic thing of “I’m the good white person,
I’m trying to do something about racism, and you over there, you’re the bad white
person, you just said something racist, and I want to get really far away from you.” So its
important to realize that all white people have been conditioned together, and we’re going
to get out of this together. Because racism is a collective oppressive system and it’s
going to take a lot of white people together to own up to it and dismantle it.
If I recognize that all white people have this conditioning inside us, then who am I to
judge other white people?
Isolation is an antiracist obstacle. I’ve been researching a specific kind of isolation that happens when a white person who cares about racism feels rejected by or avoids other white people. A divide is created between the informed and uninformed white people, and people get competitive about who is the most enlightened white person. And it’s a profound obstacle to coming together as a collective and teaching and healing each other, and working through all this inaccurate conditioning. How can we get together and do that with each other when we’re busy saying “get away from, me I’m not like you?” So I just think isolation is a profound obstacle to white people taking collective antiracist action.
The three obstacles I studied are isolation, denial, and shame. What I found in
my research is that the thing that unites these three obstacles to white antiracist
action is shame. Shame fuels denial and shame fuels isolation.
UF: How would you define racial shame?
VT: Racial shame, for those of us who deal with it, is this sense that I’m bad because I’m
white, or my people are bad because we’ve done these horrible things like genocide,
slavery, internment camps, etc. I can say that my people did that, I come from these
people, so I’m bad, I’m evil, we’re the oppressors, and a lot of shame can come up with
that. And that racial shame can resonate with and amplify any other shame I might have.
For example, I might have shame from a past trauma. Shame is a natural reaction to
trauma, so any trauma I might have in my history, such as family violence, leaves a
residue of shame in the body. So any white person who has experienced trauma probably
has some unprocessed shame. And social trauma, like sexism or antisemitism or
homophobia (or racism!), also causes shame.
There can be many streams of shame percolating inside us. Racial shame is yet another
layer. All these sources of shame bleed into each other. Amplify each other. I may
already have internalized shame from sexism so if I add a layer of racial shame on top of
that—maybe I notice that some of my unconscious behaviors are oppressive to people of
color, or I notice that I am benefiting from white privilege because my ancestors had a
chance to gather wealth by financially exploiting people of color. And I feel not just guilt,
but shame. And there is plenty to fuel that shame: as a white person I benefit from racism
everyday. If I face that and I already have shame from other sources, it can be
overwhelming and paralyzing.
UF: How do people cope with shame?
VT: The interesting thing about racial shame or any kind of shame is the things we do to
avoid feeling it. Something I’ve learned in my research is that shame is unbearable; it is
difficult to hold in conscious awareness. Because of this, people have a lot of strategies to
cope with or avoid shame, such as going into denial, getting angry or defensive, blaming
others, self-isolating, becoming self absorbed, or looking for absolution. And all of these
coping strategies get activated by racial shame. As I said, shame fuels denial and
isolation. And all three are profound obstacles to white people taking antiracist
Another response to avoid shame is defensiveness. So when a person of color tells me
“what you just said excludes me” or “erases my experience” I might become defensive
and rebuke them, Buddhist-style–tell them they need to “transcend” their reaction.
UF: I find myself being embarrassed by that shame and often try to make it ok for
the white person. I pick up on it and even though I know it’s not my place to make
things ok, I find myself trying to do so.
VT: How do you pick up on that, what do you pick up on?
UF: I think it comes from living in the margins and not in the center. I pay a lot of
attention to dominant groups so I can adjust myself accordingly. I pick up on the
shame and the blame that way and feel as if I need to do something about it, as if it
is my responsibility.
VT: That fits right into another coping strategy for white racial shame: seeking absolution from people of color. I might go up to a person of color and confess something, and hope they will absolve me. You can get absolved all you want but it doesn’t mean you aren’t white and aren’t participating in racism. That “absolved” white person is living in a delusion. And since racial oppression is something you and other people of color have to survive every
day, when I approach you and say, “I want you to absolve me,” that’s like someone battering their partner and feeling remorse later and saying “Honey, remember all the things you love about me?” instead of making amends or taking responsibility. To batter someone and make them forgive you is very oppressive.
Another coping mechanism of shame, or a way of avoiding shame is self absorption.
Everything leads back to “me.” The conversation about racism gets turned back to white
people: what about my pain?
UF: Recently, I heard someone saying “People of color keep talking about their pain
but what about my pain? What about the abuse I’ve suffered? No one cares about
VT: Yeah, that kind of self absorption will continue until shame is dealt with. And the
appropriate context to do that is with other white people.
UF: I’ve heard you and a few other people say that the way for white people to erase
racism is to work with their own kind. Why is that?
VT: Well where I see this going, my own vision of it, is that in order to build alliances among white people and people of color…it’s white people’s responsibility that racism exists, but it will take a collaboration between white people and people of color to dismantle it.
For white people to get to the place to work with people of color authentically, we need to work through that shame, to a deep extent. Work through the shame, the denial. Part of working through that and talking about it honestly involves white people saying a lot of stuff that people of color don’t want to hear. It can be very wearying for people of color to sit in a room listening to white people share their misconceptions about people of color. But those things need to be brought to light if they are going to be addressed. There’s stuff that white people need to say, but it could be re-traumatizing for people of color to have to listen to and hold space for that.
I do think that has to happen in an atmosphere that is compassionate and challenging. And I don’t
think it’s fair for people of color to have to sustain a feeling of compassion while
listening to white people talk about stereotypes and harmful things they’ve said or done.
That’s asking the victim to take care of the perpetrator. I think it’s often inappropriate for
people of color to be in the same room while white people are doing that.
UF: What’s your take on white allies in this work?
VT: The ultimate goal is collaboration between people of color and white people. But it
has to be genuine and authentic collaboration, not a quick “we’re all interconnected,
everything’s fine, let’s collaborate.” We are all connected, but most white people aren’t
ready to dialogue with people of color.
The ultimate goal is multiracial collaboration and alliance-building to dismantle racism.
But the initial paths to that goal of collaboration are different for white people and people of color. For people of color, healing from internalized oppression is critical. This is not my area of expertise, but I have heard that it is rare for people of color to feel safe enought to do deep racial healing in the presence of white people. But I see the process of people of color healing from internalized oppression as a parallel and complementary to the process that needs to happen with white people.
One of the things I understand about healing from internalized oppression is the need to express anger and rage and tell it like it is without censoring. People of color need that to heal from internalized racism. But if that expression happens in the presence of white people who are just starting to deal with their racial shame, the white people take it personally. They get upset, and want to be soothed. That doesn’t work for anybody.
I believe it is important to create compassionate, all-white spaces to get white people to a
point where they are healed enough that they are resilient, and robust enough that they can hear
people of color’s anger. So instead of going into denial or getting defensive, they are
really open, they are expansive, they can listen and dialog and take action.
And it is possible; I have found myself increasingly able to stay present with whatever
people of color need to say to me about racism. I am less and less defensive, and it is
directly related to working through my own shame, racial and otherwise.
VT: My goal is that eventually many white people will be in a place to take responsibility for racism. When we are collectively healthy enough that people of color will not need to teach us about racism. People of color shouldn’t have to work so hard. White people should be doing their work together to heal shame and unlearn racism so that we can listen to people of color. We can be spacious.
What if a lot of white people, white Buddhists, were so spacious about issues of race and
racism and privilege that we could simply say, “ok, I hear you.”?
I feel passionate about making space for white people to do that work, but I want to be
very clear about what the end goal is. It’s not about making white people feel better or
letting them off the hook about racism. It’s about building this robustness to be able to
stay conscious and responsive when people of color point out things that are racist. And
to be proactive without having to be told.
UF: And challenging each other?
VT: Yes. And to welcome challenges from people of color. Yes. The last thing I want to
say is that there are interventions for racial shame. Shame is a key obstacle to white antiracist
action, and if you deal with that you are dealing with a lot of the other obstacles.
UF: How do you intervene with shame?
VT: First, you need to respect that it is profound. And well hidden. Accessing shame is
difficult because if you access it, it calls up other deeply buried emotions, such as
powerlessness or abandonment or despair. Not fun. So to address racial shame, you have
to use sophisticated tools.
You can tell people that racism is not their fault. But that’s just talking. And shame isn’t
on the verbal level. It is deeply embodied. If someone has a personal trauma going on in
their current life or in their history, it’s important to get help with that. Therapy,
especially somatic therapy is good for that. And doing that healing work will help you
become resilient and elastic enough to face racial shame. But you don’t want to only do
your own personal healing work. You want to look at racism simultaneously as a system.
You need to work with that, too.
UF: It’s important for white people to do their own work because racism happens on
a systemic level; people in privileged positions sustain racism so when they become
aware they can dismantle the system.
VT: Absolutely. Other things that really help with racial shame are developing a strong
white anti-racist community that holds you in compassion, and holds you accountable,
practicing mindful compassion for yourself, educating yourself about how racism is not
chosen, but conditioned. That makes some room for forgiveness. And working on racial
shame through the body, through expressive arts and other embodied practices helps heal racial
shame. Learning and identifying with some positive aspects of being white also helps,
such as learning positive things about your ethnic identity or about your family, or if that
doesn’t work for you, learning about anti-racist white people in history who you admire,
and re-claiming them as your spiritual ancestors. Finally, engaging in anti-racist action
helps undo racial shame.
UF: What does it mean to be an ally?
VT: To me, being an antiracist ally means listening to people of color, believing them,
respecting their experience. It means educating myself about institutional, individual,
cultural racism and white privilege. It means being able to notice white privilege and
racism in my daily life, in the world around me, and to speak up about racism when I see
it. Being an ally also means supporting the leadership of people of color. In the long run,
being a white antiracist ally means engaging in white collective antiracist
action, and participating in authentic, multiracial alliance building and collaboration.
Much gratitude to Turning Wheel, to Urusa Fahim for her extraordinary work in the world, and to Staci Haines for her profound influence on my perspective on white racial shame and embodiment in 2007.
Fifteen years ago I began researching how to shift the shame and denial that prevents me and other people of European descent from challenging institutionalized racism.
During my dissertation research (Towards a Psychology of Unlearning Racism: A Case Study of a Buddhist Unlearning Racism Course for White People, available at http://www.proquest.com/en-US/catalogs/databases/detail/pqdt.shtml ), I discovered the relationship between shame and empathy, a relationship which is key to transforming racism and other forms of oppression.
If you would like to communicate more effectively about racism with liberal white audiences, read on.
Likewise, if you want to understand the role that shame plays in reinforcing oppression in general, read on.
White People Lack of Empathy for People of Color
I was moved to write this after receiving articles asserting that white people cannot empathize with people of Asian, Arab, Latino, African and Indigenous descent–people of color:
This is not a surprise. With racism or any other form of oppression, the group on the upside of inequity is positioned to be oblivious to the people on the downside of inequity. In the case of racism, this positioning creates perception gaps between white people and people of color.
Systemic socioeconomic inequalities cause white people and people of color to live in different worlds, governed by social rules and economic conditions that advantage white people and disadvantage people of color. People of color are usually aware of this; white people are often not. This perception gap, which is also an empathy gap, is difficult for white people to bridge.
Even seasoned white anti-racist activists can lack this empathy. Anti-racist white people’s awareness of racism and privilege is often limited to an abstract, two-dimensional acknowledgement. White people who lack an emotional and embodied understanding of racism cannot feel into how people of color experience their daily lives.
White anti-racist action that is not grounded in empathy for people of color can be inappropriately passive or aggressive, can take space from people of color, and often lacks a strategic approach.
Experiences That Promote Empathy
What does white people’s empathy for people of color look like? According to Eileen O’Brien,
“Empathy means … step[ping] across that perception gap, grasping the extent to which racism still exists, and validating the experiences of people of color.”
O’Brien’s book, Whites Confront Racism: Antiracists and Their Paths to Action, describes two common scenarios through which white people begin to empathize with people of color:
1. developing close relationships with people of color and witnessing their mistreatment;
2. translating personal experiences of oppression or abuse into empathy for people of color.
In the first scenario, a white individual becomes friends or lovers with a person or persons of color, and witnesses firsthand their differential treatment by officials, institutions, and groups, such as this typical interaction, described by Joy Degruy:
In our highly segregated cities and towns, close interracial relationships are relatively rare for white people, unless they long to be around those who are different, and act on this longing. Close interracial relationships can awaken a white person’s awareness and empathy about racism.
O’Brien suggests that a similar awakening may occur when white people are exposed to creative expression by people of color. This was certainly true in my case. Stevie Wonder’s Living For the City:
touched me profoundly as an adolescent, as did Fat’s Waller’s Black and Blue:
In the second scenario, a white person who has experienced oppression (sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc.) or abuse may empathize with the racism that people of color experience. This is even likelier when that white person experiences more than one kind of oppression, such as being targeted for being both Jewish and lesbian, or being both disabled and a survivor of child sexual abuse.
Before we look further at how to awaken cross-racial empathy in white people, there are deeper sources of this empathy-deficit to consider.
Participating in Racism Damages White People’s Humanity and Empathy
Racist institutions such as the global slave trade that abducted and enslaved millions of Africans, are born from callousness. Once racist institutions are established, they are maintained by conditioning each generation of white people to close their hearts to people of color.
White children do not choose to live in a world of racial inequity or be a member of the dominant racial group. White children inherit a social world that teaches them to overvalue white people and undervalue people of color. Since white children cannot risk losing the connection and safety of their community; they are forced to “fit in” by tolerating unfairness and accepting racism.
This process of accepting this “one up” position at the expense of people of color wounds white children. Participating in cruelty and unfairness towards the “other” conflicts with a child’s natural inclination to care and connect. So at a young age, white children learn to betray their humanity.
As the white racial justice activist Mab Segrest points out in her book, Born To Belonging:
“…the profound damage racism has done to us, as if we as a people could participate in such an inhuman set of practices and beliefs over five centuries of European hegemony and not be, in our own ways, devastated emotionally and spiritually…I am not equating the damage done by racism to white people with the damage done to people of color…the pain of dominance is always qualitatively different from the pain of insubordination. But there is a pain, a psychic wound, to inhabiting and maintaining domination.”
Oppressing others is dehumanizing; it shuts down the ability to connect with ourselves, others and Spirit.
Shame is at the core of the psychic wound that Segrest describes. It is human to be ashamed of harming others. So if white individuals are not able to stop collective racist harm, they are doomed to live with shame.
What is Shame?
But what is shame?
First, shame is not guilt. Guilt is about doing–what we did or did not do, and what we can do to make amends. In contrast, shame is about being–what we are or are not. Shame says, “I am a bad person. I am unlovable,” or, “My people are evil.” There is nothing we can “do” about shame, except to stop existing.
Second, shame is a social emotion that is connected to our fear of losing community. Shame tries to protect us from experiencing exposure, rejection, and abandonment.
Finally, shame is an unbearable, intolerable emotion. Shame compels us to hide–to avoid being exposed as unlovable in other people’s eyes. The M.O. of shame is to curl up and retract—it is not conducive to connecting with others, much less empathizing with them.
In fact, shame is so threatening to us that it triggers the amygdala’s automatic fight or flight reactions of defend, attack, deny, withdraw and freeze.
To sum up, white people’s participation in dehumanizing actions causes them to feel shame. Thus, racism and shame co-arise.
The Vicious Cycle of White Racial Shame and Disconnection from People of Color
White people’s shame about racism reinforces their disconnection from people of color in a vicious cycle of shame and unconsciousness. This vicious cycle shows up in several forms:
Numbing: White People’s Primary Racial Shame Coping Strategy
Shame is intolerable. We cannot live with it. So white children, white adults learn to close our hearts and turn our eyes away from the suffering we inflict on people of color. White people have numbed and deadened ourselves for generations.
Numbing is the primary shame coping strategy that I and other white people have inherited from our ancestors. It is a coping strategy with a serious side effect–it destroys empathy, and prevents us from noticing and responding to injustice.
Other Racial Shame Coping Strategies
Over centuries, my people–white people–have developed and practiced many other collective coping strategies to avoid feeling shame about participating in the genocide and slavery that founded this nation, and shame about the more recent forms of white supremacy, such as internment camps, economic exploitation of inmates, and anti-Arab and anti-immigrant policies.
These shame coping strategies take the form of automatic individual and collective practices.
As we have resorted to these practices over and over again, they have become knee-jerk reactions in the dominant white culture. These coping strategies include: defensiveness, withdrawal, under/over responsibility, projecting a false self, self-absorption, absolution seeking, and paralysis.
Not only do these shame coping strategies reinforce racism, they are empathy killers. For example, the shame coping strategy of self-absorption is highlighted by Spanierman’s and Heppner’s telling comment in their study on the psychosocial costs of racism to whites:
“Contrary to expectation, no relationship was found between white racial guilt and ethnocultural empathy…white individuals who experience high levels of guilt and shame may be too overwhelmed to empathize with people of other races.”
Likewise, the shame coping strategy of projecting a false self undermines white racial empathy.
As we have seen, white people can increase their empathy by forming close relationships with people of color and witnessing their day to day lives.
Unfortunately, white racial shame causes many white people to project a false self and conceal their thoughts and emotions from people of color. This behavior obstructs authentic intimacy and relating.
I knew a woman who was so terrified of making mistakes around people of color that she would fall silent in their company. This fear loosened up after she acknowledged and released some of her racial shame.
Taking Shame Seriously
The white collective has inherited this multi-generational legacy of racial shame. Shame is a serious obstacle to white people’s ability to empathize across racial lines.
The vicious cycle of white racial shame and disconnection from people of color is a dead end.
Those of us who are committed to awakening white people’s cross-racial empathy cannot afford to reinforce white people’s shame.
In fact, those of us who are committed to social justice cannot afford to reinforce anyone’s shame.
End of Part I
Next month: Part II: Cultivating Cycles of Compassion will explore practical antidotes to white racial shame.
Much gratitude to my sources: Butler, R. S. (Producer/Director). (2003). Light in the shadows; Featherston, J.E. personal communication; Karen, R. (1992, February). Shame. Atlantic Monthly; Lee, M. W. (Producer/Director). (1983). The color of fear; McKinney, K. D. (2000). Everyday whiteness: Discourse, story and identity; O’Brien, E. (2001). Whites confront racism: Antiracists and their paths to action; O’Brien, E. (2003). The political is personal: The influence of White supremacy on White antiracists’ personal relationships; Paxton, D. (2003). Facilitating transformation of White consciousness among European-American people: A case study of a cooperative inquiry; Segrest, M. (2002). Of Soul and White folks, in Born to Belonging; Spanierman, L. B., & Heppner, M. J. (2004). Psychosocial costs of racism to Whites scale (pcrw): Construction and initial validation. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 51 (2); Thandeka. (2000). Learning to be White; Thompson, B. (2001). A promise and a way of life: White antiracist activism; Willey, S. R. (2003). Expanding racial consciousness: A participatory study exploring White college administrators’ understanding of whiteness and racism.
We all know that stressful situations cause us to tense up. Our bodies contract to protect us; this is a good thing. Tensing up only becomes a problem if we cannot relax when the stressor is gone. Just as ice is built to melt, our bodies are built to unwind.
However, situations of unrelenting stress, abuse, or oppression do not allow us enough breathing space to unwind. Instead, we keep on contracting and accumulating tension in the body. Eventually we can develop chronic rigidity that undermines our health.
Reducing stress and healing trauma both involve restoring fluidity to the body so that our energy and emotions can move with ease and purpose. Fortunately, our wise animal bodies have all kinds of ways to unwind and let go. All we need to do is trust our body’s natural impulses to yawn, sigh, cry, laugh, shake, twitch, etc.
Unfortunately, in North American the dominant culture expects us to minimize or censor these impulses, especially around other people.
What Does Unwinding Look Like?
Unwinding involves externalizing or releasing energy or emotion outward. Sometimes unwinding happens through voluntary expressive practices of singing, drawing, painting, and dancing etc. More often unwinding is involuntary (although expressive arts can catalyze involuntary unwinding).
In addition to yawning, sighing, crying, laughing, shaking, and twitching, our bodies spontaneously release accumulated stress and trauma through sweating, coughing, burping, yelling, growling, jaw-trembling and teeth chattering.
Often these involuntary energy releases are considered to be impolite or inappropriate to express around other people, especially if they continue longer than a couple of minutes.
It always amazes me how thoroughly and consistently cultural norms of politeness in North America obstruct unwinding. Let’s look at yawning, for example. When we yawn around others, they ask us if we are bored or tired. Maybe that is why most of my clients stifle their yawns.
Did you know that when you yawn, you release tension stored in your jaw, throat, lips, palate, ears, and even your chest and scalp? A series of yawns can create profound relaxation in the chest, throat and face.
The practice of allowing yawns, especially full, wide-open yawns is so rare that I’ve developed a slogan for my clients: “Yawning before talking.” That means, when a yawn shows up, it is time to drop everything and let as many yawns come as want to.
I have found that when we allow ourselves to yawn as many times as we need to, the jaw opens wider and wider. The eyes may water. Each yawn becomes softer and easier. Your mind might quiet down.
Over weeks or months, your jaw muscles can permanently soften. You may stop grinding your teeth. This is true softening, true unwinding. All this potential healing is present in our yawns, and it is free. To think we stifle this process on a regular basis, in the name of politeness!
Unwinding is Impolite and Messy
Here are some other ways the dominant culture stifles body wisdom for the sake of conformity or politeness:
• It is not okay to cry in most workplaces.
• Repeated coughing is seen as a disruption–you are expected to leave the room and take it elsewhere. While coughing can indicate that you are ill, it is just as likely that your throat is trying to release pent up energy or emotion.
• If you shake or waggle your foot for more than a few seconds, people comment on it.
• If you tremble, you are seen as weak, crazy or out of control.
• It is socially unacceptable to laugh when we are grieving the loss of a loved one, even though laughter reflects the incomprehensible absurdity of loss.
• We even carry this censoring into our intimate relationships and our alone time. For example, we have been taught so well to fear or be ashamed of our teeth chattering, that many of us cannot even allow it in private. That is so sad. There is so much *free* healing built right into our bodies, and are afraid of it!
Many years ago I was the birth coach for my sister’s home labor. As births often are, the labor was intense. My niece finally slid out of my sister, and the midwife pronounced her healthy. Hearing that all was well, I burst into uncontrollable sobbing. A neighbor who was present grabbed me and hissed “pull yourself together” in my ear as if my outburst was harmful. I immediately shut down, feeling stifled and resentful. I was tense for days. Looking back, I believe those tears were my body’s attempt to acknowledge that the crisis was over.
Our bodies know what to do, and when to do it.
Midwifery for Unwinding
Because our natural impulses to express and unwind have been stifled, many of us need to (re)learn how to support unwinding in ourselves and others. Here are some tips:
There are many ways to create a sense of safety, support and ground in the body:
Establishing a sense of safety in the body is the foundation for unwinding. When the body knows it is held and supported, it is much more willing to let go.
A few years ago my two budgies were attacked by a cat while they were in their cage. Fortunately they were not physically injured.
Once the cat-danger was removed, my partner and I each took a bird onto a finger. They gripped our fingers and trembled violently; we warmly encouraged them to “let it out.” After twenty minutes they were fine. They did not develop an aversion to their cage, or to cats. A few days later a cat sat outside on our window ledge and peered at the budgies. They remained relaxed. They had not been traumatized.
Here is what my partner and I did as my parakeets shook for twenty minutes straight. We stayed present with them, constantly letting them know we were there for them. “That’s right, I am right here with you.” We were patient–We let them rest on our fingers as long as they wanted. We encouraged them to unwind, in fact we praised them for shaking: “You are so smart, you know just what to do!” and “Good job!” We trusted their bodies.
You can provide this kind of healing space for yourself (and others). Make sure you are in a safe place to unwind, then give yourself all the time you need to sweat, cry, shake, laugh, etc. Talk to yourself in a kind, encouraging way. Trust your body to know how long it needs to unwind.
Do not censor or try to “make sense” of what your body is doing. Unwinding is unwinding. That is all the sense it needs to make. Just relax and let it happen. Don’t worry–when you have finished unwinding, your rational mind will come online again.
If you have the urge to express your sensations and feelings but feel stuck, you can gently encourage your body to begin unwinding by singing, humming, dancing, swaying, writing, etc.
There healing modalities specifically designed to encourage unwinding, such as
*David Bercelli’s TRE Exercises:
Sometimes these methods can open up a torrent of shaking or emoting. This is perfectly normal. There is no need to tell yourself scary stories. It is just your wise body being a body.
If you do become scared, you can use safety and containment practices
to slow down or stop what is happening. Practice “stopping” until you get good at it and confident that you can stop unwinding at will. Knowing that you can slow down or stop the unwinding process can give you permission to surrender to your body’s need to release, and reassure you that you are not “out of control.”
Another way to prevent yourself from becoming frightened or overwhelmed is to have someone you trust hold space so you feel safe to continue shaking, crying, etc.
Take Breaks. Don’t Push Yourself
Finally, there is no need to force expression or unwinding. Do not push for a big catharsis. Unwinding does not have to be dramatic to be effective; in fact, it is often subtle and quiet. Your mind does not get to dictate what “should” happen, or how long you need to yawn, shake, etc. You will not unwind faster by forcing things.
By the same token, it is not helpful to impose interpretations or meanings onto your spontaneous body sounds and movements. If an insight wants to emerge, trust it to emerge on its own; you do not need search for it.
Unwinding has its own pace and timing. Many of us have learned this principle by experiencing the grieving process. Grief has its own mysterious rhythm and pace. Moments of intense sadness come and go. You may find yourself crying for a few minutes at random moments throughout the day. Let the tears come, and when they are done, let them go.
This principle is just as true for yawns, or whole-body shudders that arise without any identifiable meaning or content. Let them ebb and flow.
I invite you to make time for unwinding. Make sacred space for your body to be rude and unruly. Let yourself move and make noise. Then, when it is done, do something else. Rest. Sleep. Drink water. Work. Go for a walk. Watch a stupid movie.
Let me know how it goes.