Shame in the anti-racist movement

Dana Walden, Opinion Editor

Shame, Shame, Shame: we all got it, and we all feel it from time to time. Shame is not a bad emotion to feel; in fact, it can be helpful and productive under the right circumstances. We should feel a little shame for actions that hurt other people, as this is often a necessary first step to understanding another’s pain and working to repair the damage caused. Shame is seen two ways in the anti-racist movement: on some level, it is an expected element of white folk’s allyship; on another, it is considered a toxic recentering of the conversation that has no place in the movement.

With such conflicting messages, it’s hard to figure out how shame fits into anti-racist work, if it fits at all. Shame is only productive when it can be overcome and mobilized upon, but it’s place in the movement is becoming increasingly controversial. In online dialogue, shame is almost always up for debate: whether you’re discussing white women’s tears or the line between cancellation and accountability, shame is in there somewhere.

Shame is a very real and very potent emotion, but I don’t think discussing its role in interpersonal relationships is necessarily useful to the broader goals of the anti-racist movement. Now, don’t get me wrong— shame is an important factor in conversations about race and does have a place in the discourse, but the level at which we talk about shame distracts from real, perhaps more insidious, issues.

Feelings of shame are only relevant to interpersonal anti-racist work, and this is a very, very small part of the anti-racist work that needs to be done. Systemic racism accounts for the vast majority of racial oppression and is much harder to address. The longer we prioritize an individual response to racism, the longer it will take to actually topple racist institutions.

Inherent in the language of shame is the idea that it is the individual’s responsibility to “fix racism.” Those of us who have felt shame for holding up a racist system run the risk of conflating the system’s actions with our own. I’m all for personal accountability, but accountability becomes intangible when abstracted. Anyways, there’s not a lot we can do in our relationships to fix racist policies or structural biases unless we personally know a high-up government official or Fortune 500 executive.

Illustration by Hayden Cooper.

When we see racism (or any other ism, for that matter) in our interactions with other people, we are dealing with individual manifestations of structural issues. When we feel shame for doing something racist, we are putting the emotional onus on ourselves for something that is not entirely within our control. We should feel bad about our actions, yeah, but we should recognize what is within our power to change. We can hold individuals responsible for their actions, but we cannot hold them responsible for the actions of a system unless they have express power over that system.

When it comes to dealing with these institutions, treating our relationships with corporations and government agencies like we treat our interpersonal relationships doesn’t work. It is impossible to shame the corporations and government agencies that manage systemic oppression because they do not have moral centers; a corporation is not a person, and will only feign shame when it is profitable.

If we’re going to talk about shame this much, we better make sure we are talking about the institutional issues that have facilitated this shame: none of us would feel the shame of upholding a racist structure if that structure didn’t exist in the first place. We can talk about the dynamics of shame in conversations about race, but we must do so with the understanding that the presence of shame in our anti-racist work has no bearing on the systems we are trying to dismantle.