Thoughts for white people (like me).

One night, a few friends and I got into a conversation about the Holocaust. One of our group, who was from Austria, got visibly shaken, upset, and grieved. She explained to us that her people feel a Collective Shame over what happened. One by one our group tried to comfort her: but you weren’t alive when that happened! You didn’t do anything! Who knows what you would have done if you had been there? 

We tried to save her from a Collective Shame as if it was a bad thing, and through tears, she explained that she was not afraid or uncomfortable with the shame. In fact, she was protective of her culture’s shared shame: This is important to us. This grief and shame are precious to us. They keep us from repeating the mistakes of the past. This shame helps us build a society that is different.

In America, we hate shame. Mostly because we usually experience distorted shame that infects our identity and shapes us in ways that aren’t helpful. But ‘adaptive’ shame affirms identity; it helps us move towards behaviors that line up more clearly with people we want to be. While distorted shame tells us we are bad, adaptive shame affirms the positive elements of our identity. We identify behaviors as ‘bad’ precisely because they don’t line up with who we are; affirming that what we have done is NOT who we are. And Collective Shame does the same thing on a group level. It helps social groups heal from patterns that they recognize are damaging. Collective Shame exists to help us – its goal is to restore a positive social identity after cultural changes occur.

As I’ve read the news this week, I keep thinking – hey white people – we could use a healthy dose of Collective Shame. 

I wonder if our lack of acceptance of that experience is keeping us from moving towards a healthy growth; is keeping us trapped, and if we are to experience the healthy emotional impulses of Collective Shame, there are a few things we’ll have to do:

(1) Accept unpleasant emotions.

Shame feels terrible – even when it’s helpful and adaptive – and that’s because it’s trying to make us uncomfortable enough to change. But in our culture – any emotion that doesn’t feel good is a problem. It’s an indicator that we’re broken in some way and we try to fix it as fast as possible.  In doing so, we short circuit the process of Collective Shame and rob ourselves of one of the primary drivers for social groups shift identity.

I keep thinking back to that convo with my friend. We perceived her emotions as a problem – something that needed to be fixed as quickly as possible. She received the emotion as information; a friend and a guide, protecting her and her community from normalizing behaviors that were wrong.

What would it look like to receive Collective Shame as a positive emotional experience, even as it feels bad?

(2) Shift where we find our group identity.

We’re all a part of social groups.  It’s rarely a thing we plan for, and more a survival instinct and a hunger for belonging.  When we see a negative thing happening in our social group – if we identify strongly with that group and if we don’t know how to leave that group – we tend to reframe or gloss over the negative thing.

This isn’t something racist people do, this is something people do, so if we – white Americans – don’t want to do that, we have to make sure that we have a group identity that is not correlated with whiteness.  

We say things like: I don’t identify with being white. I identify with being American, or, even I identify with being a Christian – but let’s be honest – national identity in America, has historically meant white national identity.  Let’s be even more honest – for many of us Christian identity in America, mostly means white Christian identity.  You know how you can tell? Look at the leaders of your group. Look at the writers you read, the artists you celebrate, the teachers who hold the microphones, and the people who fill the room.

If your social group is mostly white, then racism – while bad and evil and wrong – will never be intolerable.  It will always be one of many causes your group could care about. You’ll feel sad about it, angry about it, but you’ll have the freedom to go hang out with your social group and forget about it.  You won’t be forced to feel the tightening of the discomfort of collective shame that comes when members of your group, your family, are impacted within the ‘safe’ walls of your bubble.  Without true diversity in the places you belong to most, you won’t feel the uncomfortable responsibility of your whiteness.

We’re social creatures.  We’re designed to feel a compulsion to take action against patterns and systems that oppress our fellow group members.  As long as that oppression is happening outside our group, we are free to ignore it, even if we hate it. 

(3) Take Responsibility.

It’s biblical, this sense of corporate repentance; the willingness to lament and repent of the sins of an ethnic group and to take responsibility for the actions of that group because of your association.  But we struggle with it in the west, because we struggle to feel collective responsibility, and we struggle to take responsibility for things we didn’t mean to do.  But the Bible asks us to do both.  And if we don’t do both, racism will be with us for too long.

Each of us has to take responsibility…

Studies have found that one of the ways we try to avoid Collective Guilt or Shame is to find a small group of people to punish. That it lets us off the hook and helps us get out of those shame feelings that make us feel small and move into big/empowering feelings that feel a little better. Like anger. Anger is a great antidote for shame.

But, the truth is – as long as we are looking at whatever racist thing specific white people have done this week, we don’t have to look at the thing we (white people) have done this week.  We don’t have to look at the moments we stayed silent, the moments we forgot, the moments we benefited from systems that oppressed.  There is a lot to be angry about.  For sure.  But don’t let your anger short circuit your shame, because make no mistake – Karen is not the only one responsible for racism in America. I am responsible. You are responsible. 

We have to take responsibility for the present 

Here’s an interesting nerd tidbit: social shame and social guilt are different emotional experiences. Social shame happens when we don’t feel like we have control over behaviors (like when the culture does something that we have no way to control), vs. guilt is more connected to a sense of control. Social guilt makes us want to make amends, while shame makes us want to escape, hide, or avoid.

If we limit our conversations around racism to things that happened in the past, we make it hard for us to move from social shame to social guilt because we have no feeling of control over past behaviors. While we must feel Collective Shame for the past, we can also embrace Collective Guilt for the present; for the very current behaviors in our cultures that are within our control to change. This kind of Collective Guilt helps us cope with our feelings of shame by prompting us to move towards action.

We have to take responsibility even if we didn’t mean to…

Individual repentance for things you didn’t ‘mean’ to do matters. Oh boy. If I could find the words to describe how much of an issue I think this is in a million different areas in the church right now, this blog would be filled with a million posts. 

Abuse, racism, sexism – we were told that these things could only grow where someone intended another person harm.  What a terrible lie.  For hundreds of years, people of power have been oppressing minorities in the name of love.  We colonized to save.  We crusaded in the name of God. And we are not alone. Thinking they were serving God, they killed His Son. With a zeal for Him they rejected Him. And we – those who claim His blood – we are free to repent and own our part in perpetuating racism regardless of what we meant to do.  

I hear it – the push back on words like ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ (even though I mean them in a strictly social science sense).  We don’t want to feel guilt and shame.  Ever.  Not for any reason.  Especially when we didn’t mean to hurt anyone.  But take a deep breath. And can’t you taste the freedom of letting your defensive cry of ‘I didn’t mean to’ dissolve into “I’m sorry”? 

We are free in Christ to take responsibility.  We, all of us with white skin, have participated and benefited from racist systems from the moment we were born, and we get to repent for it and fight against them.  We get to repent of the years we’ve spent calling it normal to have only white leadership, and we get to demand diverse representation in our churches. We get to repent of how content we’ve been to read white historians, and white theologians and we get to do the work of finding new voices to lead and shape us.  We get to repent for staying silent – even when our intention was to be humble and listen – because our silence has been used to perpetuate racism.  We get to repent for speaking over others – even when our intent was to advocate – because our voices were used to silence others.  And we get to repent for our white fragility, that reads this and feels trapped, is indignant that we ‘can’t do anything right!’  We get to repent for our privilege that lets us wait and watch because we are afraid to move until we can guarantee we will do it all right. 

Instead, we take a step and we try, and when we get it wrong, we believe those who point out our error.  And we take responsibility. And we learn.  And we try again.  

We may not have meant to cut anyone, but our whiteness is a weapon that has been used to carve people of color up.  And we don’t have to be afraid of feeling the collective guilt and shame of that.  It’s just a feeling.  It’s okay.  It doesn’t mean we’re worthless, and it doesn’t mean we’re bad in our identity.  No, instead that guilt and shame TESTIFIES that we are not what we have done, that we are more than our whiteness.  And we don’t have to fear the feeling of Collective guilt and shame, because the grief and pain will move us towards change. 

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