On Shame

In high school, I had a friend from band who was a year ahead of me. My junior year, his senior year, we would pass each other in the hall almost every day between fourth and fifth period, and almost every day he’d stop to give me a hug. He wasn’t more than a few inches taller than me, but he was strong, so when he wrapped you up in a hug, you felt safe, protected, loved. (I also had a low-key crush on this friend for most of the time we knew each other, which was the other reason I loved this daily ritual.)

So almost every day I’d get my hug, and ask “How are you?” And almost every day, he would respond, “I’m Black, but that don’t matter.” I couldn’t understand why this was always his answer. I thought he was being funny. Most days I would laugh. Sometimes I would say, “If it doesn’t matter, why’d you say it?” — to which he’d shrug and walk on. Only in the last few years have I begun to understand why he said that every day, and to be ashamed of myself for being so clueless as to laugh.

He may indeed have been making a joke, but he was also naming the fundamental problem with our (my) we-don’t-see-color, race-doesn’t-matter, racism-is-always-blatantly-obvious upbringing. He was Black. Of course that mattered. To some people, it was and would continue to be the only thing about him that mattered. “Why bring it up?” I’d ask him. As if he would have the time or inclination to explain the non-stop abuse of racist infractions big and small to which he was subjected every day as a Black male teenager growing up in a post-Jim Crow South, where White people were doing their damndest to pretend the last 400 years never happened. My laughter and dismissal merely reinforced that I was completely oblivious to the White supremacy I’d been raised up in.

I am not telling this story because I am now A Good White Person Who Gets It. I’m telling this story because when I realized how much I screwed up that interaction, not just once but every day for an entire academic year, I was too ashamed to talk about it or even really think about it for a long time. In fact I avoided thinking about any of the many times in my life I’ve perpetrated racism. I allowed my guilt to keep me silent, even in conversations with myself. By not confronting my own racism, I let myself believe that I was a Good White Person. How many of you White folks reading this can relate? Every one of you has memories of your own that shame you, that you avoid thinking about because it makes you uncomfortable. And you probably think that you’re the only one.

We are programmed from the time we can talk to not talk about these things to avoid embarrassment. But our silence and our shame is what keeps White supremacy so strong. The system needs us to stay silent in order to maintain its charade of invisibility, like the Wizard of Oz hiding behind his curtain. But our avoidance and denial of our own racism only perpetuates the problem. White silence is White violence.

I know that posting this piece at all risks re-centering my own White voice, drawing sympathy for myself instead of for the cause. I do want to be clear that I do not expect forgiveness, from this particular friend or any of my other Black friends, because I am not owed the forgiveness and trust of Black people. If you, dear White reader, are tempted to pat me on the back for doing the bare minimum of owning up to my mistakes, DON’T. Instead, use that energy to go read one of these pieces generously written by Black people about (anti-)racism, and/or donate to Black Lives Matter, and/or join a protest against racist police brutality near you. And don’t expect anyone to pat you on the back for those efforts, either.

It is important for us White people to know that no one doing anti-racist work is alone in these uncomfortable feelings, but also that our discomfort is NOTHING compared to the discomfort of existing while Black or as a person of color in a White supremacist society. We will never heal ourselves, never repair the racism we’ve perpetrated, never achieve justice in our world, if we let our discomfort keep us from confronting and dismantling the White supremacy within ourselves. We have to be vulnerable in order to grow.

It’s time to listen to what BIPOC have been telling us for years. It’s time to do the really uncomfortable, really important work of self-examination and study. It’s time to stop expecting a pat on the back from BIPOC for every tiny step we take toward being less terrible people. It’s time to do more than just talk and actually get out in the streets, give money, call out our friends and family on their racism and be open to getting called out on our own racism. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Yes, we will keep feeling guilty for our mistakes. But the only thing to really be ashamed of is letting that guilt prevent us from doing the hard work.