What’s A Liberal To Do? : White Guilt vs White Shame and White Embarassment

A very good and decent friend of mine the other day was depressed and writing about racism and said things like. “White people don’t deserve to be praised for having a conscience. That’s just wrong on so many levels… just wrong as wrong, and not at all what I need. Solidarity. A nod of the head. A hand on the shoulder. But no headpats, no praise, no cookies.”  My heart broke for her. The idea that …”people don’t deserve to be praised for having a conscience” is soooo not true. We all need love and respect and admiration and even  — if we’re not allergic to them — cookies.

In the old days, people would have accused her of “doing White guilt” and they would have been right, sort of. Liberals do a lot of “guilt” — male guilt, heterosexual guilt, colonial guilt and so on. But people outside of the liberal world don’t understand white guilt. They confuse it with something else: White Shame. Frankly,though, us White liberals are prone to running that line between guilt and shame and sometimes we fall off. I’m against that.

These are just new thoughts to me and they’re in process, so bear with me.I’m using psychological terms to deal with political ideas here, but here’s my thing. Shame paralyzes. Guilt prods. Embarrassment could go either way. Love and fun and hope (and, yes, cookies) make things possible. There’s work to be done, and we need energy on our journey. I’m a big believer in the carrot, not so much the stick. Also, I believe we are called to joy, unbridled joy and love and peace and contentment with our limits at times. (My Black friends, please don’t think that means complacency. It doesn’t. It means there are twenty-four hours in a day.)

There’s a continuum for Whites (some of my best friends are White) about racism. On the liberal/radical end, there’s White Guilt and White Shame. On the conservative/radical conservative end, there’s No Guilt and No Shame. Before my conservative friends go nuts, I’m not talking about you. Christianity is not the same as Conservatism. My conservative friends (Marilyn, I’m talking to you here… and Sean and Bob… and you know who you are) are nice people and they have a lot of guilt when it’s appropriate, and shame when it’s appropriate. There tolerances may be different than mine, but wrong is wrong and they know it when they see it.  They get the William Scott shooting as downright “evil” and wrong.  Frankly, though, if you can’t see an unarmed man being shot in the back as wrong, you’re not my friend anyway. Also, if you don’t think racism is wrong, you’re not my friend. I don’t have friends like that.

OK. so back to the random thoughts and the continuum. In the therapy world, guilt is about what you do or did. Shame is about who you are. Feeling bad about being White is as racist as hating people for being Black or Asian or … well, human of any kind.  Feeling bad for things you have done — ways in which you actively promote intolerance or ways you have taken advantage of being White — that’s what real White Guilt is for. You did something wrong, now you have to fix it or make up for it in some way. Black folk (it seems to me, but I could be wrong) wish for Black guilt, what they get is Black Shame. They would tell you that if a Black man shoots any unarmed person, they should be punished, because they aren’t anything but a criminal.  Black-on-Black or Black-on-White, it makes no difference. If the word “Black” comes up in the sentence and hints or implies “all Black folk”, that’s Black Shame — whether said by a Black person or a White one or any other human being. That stuff destroys.

There’s a third category — White Embarrassment — that you never hear about. When a White person does or says something stupid about race on TV, good liberals are embarrassed by them. We roll our eyes, we say to each other, “what an idiot” and we try to separate ourselves from them because we wouldn’t join the Ku Klux Klan. We wouldn’t say “when you’re talking to the Colored Folk…”.  We wouldn’t not hire someone because of their skin color. We can’t even imagine doing those things. In our embarrassment

But we are not them because we are not totally like anybody. No human is.  Where we are like “them”, we need to stop being so. If I hurt a person of any race, I need to stop it. If I hurt a person because of their race, I certainly need to stop. If I know about it, I need to do something. The more I know about it, the more I care, to the extent that I’m conscious of how it affects others negatively, I need to do something to fix it. That’s it.

So here’s the continuum, as I see it.

1) No shame. I think everyone else’s race is inferior to mine.There’s is nothing wrong with that. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. I’m prejudiced and I don’t care and I act on it.

2) No guilt: Regardless of what I feel or think, I act like other people’s race is inferior and I don’t take responsibility for it when I hurt them. I know it’s wrong and I don’t care enough to worry about it.

3) No embarrassment: I know all races are equal, but I’m not embarrassed when others in my group act up. I don’t do anything about it because I’m not them.

4) Race embarrassment: I know all races are equal, and I’m embarrassed when others in my group act up. I don’t do anything about it, though, because it’s not that important — or I say, defensively, “I’m not like my group”.

5) Race guilt.  I’m conscious of how my behavior and thoughts effect other races. I’m also see the pain caused by people from my group hurting others. I put those two together and I want to do something about it. I am sometimes more active about it than others, but if I can,  I want to do something about it.

6) Race shame: I see myself as part of a race and I’m embarrassed to be a part of it. Everything we’ve ever done is wrong. It’s hopeless. I might as well just shoot myself now.

Long and short of it: People shouldn’t hurt others because of their race. People shouldn’t think it’s cool or okay when others hurt people because of their race.  Some people don’t listen. Some people don’t listen enough. Some people don’t want to. Not listening doesn’t make it go away though. The more listening you do, the more you should want to do something about it. The more hope you have that you can do something, the more you’re likely to try.

This is a work in progress, and it’s me processing “aloud”. I welcome comment, but my friends who see hurt, who name it when they see it, and who want to do something about it, and who do actually do something about it need to cut themselves some slack.




3 thoughts on “What’s A Liberal To Do? : White Guilt vs White Shame and White Embarassment

  1. I have the same struggle with “original sin”. I don’t feel guilt because I was born, but I acknowledge that I’m a sinner (because of my own sins and not Adam’s). I don’t feel guilt about what someone else (Adam) did, but I acknowledge my own guilt and sinful nature.

    I was appalled by the video I saw. I suspect everyone I know is as well.

    When I put myself in the shoes of that cop, however, I don’t feel racist. I feel like he was angry at something else (his wife? who knows) and Mr. Scott just made himself a convenient target for the cop’s misdirected anger. Or maybe the cop was on a misguided power trip because of some other external event.

    Why do I see that? I don’t know, it’s purely speculation. But I think the statistic is that something like 90% of cops never fire a gun over their entire career (feel free to correct me). So if the cop had an opportunity to shoot someone (legitimately), I feel like he would have chosen a much different circumstance. But this victim was in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s why I don’t feel like this was racist- I feel like the cop had something else going on. Like I said, pure speculation.

    Maybe the cop was just tired of people who ran away from traffic stops. Maybe he just decided that his race was superior. Only the cop and God know what was really going on in his mind.

    Am i trying to find a way to not make this a racist moment? Maybe, because I also know there are SO many same-race shootings that never get publicity. And I don’t believe in thought police (I don’t care why he shot him, fact is it was just a wrong action regardless of the motivation). But when I look at the video (as a layperson and non-expert), I don’t see racism- I see a cop with mental issues.

    • Bob: thanks for sharing your thoughts. If this were a one time incident, I would allow myself that thought. After all the events of the last year in all the different places, I can’t see it that way. The fact that his parents *really believe* that their son’s killer would “never be caught without the video” shows how bad things are. This is what I meant by listening. I have listened to the police for years and don’t assume they’re all bad (the 90% you mentioned. But we have to listen to his parents as well. If Dan was shot fleeing a traffic stop and there had been a lot of Cunninghams shot lately for no apparent reason, wouldn’t you be upset?

      • Of course I’d be upset. I’m upset at this whole thing too.

        The 90% number was (off the top of my head without re-checking) the percentage of cops who never fire their gun throughout their career. It doesn’t make them good or bad – only to point out that firing a gun is a VERY RARE event.

        That’s important to me because with the rarity that cops ever use their guns at all, this cop chose this moment to use his gun. If he had XX years of a career, and he chose THIS moment to use his gun, then WHY???

        I’m sure he has seen other black men in his career, and I would bet a lot of money that a lot of those black men committed crimes much worse than this and were much more “bad-ass” and confrontational than Mr. Scott. So, if I’m this cop, why do I choose THIS moment to shoot THIS man?

        If the cop was racist, wouldn’t he have taken his hatred out in much more “justifiable” circumstances to shoot black men? Bank robbery, gang incident, drug raid, etc.? If his motivation was to kill black men, I’m sure he could’ve found many other times to do it that would have never undergone any scrutiny.

        If this cop fired his gun on a weekly basis, and this was merely this week’s shooting, then I am quite sure he would have undergone much more intense previous scrutiny about why he is firing so often. If you fire your gun, you have mountains of extra paperwork to do (and you’re frequently suspended and/or forced to undergo an evaluation before you can resume your duties). But I haven’t heard anything publicized about this cop’s background like that, so I am assuming that his record is fairly clean.

        In my career I have learned to consider things from the point of “human motivation”. And to me, if his motivation was racist, this is probably the worst possible way to fulfill that motivation. There were a LOT of other ways, I’m sure, that he could’ve shot black men (if that was his motivation) if he had wanted without creating any fuss.

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