Shame feels awful. It can feel like we want to crawl out of our skin, erase ourselves from the world, find someone else who’s the real problem. Feeling shame can be twisting desperately away from something that is inside us, having something on us that we can’t wash off, being something that we hate and that disgusts us that we can’t not be.
Shame is different than guilt. Guilt is the experience of realizing that we did something wrong – personally, we acted badly. This can be that we messed up, or we were mean, or not careful, or didn’t follow through on something. Some significant part of the time, when we feel guilty we can personally take responsibility and there is some chance that we can make things right or work on repair. Most of the time, shame is not about an individual action; it’s not some particular thing we did wrong that we could apologize for. Shame is more often about something we are. That’s why it’s so sticky and hard, and also why white people should embrace shame about whiteness. First, a few caveats.
Politically, mostly, we should burn shame down. We feel shame for things that are glorious and beautiful and not shameful at all. Think about when we feel shame for our fat bodies, our queer love, our working class culture, our disabled existence, our spiritual practices, our wrinkles, our not knowing something yet, our mistakes even though we’re trying hard, realizing we hurt someone we love. Probably everyone I know has experienced feeling shame or being shamed for something that is not shameful. We’re right to reject shame wholesale a lot of the time, right to say that we have nothing to hide, that we are good and worthy and deserve love and dignified existence and joy. Because that’s true.
Other experiences of shame congeal around heritage, history, family, religion, ethnic or racial group. People are shamed for where they come from, what’s happened to their people in history, who their family is, their language, their past. Suddenly, and this is hard to identify because of how bad shame feels and how appropriate it is so much of the time to refuse it, suddenly sometimes it’s absolutely imperative for us to stay with shame. So I’m talking now to white people in the US and Canada.
Feeling shame for whiteness past
The ghost of whiteness past is with us in the present. It’s our inheritance. We meet this ghost when we learn about the history of genocide and colonization on this continent; we meet it when we begin to understand how many people were murdered, how much land was stolen, how many Indigenous children were taken from their families and places and forced to not speak their language, how much water and soil was poisoned. We meet this ghost when we start to know how these places were built through the bodies and blood of enslaved people. Or when we ride a train through tunnels that still have the bones of indentured Chinese labourers who died working the railroad. Or when we understand what colonialism was, and how it connected with distributing money. I could go on nearly endlessly. Anywhere you look in the bloody past, you’ll find white people on the side of devastating and destroying other people for the sake of whiteness.
I know this isn’t simple. The people who became white through coming to what is now Canada and the United States often weren’t personally trying to do horrible things – they were often driven out of their homes and places, hungry, looking for a place to live and be. The people in the more recent past who defended or produced segregation or tried to abolish Indigenous identity or who tried to keep immigrants out of the country had their reasons too. This is one thing about whiteness; not being personally culpable doesn’t mean that we’re not involved and can’t be responsible. When I’ve taught classes about these histories, I’ve had students come up to me and say “I don’t know how to live in the world, now that I know these things.” Sometimes they say, “I feel angry to learn these things, because it’s not my fault. I didn’t do these things.”
White shame is the feeling we white people might have when we look back at the past and recognize all the horror that has been done for whiteness and by white people to others. We didn’t do those things ourselves, personally, so the feeling we have isn’t really guilt. But we recognize that we inherit their legacy, that those things were done by our ancestors.
That can feel really awful, and it is okay to feel terrible about the past. It was much worse for the people our people did these things to; shame about that might be part of the feeling we might have about whiteness past.
Feeling shame for whiteness present
Then just look out at the world right now. It is not only white people doing shitty things, so if you’re identifying a terrible thing that some racialized person is doing somewhere notice that that’s just another thing that white people tend to do when if we feel bad about whiteness – another exit strategy for white shame.
The ghost of whiteness present can arise when we learn about practically anything happening in the world right now. The triumphalist narrative offered so often in the US and Canadian contexts is that things may’ve been really bad in the past, that bad or misguided people may’ve done bad things in the name of whiteness, but that we’ve moved past all that now and things are all better. Slavery was abolished, wasn’t it? People can all vote, can’t they? And so on. So when we white people perceive a fraction of the racist bullshit happening, sometimes we just can’t believe that things are so bad. Learn about at the percentages of imprisoned people in Canada who are Indigenous or at the Canadian government’s commitment to indefinite detention for undocumented immigrants, or the US government’s imprisonment of Black and Native people, or police murders of Black women and men in both countries, or white vigilantes roaming the border to try to make sure migrants die instead of crossing, or where bombs built in our countries are being dropped, or who is poisoned with the run-off from mining, or a million other things, and see what comes up. Look at the next time an avowedly racist white person kills other people and see what happens. It’s harder for us white people to perceive some of the things that are less obvious to white people about whiteness as it happens right now – preferential hiring, not getting stopped for walking or driving, not having our kids taken away from us, and all sorts of other ways that being white makes our lives easier and smoother.
For a lot of us white people, there’s an urge to reject any connection to any of this, a wish to just not feel bad or responsible. White shame is realizing that we are implicated in and benefit from the harm being done to other people, right now. In the face of that, we might feel powerless and not know what to do.
As I write this, the Unite the Right conference has just happened in Charlottesville. White supremacists are marching in streets all over the continent, openly trying to gather white people in the cause of whiteness. People are being killed for not being white, they are in prison, they are dying because they don’t have a safe place to live. Fascists are marching in the name of white people; the white supremacist world they yearn for exists to benefit white people. And it does benefit white people. It doesn’t matter if we white people say we don’t like it; we still benefit from racism at every scale and in every way.
Over the last twenty years, there’s been vital work to identify and dismantle structures and social relations of white supremacy, to aim at the infrastructures that invisibly make whiteness the lowest difficulty setting, to not fixate on overt or obvious racists. If we’ve focused on structural critiques of whiteness we might be shaken by the rise of outspoken and self-conscious white supremacists. So it’s worth remembering that some of these fascists are coming out of their cracks because they feel threatened. Some of them are emerging because they feel like there’s an opening. The structural work matters as much as ever, and direct action to fight fascism complements that work.
Rejecting the shame of whiteness future
The best thing I know for us white people to do if we feel a terrible feeling about being white, if we feel white shame, is to fight to make this world a different world. When I say that we inherit whiteness and benefit from it, I mean that we may not have chosen it and we may not like it. I mean that we can’t personally reject whiteness, or pretend not to be white. Wanting to not be white is a response to white shame. Since whiteness is a relationship, not something we personally have, we can’t personally take it off, put it down, or divest from it. White shame shows us that even if we’re not personally responsible for something, we have a responsibility to do something. All we can do if we recognize the shamefulness of whiteness is change the world.
How we do that work will depend a lot on where we live and what capacities we have. I have thought about what remains for us in what used to be called Race Traitor politics, and their slogan, “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.” Some of the time, those politics expressed themselves in personal expressions or disruptions of white privilege, and I remain unconvinced that attempts at individual refusals will do much to transform this shameful. But, sparked by conversation with my friend Angus Maguire, I’ve been reflecting again about how treason might be vital for building collective movements for liberation.
If we can acknowledge the shameworthy histories we inherit, if we can see how they live in the present, we can ask ourselves: How can I reject this shameful world? How can I make a future that is different from this present? Instead of avoiding or denying how bad things are and how we white people benefit from them, we can name the feeling we’re having as shame. We can refuse to let our complicity and the ways we fuck up shut us down. We can fight fascism, we can stand with people targeted by racists, we can help transform our collective reality.