“I personally think talking about it all the time just makes the problem worse.”
Racism is a difficult thing to talk about. We like to think we’ve reached equality. We like to think that soon enough, all the old racists will die, and racism will disappear with them. The problem will solve itself if we just give it enough time.
Shame is also a difficult thing. Shame is an emotion that represents the failure to live up to an ego ideal. We think of ourselves as caring, smart, funny, talented, moral, attractive, as a good parent, sibling, friend. We don’t simply think of ourselves these ways; we deeply value such characteristics. These are our ego ideals. On occasion, these ideas we have about ourselves are challenged. When others challenge the ideas we have about ourselves, we lash out in anger. We become defensive. We deflect your criticism by pointing out your flaws.
This is not shame. Shame happens when we are the ones to challenge our own ideas of ourselves. Shame is inwardly directed. Yourself disgust you. You are repulsed by your image in the mirror, and so you look away. You hide your face in your hands—not so others won’t see you—but so you won’t see yourself.
Shame is silent destruction. Others won’t know you are ashamed. The response to shame is concealment. We don’t share our shame. We hold it all in, bottle it up, as it erodes our very self-image. Shame has consequences. The more shame we have, the less vulnerable we are with others. All that concealment makes it nearly impossible to be whole-heartedly connected to another person. Shame ruins personal relationships, thus initiating a vicious cycle of self-doubt and seclusion.
Shame is not guilt. It is easy to confuse the two, but feeling guilty has to do with thinking you’ve done something morally wrong. You’ve broken some moral code; you’ve hurt someone else. Sometimes guilt can turn to shame. If you consider yourself to be a moral person, and you break some moral rule, then you might feel ashamed of yourself. But this is because you’ve failed yourself. Guilt is because you’ve failed someone else.
The American ego ideal is independence, justice, and equality for all. While individuals identify themselves as successful, honest, and hard working, our nation identifies itself with The American Dream. The American Dream gives us collective hope that we may one day own a home, provide for our families, and maybe save up some money for a vacation or for retirement. We are hopeful that we will rise up to, even surpass, the riches of previous generations. We put our faith in hard work and democracy. We sing the song “The Land of Opportunity” in unison.
We have collectively failed to live up to our ego ideal.
We do not feel guilty for this, necessarily. If guilt were the problem, we would be open to reconciliation. We felt guilty for wrangling up Japanese Americans and putting them in internment camps during WWII. We saw the error in our ways and apologized (with money). No, the sickness in America today is shame. We fought fiercely for independence. We declared equal rights for all—except for women, blacks, Native Americans, and non-Americans. While we held ourselves up as protectors, we diminished, exploited, and isolated those people we’d sworn to protect. That is the wheelhouse of shame.
We are collectively ashamed.
All of this shame leads to concealment. If the Native Americans are living on reservations, out of sight, out of mind. If black people are living in ghettos and in prison, out of sight, out of mind. If women are staying home raising the children, out of sight, out of mind. If Latinos are working under the table, out of sight, out of mind.
All of this concealment leads to poor personal relationships. When you are deep down ashamed of how your country has treated an entire group of people, tension is inevitable. Natural segregation is inevitable. The more shame we feel, the further we go to hide it. And the greater lengths we go to hide it, the more likely it is to rear its ugly head in unintended ways. Concealment is corrosive. Denial is destroying us.
And this is not just the white man’s problem. Stay-at-home moms do not invite women CEOs to their children’s play dates. Wealthy black men criticize poorer ones for “acting like fools;” poorer black men condemn wealthier ones of “trying to be white.” The oppressed take on the shame of the oppressor. We are to be seen and not heard, and so we do not speak.
Racism is a difficult thing. Sexism is a difficult thing. Guilt and shame are difficult things. Privilege is decidedly not a difficult thing. When the young, white male declares, “I personally think talking about it all the time just makes the problem worse,” he is speaking from a place of privilege. He is saying, “I get to decide what we talk about.” He is saying, “I’m tired of talking about race.” He is refusing to listen. He is, in a word, oppressing.
And we might say that this is purely because he is a white male; he is the oppressor; he is the definition of privilege. But if that is all we say, we’re missing the root of the problem. At a fundamental level, he is admitting, “I don’t want to talk about it.” He’s trying to hide from the problem. He’s refusing to look in the mirror where he’ll see that he’s privileged, and that others are not. This is concealment. He is ashamed.
‘He’ here is the universal ‘he’. I’m sure my student would quickly retort: “how could I be ashamed of something I never did?” But he is just one cog in a wheel of shame. We are collectively ashamed. You hear Morgan Freeman say the same thing: there should be no “white” and “black.” We should all be colorblind. We should erase the words from our vocabulary, and when the words are gone, there will be no more racism. If you can’t call a man “black,” then you cannot oppress him because he’s black.
This call for colorblindness is a mask. It is hiding your color or your gender or your ethnicity so that others may look themselves in the mirror. It is pushing under the rug the fact that while only 7% of white children are impoverished, nearly 25% of black and Hispanic children nationwide live in poverty. It is to turn away from the fact that 22% of white 4th graders are at a below basic reading level, while 54% of black students and 50% of Hispanic students essentially cannot read. We collectively repudiate the income gap. For white males with a college degree working full-time, the median income is a whopping $65,000. For white women in the same situation, it’s $46,000; for black males it’s $50,000; for black women, it’s $42,000; for Hispanic men, it’s $50,000; and Hispanic women make the least at $40,000. It is to deliberately ignore the new Jim Crow. While the American population is 62.2% white, 13.3% black, and 17.1% Hispanic, the prison population is 37% black, 32% white, and 22% Hispanic.
We should be ashamed of ourselves.
I’d like to be optimistic. I’d like to believe that all we need to do now is look in the mirror and admit we’ve fallen short of The American Dream. We could learn to be vulnerable, to be open, to be honest about our past. We could integrate our neighborhoods and schools; we could re-build personal relationships. And in the end, we could live up to our ideas of ourselves.
The problem is that shame just doesn’t work like that. The big problem with shame is that we often cannot identify this gnawing anxiety by its proper name. We push it down so deeply, it would take a million sheets tied together to pull it up. We re-name it anger or guilt or uncertainty. We project our shame onto others: you should be ashamed of yourselves for looting your own neighborhood, wearing such a short skirt, or not speaking our language. We conceal our shame even from ourselves. We conceal our concealment of our concealment of our concealment of our concealment…
And so, I am rather pessimistic. True change could only come from many prominent, well-respected white males standing up and publicly declaring, “I am ashamed of my privilege.” You would need masses of Americans singing the new song, “We are ashamed of the lack of opportunity.” Red-blooded Americans would have to express the decidedly unpatriotic attitude: America is not the greatest country on earth. These things will never happen.
As radical as it may seem, I think there is one possibility: violence.* Revolution. We could take the privileged hostage and force them, physically, to look in the mirror. We could hold their thumbs until they say “mercy.” We could burn everything to the ground so we may rebuild it anew. We could give them something to talk about.
*Disclaimer: I’m not sure whether I really advocate for this or not.