The emergence of protests following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others have led many White individuals to become actively involved in educating themselves on racism and anti-Blackness in the United States. There has been ample dialogue on the concept of White guilt and the way in which it can prevent meaningful change. However, another concept — White shame — is less acknowledged, yet equally important.
I had the opportunity to learn about this phenomenon and its impact directly from Dr. Corinne Galgay, a staff psychologist at the Washington DC VA Medical Center who conducted an extensive study on White guilt and shame while at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her responses help illuminate a concept that is crucial in the fight for anti-racism.
What is White shame, how is it different from White guilt, and why is it not talked about as much?
The key distinction is whether someone, when faced with addressing racism, engages in negative self-evaluation (e.g., “what is wrong with me?”) — White Shame — or behavior evaluation (e.g., “how could I do that?”) – White Guilt.
White Shame results in condemnation of yourself as a White person rather than specific racist actions. Someone might feel shame for engaging in racism (thoughts, feelings, beliefs, behaviors), having failed to stop others from engaging in racism (group, systemic, structural), and/or not living up to the false “non-racist White person” ideal. They fear being rejected by others if this “badness” is discovered, and often avoid/withdraw as a coping response.
Talking about White Shame or the idea that something may be “wrong” with Whiteness and that there is something “bad” about benefiting from the social inequities that result from Whiteness, may lead to greater efforts in disrupting the systems of domination that promote racism. Such awareness flies in the face of what we’ve been taught about Whiteness as a cultural norm.
How did you become interested in studying White shame?
I took an experiential course taught by my mentor, Dr. Robert Carter, that required me to examine the ways I’ve been socialized to think, feel, and behave as a White person. It resulted in a lot of pain and a sense of wrongness about my identity that I couldn’t shake. While I labeled this feeling guilt, it didn’t truly capture the phenomenon. I learned that guilt is often conflated with shame when talking about White guilt, and wondered if shame might play a more integral role in anti-racism development than has been previously explored.
Why is rhetoric about White guilt not helpful?
“White guilt” has unfortunately been overused and weaponized in discourse about racism. It has become a tool to communicate, “I feel bad, I don’t know what to do, so back off” to BIPOC and other Whites when confronted about social inequity. Those who claim they have “White guilt” may be seen as inauthentic or performative because the focus of guilt is on behavior to the exclusion of true self-examination and accountability.
What are the benefits of acknowledging White shame?
Shame is a necessary requirement for true anti-racism development. While guilt can lead you to take corrective actions, it doesn’t lead you to examine what it was about you — your beliefs, values, biases, assumptions — that led you to engage in racist actions in the first place. It also doesn’t lead you to challenge the group and systemic forces that perpetuate racism.
White Shame, however, does this by 1) reconnecting Whites with the parts of themselves and their group that embody racism, 2) engaging in self-evaluation of their values and morals that perpetuate racism, 3) moving towards a racial self-concept that recognizes complicity in racism, and 4) challenging thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors that promote Whiteness.
What impact could a better understanding and acknowledgment of White shame have on the mental health field and training of White clinicians?
White Shame can be motivating when it is named, acknowledged, and processed prior to overwhelming our coping resources. It may be channeled to strengthen anti-racism efforts. Sadly, it can also further White silence, susceptibility to colorblindness, and mood disturbances. Even worse, if experienced as intolerable, White Shame may lead to defensive reactions that disrupt empathy and dehumanize BIPOC. This is why understanding White Shame is so important as there is potential for significant harm if not coupled with resilience development.
How can your findings inform the present moment, as more White individuals in the U.S. are starting to understand their place in a system that upholds anti-Blackness?
We are in an unprecedented time right now when the myths of White superiority and the conspiracy of silence embedded in our culture are being directly challenged. The veil of Whiteness is being lifted and the rot of racism, especially anti-Black racism, is being exposed. COVID-19 has forced everyone home and online. White individuals were confronted with the video-recorded death of George Floyd by someone who looked like them. They were forced to pay attention. They learned (what Black people have always known) the violence of racism.
Now, we are seeing a lot of White people trying to make sense of this ‘new’ reality that doesn’t fit the stories they’ve come to believe about a just, equitable world where the color of your skin doesn’t matter. They are being called out for a lifetime of inaction and lip service to equality when they continue to benefit from the dehumanization of Black and brown people. And many feel bad. They may feel ashamed. And they should. We should. If we don’t do the work necessary, as White people, to normalize shame and engage in dialogue that invites — rather than rejects — negative self-evaluation and change, then we continue to perpetuate the myth that racism isn’t really that bad. We continue to cope by telling ourselves this is an exception and return to the colorblind ideology that is rooted in White supremacy. We can’t let that happen.