The inundating media coverage on Black Lives Matter following the murder of George Floyd has ignited a painful and vital spark in Americans. Many of us are suddenly asking ourselves the question, “What is my role in this problem, the problem of racism?”
As a psychologist, but primarily as a White Jewish woman in the world, I am asking myself this question every day, several times a day. Among the avalanche of conversations I have begun to have throughout the process of waking up, one of the most prevalent concerns echoed by my White friends, family and colleagues is a fear of “saying the wrong thing”. When I probe what others mean by this, they express a worry about offending people and particularly about offending people of color. And I understand exactly what they mean given that this blog post has been sitting on my desktop for a month and I have been hesitant to post it because I not only fear, but know that I will get it wrong. Of course, this type of avoidance is painfully ironic since our silence and our need to “get it right” when it comes to race is inherently offensive and reinforces our privilege as well as our participation in white supremacy
The psychologist part of me is drawn to the question, “When it comes to discussions about race, what are White people so afraid of?” When we strip the notion of “saying the wrong thing” down to its core, I believe White people are afraid of being exposed as racist. I believe White people are utterly petrified of experiencing the immense shame that thinly veils a feeling of “badness.” If being racist is bad, why would anyone admit to such an attribute within oneself? The kicker is that with any part of ourselves that elicits immense shame, the antidote to that shame is light and air. By this I mean, making that shameful part known, to both ourselves and others.
A secondary question that arises in response to our badness is this; why are we so attached to the idea of being likable, agreeable, conflict avoidant, and benevolent? What will it take for us to relinquish a collective narcissistic need to be seen by ourselves and others as “all good?” How secure really is the collective self-esteem that embodies Whiteness? I believe that if White people really felt okay in their skin, we wouldn’t be afraid to put a spotlight on it, to call attention to it, or to even simply acknowledge its existence. In contrast, I believe that collectively, the self-esteem of Whiteness is incredibly fragile. So fragile, in fact, that the majority of us have dissociated its impact entirely out of awareness. If we need youtube videos of Black men being mass murdered and the rioting and looting of our cities to make us aware of a problem that we create and perpetuate, we must ask ourselves, what are so afraid of seeing that we have virtually become blind?
This brings me back to the topic of shame. Shame is an emotion that has been defined by many scholars and writers in various ways. I am going to simplify my own definition of shame for the sake of this article and describe it as a visceral experience of ourselves as bad. Taken a step further, being confronted with our own badness reminds us that we are human and therefore not immortal. Consequently, shame brings us to the depths of our humanness. It reminds us that we have the potential to hurt, hate and destroy. Amidst this deeply uncomfortable experience of the shadow-parts of ourselves, we also come closer than we wish to the awareness that we will one day become irrelevant, going back into the earth. Shame is more than a feeling of badness, it is a feeling of nothingness, of complete and utter insignificance.
What if we were to grow comfortable with accepting that we are both something and nothing? That we are both relevant and irrelevant? I wonder what would happen to the collective ego of Whiteness if White people weren’t so terrified of annihilation. Maybe we wouldn’t feel the need to protect our fragile self-esteem with silence, ignorance, avoidance, unconscious forgetting, and the compensatory obsession with being good. What conversations could ensue if we were to grow comfortable with our capacity to offend, hurt, acknowledge, repair, and continue living?
Perhaps people of color have something to teach us about how to live alongside our mortality rather than dissociated from it. After all, white supremacy has given people of color no choice but to confront the possibility of death and destruction every day of their lives...its about time us White folks catch up.