A Psychological Deep Dive into White Guilt & Shame: An Interview with Ann Jealous & Caroline Haskell, Part II
Lynn Burnett: Let’s dive into two of the major themes that your wonderful book, Combined Destinies, explores: White guilt and shame. How do you distinguish between those two emotions, given that they’re often used synonymously in our society?
Ann Jealous: I think of guilt as being about something you did. It’s related to something you did that you think is a bad thing, and that other people would probably recognize as a bad thing. Whereas, shame is about your being… your notion of who you are.
Shame is an emotion that can take you over. Even if I don’t acknowledge it, I walk in it, so I feel less-than. Sometimes I feel so much less-than, that my body language shows it… maybe when I walk my heads down. Or, maybe I lift my head up, and I act like I’m better than other people. But that’s also coming from a core belief that I’m actually less-than.
So, guilt is about something you’ve done. Shame is about who you’ve been made to feel you are.
Lynn: What are healthy and helpful ways that White people can process guilt and shame, versus ways that are less helpful?
Ann: Well, less helpful is anger. Less helpful is acting out.
There’s a story in Combined Destinies that may be useful. I was teaching college students, and I had a student who wanted to pass a class that was about race, racism, and racial healing. But he hadn’t done any work, or taken any exams… he had just shown up to class. But he wanted to play a sport, and had to get a C in the class. So, he came to me at the end of the semester, hoping that he could get a C. And I said, well, you didn’t do anything… you can’t pass this class.
He begged and he pleaded, and finally I said, “Ok, I have a homework assignment for you, and I want you to do it at home, and then I want you to bring it to me tomorrow morning.” Now, it had been obvious in the class that he had a real aversion to being around Black or Brown people. In fact, he had had a number of altercations with Black and Brown students. So I said, I want you to go home and I want you to write down all the things you think about Black people. I want a list.
He came back the next day and came to my office to bring his paper. I said, okay, you have to do one more thing. I want you to sit down , and I want you to change every place you put the word “Black”… and instead put “I.” Don’t change anything else in the sentence.
Before he finished, he was convulsing. It was clear to him, by his emotional reaction, that he had projected all of his negative thoughts about himself onto Black people.
And he did that because his father was emotionally abusive. This 18-year-old was feeling enormous amounts of shame, and he couldn’t bear it. So he projected it onto to a whole group of people with a certain racial identity… to get it off of him. So I let him pass the class… I saw that he had learned an important lesson. He had learned something that was of value to him personally, and that was probably going to stay with him and make him a better person. From what I know about people, once we get underneath something that’s really been running us, we shift. It’s hard for us to go back to being the same way we were before.
Lynn: You can’t hide from that experience once you’ve had it.
Ann: Yes. This is an example of how White people can do exercises that can help them see what they’ve been carrying around, which is a helpful way to process guilt and shame. But when there’s so much denial and pain and projection, I think getting therapeutic help from a qualified person is a positive thing to do.
Caroline Haskell: Your question about how White people can process guilt and shame makes me think about one of the outgrowths of Combined Destinies. On a local level, the book led to the creation of Whites for Racial Equity.
That group was founded on two prongs: that there was a need for White people to come together amongst ourselves, and do work around healing some of our guilt and shame. It’s important that we do that work ourselves, so that our learning and growing isn’t at the expense of people of color. And the second prong was to give each other enough support so that we could take action. I believe that action around correcting a wrong can be part of the healing process.
What we’ve noticed since our founding in 2015 is that most of the people who originally came because they really needed to do some of their own personal work have all found some place on the Monterey peninsula to contribute, and to take action towards ending racism. I consider that to be a great success.
Ann: Most of the people who founded Whites for Racial Equity contributed to this book before they co-founded the group. I think the contributions, the writing of their own stories was very healing for some of them. For some of them, it was also deeply emotional. And there have been more people, since we published the book, who’ve written their stories and sent them to me. It was healing for them simply to share their stories. There was even a former Klansman who came up to me at the end of a presentation… as though we were at a confessional. Just verbally acknowledging the things we have done that we feel guilty about, and having somebody listen, is healing, and can be a beginning step toward doing some more active work fighting racism.
Caroline: Ann and I made a decision to make Combined Destinies a storytelling book, rather than a research book. And what that does is it invites other people to reflect on and want to share their own stories… especially when we do workshops and have breakout groups. So many people have been holding onto stories without even realizing it. The realizing of what they’ve been carrying, and the releasing of it, can be therapeutic. We all have stories!
Lynn: I want to summarize what I’m hearing both of you saying in response to this question. The question was, “what are healthy and helpful ways to process guilt and shame? And what are unhelpful, unhealthy ways to deal with it?” What I’m hearing you both say is that unhealthy ways are anger, denial, and projection. And helpful ways involve finding ways to process it. And that doing that in a group like Whites for Racial Equity can be especially helpful, where you can talk things out, and be listened to, and listen to others. And that writing your own stories down is a powerful way to process them.
Ann: Right. One of the things that I used to recommend to people when I was working with clients — and not necessarily about racism, but about anything they felt badly about, some guilt they carried — was to write a letter to the person they felt they had harmed. It doesn’t matter if you will never see that person again. Tear the letter up after you write it if you choose! It’s the writing that’s therapeutic. Being burdened with guilt and shame makes it difficult to act. Writing can help to release those burdens, which then creates more spaciousness to act in more positive ways.
Caroline: To circle back to your question about what’s at stake, both for White people and people of color, is that if White people stay stuck in guilt or shame, then we won’t be very useful as allies to people of color. The reason why is because those emotions keep us focused on feeling bad about ourselves… those emotions are quite self-involved. People of color need us to free ourselves from those emotions so that we can be effective allies.
Lynn: What are the common blockages to moving through White guilt and shame? And why is it that even White people who care deeply about race and racism sometimes find themselves getting stuck in these emotions?
Ann: It’s easy to get stuck because there’s often not very much support for moving through those emotions. And it’s easy to get overwhelmed and shut down. That’s often been my experience, for example, of White people who want to hear about my experiences. I’ll share with them… but I can see them getting overwhelmed.
Caroline: And that’s true even for committed White antiracists, that they can go into this state of overwhelm.
Ann: Yes, sometimes I just want to shake them! And then if I confront them, and say, “I just told you this thing happened to me, and you just stared at me,” and I ask them what’s going on for them… they’ll often start shifting around uncomfortably or shaking their head and just say, “Well, I was just feeling so awful about that.” My point is that the getting stuck is almost literal. I can literally see it.
Caroline: I sometimes wonder, particularly when I’m in groups like Whites for Racial Equity, when I see somebody getting stuck… I still think it may be a function of the conditioning of supremacy. There’s a feeling of, somehow, I’ve got to feel really, really bad. I’ve got to do some sort of penance. I think it’s okay to do that a little bit… but then you have to recognize that you’re being sad or upset isn’t doing anyone, including yourself, any good.
I find myself wondering if even that experience is arising from a need to have themselves be the center. We talk a lot about de-centering Whiteness… but we’re so caught in this conditioning!
We’re all in different places developmentally around this. It can be easy to judge each other, and that’s one place where I see us, as White people, sometimes not being very helpful to each other. It’s really important to help other White people when we see that they’re stuck.
Ann: Yes. There’s all this good White people/bad White people rhetoric. Everybody wants to think of themselves as a good person. And if someone’s carrying shame and they’re not acknowledging it, it can feel even more important for them to think of themselves as a good person… and they can make themselves the good person by saying, “I’m good and you’re bad.”
Lynn: So there’s this investment in feeling like a good White person… Do you think that sometimes people can stay stuck in shame because they feel like by being ashamed, they can feel like a good White person? Like, “I’m a good White person because I feel bad; my feeling bad allows me to feel like a good White person.”
Ann: Oh, absolutely. And I think that relates what Caroline was saying, in terms of the worse I feel, the better I think I am. Or the worse I feel, the more it shows I care. Of course, in reality, the worse I feel, the less effective I can be at making change.
Lynn: Related to this, there’s sometimes a dynamic in White antiracist spaces where it can seem like if you’re not showing how upset you are, or how bad you feel, then other people might wonder if you’re serious about racial justice. It’s almost like people feel they need to perform anger or shame for each other.
Ann: Yes. There can sometimes be a group dynamic, like people are in the shame Olympics.
Lynn: This might be a tangent, but when I was a high school history teacher it felt very important for me to be happy and grounded, so that I could be there for the students. And to do that, I focused on not being rushed. I very consciously slowed myself down. When I walked across campus, I walked slowly, I smiled at the students. I wanted to be approachable, and I was also just keeping myself grounded.
But there was a school culture where it felt like many of the teachers and administrators felt a need to show how committed they were by rushing all the time. There was this pressure from the school culture to show your legitimacy by being intense, and I felt like folks were to some extent performing for each other. Some of the teachers would give me this vibe, like they thought I wasn’t serious because I wasn’t overwhelmed. But what’s actually serious was being happy and grounded for the kids.
Ann: I understand the connection you’re making.
Lynn: How do we work with this dynamic, so that we can build stronger and more effective White antiracist cultures? I feel like there needs to be a cultural shift away from feeling like we have to showcase shame or anger, and to instead help one another move through that and get grounded. I was talking with Tim Wise recently, and he was saying that on the White antiracist journey, shame is a stop at the train station… but then you have to get back on the train and keep moving. And we need cultures that help us keep moving, help us keep growing.
Caroline: What you were saying about your teaching experience is so important, because another characteristic of White supremacy culture is urgency. And it’s tangled up with what we’ve been talking about with shame, because once again it can be so performative, and it can really keep us away from actually doing what needs to be done.
Lynn: Something else that feels related, is the way you both write about how shame and guilt can lead White people — and especially self-identified White antiracists — to reject themselves, and to reject White people as a whole. I worry that sometimes, in White antiracist spaces committed to mobilizing White people for racial justice, that this rejection of White people undermines the core mission of mobilizing Whites. I’m wondering if we can explore that dynamic.
Caroline: In White antiracist identity development models, there’s typically two phases. At the very beginning, there’s a phase of feeling really bad about yourself. Then there’s a phase where the only people who you want to spend time with, or think are worth hanging out with, are “the other.”
So that’s the rejection of self, but I think some of this is really tied to the deeper layers of the construction of Whiteness. Part of that historical construction was abandoning our ethnic heritage as European peoples, either consciously or unconsciously, in order to assimilate into Whiteness and gain the advantages of being White. And so we don’t really know who we are, and a lot of us don’t know who our peoples are, their cultures, and their strengths. In that second phase of identity development, White people who are feeling an absence of culture can sometimes look to people of color for that… without recognizing how that can be problematic.
Ann: We were once doing a workshop, where White people were identifying their European ancestry, and someone in the audience got very upset. He said, “What happened to just being White?!” It was almost as if he felt we were removing his “Whiteness” status; his “White American” status, by asking him what country his great-great grandfather was from.
Lynn: So, we’re talking about White people who are on the White antiracist journey rejecting themselves, and rejecting other White people. How do we move through that dynamic, when we see it happening? And I’m asking especially because it’s a blockage to doing effective work, especially when it comes to White people mobilizing other White people for racial justice.
Ann: Exactly. You can’t mobilize people and reject them at the same time.
Caroline: This is one area where I think that we, as White antiracists, tend to fall down. We’re not doing a good job with our White brothers and sisters around letting them know, “I have you. I will hold you in your imperfections. And, at the same time, we’re really going to focus on accountability, and changing our patterns.”
This makes me think of an important lesson I received from my mother. My parents were not well educated around racism. We grew up in a pretty disciplined household. But every time we had done something wrong, and we needed to think about what we’d done, my mother sent us to our room. And we had to sit and think about what we’ve done. And then she came in, and the first thing she said was “I love you. This is not about who you are, this is about what you’ve done.”
Talk about major instruction! So I experienced guilt, but my mother gave me the gift of not getting too ashamed because no matter what bad behavior I did — and I did plenty! — I knew it was not who I was. And to this day, I work really hard at holding people, because I don’t want people to go to a place of feeling bad about who they are. I do want them to be better. And I want to be better myself.
Lynn: You both write about how White guilt and shame can sometimes lead to self-hatred and anger at oneself, which can then get projected onto Black and Brown people. And that projection can lead to anger and even violence towards them. Can you describe the psychological process of that projection?
Ann: Well, imagine someone who has a feeling of, “I cannot stand the way I feel about myself.” Someone who never had Caroline’s childhood messages, about not being a bad person, even if you sometimes mess up. Instead, you came to believe that the mistakes you make are who you are. Unfortunately, a lot of kids grow up like this… grow up thinking that there’s something wrong with them.
And then, as you grow older you may receive messages from society that you’re not good enough. You’re not good enough to go to that better school, have that better job or nicer house. So a lot of shame can grow, about feeling that you’re not good enough.
I remember listening to a radio interview, with a White man who had been imprisoned for years for beating a Black man almost to death with a baseball bat. This guy had done a lot of inner transformation and counseling, and after being released from prison, had started an organization to do good public work. During the interview he was asked, “What were you thinking when you almost killed that man?” And he said, “Well, I grew up with a brother who beat me all the time. And when I started hitting that guy, I was just so glad I was on the other side of that bat.”
This man had been carrying an enormous amount of anger and rage and hurt and a sense of worthlessness, and he acted all of that out on the person he attacked. Wounded people can have this experience of, “If I attack you, I can get this burden off of me.” Of course, that feeling doesn’t last very long, and once the moment passes it increases personal shame. People do this all the time, in much less dramatic ways.
Caroline: We see this dynamic a lot in political discourse. We aren’t able to have real conversations, because we’re either one upping or criticizing somebody, and we never get to what actually has to happen for all of us to heal. We weaponize almost everything.
Read on to part III — the final installation of this interview — in which Ann Jealous and Caroline Haskell explore White silence, and how facing racism supports emotional maturity and personal growth for White people.