I’ve talked at length about shame and its impact on behavioral change; namely, that when we’re feeling shame, we’re about as far from changing our own behavior as we can be. When we’re feeling shame, the self is so threatened our only reaction is defensive, and defense is not a great place to begin looking at our own behavior and where we need to improve.
Lately, it’s getting more and more important for people in positions of privilege to acknowledge their own shortcomings.* I read this as an enormously positive indicator that traditionally oppressed groups are beginning to make their voices heard and push for social change. However, that means (of course) that people who aren’t so used to actively confronting contentious issues are being asked to react in thoughtful, nuanced ways, and are woefully unprepared to do so.
*We need to understand “privilege” as not necessarily individual, but rather being part of a traditionally valued part of our social system. You as an individual might not be doing better than any other individual, but as a part of a general group, you have historically benefitted from some aspect of your identity.
Take the case of University of Missouri; under 100 miles from Ferguson, where students and faculty were subjected to racial slurs and freakin’ swastikas on dorm room doors, the president showed little motivation to address and correct. And now he’s resigned, due to pressure from empowered students in solidarity with the school moneymakers – the football team. (I love this, by the way! But that’s a subject for another post.) The president was not in a position to address these concerns because he himself had not done his own work to understand [systemic] racism, his own position of power, and how the two interact. Video of him telling students “any answer I give will be the wrong answer” shows how little he had to think about his own role in institutional oppression until he was forced to.
People in traditionally valued social classes, especially those wanting to act in solidarity and empowerment, must first look to their own behavior. Shame makes this very, very difficult.
While living in Chicago, I was lucky enough to host a crust punk show at my house, which was also a venue. My boyfriend at the time was friends with a huge group of anarchists, and one of these anarchists was a transgender woman. When talking with her, I misgendered her, calling her “him.” She was strong and confident enough to point this out to me, and correct me on the pronoun she preferred.
I have not forgotten this; it’s definitely in the slideshow of “terrible moments you want to think about before you fall asleep because you work in three hours.” I was ashamed not only because of my ignorance (which I have since worked hard to correct) but because I probably hurt this woman, likely joining a long line of ignorant jerks.
Despite all this, I’m super lucky this happened and that she was in a good enough place to correct me. It started me working to be an ally and advocate for transgender rights, especially in my therapeutic and educational practice, and opened me up to learning much more than I thought possible about the amazing women (and men) on the front lines, fighting for equality.
Without this feeling of shame, I might never have made those first steps, but it took many, many hours of thinking and soul-searching and teeth-gnashing to get to this point. My first reaction was to lash out and blame someone else – my whitebread hometown, the lack of media attention on trans issues, even the fact that theoretically (because at that time I had no openly trans friends) I was a supporter of trans rights. NONE OF THAT MATTERED. I was in a privileged position and needed to check myself, apologize, shut up, and learn. I needed to check that feeling of shame and turn it into useful action, rather than lashing out and wallowing.
Feelings of shame can cloud our brains, make us lash out, or dig in, or say even MORE stupid things. It’s not up to the oppressed to make the oppressor feel better – that’s our own job.
If you did something stupid or ignorant, it’s fine to feel shame…for a second. Then it’s your responsibility to acknowledge, apologize, shut up, and learn.
Interested in learning and preventing your own shameful experience? Review the following! (and stop saying “everyone feels/does/thinks…” it will totally help!)