Last week, after the umpteenth time watching horrendous brutal acts committed by white people on African Americans, I tweeted words to this effect “Somedays, I am ashamed of being white”, because in that moment I absolutely was. The reaction was split into three – there were the folks who clicked ‘like’ and then sallied on with their lives – which is cool & groovy; there were people who just swore multi-coloured versions of hell at me in their first tweet, which is grand, I immediately block them; and then there were very interesting voices telling me not to be ashamed, but with an undercurrent that I was being ridiculous. Fair enough. Everyone is entitled to their opinion.
My gut says, surely shame is useful? If the racists had just an eensy weensy bit more shame, then they wouldn’t do what they do, right? I’m standing in my kitchen humming and hawing over this and I see my kids. They don’t know right from wrong themselves (but they aren’t five years old so we’ll cut them some slack there). We have to tell them what to do and back that up with threats of the naughty chair or use positive reinforcement like praise and chocolate. What happens as they grow?
It looks like as we human beings mature, we develop our own moral conscience and no longer rely on chocolate and naughty chairs (unless you’re into that kinda thing, which is entirely your call, but that’s a whole other blog by someone else entitled “The Sexy Chocolate-Covered Naughty Chair”). This mature moral compass is driven by good, happy things like pride, honour and praise and also more negative moral emotions like guilt and shame.
Here’s a flash of research to back it up : In 2002 Jennifer Manion writes in the American Philosophical Quarterly about the moral relevance of shame and “how it can act to motivate an agent to seek moral identity and a closer approximation to an improved and improving moral ideal”. In 2019, there was an article in the American Journal of Sociology where two researchers Tobin & Moon studied shame and guilt in the LGBT community in Christian churches. They came to the conclusion that “shame may catalyze virtue, but not where it has been imposed as a chronic disposition”.
These are all fancy words but what they’re saying is that a bit of shame, an appropriate level of shame, pushes us to do the right thing next time. Now, I believe that once we start to do the right thing, once we take action in a morally positive way, then the shame begins to unwind – but I have no science to back this up, just my own personal experience.
Oh and before anyone starts barking at me, – I know that too much shame is an awful condition and is linked to depression, eating disorders, anger and all sorts of nasty spiralling thunderstorms. I am not talking about too much shame or too much guilt. I am talking about a smidgen, enough to spur you to change, amend or do the right thing.
At the moment, when I see white people committing police brutality, I am reminded of apartheid and all the colonialism – French, English, German, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and, by the way, if there are any Irish out there thinking somehow we are morally superior in this history here because we never conquered anything and were ourselves subjugated for 800 years, ha ha ha – think again – a lot of Irish went down South in US. I toured around North Carolina and Georgia a few years ago and was aggrieved at the number of Irish second names floating around those parts.
So, when I hear about these racial crimes PLUS nothing is changing AND I am a white person living in my bubble of privilege; I do feel a level of shame. And the benefit of this shame is that it pushes my conscience and makes me question myself. I have always been colour neutral. At work I hired people based on the ethos of finding the right person for the job, and I promoted on the same basis. Could I have done more? My team at times consisted of 50% of people of colour, yet I rarely brought up ethnic diversity as a topic around the business (and I worked in the City in London where most companies look like pilau rice – white with the odd dash of colour). I lived within my little finance world and I didn’t feel I should infringe on other managers’ hiring practices. I felt that was HR’s role, plus that was in a time where diversity was not raised as an issue as often as it should have been.
And now I sit here, and I see that the world has not changed fast enough. That I am not only existing in my bubble of privilege, but I am also in a Sesame Street bubble – surrounded by middle class, non-racist people and failing to comprehend the magnitude of this endemic problem. And I feel a sense of shame. I think, damn, I could have pushed it harder. And now I decide, from now on, I will push harder.
That’s what feeling an appropriate level of shame has done for me. I personally don’t feel it’s ridiculous. I feel it’s appropriate and absolutely necessary.
And maybe if more of those racist brutes felt any sense of shame, like any, just a molecule,- they would commit less discrimination, less racial profiling and, goddamn it, the really really obvious one, the one that is never supposed to happen – less police brutality.