Over at David Kanigan’s blog today, “Walking. In White.” he asks himself, “What’s that you’re carrying? What’s that you feel?” He responds, “Shame, that’s what you feel.”
His post is worth the read. Exquisitely written as David’s posts always are, and full of humility and insight.
Now, the short answer, and the most common given by those of us who are white and who were not around when our forefathers came to North America, is “Why should I carry shame for something I had nothing to do with?”
What if ‘why’ is not the question we need to be asking?
What if instead, we chose to accept that we carry shame because it is as entwined within our psyches and embedded into our DNA as intricately and naturally as our white privilege?
What if instead of resisting against ‘shame’, we ask ourselves instead, “What can this shame teach me?”
Years ago, while working with a group of street engaged teens, I spent a great deal of time researching what it meant to be a teenager whose life had lead you far from home to the streets.
Over the course of that work, I chose to take the suggestion of a police sergeant and go ‘eyeball to eyeball with a john’ to really get an understanding of the trauma of street engaged life.
Which meant, one December night, I stood on the street posing as a prostitute.
It was December. The temperature hovered around the freezing point. Not too cold but I shivered like I was freezing. Even though two police officers were sitting in undercover vehicles watching over me, I shook with fear the entire night.
Dressed for the night, I was dolled up to fit in with the other girls, most of whom I knew through having had coffee with many of them, or simply chatting on the street with them about their lives..
The girls all expressed how grateful they were that I had taken the time to gain an understanding of their circumstances rather than judge them, as so many did, as so many of the girls told me.
Except. There I was that night. Standing on the street. Going eyeball to eyeball with the johns and all the while wishing I could hold up a sign that read, “I’m not a prostitute. I’m just here doing research.”
I did not want passersby (other than the johns) to think I was actually out there on the street selling my body for sex. I did not want to feel their disdain, their judgement, their condemnation.
To not feel those things, I wanted to make myself ‘an other’ from the young women who stood beside me on that chilly December night.
The realization rocked my psyche. There I was saying how I saw everyone as ‘equal’ and yet, when faced with the opportunity to stand united with those who were oppressed, I wanted to make sure everyone knew I was ‘not one of them’.
It was humbling.
And what was most humbling was the realization that buried deeply within me was a sense of shame I wasn’t even aware of. At least, not until I saw myself standing out on that street wanting desperately to distance myself from ‘them’.
In that moment I realized that my inherent biases, ones I didn’t even realize I carried, stood between me and the truth of what I believe. We are one human race. One people. One humanity.
Anytime we are able to stand in our own biases, our judgements, our ‘us and them’ thinking, and see ourselves as separate from, but part of our beautiful human race, in all its flaws and humility, as well as shame, we are given the gift of awareness and awakening.
As a white person, I do not see the depth of some of my inherent beliefs, perceptions, societal biases. I can’t. My privilege separates and blinds me without my even knowing it.
While I may not have helped form the laws and governing norms and societal structures that give me my ‘rights’, I have benefited from those laws and norms that have unjustly limited the lives of others, even when I don’t realize it.
I may not have done anything to make it so, I have also not done a lot towards making it not so.
For me, the gift that night was to see that I carry biases that make me unwittingly complicit in racism and discrimination, even when I think I’m not.
Centuries ago, we humans veered off course into a belief that does not serve humanity well.
That belief is founded on the illusion that being white is better than… pick your colour.
No law, or moral manipulation or skin colour should ever give me the right to enslave, deprave or depreciate the value of another human being.
To become colour blind and inclusive, to be truly anti-racist, I must disentangle the invisible biases and shame I carry within me. Biases that are inculcated in my human story, environment, culture, societal mores and history.
To do that, I must acknowledge that within me is a thread of shame that runs like a river through the ages from my forefathers and their forefathers. Silent shame founded in a deep instinctual knowing that to enslave, indenture, denigrate or racialize anyone is a fundamental violation of our humanity.
It also means I must no longer stay silent in my fear of what will happen if I stand with those who are experiencing racism and discrimination. And it means I must stop resisting the ‘shame’ of my forefathers and instead, embrace its presence.
When I stand in that place and honour my brokenness and embrace my ancestral shame with compassion, I am saying to the world — I am willing to learn and grow and change and create space for the healing of our humanity to begin, no matter where on the street we stand.