Silent Shame

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.

20 thoughts on “Silent Shame

    • I couldn’t help myself Bernie! In between running after and with a 2 year old and supporting my daughter with my newborn granddaughter (yes! she was born on Friday at 2:47pm ❤ ) I haven't had a lot of time for reflection. But I do love to visit David's site everyday and, when I read his post, and the comments, these thoughts kept drifting through my mind… I knew they needed release!
      Happy Canada Day!
      It is Ivy Portia's first Canada. May she (and all of us) know the true meaning of peace, equality and justice in this country to which she was born.


  1. Louise, your post is deep and soul searching. You obviously mentally take distance from all the -isms and vociferously tell us so. I join you there, I feel the same.
    You also go further by testing yourself in a difficult role. That takes courage of conviction.
    It is not until we without any judgment can sit down with people of different race, life style etc. that we have really understood.

    Like you, I wish to be totally free from any -isms but I haven’t met them all.
    Bless you


    Liked by 1 person

    • It is a continuous work in progress dear Miriam. One that surprises me some days with the discoveries I make of where I am stuck in an ‘ism’ I did not know was there. That’s when self-compassion and courage must rise up to lift me out of the ‘ism’ and bring me to wholeness. ❤


    • Thank you Sawsan. It was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. I do not recommend it (it was hell) but am grateful I was able to do it and learn through it and from it.

      The fact it was such hell strengthened my conviction and my desire to awaken and create change.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I understand. I’m not white. However, I still found myself in situations where I thought I had an understanding, or that I grasped what others go through, but I didn’t really. I still catch myself in that position sometimes. We have a saying back home, “The one counting the number of whips another person is getting is not the one getting whipped!”

        I’m very curious about your research and findings.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Sawsan, I think no matter the colour of our skin we are all at risk of those moments. My brother is the one who looked most EuroAsian (which is my mother’s descent) of the four children in my family, though several of my cousins also do. He was often harassed and was even strip-searched at London Heathrow once simply because of the way he looked.

        There was so much to that research — I spent one night every two weeks for about 6 months, driving around with 2 vice unit undercover officers whose focus was to try to extricate young teens from the ‘trade’ – I came to really admire their commitment and the exigencies of the work. I also interviewed johns as well as a pimp – probably the thing that shook me most after that night on the street was the realization that there are no winners in the ‘trade’. I began it all thinking ‘the johns’ were to blame and they needed to be punished. I came away from it realizing they needed treatment, not punishment. It was the pimps I had and continue to have, the most challenges with my judgements. I still struggle with not labelling them as ‘scum’.

        I love that saying, btw. Very potent. I try to hold in my mind and heart the Buddhist concept of Tonglen – breathing in the pain and exchanging self with the other. I struggle at times to release my judgements.


        Liked by 1 person

  2. Louise, we never can truly understand another’s circumstances or plight until we walk in their shoes. Kudos for trying. That must have been an emotional night to experience. The adage, never judge a book by its cover, or something akin to it, is so true, that we tend to forget there are always to sides to a coin.
    🇨🇦 Happy Canada Day 🇨🇦

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was emotional and gruelling and exhausting! But I do not regret it. Working with those teens was also a really enlightening experience for my daughters. They love to tell the stories of their experiences with the teens – especially as I for three years in a row I wrote a play with the teens which was performed as part of a benefit concert I produced — the girls had a role in the play (they were about 9 and 10 at the time). One year, Augie Shellenberg was the MC — they were so excited to meet, “Mr Free Willy”! 🙂
      Happy Canada Day to you too! Much love.


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