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June 9, 2020

4 Psychologist-Recommended Ways to Face our Shame About Race.

Watch an anti-racism hour with Jane Elliott talking with Waylon Lewis of Elephant, here.


George Floyd’s video-recorded murder was a shock to many and a confirmation to so many more.

Voices are loud, opinions are forming, and platforms are being lifted. There is much to talk about and much to be said, and yet for many white people right now, there’s a sense of deep confusion with feelings of displacement and a new shame many of us have not felt before.

For some, doing something about the state of the world and the injustice we’re now seeing publicly displayed is cast over by the shadow of also wanting to hide and say nothing because of our fear, confusion, and not wanting to make matters worse. 

Where do we begin?

From macro and systemic to micro and interpersonal work, there’s a lot to take a deep, hard look at.

For many white people, George Floyd’s death has become the first impressionist connection of what racism and privilege look like.

The spectrum of thought, curiosity, and beliefs around racial injustice is not only systemic, but interpersonal. Going inward into your core self and getting really curious will undoubtedly lead you down a vast and long path, one of many. But we’ve got to start somewhere:

>> How can I be the best human I know how to be, with the issues at hand?
>> How do I parent and teach within the realm of racism, and what do I want to say?
>> How do I lead in this time of unrest?
>> How can I show my support through this?
>> How can I explain my opinions here?
>> How can I ask questions and be curious without feeling like I’m saying something wrong?
>> What do I do?

Bring global change to a personal level, first.

Systemic change happens on an interpersonal level first.

I’m a systemic therapist. What I know to be true is that in any relationship that exists and is pressed for change, there is always more than one emotion, one thought, or voice.

One of the things I help people do is attempt to understand (but not always agree with) where others are coming from.

Expanding deep empathy and encouraging people to be vulnerable in order to grow individually and interpersonally is work I take seriously. From where I sit, it’s the only way we can truly grow.

Most of the time, no two people in my office are coming to the table with the exact same point of view or emotional response to something. Sometimes one spouse is ready for a divorce and is sitting with defined thought-out resolution and a resentful heart, while the person who’s just learning about it for the first time is sitting in such shock and disbelief they’re unable to comprehend the how or why.

People everywhere are at different places in their hearts and heads much of the time. We also come together from radically different spaces.

This is a time for authentic conviction.

While many of us desperately try to convince our partners, friends, family members, or anyone we’re in a disagreement with to come to our side of the table—to agree with us and our point—it’s often futile.

Using force, anger, oppression, or violence to do so will only result in more unrest.

We cannot force someone over to your side who neither knows why they’re sitting there, nor believes it’s the right space for them.

Consider this: if they come to “your side,” do you want them to be there authentically, and with conviction?

In any conversation, persuasion as a motive is a tough one through which to get someone to align.

So, how do we get to a resolution? How do we make this work? 

1. Unpack your own shame.

Dismantling shame and encouraging vulnerability in a safe space is the most direct path to growth between people in relationships and within themselves.

This is what can create more empathy and understanding between people.

But in order to do that, we have to be present. Herein lies the problem: presence, in this case, is incredibly uncomfortable. There is an instinct that humans have to avoid discomfort. Yet the lesson in this is so important: We can tolerate discomfort and need to tolerate discomfort in order to become stronger, more convicted humans. We cannot, however, do this if in the face of deep, unlabeled shame.

2. Start to explore the messages you’re hearing through the lens you’re looking through.

When people feel an imposed sense of shame and blame, they are less likely to also be in a place of personal exploration. Yet this is exactly where we need to be.

Dismantling and disarming contempt and resentment has to happen in my office, in homes, and within relationships with others for a space to be safe and for self- and relational-exploration to begin to happen.

But first—and most importantly—we have got to look at our own internal messaging and interpretation of why we’re feeling what we’re feeling. The messages often have much more to do with ourselves than others.

3. Remember that empathy allows us to feel connected. Use your emotion to relate to others.

I don’t believe the world we’re being shown and the racism we’re learning about right now is intended to create shame. Yet shame is showing up in people inevitably and irregardless, as it does.

Many white people are feeling unlabeled shame around their color, race, and privilege for the first time. For black people and people of color, this is not new; this is historical.

This is where we can finally start to gain some understanding though. This is where there becomes a tremendous opportunity to grow as a race and as a nation. If we let our personal shame get in the way, it becomes an excuse—a place to stay instead of a place to start getting curious.

Unlabeled, unacknowledged shame creates pain, suffering, and anger, which makes defensive shields thicker. The thicker our shields, the greater the drive to protect instead of disarming in order to grow.

Shame is the ultimate sense of not belonging—being so incredibly unworthy that we have no place. Yet how does feeling as though we have no place help the world? This is, after all, the origin of the very pain we’re watching play out live and in front of us. This is where we have the choice to either pass the shame around, “throw shame,” as I call it, or start disarming and lowering it.

4. Listen and explore as you look within.

Shame is not the goal now, nor do I believe there’s a place for it ever.

While you may be feeling confused, fearful, and uncertain of what to say or do, know that those emotions, when dug into and peeled back, can help you discover things about yourself and humanity; they can help you grow in such a way that you will learn and feel things you’ve never explored before.

Shame though, when left to its own devices, keeps us quiet and away from relating—alone, scared, and small, often angry, defensive, and avoidant.

The lesson that the world, black people, and people of color are trying to teach white people right now isn’t about feeling shame. The lesson is about the share: to give voice to the quiet. To use our privilege to lift up and welcome in, not to shun, cast away, or wallow in.

If you’re not black or a person of color, yet shame has been creeping into your self as of late, it’s a really good time to start self-exploring.

>> Why do you feel shame?
>> Where did it come from?
>> How did it get there?

If you feel shame, look within. 

Many are asking one another and themselves, “What should I do now?” I love this quote from my friend and incredibly wise woman, Patty Oji:

“My white brothers & sisters: An imperfect step is the Only way forward.”


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