What would you do if you suddenly realized you were a racist? In the midst of the peaceful Black Lives Matter worldwide protests I took it upon myself to dive into as much antiracist material as I could get my hands on. My Kindle running hot, I read in a weekend White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander and listened to Brené Brown’s recent interview with Ibram X. Kendi author of the New York Times bestseller How to Be an Antiracist. I read papers and articles. I had difficult conversations with loved ones.
By Sunday afternoon I felt I had been hit by a truck. I had come face to face with the fact that I was part of the problem. My ignorance around racism was keeping me embedded inside an oppressive system. It was a grim moment of self-reflection. Troubled, I headed out to the barn, saddled up our horse Brio, and took myself, Brio, and our two dogs, Molly and Katy, out for a long ride. On the ride, I began to deeply process and integrate all I had learned (so far).
Suddenly, one of the dogs Katy began barking and growling at a hiker on the trail. My attempts to bring her back to me failed. In my stress, I escalated to gain control. I yelled loudly and angrily at her, shaming her because ‘she should have known better.’ And even after the incident I remained fuming. By that time Brio, Molly and Katy were all aware of my accusatory mood.
Then it hit me. In that moment the hyper-focus of my intention around racism unfurled into a much larger insight: I am an oppressor and it was everywhere, not just in my white privilege. In spite of all the ways I advocate for equal rights, environmental justice, in spite of how I advocate for and practice gentle positive approaches to animal training, mindful and non-violent approaches to raising kids and conscious ways to lead an organization, that moment on the ride revealed a dark corner of my psyche that was still a part of the oppressive paradigm. It was a gut punch.
But the revelation did not stop there. While the truth of this unfolded (as reflected by the kind unconditionally loving feedback of my animals) I witnessed the next layer of perpetration: shame. It swept into me like a wraith and wrapped itself around me in a dark cloud of self-recrimination. It stabbed me with self-loathing. And then it turned outwards, towards Katy for ‘making me feel this way’ and even the world for ‘being so fucked up’.
Given my reading material over the weekend I decided to pay extra special attention to this particular teaching opportunity. Yeah, you could say that I’m over-dramatizing a moment with my dog when I simply was not at my best. After all, I didn’t hurt her, or choke her Amy Cooper style. But in the lens of my weekend’s homework, I saw something different. I saw the pervasiveness of the oppressive mindset, the righteousness of oppressive thought and the way shame kept it all alive. And I saw that my previous assumptions about myself as different from ‘all those nasty oppressive types’ was just bull, and part of the problem.
Oppression and shame work in concert to perpetuate the oppressive structures…not just in my life, but systemically in society. “Shame is a tool of oppression,” said Brené Brown in an interview last year. When I first heard this, I understood it intellectually but had not quite connected the dots in my own life. How is it a tool? If you look at how the shame immediately descended upon me in my trail ride ‘aha’ moment, then you can see how shame derailed my attempts towards self-accountability by diverting my attention to hating myself and then the ‘other’.
“First you drill you a hole through your heart with it,” continued Brown, “and then when that pain gets so bad you lash it out at others.” Shame creates a closed feedback loop: oppression exerted externally, oppression exerted internally, oppression exerted externally, rinse, wash, repeat. We now see shame derailing an entire society from becoming accountable by shaming everyone and feeling shamed, in the same way.
Shame is highly correlated to racism, abuse, depression, addiction, violence, aggression, self-harming, bullying––oppression in all its myriad forms. So one of the key ways that we are going to transform as individuals and as a civilization is to confront our shame.
Shame has no place in the equality dialog. And there’s absolutely no point in feeling shame when we discover our inner oppressor or racist (or leveling shame at someone else’s) says Ibram X. Kendi explaining how racism hurts all of us. “It [racism] is raining on you, but part of the racist message when it rains on you is that you [as a white] are dry,” he says. “In America, racism is constantly raining on every person’s head and you have no umbrella and you don’t even know that you are wet because the racist ideas themselves tell you that you are not getting wet.” He goes on to describe as an example the way the poor whites were oppressed by rich slave owners. The poor whites blamed the slaves, instead of holding the rich whites and public policy responsible––the real causes of their poverty. “Someone comes along and says, ‘You know what, you are wet, and these ideas are still raining on your head. Here’s an umbrella.’ You can be like, ‘Thank you! I didn’t even realize I was drenched!’” Anti-racism is an umbrella. Shame denies us the umbrella.
“Powerful people and a history and a system were raining those ideas on your head,” says Kendi. You were simultaneously a victim and a victimizer. All people have been tricked and manipulated.
I did not expect that a by-product of learning how to be an anti-racist was that I would wake up to oppression and shame in general. And I did not expect that I would receive the gift of waking up to it in my own life. To grow up in America is to grow up with oppression permeated throughout one’s entire life. It is ubiquitously levied at us in school, through public policy, in the movies, media, and in books. The very ways that we were socialized as children was through oppressive approaches (punishment, spanking, shaming, bribing, blaming, threatening, judging, withholding, excluding, yelling). In this way, we are indoctrinated into a belief system without even realizing it. And I’m not just talking race inequality here, I’m talking about any ‘other’…gender, orientation, religion, and yes, species.
Like our misunderstanding of the concept of racism, we tend to think of oppression in terms of heinous acts, like skinhead hate crimes, or like fascist regimes. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Think of all the ways you oppress yourself. Think of the ways you oppress another…even subtly. Think of how you allow others to oppress you…how you may remain silent or ‘neutral’ in the face of it. Or ways you might be complicit to oppression in your life. Or perhaps you don’t even see it. Until we expose oppression in all of its expressions we won’t transform as a civilization.
Oppression is so hard to fight because it has an answer for everything. Just try to speak to a white friend about racism and notice the defensiveness that arises. (I know. I used to be like that. I’m grateful to my more evolved friends for their patience and persistence with me). Notice how, for example, oppression defines the rules of engagement:
- Protests need to be like this.
- Protesters should behave like that.
- Feedback should be given in this way, with that tone of voice, in this kind of timing, with this amount of empathy.
- Discussions should be held this way and not that way.
- The only people allowed to be in the discussion are these people.
- Only these examples may be used.
You get the idea…
You can spot oppression (of all kinds––racial, relational, organizational, familial) a mile away through its fragility as signaled by defensiveness. A challenge to a worldview or behavior suddenly becomes a challenge to one’s very identity. Pretty soon you’re trying to make them feel better. Defensiveness serves to obscure the power imbalance, protect the dominance, and regain control. Even when feedback is delivered cleanly and fairly it’s misconstrued as spoken shamefully because of the receiver’s internalized shame. Whenever there is defensiveness, there is fragility it is trying to protect. Whenever there is fragility, there is shame. And wherever shame, oppression.
Here are some defensive tactics:
- Deflection – changing the angle of a discussion to fit one’s view
- Equalizing – stating how one’s situation is just as bad and here’s why
- Refusal to see the impact
- Derailing – using any of the above to silence the other
If this is happening in any area of your life (not just racially), call it out for what it is––oppression––instead of cloaking it in more neutral pop psychology terms. The higher the privilege the more fragility. Which may seem counter-intuitive. But if you think about it, it’s not. Fragility creates defensiveness which protects the privilege. Sadly, as we’ve learned from Ibram Kendi that kind of privilege actually is harmful not only to those less privileged but to them as well.
Our responsibility as a people is to understand and become literate about our position on the privilege ladder, what that privilege affords us, the impact that privilege has on others less privileged. For example, a tall strong middle-aged professional heterosexual white Christian male will have the top rung, a younger white married Christian heterosexual woman might be just one or two rungs down, then we keep going down the privilege ladder and let’s say, for the sake of our enlightened evolution, we include all species, then a ladybug, say, might be on the bottom rung of privilege.
Here’s where the rubber meets the road. Those with privilege…on whatever rung they find themselves, must learn to be more accountable to those with less. They must learn to put their fragility aside, to heal their socially imposed shame, and understand their impact (despite their intent) on those on rungs with less privilege. If we are a tall strong middle-aged professional white Christian male, that privilege obliges us to understand the impact we have on everyone else.
Recently, one such person said to me, “Well I’m all for taking personal responsibility, but I’m not going to carry the whole burden of white privilege on my shoulders.” Please notice the defensiveness (aka fragility) in these comments. As kindly as I could muster I said, “But you carried the whole benefit of your white privilege on your shoulders, right?” To which I was (predictably) told I was not listening. As someone who was taught to pander to fragility by an oppressive father, I’m stretching outside my comfort zone to stay kindly firm in my feedback and not back down.
We need people at the top to be more accountable, says Kendi. Just like we ask parents to set an example for children, and coaches set an example for their players. People at the top should lead by example. So yes Mr. Top Rung, just like a coach, you need to carry the whole team.
For all of us privileged folks, we must stop talking, and start listening and learning. To do this we must become more shame resilient. The only way we are going to see our way out of oppression is to receive feedback. To understand our impact. Period. The only way we are going to be able to really take in and learn from the feedback is to recognize and heal our internalized shame that would project itself out there on the person giving the feedback, repelling the challenge.
Riffing off of DiAngelo’s White Fragility, this is our responsibility when we are given feedback about our racism or feedback about any way we are being oppressive in any context to any person or being:
#1. How, where, and when you give me feedback is irrelevant. It is the feedback I want and need. Understanding that it is hard to give, I will take it in any way I can get it. From my position of social, cultural, and institutional privilege, I am perfectly safe and I can handle it. If I cannot handle it, it’s on me to build my emotional stamina.
#2. I will stop talking and I will genuinely listen and I will learn.
#3. Thank you.
Let’s let the important call to Black Lives Matter sharpen our eye to oppression in all its forms. This will help us to become antiracist, this will help us to become anti-oppressive. Let’s call it out in ourselves, towards ourselves, towards others. Let’s educate ourselves and others. Let’s have the hard conversations (at the risk of being told we are being intolerant). And let’s call us all into a dignified humanity underneath the umbrella.
Today I challenge you to take a vow of compassionate non-violence as an antidote to oppression. When we extend compassion, we are literally ‘being with’ the oppressor in all of us in a non-violent way. Only then do we strip shame away from the equation thus choking the life out of oppression and racism.