Seeing Race and Feeling Shame: The rest of the story

In their online publication, “Seeing Race and Seeming Racist? Whites Go out of Their Way to Avoid Talking About Race,” the American Psychological Association (I mysteriously could not find an exact author) posits that, in attempt to avoid drawing negative feelings toward themselves, white people often avoid talking about race, even when it is clearly relevant to the situation. In their attempts to be culturally sensitive, however, people who avoid talking about race are often, as a result of their avoidance, perceived negatively.

As I read this article, I tended to agree with most of the things it said. As a white person who frequently makes concerted efforts to about race, I often have to ignore the feeling that I am walking on eggshells in order to carry a conversation about with a friend of mine happens to be a person of color. After experiencing a particular activity involving identity and power, I came to realize that, while the information given in the online publication may be valid, it is not necessarily the entire story.

During the second meeting of our contemporary racism class, we were asked to take the identity cards we had anonymously filled out and compare them to each other in terms of the amount of power each identity wielded within our society. After many iterations of this game, we were asked to, as a group, rank all of the class’s identity cards from most powerful to least powerful. Although some of the ranking decisions were difficult, one decision was not: the card containing the identity of the lone white male in the room was clearly at the top of the pyramid.

Although I had already been well taught that I am and will always be the benefactor of an invaluable societal advantage, seeing myself at the very top of the reminded me with a sharp pang of emotion, of a familiar feeling experienced when reminded of just how much privilege I experience and power I wield in comparison other people in our society: shame.

(It took a bit of effort to decide whether this overwhelmingly negative feeling was guilt or shame. The dictionary defines guilt as the feeling that one experiences after having done something wrong or having failed to meet an obligation. Shame, on the other hand, is defined as the negative emotion experienced when one becomes conscious of wrongdoing or foolish behavior.)

Upon experiencing this flood of shame, a seemingly obvious realization hit me: it seems impossibly difficult for someone to talk about something that makes him (and I choose the masculine pronoun here because males are higher on the pyramid and thus may be more likely to find themselves in this situation) feel so much shame. It would seem logical, that, in addition to not wanting to look bad by bringing up race, the white people who are going out of their way to avoid talking about race are also desperately trying not to feel bad.

Schmader and Lickel’s (2006) study looks into the way that both shame and guilt affect a person’s motivation to either avoid or approach a topic. Although many studies such as Tangney, and Barlow’s (1996) study had distinctly found that shame produced avoidance motivations while guilt produced approach motivations, Schmader and Lickel’s results were not as clearly defined. Instead, Schmader and Lickel make the distinction between self-caused guilt and shame and other-caused guilt and shame. According to this study, the distinction between the motivations related to self-caused guilt and self-caused shame is blurred. The motivations caused by other-caused guilt and other-caused shame, however, are much more distinct. According to this study, other-caused guilt elicits approach motivation. Other-caused shame, on the other hand, elicits avoidance motivation.

Upon reading this study, I realized that in order to avoid negative feelings, I tend to initially not include myself as part of the problem. I feel shame for people who are similar to me and I feel ashamed that I am connected to them and benefiting from the privilege system that they perpetuate, but I fail to take responsibility for my actions as part of the problem. Thus, because I am experiencing other-caused shame, I feel motivated to avoid talking about it.

At times, instead of finding myself in an awkward situation in which I try to avoid negative feelings by removing myself from the problem group, I find myself in a situation when I feel that it is important to include myself in the group. In these types of situations I experience self-caused shame. The blurred distinction between guilt and shame, as well my personal feelings on the subject matter, I feel motivated to talk about race and the problems related to it within our society.

It is a given that people who are part of the problem need to understand that they are a part of the problem. However, there is a distinct amount of damage that can be inflicted on someone before it seems that they need to avoid negative feelings by mentally removing themselves from the problem group. On one hand, it is important to express one’s feelings, but, on the other hand, it may be important to hold back a bit in order to make it possible for someone who is, in fact part of the problem, to understand that he is part of the problem. But, where is that line? Is it more important to get the feelings out than it is to make people understand the problem? These questions may need to be answered before we can move toward solutions.

Schmader, T., & Lickel, B. (2006). The Approach and Avoidance Function of Guilt and Shame Emotions: Comparing Reactions to Self-Caused and Other-Caused Wrongdoing.Motivation And Emotion, 30(1), 43-56. doi:10.1007/s11031-006-9006-0