From White Racial Shame to Empathy for People of Color Part I

“Rude” Body Wisdom
May 17, 2013
Flashback: My 2007 Interview with Urusa Fahim, Ph.D., Diversity coordinator at Spirit Rock Meditation Center
June 29, 2013

Fifteen years ago I began researching how to shift the shame and denial that prevents me and other people of European descent from challenging institutionalized racism.

During my dissertation research (Towards a Psychology of Unlearning Racism: A Case Study of a Buddhist Unlearning Racism Course for White People, available at ), I discovered the relationship between shame and empathy, a relationship which is key to transforming racism and other forms of oppression.

If you would like to communicate more effectively about racism with liberal white audiences, read on.

Likewise, if you want to understand the role that shame plays in reinforcing oppression in general, read on.

White People Lack of Empathy for People of Color

I was moved to write this after receiving articles asserting that white people cannot empathize with people of Asian, Arab, Latino, African and Indigenous descent–people of color:

White people lack empathy for brown people, brain research shows. 

This is not a surprise. With racism or any other form of oppression, the group on the upside of inequity is positioned to be oblivious to the people on the downside of inequity. In the case of racism, this positioning creates perception gaps between white people and people of color.

Systemic socioeconomic inequalities cause white people and people of color to live in different worlds, governed by social rules and economic conditions that advantage white people and disadvantage people of color. People of color are usually aware of this; white people are often not. This perception gap, which is also an empathy gap, is difficult for white people to bridge.

Even seasoned white anti-racist activists can lack this empathy. Anti-racist white people’s awareness of racism and privilege is often limited to an abstract, two-dimensional acknowledgement. White people who lack an emotional and embodied understanding of racism cannot feel into how people of color experience their daily lives.

White anti-racist action that is not grounded in empathy for people of color can be inappropriately passive or aggressive, can take space from people of color, and often lacks a strategic approach.

Experiences That Promote Empathy

What does white people’s empathy for people of color look like? According to Eileen O’Brien,

“Empathy means … step[ping] across that perception gap, grasping the extent to which racism still exists, and validating the experiences of people of color.”

O’Brien’s book, Whites Confront Racism: Antiracists and Their Paths to Action, describes two common scenarios through which white people begin to empathize with people of color:

1. developing close relationships with people of color and witnessing their mistreatment;

2. translating personal experiences of oppression or abuse into empathy for people of color.

In the first scenario, a white individual becomes friends or lovers with a person or persons of color, and witnesses firsthand their differential treatment by officials, institutions, and groups, such as this typical interaction, described by Joy Degruy:

In our highly segregated cities and towns, close interracial relationships are relatively rare for white people, unless they long to be around those who are different, and act on this longing. Close interracial relationships can awaken a white person’s awareness and empathy about racism.

O’Brien suggests that a similar awakening may occur when white people are exposed to creative expression by people of color. This was certainly true in my case. Stevie Wonder’s Living For the City:

touched me profoundly as an adolescent, as did Fat’s Waller’s Black and Blue:

In the second scenario, a white person who has experienced oppression (sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc.) or abuse may empathize with the racism that people of color experience. This is even likelier when that white person experiences more than one kind of oppression, such as being targeted for being both Jewish and lesbian, or being both disabled and a survivor of child sexual abuse.

Before we look further at how to awaken cross-racial empathy in white people, there are deeper sources of this empathy-deficit to consider.

Participating in Racism Damages White People’s Humanity and Empathy

Racist institutions such as the global slave trade that abducted and enslaved millions of Africans, are born from callousness. Once racist institutions are established, they are maintained by conditioning each generation of white people to close their hearts to people of color.

White children do not choose to live in a world of racial inequity or be a member of the dominant racial group. White children inherit a social world that teaches them to overvalue white people and undervalue people of color. Since white children cannot risk losing the connection and safety of their community; they are forced to “fit in” by tolerating unfairness and accepting racism.

This process of accepting this “one up” position at the expense of people of color wounds white children. Participating in cruelty and unfairness towards the “other” conflicts with a child’s natural inclination to care and connect. So at a young age, white children learn to betray their humanity.

As the white racial justice activist Mab Segrest points out in her book, Born To Belonging:

“…the profound damage racism has done to us, as if we as a people could participate in such an inhuman set of practices and beliefs over five centuries of European hegemony and not be, in our own ways, devastated emotionally and spiritually…I am not equating the damage done by racism to white people with the damage done to people of color…the pain of dominance is always qualitatively different from the pain of insubordination. But there is a pain, a psychic wound, to inhabiting and maintaining domination.”

Oppressing others is dehumanizing; it shuts down the ability to connect with ourselves, others and Spirit.

Shame is at the core of the psychic wound that Segrest describes. It is human to be ashamed of harming others. So if white individuals are not able to stop collective racist harm, they are doomed to live with shame.

What is Shame?

But what is shame?

First, shame is not guilt. Guilt is about doing–what we did or did not do, and what we can do to make amends. In contrast, shame is about being–what we are or are not. Shame says, “I am a bad person. I am unlovable,” or, “My people are evil.” There is nothing we can “do” about shame, except to stop existing.

Second, shame is a social emotion that is connected to our fear of losing community. Shame tries to protect us from experiencing exposure, rejection, and abandonment.

Finally, shame is an unbearable, intolerable emotion. Shame compels us to hide–to avoid being exposed as unlovable in other people’s eyes. The M.O. of shame is to curl up and retract—it is not conducive to connecting with others, much less empathizing with them.

In fact, shame is so threatening to us that it triggers the amygdala’s automatic fight or flight reactions of defend, attack, deny, withdraw and freeze.

To sum up, white people’s participation in dehumanizing actions causes them to feel shame. Thus, racism and shame co-arise.

The Vicious Cycle of White Racial Shame and Disconnection from People of Color

White people’s shame about racism reinforces their disconnection from people of color in a vicious cycle of shame and unconsciousness. This vicious cycle shows up in several forms:

Numbing: White People’s Primary Racial Shame Coping Strategy

Shame is intolerable. We cannot live with it. So white children, white adults learn to close our hearts and turn our eyes away from the suffering we inflict on people of color. White people have numbed and deadened ourselves for generations.

Numbing is the primary shame coping strategy that I and other white people have inherited from our ancestors. It is a coping strategy with a serious side effect–it destroys empathy, and prevents us from noticing and responding to injustice.

Other Racial Shame Coping Strategies

Over centuries, my people–white people–have developed and practiced many other collective coping strategies to avoid feeling shame about participating in the genocide and slavery that founded this nation, and shame about the more recent forms of white supremacy, such as internment camps, economic exploitation of inmates, and anti-Arab and anti-immigrant policies.

These shame coping strategies take the form of automatic individual and collective practices.
As we have resorted to these practices over and over again, they have become knee-jerk reactions in the dominant white culture. These coping strategies include: defensiveness, withdrawal, under/over responsibility, projecting a false self, self-absorption, absolution seeking, and paralysis.

Not only do these shame coping strategies reinforce racism, they are empathy killers. For example, the shame coping strategy of self-absorption is highlighted by Spanierman’s and Heppner’s telling comment in their study on the psychosocial costs of racism to whites:

“Contrary to expectation, no relationship was found between white racial guilt and ethnocultural empathy…white individuals who experience high levels of guilt and shame may be too overwhelmed to empathize with people of other races.”

Likewise, the shame coping strategy of projecting a false self undermines white racial empathy.

As we have seen, white people can increase their empathy by forming close relationships with people of color and witnessing their day to day lives.

Unfortunately, white racial shame causes many white people to project a false self and conceal their thoughts and emotions from people of color. This behavior obstructs authentic intimacy and relating.

I knew a woman who was so terrified of making mistakes around people of color that she would fall silent in their company. This fear loosened up after she acknowledged and released some of her racial shame.

Taking Shame Seriously

The white collective has inherited this multi-generational legacy of racial shame. Shame is a serious obstacle to white people’s ability to empathize across racial lines.

The vicious cycle of white racial shame and disconnection from people of color is a dead end.

Those of us who are committed to awakening white people’s cross-racial empathy cannot afford to reinforce white people’s shame.

In fact, those of us who are committed to social justice cannot afford to reinforce anyone’s shame.

End of Part I

Next month: Part II: Cultivating Cycles of Compassion will explore practical antidotes to white racial shame.

Much gratitude to my sources: Butler, R. S. (Producer/Director). (2003). Light in the shadows; Featherston, J.E. personal communication; Karen, R. (1992, February). Shame. Atlantic Monthly; Lee, M. W. (Producer/Director). (1983). The color of fear; McKinney, K. D. (2000). Everyday whiteness: Discourse, story and identity; O’Brien, E. (2001). Whites confront racism: Antiracists and their paths to action; O’Brien, E. (2003). The political is personal: The influence of White supremacy on White antiracists’ personal relationships; Paxton, D. (2003). Facilitating transformation of White consciousness among European-American people: A case study of a cooperative inquiry; Segrest, M. (2002). Of Soul and White folks, in Born to Belonging; Spanierman, L. B., & Heppner, M. J. (2004). Psychosocial costs of racism to Whites scale (pcrw): Construction and initial validation. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 51 (2); Thandeka. (2000). Learning to be White; Thompson, B. (2001). A promise and a way of life: White antiracist activism; Willey, S. R. (2003). Expanding racial consciousness: A participatory study exploring White college administrators’ understanding of whiteness and racism.


  1. Casey Carter says:

    Thanks for such a powerful articulation

  2. Nancy Brown says:

    Have you read Ricky’s definitions of racism? I disagree with much of number 8 (printed below). What is your point of view?

    “8. The term ‘reverse racism’ is also sometimes used to characterize the mistreatment that individual whites may have experienced at the hands of individuals of color. This too is inaccurate. While any form of humans harming other humans is wrong because no one is entitled to mistreat anyone, we should not confuse the occasional mistreatment experienced by whites at the hands of people of color with the systematic and institutionalized mistreatment experienced by people of color at the hands of whites.”

    My question:

    So, whites should accept and maltreatment- even beatings by people of color because “it could have been worse”? I’m never accused anyone of ‘reverse racism’. I just never understood why kids of color out of the blue and unprovoked slapped, beat me with a chain, pulled gun on me, and punched me at school, verbally abused me as a female and white, and robbed me- once right in front of school authorities who failed to respond to the violence! Or, are you saying these violent behaviors are not based in ‘racism’ when kids are called honkeys, crackers, whitey, etc. and violated?

    Are not all crimes committed because of sex and racial motivation ‘hate crimes’? Our justice system says so.

    So where do these facts leave us today in 2016?

    Post traumatic stress survivor from an urban city

    • Vanissar says:

      Hi Nancy

      The difference I see here is between bigotry and violence that comes from one person at a time,
      bigotry and violence that may come from one person, but that is backed up by the institutions and culture in general.

      That is why some people say, “racism = prejudice + power” while bigotry is just prejudice, with no system of power to back it up.

      If you believe that sexism exists (and sounds like you know what it is like to be targeted as a female), and if you know that women are often blamed after they are assaulted by men, then you would not describe it when one individual woman beats up a man as “reverse sexism.”

      So sorry you have been harmed and hurt, and hope you keeping reaching for the trauma healing you deserve.