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

Signs and Symptoms of White Racial Shame (Otherwise Known as Shame Survival Strategies)
July 1, 2013
Trauma As a Doorway to Spirit
August 5, 2013

Part II: The Virtuous Cycle of White Self-Compassion and Empathy for People of Color

In Part I we looked at the Vicious Cycle of White Racial Shame and Disconnection from People of Color.

Happily, white people can cultivate a virtuous cycle of compassion and empathy instead.

What is Compassion?

Compassion is all at once a practice, a state of being and a bodily experience. In practice, compassion is an attempt to be intimately present with oneself or others. Compassion is also a spacious, non-judgmental state of awareness. On a body level, compassion can feel like an expansive feeling of tenderness (sometimes emanating from the chest) that envelopes self and others in a palpable sense of connection.

How Does Self-compassion Lead to Empathy?

The seeds of empathy are always within us; given the right conditions, they will root and grow. If shame is like a drought; compassion is like sunlight, soil and moisture. Compassion supports empathy in several ways:

Compassion melts shame, softens denial and reawakens our childlike qualities of trust, curiosity, and our sense of justice and fairness. It allows our hearts to remember our connection with all beings. Receiving compassion from others helps us to forgive ourselves and start fresh. As we steadily practice receiving compassion from ourselves and others, our empathy for others grows robust, giving us the courage to listen non-defensively to others and look directly at suffering and injustice. This is a cycle we want to encourage!

Practices That Support the Virtuous Cycle

This virtuous cycle that shifts white people’s disconnection into empathy for people of color has some difficult aspects. Re-awakening empathy means thawing out from numbness about racism and white privilege. Just like when your foot has fallen asleep and the return of circulation feels like “pins and needles,” at times the empathy awakening process can be very uncomfortable. White people need all the help we can get.

Here are 8 practices that support the virtuous cycle of white self-compassion and empathy for people of color:

*Creating supportive white racial justice community

*Compassion and forgiveness practices and reflections

*Mindfulness practices

*Reflecting on how socialization into the oppressor role is systemic and involuntary

*Body-based and expressive arts practices to release shame

*Healing trauma in your body (personal trauma, social trauma/oppression)

*Racial justice action

*Developing a positive white identity

Creating Supportive White Racial Justice Community

When white people begin to thaw out from numbness about racism and white privilege, it is uncomfortable, to say the least! To thaw out and reclaim empathy for people of color, white people need the ongoing support and encouragement of community.

It is easier to heal the social emotion of shame in community—a compassionate community where white people can give voice to their personal or collective shame, and to any underlying feelings of despair and powerlessness. Speaking the unspeakable in a loving context is redemptive, especially if everyone present is “in the same boat.”

The best community for this purpose is a group of white people who are committed to ending racism, and who are willing to welcome each other’s wholeness, and all the complex emotions of the thawing out journey. Such a community can lovingly hold members accountable, and support everyone to keep engaging in racial justice work through mistakes and setbacks.

Compassion and Forgiveness Practices

The more you practice compassion and forgiveness, the easier it is to access these states. Also, as James Baraz notes in Awakening Joy, when we meditate on compassion, it stimulates our action-planning brain; this compassion-action connection sounds promising for anti-racist activism. Here are two Buddhist practices that help us to cultivate compassion and forgiveness for ourselves and others:

Metta Practice:

Tonglen (Sending and Taking):

It is important to note that practicing compassion while staying insulated from communities of color does not necessarily increase white people’s empathy for people of color. These practices need to be combined with exposure to information about systemic racism.

Mindfulness Practices

Meditation enhances awareness of self and others, minimizes the amygdala’s automatic fight or flight reactions, and opens up space for our mammal brains to generate compassion and empathy. However, white mindfulness practitioners who are disconnected from communities of color are not likely to have much empathy for people of color. Mindfulness practices need to be combined with racial justice education. When mindfulness practices are combined with racial awareness, white people become more present to the daily realities faced by people of color.

Reflecting on How Socialization into the Oppressor Role is Systemic and Involuntary

Racism is a centuries-old, inherited, systemic worldview and way of life. As children, white people involuntarily absorb a racist worldview through social conditioning, and passively benefit from racist institutions. Remembering the pervasive and involuntary socialization process can reduce individual blame and shame and increase a white person’s compassion and forgiveness for all white people, including themselves.

Body-based and Expressive Arts Practices to Release Shame

Shame cannot be healed by words or concepts alone; it is linked up with the amygdala’s fight or flight system, which speaks the language of sensation. This language can be accessed through Somatic healing modalities such as Generative Somatics, Somatic Experiencing, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, and EMDR, which provide strong containers for healing shame.

Bodywork can also shift shame when the practitioner embodies compassion for the client. Expressive Arts practices that engage the senses can transform shame into compassion. Authentic Movement, dance, journaling (with sensation awareness), making or listening to music, drumming, storytelling, painting, drawing, etc. can all be effective.

Healing Trauma in Your Body (Personal Trauma and Oppression Trauma)

Shame of any kind amplifies all shame. If a white person does their work to heal and release shame related to trauma, abuse and oppression, they will be less susceptible to shame in general, including racial shame. Since the journey of healing from personal and ancestral shame unfolds in the body; the modalities mentioned above can facilitate this journey.

Personal healing sometimes directly overlaps with racial shame healing. For example, when a white individual brings compassionate awareness to the racial shame coping strategies passed inherited from their family members (see Part I), they can simultaneously work with the personal hurts inflicted on them by these coping strategies, and begin to forgive their ancestors for their collusion with white supremacy. When personal and racial shame are brought together into an unflinching, kind light, both can melt and make space for empathy.

Racial Justice Action

Anti-racist action can play a part in addressing racial shame for white people. Some racial justice thinkers view anti-racist action as a way to ask for forgiveness or make amends, thereby reducing the sense of powerlessness associated with racial shame.

Using anti-racist action to heal white racial shame should be approached with caution, since action can be misused to cover over difficult feelings such as guilt and shame about racism. Intention is critical–if the action is motivated by an unconscious desire for absolution from people of color, then it may cause more harm than good. For this reason, it is critical to combine action with self-compassion practices.

Developing a Positive White Identity

All people need to feel good about themselves. Lack of self-esteem is not a viable way for anyone to be in the world, and it profoundly undermines a white person’s ability to challenge racism. Despite the many negative historical and current associations with whiteness, white people can redefine what being white means for them in ways that support racial justice.

This can be done by uncovering or re-connecting with one’s original ethnic and cultural roots, and finding inspiration there. What is wonderful about being Scottish, Greek, or Russian?

White individuals can also embrace the life affirming practices of their families. Most families have something to offer: maybe your lineage creates beautiful bluegrass music. Maybe your grandparents were always kind to animals; maybe the women in your family share homemade jam with their neighbors.

White people who do not know their parentage, who cannot find anything redeeming in their lineage, or whose cultural roots are long lost (one of racism’s costs to people of European descent) can still reclaim a positive white identity. Many white anti-racist writers, activists and artists, both past and present are waiting to be discovered.

If you are a white anti-racist lesbian, union organizer or musician, or an anti-racist Ashkenazic Jew, you are in good company. Why not adopt one or more of these proud lineages as your honorary ancestors?

In my case, I feel a personal connection to white anti-racist singer-songwriters. Here is a partial list of anti-racist songs sung by white singers:

Ani Difranco
My Country ‘tis of Thee; IQ; and

Steve Earl
City of Immigrants (Although Mr. Earl forgets here that First Peoples are not immigrants):

Iris DeMent
Wasteland of the Free:

Sinead O’Connor
Black Boys on Mopeds:

Indigo Girls
Shame On You; Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (by Buffy St. Marie)

Bruce Cockburn
Nicaragua; Stolen Land; and
They Call It Democracy:

The 8 virtuous cycle practices described above are designed to heal white racial shame and awaken compassion, clearing space for white people’s empathy to bloom for self, other white people, and people of color.

Practical Applications of the Virtuous Cycle

If you are a racial justice educator, organizer, writer or activist who works with white people, you might want to incorporate some of the above practices into your strategies, messages, and trainings. Here are some specific applications of the virtuous cycle to: anti-racist education, anti-racist workshop design, and working strategically with white people.

Anti-racist Education

When you want to educate a white audience about systemic racism, it is ideal to integrate as many of these practices as possible into your communication. People have different learning styles, so the more of these practices that you can include, the easier it will be for white people to “digest” the new learning and act on it.

Anti-racist Workshop Design

Racial justice workshops that include a mix of people of color and white people should ideally provide opportunities for these two groups to meet separately to build compassionate community, and heal from internalized oppression and dominance. Meeting separately is especially important to ensure that everyone’s learning and healing needs are addressed:

There are times when the needs of white trainees are in direct opposition to the needs of trainees of color. Initially, white people need to acknowledge their racist conditioning, behaviors and privilege in a compassionate, non-judgmental context. At the same time, people of color need to find their voices and express their anger and hurt about racism while having their experiences validate and respected. This delicate process of healing from internalized racism requires a sacred space set apart from the distraction of white people’s shame reactions.

It is often the case that just when people of color need to stop caretaking white people and focus on themselves, white people need to express racial shame and be met by forgiveness. At such times these two groups’ needs are completely incompatible. For these reasons, I believe that some separate unlearning racism work is essential, especially in the early stages, to ensure that the learning and healing needs of everyone involved—people of color and white people– are taken care of.

Working Strategically with White People

Racial justice educators and organizers may want to proactively add some of the virtuous cycle practices to their toolkits so that they can prevent and respond to white racial shame.

In addition, articles, blog postings and workshops that are designed to reach white people can minimize white racial shame by avoiding judgmental or condescending statements, or activities that keep participants “in their heads.” White people do not need any extra help to default to shame and denial!

On the other hand, expressing fierceness and anger about racism to white people can be cleansing and healing for everyone involved, as long as the overarching atmosphere is fiercely compassionate.

Final Thoughts: Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms of White Racial Shame

Racial justice educators and activists who can recognize the signs and symptoms of racial shame will be able to tell when it’s time to cultivate the virtuous cycle. In addition, they will also be able to work more strategically with white people.

People of color who regularly interact with white people may wish to be able to identify the signs and symptoms of white racial shame in action. One of my colleagues of color finds it helpful to know when racial shame is motivating a white person’s behavior, because, “Knowing where their behavior is coming from gives me a choice to not react to them; I do not need to take it on or try to take care of that person.”

Finally, given the hidden nature of racial shame, it is easy to overlook or reinforce it. So it is worthwhile to learn about the typical behaviors that mask white people’s racial shame (and protect white people from feeling it). You can find a list of typical white racial shame symptoms here:

Thank you to all racial justice activists, organizers, educators and artists everywhere. You inspire me.

Much gratitude to my sources: Arminio, J. (2001). Exploring the nature of race-related guilt. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development; Baraz, J., & Alexander, S.; Butler, R. S. (Producer/Director). (2003). Light in the shadows; C. Clark, & J. O’Donnell (Eds.), Becoming and unbecoming White: Owning and disowning a racial identity; Featherston, J.E., personal communication; Howard, G. R. (1999). White man dancing: A story of personal transformation; 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; Pritchy Smith, G. (1999). If you’re not standing in this line, you are standing in the wrong line; Rodriguez, N. M. (2000). What does a pedagogy of whiteness promise?; Rose, L. R. (1996). White identity and counseling White allies about racism; 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 Comment

  1. says:

    It can be characterized as a strong, emotional feeling of direct responsibility for the unequal circumstances of ethnic minorities living in historically and culturally European nations, or the Western world largely due to historical exclusion of non-whites from mainstream white society.