Updated: Apr 29, 2020
Why We Need *Healthy* Shame For Anti-Racism Work OR
When Your Boundaries are Gaslighting Marginalized Individuals OR
Us White People Love to Talk about Boundaries, Walls, & Trigger Warnings
This past summer, an announcement came across the listserv for the pool we belong to advertising an “Americanism” meeting. I made a passing comment to a friend about how crappy it was that the pool was having such a meeting. She replied with “Well, come on now. Let’s not make assumptions. Maybe it’s about something else.”
“I have no doubt what the meeting will be about.” I replied.
“Well then, why are we members there?” she asked, “We shouldn’t be supporting it!”
We do avoid certain businesses that discriminate or fund oppressive policies, but I tried to explain to my friend that if we stopped going to every establishment that exhibited any kind of racism or other isms, we wouldn’t have much choice left…especially in the Bible Belt of the South. What I was really trying to explain to her is that the micro (and macro) aggressions are everywhere. As a Mexican immigrant, who was undocumented as a child, my husband experiences them all the time.
During the same time period, I was at another friend’s house, chatting with her and her husband, when he learned that my husband grew up mostly in Los Angeles. My friend’s husband attempted a joke aimed at my husband and the way Mexican gang members dress in LA. I didn’t understand what he was trying to say at first, and once I did, I awkwardly chuckled in disbelief and said “Wow, that was pretty racist.” His wife’s face was already turning red and I could see him squirming in response to my response. His wife quietly chided him and, in my own fluster, I said something along the lines of “Wow, yeah, that was bad, but, heh, heh, he has a good sense of humor. Wow.”
I was picking my kids up from their house after they had generously watched them for us. They’re good friends. Kind people. We’re so grateful for them. We don’t have family nearby so our reliance on the friends we do have feels vital. We can’t afford to only have friends who always do and say the “right” thing. Nor do I want friends who only do or say the right thing. I do not only do and say the right things.
I am not a *good* white person.
My point in sharing the above examples is not to shame my friends or complain but to try to highlight how insidious and rampant microaggressions can be.
There are times when I’ve seen some of my daughters’ daycare teachers post content on social media that I experience as pretty racist or anti-immigrant. Of course, it bothers me. Of course, I think it is wrong. They love my kids, hard. They love them well. Over the almost 7 years we’ve had our kids there, they have supported us and cared for our children in ways that have gone so far beyond what they are being paid to do or what is required of them. My kids feel loved and safe and challenged there. And the teachers don’t get paid that much to do some of the hardest work. I am so grateful for them and look up to them more than I can express in words.
If you follow my social media, it wouldn’t be difficult to figure out what my general politics are. Beyond the binary of democrat vs. republican, I would say I identify as a “Justice for ALL bodies” person. But in the overly-restrictive and inept political categories, it’d be easy to see I am pretty bra-burning, leg-hair growing, liberal democrat. While I don’t share all of my views on social media, and there are some views that might even surprise folks who follow or know me, I purposely do not hide what I post or how I feel. I believe silence and neutrality hurts those who are most oppressed and seek to add my voice to support those being harmed. I also see it as important, as a mental health therapist, to not embody the kind of neutrality that further hurts already oppressed individuals.
So, while I don’t hide what I post or how I feel about Trump or racist content, I also do not want to *other* myself from those who do OR adopt a false identity as someone who is somehow *better* than those who voted for him.
I am not. I am not better.
As I White woman, I share the guilt and responsibility to do better and work toward social justice.
I am not a *good* white person.
I’d like to tell you another story. This one involves the friend of one of my daughters. Kara (names changed) was being raised by her grandmother because her parents were both young and struggled with addiction. Her grandmother, Susan, was approaching retirement age and had already raised her adult children. As a new mom of 3 young children—again, without family support nearby—I experienced Susan as one of the kindest, most generous individuals. Often helping me when I was at the pool on my own with an infant, 2 year old, and 4 year old. Watching one while I took the others to the bathroom, buying them snacks, encouraging me with bits of parenting wisdom. I am so grateful for her kindness.
Susan and I were and are Facebook friends. She sees what I post. I see what she posts. A quick scan of our pages would reveal our general political affiliations pretty quickly. It was very apparent that she was an avid Trump supporter and fairly conservative in her beliefs. It is easily observable that I perceive Trump as a racist, misogynistic, harmful president, who has stoked and/or created fear in people about immigrants, Muslims, women, Transgender individuals, journalists, and anyone who dares to question his policies.
After seeing one of my posts expressing anger and frustration at whatever the latest Trumpism was at the time, Susan sent me a private message in which she shared her fear that her granddaughters would grow up under Shariah law. She shared she was part American Indian and expressed fear for her gay family members if our countries’ liberties were put at risk.
I didn’t know how to respond. So I didn’t. Partly because of being caught up in the overwhelm of parenthood and work. But mostly because I didn’t know how to cross the barrier between us.
But a few days later, my daughter and her granddaughter had swim practice together. When I saw her across the locker room, I could see the nervousness on her face, afraid of encountering me.
I can still her face. She was afraid. Of me.
I walked toward her tentatively with my arms outstretched and we embraced for several moments. She became tearful and told me how she had told her sons she was afraid to see me, afraid of what I would do. I said, “Susan, I have a great amount of respect for you. And I‘m so grateful for your kindness toward my family. And, we see the world very differently. She replied “I’m just glad you’re not cutting me off, because then I can’t learn from you." I responded with “And I wouldn’t be able to learn from you. You’ve got a lot more years on this Earth than me.”
At a recent conference I attended called the Association for Size Diversity & Health, a strongly social-justice oriented organization, a couple colleagues expressed disbelief that I have clients who are Trump supporters. One said “I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t work with them.” I was floored.
Of course, I see individuals who may have voted for Trump.
If people are hurting, and I have the ability within my scope of practice and availability to provide support, of course I will do so. As attempted to highlight in my practice beliefs, my providers and I aim to create a space that is accessible and welcoming to all individuals. It would be unethical of me to wall off clients because of how they voted. It would also be unfair for me to separate myself from other White people, just because of who I voted for.
I am not a *good* White person.
Voting for Hillary did not absolve me from harm I’ve done, do, or will do as a White person OR neutralize the benefits I receive as a White person.
Posting supportive social justice memes on Facebook or Instagram does not release me from responsibility and obligation to repair OR place me in a *better* white person category.
Us White, Brene Brown-devotee people with privilege love to talk about boundaries and walls and gated communities and safety and containment and equality and trigger warnings and ridding ourselves of all shame. These are all important considerations but not more important than justice and equity and not at the risk of sacrificing justice and equity.
Boundaries are important, but it is a privilege to be able to set boundaries, which is not accessible to all people.
The day after the 2016 election, there were students who toilet papered the campus quad where my husband works as a counselor, in celebration of a man who called Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals. My husband walked through that same quad on his way into work and proceeded to counsel students grieving and scared related to the election outcome and students who didn’t understand why their friends were rejecting them for voting for Trump. His black female coworkers showed up to counsel their students too. Of course, they did.
It’s an interesting contrast to hear White, privileged colleagues who identify as liberal and social-justice oriented talk about not being able to work with individuals because of who they voted for.
I am not a *good* White person.
The idea of containment and boundaries and walls are interesting concepts. I’m not proposing we become boundary-less or proposing that I know what all has gone in to an individual setting a boundary (For many of us, it was/is a necessary response to trauma) but we must consider how privileged a luxury it might be for some to say “I’m putting a boundary between me and you” or “Between me and that.” A luxury and ability that may not be accessible to all people, especially individuals of marginalized identities.
How does one set boundaries to cordon off the possible trauma and hurts when the trauma is systemic, when it is all around you. When the world you live in is the trauma source? When there are so few places where you can feel truly safe and seen as your true self? Individuals of marginalized identities cannot generally *turn off* being who they are or *turn off* embodying their identity that the world is oppressing, especially if their marginalization is visible.
At the same recent conference I attended, there were many efforts to create accessibility and justice for all attendees. One of the concrete ways this was done was in creating a space for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color) attendees; a private space in which they could experience community and mutual support and respite away from non-BIPOC individuals. One of the conference coordinators shared that they had received questions from non-BIPOC attendees about why that space was necessary. It is important to understand that when marginalized or oppressed people try to create spaces free from non-BIPOC individuals or put up boundaries or walls, it is a different kind of self-preservation and protection than when those with power put them up.
I am not saying that only some individuals get to have and set boundaries. But that it is important to be mindful of how those of us with power may hurt others with less power when we set them. And those of us with power and privilege must be willing to examine how we harm, not just through actions but at times via our mere existence in certain spaces.
I am not a good white person (For the record, I don’t think I’m a “bad” one, either).
But I harm, nonetheless. Likely more frequently and in more ways than I am even aware of. I have misgendered folks. I have unintentionally asked labor of folks without communicating appropriate compensation. I have made individuals feel as though the reason I was asking them a question was because they were a *safe* choice.
I must stay aware that my mere presence and voice in certain spaces has the potential for inflicting harm. Whether it is intentional or not matters less than if the impact ends up being the same---in the same way that when my child accidentally harms one of her siblings, I ask her to still apologize because her action hurt her sister.
When supervising Black students or grading their papers, I can feel the air of fear. Earlier on in my career, I misinterpreted it and likely exploited it without knowing. There’s a lot of ego in academia and it’s easy to let it override awareness of power dynamics. I may not have hurt in direct overt ways but certainly in not recognizing power dynamics were at play and in adopting an ego of belief that I could somehow neutralize them by showing that I was *woke.* And in not naming or owning my whiteness, in not broaching conversations that could have potentially reduced some of the unknown and fear present in the space.
There is always power in the room. I’ve had a lot of difficult, sometimes painful, often awkward conversations with students, supervisees, and clients of marginalized identity. Students who disclosed to me that the reason they were having a hard time voicing a dissenting thought was because their mothers taught them to never question a White person, especially one with authority in a school or work setting. No amount of wokeness on my part could make me something I am not, could make me not White, could make me not represent the very real and present danger of a world in which white bodies are treated and valued as more than other bodies. Over the years, I have connected students of color with mentors of color (after first asking consent of both parties), or across other marginalized identities. But sometimes, there isn’t anyone to connect my students or clients to. Sometimes it is sitting with the idea that there is no pretty bow with which to tie things up. That I cannot fix the problem of institutionalized and systemic racism.
That’s a hard thing to sit with as a helper and as a White person. Us White people like to fix. We like to do. We like to feel closure. We like to FEEL like we did the “right” thing, sometimes more so than we like to DO the “right” thing.
But our job as healers is not to fix. It is to witness and provide space and to empower. We cannot take away the pain or reality of racism and oppression (though, yes, we should continue to fight for social justice). We must be willing to hold space for the discomfort of not being able to be what we’re not, the discomfort of being what/who we are, and the discomfort of not being able to take away the pain, fear, and trauma that folks have experienced or are still experiencing. Including pain, fear, and trauma that may be associated with our own Whiteness or other privilege.
I am not a *good* White person.
Let me say, again, that boundaries are important to learn, especially for folks that grew up with their boundaries or consent not being honored.
But, here’s what I’ve often noticed about my fellow White women with regards to boundaries. We have tended to misuse them and gaslight others with them. To use them as a weapon that harms others who are already hurting. Here’s a classic example of what I’ve witnessed and experienced myself (and if I’m honest, likely done myself to others):
Person 1 (with power) says harmful, hurtful things
Person 2 (with less power) responds/attempts to respond
Person 1 (with power) interrupts or before person has a chance, says: “Sorry, this is my boundary” and shuts down exchange before Person 2 can finish.
I’ve seen this same exchange in real life encounters, in classrooms, and within facebook groups, where marginalized individuals may have expended a lot of emotional labor in explaining or responding to an inquiry or comment by a person with power/privilege, who then deletes their comments, shuts the comments down, or deletes the entire thread to begin with, essentially erasing the time, effort, and emotional labor of the responder.
This is a form of erasure. This is power and control in action. This is harm. Not simply boundaries being set.
I am not a *good* White person.
I have a personal striving at times to be perfect. It is rooted in childhood trauma and my history of an eating disorder but I’m also aware it’s rooted in white privilege. I’ve done a lot of work on this but it’s still there. I’m a fast talker, fast thinker and as an Italian-American, New Yorker, I can sometimes forget to slow it down. I sometimes stumble over my words. I’m passionate and want to get them out as fast as I can. This results in me sometimes mixing my metaphors (as my students know) or mixing up my kids’ names, or forgetting what my point was to begin with (like right now). I’m increasingly learning over time that to avoid doing harm, I need to remember to breathe and ground and
So that I can at least attempt to get it right. Or at least get it more right. The times I’ve misgendered folks was usually not because I did not know their identified gender but because I was rushing. My brain’s neural pathways that have been well programmed and reinforced over decades to see the world in binaries needs me to slow the fuck down. It is important I slow down. And give my brain a chance to catch up. I still will get it wrong. I will still fumble. I am not an expert.
I am not a *good* White person.
Brene Brown has done an incredible job of educating folks on the concept of shame. I love reading her books and recommend them regularly to clients. But what so many don’t realize is that, for the most part, she is specifically talking about *toxic shame,* which is only one part of the concept of shame. Shame can be toxic OR it can be healthy and adaptive. This is not a new idea I am proposing but one that can be traced back to Plato, Erikson, Bradshaw, and others. (Fun Brene Brown quote: “John Bradshaw opened the door to talking about shame!”)
Shame is a natural human experience that all individuals develop around the age of 2. We need healthy shame (not toxic shame) to survive. Individuals with zero shame are either sociopaths, narcissists, infants, developmentally impaired, or dead.
*Healthy shame* is a concept Bradshaw explored in his book “Healing the Shame that Binds You” (1988). He describes shame as a healthy emotion that if left to fester can become toxic. Healthy shame is the basis of humility. It is knowing that we are not omnipotent. That we are not all powerful. As toddlers, healthy shame kept us safe by reminding us that we could not survive without our caregivers. As adults, healthy shame reminds us that we are human and that it is okay to be human (i.e., to have flaws and imperfections). Healthy shame protects us and reminds us of our limits. It helps us know that we cannot just walk off a 3 story roof and believe "hey, I’ll be alright.” Healthy shame is a source of creativity and learning. If we reach a point where we feel there is nothing left for us to learn or grow into, we lose the drive needed to continue seeking new information and to continue creating new ideas and art. Healthy shame is often the source of spirituality (religious and non-religious), keeping us grounded in our universal *smallness* (i.e., there is more out there in the world than just me, whether that’s a God or energy or science) AND our universal *bigness* (i.e., we are important, special, and matter). Healthy shame is the basis of social connection. If we have no shame (i.e., no concept that we can’t do everything on our own without any help) we may not see the necessity or benefit of others.
I believe *healthy* shame is necessary for anti-racism work and for social justice, especially for those of us with unearned power and privilege.
We need to have *healthy* shame that we are willing to explore, examine, and attempt to understand. We need to have *healthy* shame about how our mere existence and identity has caused, causes, and will continue to cause harm to others. Even if unintended.
We do need *the other,* whether that’s someone who looks like us that we’ve *othered* or someone who does not look us that we’ve *othered.* We need others. We need diversity. We need things that scare us or that make us uncomfortable. Or that make us feel a more genuine and authentic sense of our full self (i.e., healthy shame), which includes our flaws, deficiencies, and ways in which we harm others by our mere existence. We need to be triggered sometimes. We need to be challenged. To be exposed. To be pushed to grow and do better. So we can avoid harm. So we can lessen harm. So we can be aware of when we’ve harmed. So we can attempt to repair when we’ve harmed.
Staying within our boundaried enclaves provides us a false sense of safety and security and of peace. It is not a true peace. As Dr. Martin Luther King said “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” And justice sometimes requires us to be unboundaried. Justice sometimes requires us to feel shame. Justice sometimes requires us to be willing to look at how our attempts at avoiding *danger* or perceived risk has created danger and risk for others. Has harmed others.
No, I am not a *good* White person, but I want to be a better one. Not one who thinks I’m off the hook because I voted for the *right* person or because “some of my best friends are Black” or because “at least I’m not as bad as *those* White people.” But one who is willing to look at other humans—all humans—with compassion and empathy and understanding of the dialectic that NONE of us were born *good* AND that ALL of us were born *good.* That none of us are exempt from *the work* to repair this world that is so deeply hurting.
No, I am not a *good* White person, but I want to be a better one.
Will you join me?