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I want to suggest here that shame can be more than a feeling that ends in self-judgment. It can also be a spur to live differently. In other words, shame is not simply, as is sometimes asserted, a political dead end. On the contrary, shame can be politically productive in our political moment.
On the one hand, the shame-as-political-dead-end argument goes this way. In her Political Emotions, Martha Nussbaum worries that shame mitigates the kind of “inclusive compassion” necessary for a thriving liberal society. While she acknowledges a “healthy role for shame in social life,” especially when that shame is collective, she maintains that most often “shame fractures social unity.”
On this understanding, shame is what we feel when we break with our cultural norms. I steal a cookie from the cookie jar; my mother shames me; I feel bad and do not do it again. Shame then serves to bring me back into line with those cultural norms.
It is because shame brings the individual back into wider norms that Nussbaum is against shame with respect to a healthy pluralism in a multicultural society. When the immigrant is made to feel ashamed of who they are because their cultural practices are different from those of the predominant group, they become stigmatized. As a result, the society they inhabit risks fracturing into mutually suspicious subgroups, with those who have been stigmatized understandably feeling resentful.
On the other hand, the shame-as-productive argument takes a different approach. In his Moral Emotions, Anthony Steinbock describes shame as a moral emotion of “self-givenness,” meaning that in the experience of shame we learn something specific about ourselves. Like Nussbaum, many psychologists have associated shame with being self-conscious about our position in society: viewing ourselves in terms of our community’s norms, we feel shame when we break those norms. But Steinbock uses “self-givenness” and not “self-consciousness” in order to distance his sense of shame from simple self-judgment. Instead, he wants to talk about “the moral sense of the person in the dynamic process of becoming.”
So yes, we are thrown back on ourselves in shame. And yes, in being called into question we can judge ourselves. But more than that, shame can serve as an opening to become something else, and in this way it can point us in new directions. Understood as re-orienting, shame can be a constructive feeling, close to hope, what Steinbock calls an “expansive” emotion because it “creatively open[s] dimensions of the person where interpersonal relations are concerned.”
Steinbock is helpful because his counter-argument to Nussbaum offers a way to think about shame as productive, one I want to consider further in regard to questions of racial justice today.
In many progressive circles—church groups and academic spaces come to mind—shame is embraced as a kind of virtue signal. In these spaces, the group-endorsed move is no longer to deny racism: “I am not responsible for the sins of my ancestors!” It is instead to acknowledge how racism persists: “I am ashamed of my privileges and my whiteness!”
This is interesting because it flags a shift in how shame is understood. While shame is usually what we feel when we break with cultural norms, in regard to racial justice in these progressive circles, shame is what we feel when we don’t break with norms (“privileges”) enough.
In this way, shame is a feeling that can invite us to break further from our habitual modes—to participate in a wider refusal, as Amiri Baraka writes in a discussion of Blues musicians, “of the hollowness of American life, especially in its address to the [Black person].”
In the spaces I have in mind where shame functions as this invitation to reject U.S. hollowness, there seem to be (broadly) two competing ways to go about this wider refusal, what I will call the “whiteness studies path” and the “racial solidarity path.” I will argue in favor of the latter, or at least that the former should lead to the latter.
The whiteness studies path stresses white privilege and white fragility. Think of an anti-racism workshop at your church. You confess your privilege and then drive home in your Prius. This framing of racism lacks a thoroughgoing critique of class as well as of the relationship between whiteness and property. This framing also fails to make connections to histories of internationalism in Black organizing, likely because we church-goers are more likely to be assigned Robin DiAngelo than Joy James. In my view, this is a mistake. It is also why, at one interfaith community organizing workshop I attended at a church in St. Paul, Minnesota in 2019, an older couple sitting next to me could in the same breath condemn their white privilege and with excitement share with me the details of their upcoming trip to Turkey.
In short, as Cedric Johnson has argued, whiteness studies offers “a form of anti-racist politics focused on public therapy rather than public policy, a politics that actually detracts from building social bonds and solidarity in the context of actual organizing campaigns, everyday life, and purposive political action.”
By contrast, what matters most in the racial solidarity path includes, Johnson continues, “demonstrated commitment, political acumen, organizing skills.” Less confession, more action.
The catch here is that calling for a class-breaking commitment as part of interracial solidarity doesn’t preach as well as calling for a therapeutic purging of racism within. The class-stripped call to purge whiteness within sounds more doable than making it through a pandemic and a recession while refusing our class “privileges.” Things are hard enough already, the congregation says. So one question for pastors, organizers, and activists becomes how the oppositional elements within prevailing feelings of shame and within the predominant rhetoric of whiteness can be deepened to lead to larger commitments of solidarity.
Consider for example George Yancy’s 2015 New York Times essay “Dear White America.” There Yancy, one of the most prominent Black public intellectuals writing in the U.S. today, says, “This letter is not asking you to feel bad about yourself, to wallow in guilt. That is too easy.” Instead, he continues, “I’m asking for you to tarry, to linger, with the ways you perpetuate a racist society… to speak to, to admit to, the racist poison that is inside you.” The country’s response to that op-ed required that he get FBI protection.
I knew Yancy from studying at Emory. He was my first advisor. A few years after he published “Dear White America,” we saw each other outside of the philosophy building and walked together across the quad. I asked him how he was doing amidst the ongoing hate mail he receives.
He had just published the book Backlash, about the virulent response to his “Dear White America” letter, and he explained to me a sentiment I had heard from him before: that he offers his critiques of whiteness as an invitation, but so often they are heard as provocations—especially as simply provoking shame.
Yancy’s letter disavows an intention to produce shame, but that is how it functioned. A progressive politics of shame in the U.S. in 2021, I believe, requires an avowal of this shame.
But focusing on the avowal of shame heeds only half of Yancy’s call. It is easier to admit to having “racist poison” within me than it is to change the ways I perpetuate a racist society—for example, maintaining ownership of property my family gained through discriminatory lending and zoning practices, driving a car whose emissions disproportionately affect people of color zoned to live along the highway, taking vacations that assume other cultures are objects to be studied and producers of trinkets that dot my living room, and so on.
In the moments when we feel shame, the burden is no longer on the author of the essay. It is up to the reader to choose how to respond.
We choose how we become who we will be. If we take Yancy at his word, as I think we should, then his denying an intention to produce guilt should cause us to pause when we feel guilty upon reading the essay. A more effective politics would involve responding to our shame not by shouting our confession more loudly, but by rejecting the hollowness of middle-class life in more ways.
Benjamin P. Davis is the 2020-21 Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Centre for Ethics. His writing can be found on his website.