White Privilege: Overcoming Denial, Silence and Shame

A few years ago I attended an intensive, 6 day course with around 70 people from the UK and other European countries, examining world issues together using process-oriented psychology methods. In a series of group exercises we embodied the different roles that we feel within ourselves and that are present in our societies; spoke and listened to some uncomfortable truths; and ultimately walked a path together of honouring our histories and experiences of abuse and trauma and waking up to a new way of seeing and being with each other.

It was a diverse group of participants – a gay man in his fifties who wept about feeling dismissed in his society for not being sufficiently tough and masculine, a Catalan woman who talked about the lack of recognition or respect towards her people’s struggles for independence.

And a black South African woman, who with fury in her voice told us she was tired of hearing about our difficulties, as white people, in understanding racism.  ‘I do not want to nanny you,’ she said. ‘I’ve nannied your children and I do not want to nanny you.’

It was a large group session that was fraught with tensions. White people, including myself, jockeying for position to play the activist who supported this woman’s cause. Yet these gestures, acted out in role play, felt hollow in the face of her rage, and her glare that said to us: you are all racist, no matter who you are.

“But I’m not a racist!”

I remember at the time feeling deeply uneasy by this suggestion. I had lived in Africa (Uganda and Kenya) for several years, I had worked for multiple human rights and humanitarian NGOs whose mission was to tackle global inequalities and injustice. I had a black boyfriend at the time, and he had not been my first. I felt myself disconnecting from this South African woman’s rage; no, this isn’t about me I thought.

But it was, and it is. It is about all of us. This is a tough truth to swallow, yet we all need to – and we need to now more than ever. Not so that we sink into shame and silence. But so we recognise we are not perfect, because no one is.

Once we step back from thinking we are perfect, we also step back from thinking we have all the answers and solutions. And we begin to pause and listen to others who do not dominate the public space on discussions concerning what it means to be human and how we address society’s problems.

Photo by Mike Von on Unsplash

We cannot be allies unless we take responsibility

Since that course five or six years ago, I have attended others that tackle similar subjects, read some of the books we’re all meant to read on white privilege and racial justice in western societies as well as postcolonial and critical race theory literature that examine the broader world order of oppression and inequality. It has made me conscious on a daily basis of my positioning within society and within the environments I operate in; but it certainly doesn’t make me flawless or perfect in how I interact or show solidarity with people of colour.

Only recently I was called out by a black woman I respect deeply for abusing my privilege in a conversation we’d had about her contributing to the book I’m currently writing. And I’m sure there are many other moments where I have offended a person of colour, or likewise a person with a disability or a person of diverse sexual or gender orientation; most of these moments I’ll be unaware of, because my privilege also serves as a silencing mechanism for those who don’t have what I have, and who are too tired trying to explain this to the likes of me.    

But we as white people have to keep trying. We cannot be silenced by what is going on right now – whether this silence is a feeling of helplessness, of not knowing what to do, or a feeling of shame. We have to start listening, and taking action now, in our communities and neighbourhoods, and with our friends and family. Here are a few suggestions.

The next time you question whether you have anything to do with systemic racism, consider what we are facing right now, in the midst of a pandemic. It is far more likely that someone like me will get let off with little more than a warning for breaking lockdown rules, and far more likely that a person of colour will be subjected to greater punitive measures.

As well as BAME people being at greater risk of coronavirus due to enduring social and economic inequalities , someone like me has a higher chance of accessing the financial or health support I need for these times, than someone from the BAME community.

We have to acknowledge these disparities and how we benefit from them. We must advocate for and channel more resources into community groups seeking to redress this imbalance; an effort that the National Emergencies Trust has thus far woefully failed at.

Don’t look to people of colour to educate you. Recognise the emotional labour involved in this sort of education. It is one thing educating people about human rights abuses when you are not yourself a victim; that has been my work for many years and has often been exhausting. But it is very different for those whose lives are at risk every day from oppression or violence to then go out and tell those from the dominant group in society what they need to do. Particularly when so often, even the nicest and supposedly most receptive audience is likely to take umbrage at the mere suggestion that they might have some responsibility in that system of oppression.

This tendency to look outside ourselves to the subject of oppression also reinforces a division and a narrative that suggests they are some ‘problem’ that needs analysis and examination. We, as white people, remain some dispassionate listener or observer who has nothing to do with their problem.

What we actually need to do is turn the mirror on ourselves, on our own emotions and bodies and how we feel about, and respond, to racism. Likewise, when you read all the recommended books on white supremacy or racial injustice I invite you to notice how the issues raised show up in your own lives, as well as the personal feelings that emerge as you read.

If you need a starting point on where to go for resources on anti-racism, you can look here, here and here).

Notice when you take on the ‘people pleaser’ or ‘do-gooder’ role. The one who doesn’t want to offend, that is afraid of causing harm. This is what society expects of us, but it is not realistic. Because we are all capable of hurting others, no matter who we are. Just as we are all capable of feeling hurt.

A society that dictates that we should all be ‘nice’ all the time covers up the pain felt by those who do not have as strong a voice, and dismisses vulnerability, whether this is expressed as rage, despair or sorrow. It is also a convenient excuse to stay silent when we witness racism in our families or workplaces – which devalues the experiences of those who are subjected to this racism and leaves it once again to those same people to defend themselves alone.

Good leadership in the anti-racism struggle means giving yourself permission to be vulnerable. It means having the willingness to listen, to engage in conversation about things we don’t understand and to accept that we will get things wrong. It also means showing compassion – not shame – towards ourselves when this occurs. When you feel hurt by or take offence over what you hear, first of all pay attention to this in the same way a parent may do to a child – with loving care.

Then ask yourself: Why am I feeling this way? What behavioural patterns, family or childhood histories cause me to react this way? By being curious, rather than judgemental, we ensure we do not close ourselves off or disengage when things get heated, which they will. To explore embodied and mindful practice in relation to racial injustice, look here and here.

Consider your ancestry and its contribution to racism. This takes us beyond just intellectualising it through books and seeing how it applies not only today in our societies but in our family history. When I did this I became more aware of my own family’s role in colonialism and oppression, and with this knowledge the so-called achievements of Empire, that my great grandparents contributed to, are no longer things I want celebrated in my family.

When we start reflecting on this, we also must see how our country’s institutions and infrastructure have been built upon a bloody history of slavery. It is no longer just ‘in the past’, to be forgotten about; it is part of what lies behind the so-called ‘greatness’ claimed by both the US and the UK. Not only should the legacy of slavery and colonialism be acknowledged in history books, we might also consider advocating accountability through reparations – an effort that has proved successful in one landmark case. If you want to learn about your colonial heritage, here are some suggestions.

Photo by Joan Villalon on Unsplash

Start connecting with black people in your community, and resource racial justice initiatives. You can find ways to do this that avoid reinforcing white saviourism and instead encourage solidarity and allyship here, here, here and here.

In your workplace, look beyond ‘diversity’ as meaning recruiting more non-white people. Think more about inclusion, and who gets a seat at the decision-making table, who gets to lead in design and innovation, whose opinions are listened to, who has the opportunity for career progression. And what standards we are applying when we consider who gets promoted or whose expertise or education counts. This needs to be applied all the way from the shop floor up to the Board.

If you have children, consider what books they are reading. Are the characters depicted in them from diverse backgrounds? In school, is there any discussion about the history of slavery or the mass abuses arising from the Kings and Queens of England and their brutal Empire?

For those of us on a path of awakening through conscious or spiritual practice – and I count myself as one of them – part of that awakening must be developing an awareness of some uncomfortable truths. Of how much of what we engage in is appropriated from other cultures, and reinforces structural and racial power imbalances. Of our habit of spiritual by-passing as a way to dismiss someone else’s reality. And how we claim superiority through some inner wisdom that serves to reinforce a hierarchy of knowledge. We must remain open, always, to those who challenge that so-called wisdom if we are to continue on the quest for both inner and outer change. We can also consider alternative methods of healing that recognise and work with white supremacy in our emotional bodies, such as this and this.

Like everyone else, I am still trying to learn what racism and white privilege, as well as allyship and solidarity actually looks like in my life; how I may be part of the problem, or part of the solution. I give thanks and gratitude to all the people I know, as well as those I don’t, who are helping me on that path – making me aware of when I slip up, and also when I am beginning to get it right. I hope myself and others can remain open to examining our roles, responsibilities, mistakes and imperfections – so that we can also value the vulnerability, rage, grief, courage and hope that is absolutely essential if we are to work collectively in fighting racial injustice in our neighbourhoods and beyond.  

9 thoughts on “White Privilege: Overcoming Denial, Silence and Shame”

  1. I could not agree more, and am grateful to read my own feelings and anxieties in your account. Also thank you for the literature recommendations – there is a lot of work to be done.

  2. Thank you so much Gemma, for sharing such useful and timely informations. Indeed, you reflected our daily routine phenomenon. I know, it is not easy to step back, think and critisize things for some one who never or rarely have the real feeling and experiences.

    • Thank you for your comment, it means a lot. We all have to start somewhere with trying to understand ourselves and each other better. I hope the increased discussion around this topic is helpful for us all in changing our attitudes and how we work and live in this world.

  3. This is an incredible article on ‘tone policing’ – how white people often shut down difficult stuff. Here’s a quote from it: “Being subjected to any form of injustice is infuriating. The last thing I want to hear from someone who has just said or done something completely out of line is how I need to check my emotional response to it. But tone policing works so well as a defence mechanism because it renders a perfectly legitimate complaint irrational, especially when the offending individual maintains his or her own saintly calm. If you can successfully shut another person down based on her anger or frustration, then you don’t ever have to answer for your own racist conduct.” from Racism 101, tone policing. https://medium.com/@tessintrovert/racism-101-tone-policing-92481c044b6a

  4. Thank you Gemma. Your articulate and compassionate way of encouraging me to look at, own and be accountable for my white privilege, is a gift.

    Thank you also for all the links, they’ve been really helpful for deepening my understanding.


Leave a comment