“It is not more uncomfortable to talk about race than to experience racism.”
We have had the honor of helping educators across the United States navigate some of the most significant challenges that exist when serving children. Without question, the most challenging issue is racism. While the data clearly shows correlations between race and how we serve children, facing those truths often provoke negative emotions and responses. The restorative practitioner in me views this discomfort and the subsequent unwillingness to discuss racism as an unhealthy and unproductive response to shame. We talk about shame a lot in our restorative work, and I’d like to offer an analysis here which might help understand our challenges and pushback around racial equity.
When we witness people becoming defensive in conversations around white privilege, implicit bias, and structural racism, we’re seeing folks intuitive response to the feeling of being “called out.” This feeling naturally elicits shame. In and of itself, shame is not wrong, however how we engage shame affects the ability for restoration to take place.
The Compass of Shame provides a lens to understand how we tend to respond to shame. Let’s examine each of these approaches and see how they may be wielded in conversations around racism and equity
In the “attack others” approach, an individual seeks to project their shame onto others by making themselves a victim. This approach manifests itself in accusations of reverse racism (which is as illogical as it is pretentious) and race-baiting. The aim here is to attack and invalidate those raising the concern because their suggestion of racism is more harmful than one’s own, possible racism. What President Donald Trump displayed when an African American journalist asked him a question about his use of “nationalism” was a textbook Attack Other response. It was also unadulterated, white, male privilege on display to silence the voice of a woman of color.
Next, we have the “attack self “response to shame, which sees one owning their challenges but applying a deficit lens to themselves. This looks like the guilt often displayed by those who want to hyper cleanse their labels and language and try to absolve the stain of their shame of racism through charity and saving those poor “minority” kids. We can applaud some of the good intentions here but challenge them nevertheless, since that self-deprecating shame is not sustainable and ultimately leads to bitterness and frustration.
The avoidance approach is fairly self-explanatory. We’ve all heard, and some of us have said “I don’t see color,” “I’m color-blind” or “We don’t have those problems here, we have people of color on our staff,” This response is rooted in trying to hide the problem, even from ourselves.
Lastly, those responding to shame through withdrawal acknowledge that there is a problem but tend not to want any parts of it. They disengage either physically, mentally or emotionally from the discourse, opting instead to have safe, more comfortable conversations about sports, curriculum or the weather.
I believe that if we use the Compass of Shame as a lens, it enables us to unpack the private logic of others and begin pivoting towards building an antiracism approach to serving our beautiful children.