Why Shame Isn't a Tool in the Antiracist Toolkit

Uncategorized Jan 25, 2021

“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” Brene Brown. 

“You should be ashamed of yourself.” 

“Shame on you.”

Shame is a powerful emotion. And for the antiracist a wholly unproductive one. 

What do I mean by shame?  Shame is the emotion that comes from of looking inward and judging ourselves harshly. It frequently has it's roots in things that were said to us by others - often in childhood. We can feel shame about things that we can't control.  But the most defining characteristic of shame is that is says to us we are wrong

Shame and guilt are not the same thing. Guilt is an emotion that arises when we feel that we've done something wrong. Guilt is when our thoughts or actions are out of alignment with our beliefs and values.

Guilt says to us that we did something wrong. Shame says that we are wrong. 

And here’s the thing - behavioral psychology tell us in no uncertain terms - guilt is  productive emotion and shame is not.

Whether we are shaming others or shaming ourselves, it has a net negative impact. Shame is associated with addictive behaviors. Shame has a negative impact on physical health.  Shame increases your risk for depression and anxiety. And importantly for us as antiracists, shame does not produce long term or meaningful change.

Shame is quite effective at getting someone to change their behavior publicly and in the moment. BUT it comes at a cost to their humanity. Not only does it fail to inspire long term and sustainable change - shaming someone makes it more likely that they pay that shame forward and dehumanize others.

And that does harm. Cycles of harm.

As an antiracist, I link shame to “calling out” and guilt to “calling in.”

When we are pointing out racist harm from a place of love or seeing racist harm in ourselves, it will likely inspire guilt. It’s tough to realize we’ve done harm. I know, for me personally, the realization that I had upheld white supremacy by assimilating, by adopting and perpetuating white norms came with an extra helping of guilt. But I’m not ashamed of it. I made a mistake. I’m not a mistake.

Shame, however, is the effect that we have when we call folks out in cruel, harsh and belittling terms. Shame is a tool that we wield to make other people conform and we tell them that if they don’t - they are a mistake. Shame is paralyzing and leads to inaction, because shame tell us we are incapable of change.

Most importantly, shame is dehumanizing. On this journey of valuing the humanity of all - trying to create a more equitable society - we have to value everybody. Right? We say we values all abilities, all races, all genders, people with all sexualities. Ours is a message that humanizes people and values every body. 

Everybody = every body. All of them. Even the ones currently doing harm.

I’m not asking you to agree with people doing racist harm. Lord knows I don’t want to you to do that. I’m not asking you to “coddle” or “go easy” on them either. We, as antiracists, cannot turn a blind eye to the harm inflicted by individuals and systems.


It remains important that we value their humanity. It remains critical that we humanizing tools to call people In to relationships. It might result in feelings of guilt. But, if we do it right, it won’t produce feelings of shame.


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