Why Don’t White People Speak Up?

The exhaustion among black and brown people in the struggle for racial justice is real, it’s palpable and I frequently hear friends and colleagues express the frustration that they wish more white people would speak up. “I’m so sick of white people telling me they’re sorry, after the meeting is over.”  “Don’t come apologizing for your behavior after the fact, just change your behavior.”  “Take action.”  “I’m done with white people never speaking up.” 

So why don’t white people speak up more?

Last month I started digging into the data from a survey I launched late last summer regarding when, if and why white people engage in conversations about race – or don’t. One thing I’ve noticed in my work as a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant is that many white people have experiences involving race that they never, ever talk about.  I hear the stories only in one-on-one coaching and never in group meetings.

In the survey, more than half of respondents indicated they wished they could talk about some of their childhood experiences related to race.  One-third shared that they have some experiences around race that they never or almost never talk about.  When asked why or why not, nearly one-third of respondents answered that the reason they never talk about their experiences is that they were embarrassed or ashamed of their own past actions or lack of awareness.  Another seven percent were embarrassed by their family’s racism. 

Is this shocking or even surprising?  No, it’s not.  Many, many white people have past (and current) experiences with race that they wish they didn’t have, that they feel bad or regretful about.  It may have been something they thought to themselves or said out loud; maybe it was something they did.  Or maybe it was something they didn’t do and now, looking back, regret the not doing.  They don’t want to talk about these experiences for fear of judgment, fear of social consequences, fear of hurting friends and family members who are people of color.  What is surprising is the potential connection between these experiences and the comfort of white people, who support racial justice, to speak up effectively.  Shame and embarrassment may play a real role in why white people don’t engage in conversations on race.  If this is the case, how does shame impact when, how and if white people engage in conversations about race?

Shame researchers have found that feelings of shame are rooted in self-judgment – in feeling bad about ourselves for something we’ve said, done or thought that goes against a moral code.  In order to feel shame, you must know you’ve transgressed a societal norm, says philosopher Hilge Landweer of the Free University of Berlin.  Further, the societal norm must be desired, or you wouldn’t feel shame over it.  June Tangney of George Mason University has studied shame for decades.  One of her findings is that shame reduces one’s ability to behave in socially constructive ways and increases our self-doubt and self-judgment.  I would argue that the description of these characteristics goes hand-in-hand with a constricting, or closed-in feeling that accompanies the self-judgement, making oneself smaller, taking up less space, not speaking up.  One of the more well-known researchers in the area of shame, Brené Brown, says shame causes people to feel “trapped, powerless, and isolated.”  

Shame researchers are quick to differentiate feelings of shame from feelings of guilt.  Landweer says a person experiencing feelings of shame also experiences an incident as a personal failure.  It’s self-directed – the problem is me.  Guilt, on the other hand, is differentiated in that it focuses on feeling responsible for a mis-step or mistake.  The problem… is that I made a mistake, like accidentally stepping on someone’s toe.  It has a lower dose of self-judgement and is combined with a higher propensity to want to make things right or repair harm done.   Guilt feelings are frequently associated with a drive to make things right whereas shame feelings are associated with a drive to hide.

Shame is further associated with a number of other distinct behaviors.  Restorative justice practitioners frequently use a framework called the Compass of Shame, developed by researchercompass of shame Donald L. Nathanson.  The framework describes the four poles of shame and the behaviors associated with them – like withdrawal, self-criticism, avoidance, and lashing out at others.  Many of these behaviors align with classic patterns noted by diversity, equity and inclusion consultants in conversations about race with white people.  Robin DiAngelo describes many of these characteristics in her book White Fragility.

What’s driving these behaviors?  Could shame or embarrassment about past actions, statements, deeds, thoughts, be holding white people back from speaking up?  And if so, what can be done to change this dynamic?  Would unpacking those experiences, in the context of growing up with systemic and institutionalized racism, lead to new understandings that reduce these behaviors?

If shame does in part drive white silence, what can we do about it?  And how do we move out of shame, embarrassment and fear?  Stay tuned for my next article which will review some of the approaches for working through shame and potential applications for working with white people.

Are you white?  Take the online, “White Perspectives Survey” here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/white-perspectives

Katheen “Kat” LaTosch, MSW, is a diversity, equity and inclusion consultant specializing in working with nonprofit organizations and facilitating conversations about race with white people.