I had already written Brotherhood when I first listened to Brené Brown’s TED Talkabout shame. Growing up in the North as the child of Southern-born parents, I’d picked up on my parents’ sense of shame. Whether it was over our family’s complicity in the wrongs of the Confederacy or the Jim Crow laws, I don’t know, but I sensed it, and Brown’s TED Talk brought it home for me.
BrenéBrown is a Houston-based researcher who studies and writes about vulnerability and shame. She spends a lot of time listening to people tell their stories, and has come to believe that “you cannot talk about race without talking about privilege, and when people start talking about privilege, they get paralyzed by shame.” Once paralyzed, they stop talking; the shame intensifies, and the problem festers.
Brown says that “shame needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment.” Her comment reminded me of an email I got from my brother after I had blogged about the emotional seeds of my novel Brotherhood. My brother emailed to say that some of his friends were African-American, and he didn’t appreciate my announcing (via my blog) that our ancestors had owned slaves. He’d never before heard that history, and he didn’t want his friends hearing it. He wanted me to take the post down.
He sent me that email in 2011, one hundred and fifty years after the start of the Civil War, and it struck me how powerful the silence has been. He was right that our parents hadn’t talked about our ancestors enslaving Africans. I’d had to push them to get that information out of them. Their parents hadn’t talked about it, either. Nor had theirparents. Such was the genius of those who sought to interpret the Civil War as the noble Lost Cause of the Confederacy—a view that minimized the slavery issue. The institution of slavery was shameful, and white Southerners don’t talk about the things that shame them.
To be fair to my brother, he hadn’t ever shown much of an interest in our family’s history—not like I had. So maybe he hadn’t asked the questions I’d asked, and hadn’t sensed our parents’ shame. I respect him, but I didn’t take down my blog post. Removing it would feed the flames of secrecy, silence and judgment. Our society has come a long way on the racism front, particularly in the past fifty years, but American still has a ways to go.
“White privilege” is a term I first heard only a few years ago, and I’ve scoured websites to understand what it means. If you’re as unfamiliar with the term as I was, I suggest reading “Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” by Peggy McIntosh. The article has helped me understand that simply by virtue of being white in a white-majority country, I enjoy benefits I’m not even aware of. In the aftermath of cases like Trayvon Martin’s, some of us whites are starting to get it. There is progress, albeit slow.
Brown says that the antidote to shame is empathy. When we strive to imagine how life is for others, when we listen and say, “I’m sorry,” the curtain of shame begins to lift. If we want it to lift even faster, we need to recognize privilege, own it, and talk about it. She’s says that “Jungian analysts call shame the swampland of the soul,” and she suggests that all of us will benefit from putting on some galoshes, and mucking around in it for a bit.
Brown’s research and her talks are intriguing. If what she says about privilege and shame resonates with you, check out her other TED Talk (it’s on vulnerability).
Meanwhile, if you’d like to be entered into the giveaway of one signed copy ofBrotherhood, leave a comment below. One random commenter will be chosen to win. Deadline to enter is February 8th. Giveaway is open to U.S. residents. Please leave a Twitter name or email so we can get in touch with you if you win.