Systemic racism isn’t anything new, but many white people are newly grappling with their complicity in white supremacy — which can lead to some complicated emotions. While a healthy dose of guilt over the collective role in anti-Black racism can motivate people to listen, learn, and do better, experts say wallowing in shame could accomplish the opposite.
Both guilt and shame stem from a perceived sense of wrongdoing, but understanding the difference can affect your ability to disengage from damaging behaviors. Jena Field, a London-based psychologist, says guilt is focused on a behavior — that’s why researchers call guilt a “moral and adaptive emotion ”— while shame is focused on the wrongdoer’s identity.
“[Shame] causes a fear response that makes us either get defensive or hide, which doesn’t allow us to step back and see what we can do differently,” Field says.
Lea Flego, a marriage and family therapist in Oregon, says shame might keep you from changing behaviors, which can be damaging in the fight against systemic racism. “If we experience shame as allies, then we won’t want to acknowledge the times we’ve benefited from a racist society,” she says. “The criticism feels so bad, and naturally as humans we try to avoid that kind of pain.”
Guilt can be constructive; shame is destructive
The threat response many people experience during shame is a big part of why it’s so counterproductive. According to Gerald Fishkin, a California-based psychologist and author of The Science of Shame, the experience of shame is connected with the limbic system. That’s the part of the brain that influences the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight-or-flight response.
Guilt, Fishkin says, is associated with activity in the prefrontal cortex, the logical-thinking part of the brain. Guilt can also trigger activity in the limbic system. (That’s why it can feel so anxiety-provoking.) But since that stress response is associated with prefrontal activity, the adrenaline rush helps move you forward to repair whatever you did wrong.