Anyone else noticed the trend of shaming allies and potential allies as the cool thing to do? In our unfortunate culture of social media performance, we seem to have lost ourselves. This trend is not confined to shaming allies from privileged groups, although that may be the most popular version. In addition, I have witnessed shaming of people of color by people of color about how they are not doing anti-racism enough or correctly. White people shaming white allies, women shaming men who are trying to dismantle the patriarchy, women of color shaming each other, the list goes on and on.
And let me be crystal clear, shame is not the same as inviting or asking an ally to improve, behave differently, learn, grow, adjust, and take more effective action for justice. We obviously need to have those conversations. Whether enacted publicly or privately, shame is about making someone feel bad about themselves as a person. This gets us nowhere fast. This popular and growing trend of shaming sets the collective push for progress WAY way back.
Shame aims to harm (not educate).
Example: A white person tweets “I got a new lamp for my master bedroom.” Stranger (or known acquaintance) shoots back, “I can’t believe you said that! That is a racial microaggression, and you should know better as someone who claims to be an ally. You obviously don’t care.”
Let’s focus on the interaction rather than the debate around using the word “master.” What assumptions do you see being made in this response? What messages are being sent to the person who used “master bedroom?” Rather than offer a new perspective on the use of this phrase, the response hits directly to the core of the values and character of the lamp owner. The response is more of an attack on the person by making claims, which are assumptions, that they “don’t care.” The white person is supposed to feel shame because they did not “know better.” This shaming aims to hurt the lamp owner more than it attempts to offer education or potential growth.
Of course, anyone who has ever heard of Brené Brown knows this is her research expertise arena. I leave the deep dive on the damage shame does to her. My focus here is on the detrimental use of shame within social justice movements.
Ally shaming reflects self-righteous performance.
What purpose does shame serve in the context of a social justice movement? The shame response does not serve the movement, invite allies to learn, or promote coalition building.
When we encounter an action by another human being who is trying to act for progress and justice, what leads us to shaming them? In this context of social justice as an online performance, these acts of shaming serve the ego of the shamer. By telling someone they should have known better, that I know better, or that they should be cancelled for making a mistake, we are attempting to elevate ourselves and our own egos. Cancel culture, toxic shaming, and the acceptability of hostile attacks on each other only serve to perpetuate injustice.
When we push each other away, coalition building is damaged.
When we shame, oppression wins. This has to stop.
Growing up in Southern Baptists Churches in East Tennessee, the term “grace” used to drip with religious meaning for me. More recently, I have come to view “grace” as resistance to any temptation to be mean and cruel to ourselves and others. This is my official call to all people with social justice values and hope for the future. We can turn the tide on the current popularity of ally shaming. Before we act, we need to ask ourselves some difficult questions: Are we reaching out to make ourselves feel superior? Is my act of telling someone else they are not doing “justice” correctly giving me some sort of ego payoff? Is the approach I am taking in reaching out to an aspiring ally going to best serve social justice? Will I be inviting them in or pushing them out? Is my commentary on their actions compassionate and forgiving first and supportively constructive second?
May we all practice grace over shaming.
I recently gifted myself a weekend writing retreat on Chesapeake Bay. Just me in a cute little cottage on the water. During this retreat, I found myself on the receiving end of two attempts to shame me as an ally. My way of working through the hurt of being shamed, and my way of staying centered in my own values and not allowing that shame to derail my social justice work, was to channel negative experiences into the above post. Always remember to return to your core values and don’t let anyone force you into shame. And remember that not ALL feedback is accurate feedback. This is a difficult lesson to learn as an ally.