My Fragile Reflection
By: James Teague
Three years ago, someone very important to me attempted to educate me on white privilege and explain how I had benefited from it all my life and will continue benefiting from it. She informed me that by not recognizing the existence of my privilege, I was contributing to racism. Unfortunately, I was nowhere near ready to accept that. Guilt would have been an appropriate, healthy emotion for me to feel when confronted with the fact that systemic racism not only existed in the United States, but that I was part of that problem. However, guilt was nowhere to be found. In its place, an overwhelming feeling of carried shame stood proudly. Guilt and carried shame often get convoluted in our society, so I believe it’s important to define them. In the precise words of Pia Mellody, renowned lecturer and author of Facing Codepence, “guilt is an uncomfortable or gnawing feeling in the abdomen about an action or thought that transgresses our value system, accompanied by a sense of wrongness”(Mellody, 1989, 95). Put simply, guilt is feeling bad about a particular behavior that goes against our values, in my case, contributing to systemic racism in America. On the other hand, when experiencing carried shame, “we may feel mortified, worthless, and horrible about ourselves” and experience “a dreadful sense of inadequacy”(Mellody, 1989, 98-9). In other words, I didn’t just feel bad about my past actions, I felt like I was bad. Overwhelming feelings of inadequacy consumed me as I struggled to process this. Having a dysfunctional understanding of my innate human worth and difficulty experiencing appropriate levels of self-esteem, I was in no position to work through this emotion. In order to protect my ego from the truth, defense mechanisms such as denial, rationalization, and minimization came to my rescue. My response went something like this “How could I be privileged when I was raised in a low-class family by a single mom? How could I be privileged when I was working five nights a week to put myself through college?” At that point, I was throwing out just about every excuse in the book to dodge this feeling and avoid confronting my character defects.
Fast forward a year or so, a bad breakup and a bit of divine intervention landed me on a couch face to face with a therapist. For the first time in my life, I was introduced to healthy change. In therapy, I learned to cultivate self-esteem through unconditional human worth, love, and growth. As time went on, I learned to shut my mouth, lend my ears, and open my heart. By listening to the stories of others, I learned that simply labeling myself as a ‘non-racist’ was not enough; I needed to be anti-racist if I wanted to be an ally. As someone who has recently experienced hard change, I know that change isn’t possible without honesty and vulnerability, which are characteristics that many people in the US lack. So, I’ll share my honest feelings on the state of our nation. In the present moment, I feel discouraged as I watch my white friends and family wait for the noise to die, so they can readjust to their comfortable positions of complacent slumber, I feel frustrated as I watch the media gaslight the emotions of 400 years of oppression, and I feel guilty as I reflect on how many valuable, black souls had to be torn from this world before I was ready to look in the mirror. It’s important that I let these feelings sink in as I stand alongside those born into a system that doesn’t recognize their unconditional human value.
Mellody, P., Miller, A. W., & Miller, J. K. (1989). Facing codependence: What it is,
where it comes from, how it sabotages our lives. San Francisco: Harper & Row.