2.3 - Developing our Analysis - Unpacking Shame and Guilt

2.3 – Developing our Analysis – Unpacking Shame and Guilt (55 minutes)


Materials needed: Terms Resource Sheet, Shame Stories handout, pens or pencils

Purpose of piece: To consider how responses to feelings of shame and guilt affect relationships with people of color, white people, and racial justice efforts.

Say to group: We’re going to start by unpacking some ideas related to guilt and shame discussed in Chapter 2. What I’m handing out now is a Terms Resource Sheet that we can talk through together and that will help us as we go forward.

Distribute Terms Resource Sheet. (Silent or pair review – 10 minutes)

Facilitator’s Note: You may want to send the Terms Resource Sheet to participants for review prior to the workshop, if viable. Some groups with participants who tend to nit-pick over terms and definitions may benefit from a pre-emptive statement about these being the definitions being used for the sake of the workshop. With an opportunity to view the material in advance, participants may arrive having already considered some of the information related to the discussion. Make your choice based on all you know about yourself as a facilitator and the group as a whole.

Group discussion: (10 minutes)

  1. Are there any immediate connections you can make between the information on this sheet and your personal life experiences?
  2. How do perfectionism and either/or thinking prompt the kind of shame and/or guilt responses described on this handout?
  3. How does disconnection and immobilizing guilt reinforce racism?

Facilitator’s Note: Try to bring out the idea that both perfectionism and either/or thinking tend to make us feel like we’re either all good or all bad. The moment we’re imperfect, it can feel like nothing else matters. Also, if you used the white supremacist culture handout as part of exercise 1.4 in a previous session, you can refer back and use it again to highlight these two issues. For the last question, consider how individualist thinking tends to reinforce racism and, therefore, disconnection and immobilizing guilt can reinforce individualistic thinking while distracting people from focusing on systemic issues.

Say to group: Let’s dive further into our experience with shame responses. To start, we’ll look at some examples of responses to feelings of shame.

Distribute Shame Stories handout. (Silent review of first page – 5 minutes)

Say to group: We’ll just take a few brief share-outs, since the next activity will ask us to go deeper into our own experiences. To what degree do any of the stories resonate? (2 minutes)

Say to group: We are now going to use the blank side on the back to reflect on our own experiences. Although we’re inviting a close look at how we’ve experienced shame in relationship to race, it is okay if our stories do not focus on race. This exercise doesn’t require us to have felt shame in regards to race or racial identity. General stories are okay. (10 minutes)

Pair share (8 minutes)

  1. Choose one moment that stands out. What happened? Tell your story.
  2. If you don’t like how you reacted, how would you want things to be different in the future?
  3. What would help you respond differently in the future?

Facilitator’s Note: Some participants may need support in considering how they might wish to respond differently in the future and what might help them do that. Feel free to break from the pair share and insert opportunities for role plays or brainstorming among the participants as desired. For example, asking people to name or draw the “gremlins” that live in their own heads (which lead them down the path of shame) might help them figure out how to challenge those inner voices.

Group discussion: (20 minutes)

  1. How do our shame/guilt responses affect…
    • …our relationships with people of color?
    • …our relationships with white people?
    • …our overall approach to racial equity work?
  2. How does this conversation relate to ideas of sinfulness, grace, or forgiveness?
  3. What can help us interrupt or avoid destructive shame responses?
  4. What can we learn from this that will help us support (or respond to) others who act out shame responses?

Facilitator’s Note: Because of the dominant white (supremacy) cultural norms of perfectionism and either/or thinking, many white people tend to operate in a state of perennial defensiveness. Being asked to observe and name their internalized racism or prejudice may spark feelings of imperfection. To the degree that people retain an either/or mindset, frustration can set in that without the potential for being cleansed of prejudice, one will always be tainted. This can prompt some to become focused on whether or not they’re considered “a good person” (perfect, innocent, etc.). When stuck in this dynamic, white people tend to undermine relationships needed to advance racial justice efforts. In light of this, the creation of a healthy racial identity is an important goal for white people. A healthy racial identity supports the capacity to extend empathy to ourselves and each other even while recognizing our complicity with racism. This capacity is essential for the creation of deep, accountable relationships that promote racial justice.

Wrap up: We don’t want to over-emphasize shame and guilt, as though they are required emotions. However, we can’t afford to leave them unexamined. Too many people act out of shame in ways that injure relationships and negatively impact racial justice efforts. Being able to identify how shame is operating is important so we can work to resolve those feelings.