Shaming Can’t Fix Racism. But Guilt Can.
Guilt is about action with a clear path to redemption. Shame leaves us stuck in our sin.
In the days following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, a swift substitution occurred on my social media feeds. Out went updates from my loved ones’ lives. In came reshares from strangers’ accounts, posts about racial disparities in policing, and about racism in America more broadly.
Initially, I was thrilled to see this. I’ve written on policing, including its racial dynamics, for the better part of a decade. Whenever enthusiasm for changing our criminal justice system has ebbed, I’ve asked why and wondered if white Americans will ever make a durable commitment to reform. Maybe this time was different, and that commitment had occurred.
But then the conversation shifted. Informed by sources like Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, which topped bestseller lists all summer, the posts developed a tic of shame. One popular post particularly struck me. The image itself calls for nuance and discretion in grappling with racism. Then there’s the caption. White people “can never ‘get it right’ in this conversation,” it says. “White people are the oppressors and benefit from oppression itself—for us to get racial justice ‘right’ is, by definition of our whiteness, impossible.”
I started noticing this framing all over. Well-intended white Christians newly in pursuit of racial justice, adopting the language of our national conversation on race, began to speak of racism as an irreparable sin. They talked of racism as a stain on the souls of white people that cannot be washed away. Though rarely so blunt as that caption, much of the content I encountered reduced down to basically: “White people like you and me are inherently, …
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