Overcoming Collective Black Shame

Currently, I’m trying to overcome a feeling of collective shame brought on by less-than-positive news concerning black celebrities. I have no doubt there are brothas and sistas who feel similar whenever something like this happens, because it’s a common thing among marginalized groups. Lately, it seems extreme as a few notable figures have fallen from grace, and sadly it’s inevitable that more will follow.

Collective black shame is common among African Americans as does collective black pride. We see the achievements and failures of individual blacks, particularly those in positions of power, as our own symbols of our group’s general greatness and flaws. However, in this society, our flaws is what (white) Americans obsess over. They want to see powerful black people fall in order to gloat over “proof” of the inherent corruption, deviousness, incompetence and overall inferiority of black people in public forums and conversations.

I doubt white people can understand or sympathize. White people are individualized and humanized. A white person screwing up is the fault of that one white person, and is excused and explained so that his(her) actions make it seem like he(she) was a good person who made a mistake or is mentally ill. There are no talks of how that one white person made it hard for the white race, nor are there any concerns over the overall white image based on this one act, because white people in white dominated societies benefit from the kind of privilege that protects them from such thinking and emotions.

Dorothy Gilliam wrote about not feeling any sort of collective shame during the drug trial of deceased D.C. Mayor Marion Berry in 1990 in the Washington Post:

“At one time, the drug trial of D.C. Mayor Marion Barry would have sent enormous shame and feelings of special responsibility surging through me. My thinking used to be that if one black man in a position of power engaged in indiscretions, his actions automatically tainted all blacks, including me.

I don’t think that way anymore. I refuse to indulge in collective black guilt. And getting rid of this burden has left me freer to feel such emotions as compassion, commitment and cultural pride. It also has freed me to focus more completely on the real problems of blacks and other oppressed people.

Reaching this state has been a long, often painful journey. My generation’s parents encouraged us to believe that personal achievement was tied to the achievement of the race, a wonderful perspective even now. But the flip side of that, assuming guilt for another person’s behavior, is not part of that ancestral dictum.”

This is something blacks struggle with while whites, on the other hand, don’t seem to experience anything like that. Gilliam continues:

“…While we blacks are forever feeling ashamed of the bad behavior of other blacks and looking to some leader to save us, few whites seem ashamed of the indiscretions of other whites.

To take just a few recent examples, I didn’t sense that whites were feeling Ivan Boesky’s shame or Michael Milken’s shame, even though they — and all of us — are adversely affected by these two rascals. The billions of dollars they stole in their Wall Street shenanigans contributed mightily to the milieu of crime that has saddled the nation with a $500 billion savings and loan scandal.”

So why do we do it? Why do we hang our heads when black people act out or commit crimes? Historical truths of White Americas’ racist stereotyping helps influence this:

“Perhaps they are afraid that white America will do what white America historically has done — find yet another convenient, albeit specious, reason for stereotyping all blacks with the failure of one. Such behavior, of course, would be a white problem, not a black one.

It also would affect blacks. For even though we cherish our blackness, in the minds of the majority our color makes it easy to stigmatize us. Unrelentingly negative media coverage, for example, is damaging because the images feed into our collective identity. And too rarely do blacks receive their due for great contributions, which would help ease group shame.”

But Gulliam offers these words to remind us that we are not a broken monolith:

“We are a race of individuals. And some will rise to models of greatness while others may stumble along life’s way. And while we may set our own courses by the example of the great ones, we must not believe we are a poorer race because some blacks have faltered.”

So yes, we have winners and lowers. There will be dignitaries who will rise while some of our stars will fall. We have criminals within our communities, but we also have heroes and protectors. We have black achievers and black failures. And despite what they tell you, a major majority of us are good people.

Somehow we must overcome this mentality forged by racism. I shouldn’t have to feel someone else shame. If I do messed up or commit a crime, only my shame is my own as an individual. 



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