Brené Brown on Shame, Racism, Accountability, and Armoring Up

Shame and belonging researcher Brené Brown spoke specifically to white people confronting racism and their own feelings of shame in a terrific podcast episode (“Brené on Shame and Accountability,” Unlocking Us, July 1, 2020).

There’s a lot in here that resonates with the current moment—resistance to antiracism and white racial resentment—as well and a central question in my art and life: “How do you keep your heart open?”

Racism and Shame

“…being held accountable for racism and feeling shame is not the same thing as being shamed…. We need to understand the difference between being held accountable for racism and experiencing shame as a result of that accountability, and how that’s different than actually being shamed for being a racist.”

Shame vs Guilt (focus on personal flaw vs behavior)

“We think that shaming is this great moral compass, that we can shame people into being better. But that’s not true. …everyone needs a platform of self-worth from which to see change. You can’t shame people into being better, and in fact, when we see people apologizing, making amends, changing their behavior, that is always around guilt…. We feel guilt when we hold something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values, they don’t match up, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s helpful. It’s a positive, socially adaptive experience [which] motivates meaningful change. It’s as powerful as shame, but its influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive.”

Shame as a Social Justice Tool

“…shame is not an effective social justice tool. … Shame is a tool of oppression. Shame is a tool of white supremacy. Humiliation, belittling, those are tools of injustice; they’re not tools for justice. First, shame corrodes the belief that we can be better and do better, and it’s much more likely to be the cause of dangerous and destructive behaviors than the cure. … Shame itself is inherently dehumanizing.”

Self-regulation and Antiracism

“…there’s a huge difference between being shamed for being a racist and feeling shame. And it’s our responsibility for experiencing and regulating our own emotions. It’s my job to regulate my emotion, move through shame in a productive way, without defensiveness, without doubling down, without rationalizing, without demanding to be taught, demanding absolution, demanding comfort from the person who’s holding us accountable, which is often a Black person or a person of color. I’m responsible for that emotional regulation.”

Armor Is the Greatest Barrier to Courage

“…the greatest barrier to courage is not fear. The greatest barrier to courage is armor, is how we self-protect when we’re afraid. And I studied the arming-up process and just in preparation for this podcast, did I realize that this armoring-up process is so applicable to white supremacy.

So let me go through the six stages of armoring-up…

So number one … building the armor: “I’m not enough.” Number two: If I’m honest with them about what’s happening, they’ll think less of me, or maybe even use it against me. … Number three: “No way am I going to be honest about this. No one else does it. Why do I have to put myself out there?” Number four: “Yeah, you know what, screw them. I don’t see them being honest about what scares them…” Number five: “You know what? This is actually their problem. This is their shortcomings that make them act this way, this is their ultra-sensitivity…” Number six: “In fact, now that I think about this, I’m actually better than them.”

…“I’m better than people” and “I’m not enough” is the exact same standing still position of pain and shame.”


Thank you for showing me what not to do

Ken, my printmaking professor, was great because he’d often demonstrate what not to do. Much of the time, he didn’t do it on purpose. In showing how to clean up an inkwell, for example, he might fumble a putty knife or splash the mineral spirits. But the gaffs were common, and it taught you how to recover when you invariably made the same mistakes. More importantly, Ken’s teaching was infused with kindness and good humor, and his unconventional ways were ultimately effective and valuable.

I am a big proponent of artists setting goals and identifying role models: Who do you look up to and why? Are they successful? Happy? Do they treat people around them well? Do they look like they’re having fun? Identifying and answering these questions for yourself helps to shape a vision for the kind of life in the arts that you want to lead.

On occasion, there are opportunities to identify negative traits and behaviors that you would not like to emulate. Perhaps these come courtesy of an unscrupulous colleague, who abuses the art field’s unsanctioned nature to claim a status that wasn’t actually gained. Or maybe a supervisor whose treatment of colleagues is unethical or morale-killing.

I choose to view the art world as a series of communities populated by bright, hard-working individuals who are in it because they appreciate art and want to share their enthusiasm. There are, unfortunately, unsavory individuals who would prove me wrong.

In the book “Why Smart Executives Fail,” Sydney Finkelstein, of Dartmouth, observes that “spectacularly unsuccessful” people (mere failure doesn’t qualify; you have to wreak havoc and ruin lives) have certain traits in common. These people see themselves and their companies as “dominating their environments.” They demand total allegiance and have the answer to every problem. (James Surowiecki, “Local Zeroes,” New Yorker, March 28, 2005)

These people are exceptional. It’s up to the rest of us to minimize the damage they do, and to defend the perception of artists, arts workers and the art field. We do that by upholding our values, and being vigilant, accountable, and optimistic.