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  • Is Prescribing White Shame Possible?
  • Margaret Newton

In Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism, Shannon Sullivan considers: "What can white people do to help end racial injustice?" (1). As one response to this question, Sullivan argues that prescribing "white shame" and "white guilt" is useless, since promoting these ideas leads to self-hate and inaction on the part of white people. In this paper, I agree with Sullivan, but for different reasons. I argue that assuming that white people can feel ashamed simply about being white within our current society is unfounded. I will maintain that the project of "promoting white shame" is fraught to begin with, and show the significance of this finding for conversations about white people's role in ending racial injustice.

Arguments for and against White Shame

This section considers some recent scholarship that argues for and against prescribing white shame for anti-racist efforts. Although white shame and white guilt are often coupled together within philosophy of race scholarship, I believe that these emotions are distinct enough to warrant their own separate analysis. For this reason, I will not provide a substantial or meaningful look at the idea of white guilt in this paper. With that said, a number of scholars, including almost all of the scholars that I cite in this section, reject the usefulness of white guilt (Katz; Alcoff; Zack; Edgington; MacMullan).

Yet the criticisms of white guilt have not led to its disappearance; rather, they have led to its metamorphosis into the idea of white shame. In fact, some of the same scholars who argue against white guilt argue for the rehabilitative potential of white shame as an effective anti-racist tool. As Sullivan describes,

the supposed importance of white people's negative emotions hasn't been eliminated with the demotion of white guilt. . . . White guilt has [End Page 46] been replaced by white shame. This is because of shame's alleged ability to promote greater responsibility for racism on the part of white people.


White shame is not simply a more extreme version of white guilt. Whereas shame concerns one's relationship to themselves, guilt concerns what one has done. "Guilt is about acting; shame is about being" (Sullivan 131). As Michael Morgan puts it, "shame is a feeling we have about how we see ourselves in terms of how others see us." According to Morgan, since shame is about selves and not about acts, it seems that shame is a useful motivator for self-transformation (47, 35). Alexis Shotwell agrees and argues that "a certain kind of feeling bad can be important for producing meaningful solidarity across difference, particularly for individuals who benefit from racist social/political structures" (73). Per Shotwell, the bad feelings in question can include "guilt, anger, sadness, panic, shame, embarrassment, and other emotions not easy to name" (74). Although against prescribing white guilt, MacMullan agrees that there is transformative potential in notions of white shame: "If the habit of guilt is to wallow in self-disgust . . . the habit of shame is to see this disgusting past and then 'live so as never to do such a thing again'" (199). Echoing across all of these works is the following overarching argument:

  1. (1). It is possible to prescribe white shame as an anti-racist tool.

  2. (2). Doing so would lead to white self-transformation in some form.

  3. (3). Eventually this will lead to positive anti-racist efforts.

In my third section, I will argue against premise (1).

In disagreement with the advocates of white shame, Sullivan argues that "encouraging white people to feel ashamed of their whiteness as a response to racial injustice implicitly caters to the hegemonic and narcissistic interests of middle-class white people" (138). She notes that white shame is self-indulgent, in that it can too easily lead to a pattern of claimed remorse or apology on the part of white people, but nonetheless inaction when it comes to making true anti-racist strides.

Other scholars have also argued against discussions of white shame, but for different reasons. Marzia Milazzo argues that discussions of white shame do nothing to address the bigger problem of institutional racism. Milazzo defines...


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pp. 46-53
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