I cannot remember the first time I felt shame; I have to reach way back into the recesses of my memories to find a time I didn’t carry it with me. I have a vague recollection of being a child with unruly puffy pigtails and running around outside free-spiritedly. It seems like a very long time ago.
As an adult, I began to dig through my levels of shame with the curiosity of an archaeologist, holding each shard up to the light for examination. I became amazed at how many things had been tossed into that cavern of shame. That I felt shame for things I had done and left undone did not surprise me. What surprised me were all the fragments of shame I had accumulated just for existing as a Black woman and daring to take up space.
Many fragments looked like this:
Being in college and feeling excited to be invited to a photo shoot for a clothing brand I loved. On set, one of the hair stylists, a white woman with short black hair and a punk rock vibe, frowned at my hair; she didn’t know what to do with it. I felt my shoulders rise toward my ears. Another white stylist, who was older and white-haired, patiently styled my kinky hair into a sort of curly afro. As she chatted with me, I felt my shoulders relax downward again. That night before bed, I styled my hair as I usually did, dampening it with water, moisturizing it with leave-in conditioner, and then sectioning it into braids. In the morning, I unraveled the braids and went back to the set. The punk rock stylist frowned at my hair again in frustration. “What did you do? Why didn’t you just keep it the way it was?” I wanted to say, well, with my hair in the North Carolina heat, there was no keeping it “the way it was.” Had I gone to bed without touching my hair, I would have woken up with a tangled, matted, misshapen mess.
I looked over at another young woman who was also invited to the shoot. She was white, blond, tan, and pretty and had that combination of features that made her what was called an “effortless beauty.” I knew instinctively that for me, there was no such thing, because while she had to make no effort to conform to white standards of beauty, I did.
The shame I felt was strange. I didn’t want to be white. I wanted, simply, to exist in a world where my hair, my skin, my being wasn’t seen as an inconvenience or an affront – a thing to be changed. I wanted to say all this to the stylist, but instead I felt my stomach compress into a knot and my cheeks go hot. I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me whole. I had the same feeling when, months later, the catalog was published and neither I nor my curly afro were anywhere to be found.
That feeling: sinking, embarrassed, silent – was familiar in many of my shame fragments. I felt it when a white boy called me “darkie” in middle school. I felt it when I was tokenized in the workplace. I felt it when someone mispronounced my name and, even after being corrected, couldn’t manage to get my two-syllable name right. Or when a white friend in high school said to me, “You’re not really Black” or when a few Black kids in high school told me the same thing.
I would freeze and find the words stuck in my throat. I felt shame when I couldn’t find the words to speak up, when I imagined the ground engulfing me so I wouldn’t have to face the reality of their opinions or what I felt was my powerlessness. I wondered why I, raised to be strong and Black and independent, could not always speak up when I needed to. Why the words couldn’t come until hours, days, or sometimes decades later. I wondered what was wrong with me.
Moving away from my small Southern town and up to the Northeast took me out of the waters in which I had been swimming and gave me some perspective. I noticed that, though the Northeast came with its own form of racism, its sound was not a drumbeat, but a hum. At this lower decibel level, I could hear – could distinguish its rhythms from my own beating heart. It became easier to separate which shame was mine and which shame came from the environment in which I lived. I remember living in Vermont and one day turning to my husband and saying, “You know, it’s been a really long time since someone looked at me like I was dirt.”
At some point in my journey, I began to read Brené Brown. I delved into her work, consuming book after book on her research about shame, women, and vulnerability. I began to dig through my own layers. The cavern of shame seemed to grow less frightening, but its layers were encrusted and ran deep. I found that writing, therapy, and sharing my stories helped me wade through the layers and allowed me to open up into vulnerability like a magnolia blossom unfurling its petals. Even better was talking to other Black women and hearing from them stories of navigating racist and misogynist environments. I began to shed even more layers, recognizing both the shame that I acquired through my own actions, and the shame that was heaped on me in a culture that didn’t know what to do with Blackness or how to let it thrive unfettered.
Perhaps that’s why Brené Brown’s latest book, which she co-edits with Me Too founder Tarana Burke is so meaningful to me now. You Are Your Best Thing is an anthology of stories about shame, resilience, and vulnerability as experienced by Black people identifying as women, men, trans, nonbinary, straight, and queer. In the introduction, Brown, who is white, says she realized her research wasn’t landing with a diverse audience despite the fact that she chose diverse groups of subjects to interview and research. She thought: “[T]he way I present my research to the world does not always resonate because I often use myself and my stories as examples, and I have a very privileged white experience.”
Burke, who is Black, recognized the importance both of Brown’s research and sharing stories about Black vulnerability and shame. These look different from Brown’s personal stories because, so often, we as Black people are made to feel ashamed for not being white. And the farther you are from white male standards, the more disappointing you may be made to feel: if you are born with dark skin, or if your body is large, if you are queer, if you are trans, if you are nonbinary. The message seems to say, as the punk rock hair stylist implied to me: “Why couldn’t you have been born white?” – a question steeped in its own unacknowledged and dehumanizing shame.
Stories are important to identifying and unpacking this shame, I have found. And the sharing of those stories rests heavily on storytellers who are willing and able to be vulnerable. As Burke writes in the introduction, there is often much at stake when it comes to being a Black person choosing vulnerability; it isn’t always safe to acknowledge your humanity and your vulnerability is not always reciprocated. Take for example, Ronald Greene, the Louisiana man who was killed by state troopers two years ago. After leading the troopers on a high-speed chase, Greene apologized. The troopers proceeded to shock him with a stun gun, to wrestle him to the ground, to beat him, and to drag him, handcuffed and face-down on the road. Greene begged for his life, saying, “I’m your brother! I’m scared! I’m scared!” He was left unresponsive and untended to for nine minutes. His vulnerability was not welcomed with applause and book deals, like Brown’s famous TED Talk on vulnerability. Instead, his family alleges, he was murdered, and the circumstances of his death were covered up for two years.
Is there any wonder why, as a Black person, vulnerability can be a difficult thing? To be vulnerable requires letting your guard down; but navigating a society where racism can pop up at any moment requires leaving your guard up – you understand that to show weakness, pain, or unsureness is to confirm racist suspicions that you are undeserving. And your physical survival could be threatened if you display any vulnerability. The violence we think of as being in history books is not so very far away for many of us. I saw a sign for a KKK rally when I was a child. My father’s uncle was lynched while working as a taxi driver. On both sides of my family there are stories of men who had to leave town under cover of night to escape the violent whims of a white person. These stories are told in hushed tones with sparse details, as though now, all these years later, the specter of racism may still claim them as victims. There are even fewer words spoken about how some of us ended up with light skin and others with wavy hair; some things we cannot even bring ourselves to say.
As Shawn A. Ginwright writes in You Are Your Best Thing: “Some of us can afford to be more vulnerable than others. Power, privilege, security are all conditions that can affect who is vulnerable, the consequences of being vulnerable, and what we gain from being vulnerable…So we also have to understand how issues of race, gender identity, social class, and power all determine the consequences of our vulnerability.”
Burke writes she wanted Black people to hear these stories of vulnerability and shame to “see ourselves differently, to see our insides, the parts we don’t want to show people, the parts that we don’t talk about often, the parts that we feel we have to cover and hide and keep away from the world in order to survive, in order to exist.”
Hearing these stories is vital, no matter your color. These are both Black stories and stories about humanity – about untangling the many myths of supremacy. But they are also stories I needed to read as a Black woman – to see that experiences that I have had are not singular. To know that I am not mentally ill, and if I am, I am not alone in that either.
When I started digging through my cavern of shame, studying, uncovering, holding feelings and memories up to the light – when I started to name shame, to atone for what was mine and to identify what was not – I found that I could speak up. I could find the words. Sometimes my voice still feels clouded, as though a rain cloud of tears is lodged in my throat, but my voice is there. I can use that voice, even when it’s clumsy and unsure, to stake a claim for my body, my mind, my words, and my existence. I could also open myself to be vulnerable with others.
For some reason, as I wrote this story, I kept thinking about an experience I had a few years ago. I had just dropped my daughter off at school when my car was T-boned on the driver’s side. A split second meant that the back door of the driver’s side was crushed, and not me. I remember my car spinning around and being powerless to control its direction. When the car stopped, I emerged physically unharmed but shaking from the release of adrenaline. The police arrived and filed reports. As I answered their questions, I soon saw a familiar face: a friend from church, who was white and who was a police officer. He had heard my name on the dispatch and came over to make sure I was okay. When I saw him, I felt myself relax. I remember hugging him, feeling surprised at the hard layers of his uniform, and realizing they were necessary for his physical protection. And I remember standing on the corner looking at the crumpled side of my car and being thankful that he was next to me.
I think this memory kept coming to mind because it seems important to include in a story about race, vulnerability, and shame. This story could only be possible if he and I – white and Black, male and female, police officer and civilian – had opened ourselves to being vulnerable and present. I’m so glad he did. And I’m glad I did as well.