I would like to lead this column with a direct quote from author and activist, Jo Luehmann: “You can’t experience what you can’t experience. When someone in a marginalized identity tells you (that) you have harmed them, then you have two options: (1) deny their reality and think you know better about them than they do themselves, or (2) lean in and learn so you don’t cause harm again in the same way. It’s our internalized superiority complex that causes us to believe that we get to decide what harms marginalized identity groups, it is our privilege that has allowed for us not to experience the harm and trauma they’ve experienced. In our privileged identities one of the things we need to learn to do is listen to what marginalized folks have to say, and then be grateful they even took the time to educate us; they absolutely don’t owe us that.”
There are collective trauma and pain that are in dire need of reconciliation in the United States. We are all witnessing the bleed-out of centuries of wounds. This blood, filled with powerand control is not only flowing in the fight to dismantle systemic, systematic and structural racism; we are seeing the blood [power and control] seep through in intergenerational conflict resulting in mass exodus through resignations in the workplace, the wars waged in opposition to LGBTQ+ communities, the caging of children who are immigrants, and such actions as states organizing to “resist” critical race theory and enforce agendas centered around pro-life and pro-choice [the policing of women’s bodies].
Though I find truth to be a catalyst for liberation — it can certainly anger us before it can set us free. Whether each of us admits it or not — we are certainly making one of two decisions daily: (1) fighting against OR (2) perpetuating the conditioning of our ancestors (which is inherently “American” and rooted in white supremacy and authoritarian power structures).
Part of my lived experience is conducting cultural research within the realm of cultural psychology and cultural neuroscience. When one considers the cultural psychology lens, we can confidently assert that one must fully and authentically accept who they are and understand their own cultural narrative [culture is more or less constructed of norms, beliefs, values, language, symbols] before they can change or be receptive to accepting the truths and lived experiences of others.
I included a poem in my last column about my own dissonance at times as a third culture kid. How I am the embodiment of cognitive dissonance [which I don’t think is unique to me]. My existence is also proof of healing and reconciliation. For as much as I feel the intuition and instinctive healing wisdom of the Taínos, indigenous Amazonia, and African Mali peoples running through my veins, I carry the beauty, pain and passivity of the European conquerors, colonizers, and resistors: Spanish, English, Irish, French, Scottish, Finnish, and Swiss. All of it has ignited shame in my life at different points.
Shame is a curious form of evil. If we stay in a place of shame [regarding any labels within constructs of race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender] — we will never be able to uncenter ourselves and see marginalized groups as equal and with authentic love. Why? Shame tells us we are “all alone.” Shame has us believing we deserve a certain type of treatment.
So, if shame tells us a story that we are deserving of a certain treatment, this often manifests as privilege and superiority. It breeds judgment. Judgment simply adds fuel to human instincts to exert power or control. I read a quote recently from some of Brené Brown’s earlier work “Men, Women, and Worthiness: The Experience of Shame and the Power of Being Enough” where she stated: “Shame corrodes the parts of us that believe we can do better.”
Emotional reactions can cause any human to act in shocking ways. And this is a shared experience relatable to any human. However, we must first create space to accurately identify and process and name our emotions before ever consider “taking action”, “debating”, or “doing” something.
Shame really only has one weapon that can kill it: empathy.
Justine Gonzalez is an Indiana native and first-generation college graduate having served in both Chicago Public and Indianapolis Public Schools. Her consulting firm, EducatorAide, partners with organizations to help cultivate culturally connected, equitable, and inclusive environments.