Faculty Stories

Refusing Shame with Dr. Jen Harvey

By Benjamin Perry

This summer, Dr. Jennifer Harvey’s newest book, Anti-Racism as Daily Practice: Refuse Shame, Change White Communities, and Help Create a Just World hits shelves. I sat down with Garrett-Evangelical’s Professor of Christian Ethics to ask about the book. “Partly, I wrote this in response to the ongoing crisis of white nationalism,” she tells me. “I feel clear that most white Americans are opposed to white Christian nationalism, but few know how to prioritize antiracism, or how to enact that priority.” The book, she says, offers concrete steps all of us can take in our daily lives, “even if you’re not a capital-A activist.” But she also identifies shame as one of the forces inhibiting movement work. It’s a unique and pressing concern left unaddressed in most antiracist literature, so I asked her to expand on that theme. You can read a condensed and edited version of our conversation below.

Benjamin Perry (BP): “Refusing shame,” is right in the title for your book. Why did you feel like this was such an essential part of moving more white people toward antiracism?

Jennifer Harvey (JH): I’ve noticed a trend in the past 5-10 years, as the visibility of white antiracism has risen. I’ve worked in these movement spaces for more than 25 years, but more recently I’ve seen an increasing temptation to use shame against other white folks, to throw away people who don’t yet know what they should be doing. This book is an attempt to tell a broader culture of white antiracism that we must stop weaponizing shame. We have to tap into grief and love and stay in relationship with other white people, instead of giving into the tendency to discard folks who aren’t where we want them to be. That part of the book feels scary, but I decided to write it anyway because I think it’s true.

BP: What does that impulse to shame other white people reveal about some white folks’ insecurities?

JH: I think the impulse to shame other white folks is typically a sign that one’s own self is also full of shame. If part of me feels like I am essentially bad, essentially unworthy—and someone with whom I am proximate says something problematic—then I fear that they put me at risk of being exposed as bad. It’s a purity test: I’m gonna shame them because it shows that I’m actually pure, which is nonsense. None of us are pure, not even people of color, because we are all living in a death dealing system. There’s no pure ground.

In the book, I write about the impulse to shame as a form of fundamentalism. I grew up in fundamentalism, I know its logic. It treats impurity as contagious and uses tests to enforce the boundaries around doctrinal purity. Some forms of shame-based white antiracism look exactly like that: You don’t know the right words. You don’t know the right concepts. And it protects me from being tainted if I shame you. When, in reality, there’s actually part of me that is wallowing and drowning in shame.

BP: How does that shame develop in white racial formation?

JH: In Learning to Be White, Thandeka describes how shame is instilled when we are in a developmental state. When we are growing up, especially as young kids, we are highly vulnerable because we are dependent on the adults in our communities. You can’t just go out into the world as a 6-year-old and survive. So, we’re very vulnerable to what those communities tell us about ourselves. We get racialized as white as part of that process. In many families, when a child shows predispositions towards equity or solidarity with someone from a different racial group, white families will shut down that part of them to teach them whiteness. That’s a shame inducing phenomena: What you learn as a child is, “my parents’ love for me is conditional. They’ll throw me away if I don’t align with whiteness.” That’s horrible!

The other part is modeling. If we come from families where we are taught equity and justice, it creates shame when we watch our elders not stand up against racism, which most of our parents don’t. It’s like, we’re going to tell you that everybody’s equal, but then at the extended family dinner table when Grandma Sue says something racist, no one will say anything. That shame gets internalized, because you recognize your family is not actually who they say they are. If you’re 7, it’s not your fault that all of this is happening to you. But what we do with that shame as adults is a different matter.

BP: So how can we help people unlearn that shame?

JH: Part of how you interrupt any kind of shame is you expose the thing to sunlight. Those of us who now feel less shame can give love to other folks when they’re experiencing shame, to hold up a mirror and say you are worthy despite whatever things you’re complicit in, despite what you’ve done—despite what I’ve also done. I’m also worthy because we all are necessary to this work and we all deserve wholeness. We need to make it clear: I’m not going to throw you away even if you make a very racist mistake. I am gonna hold you accountable, but I’m going to love you through the process of accountability.

I have some stories in the book where people of color held me accountable with anger and with love. When I did the process of accountability, as I was asked to do and which I did owe, I also learned, “Oh, I get to return to relationship.” That’s what white folks have to give to one another, and that’s one of the ways we must change white antiracist culture.

BP: So this book principally addresses white people, and there’s been pushback against antiracism books that focus on the white experience. Why did you think it was important for you to write this way?

JH: I’m so glad you asked this question because it’s really important. I would never have written this book if lots of my story wasn’t in it, because for me this is not abstract intellectual work. And it’s born out of relationship with the people of color in my life, who have not only vetted it but have invested in me, telling me over and over: “Jen, you’ve got to write this.” Those of us who are white and have moved into a long, sustained, nuanced, made-mistakes, been-accountable journey in antiracism—we have experiences because we are white and connected to other white people. If we don’t have something conceptually to add, then I avoid (or we should avoid) speaking and centering white voice.

But I think other white folks need to hear from those of us who have in messy, imperfect
ways walked this walk if we’re bringing something unique to the table. My writing brings something that people of color can’t write about from their own experience. It must be accountable and cautious and so freaking humble. But white folks need to hear from other white folks : “Oh, this is what it looks like when your brother-in-law starts threatening you over text. This is what it’s gonna look like when you feel like your parents will never show up for your graduations again.” And this is how you move through that, staying in relationship to push those people to change, and staying in the work. And I can write about that because that’s what happened to me.

BP: So how do white people move away from shame toward solidarity?

JH: We have to begin to repair that soul wreckage that comes from living in death-dealing systems. And that demands making antiracism a daily practice. And the part that uproots shame is formational work of returning to who the Creator created us to be. I believe the divine created us to be in fundamental oneness with one another, and that white supremacy and all systems of violence instill alienation while also killing people. Antiracism must be beyond an intellectual or emotional response. It’s about our existential identity as creatures. And thinking of antiracism as a daily practice signals that formative nature—the return, return, and return again—which is also why it makes total sense in the context of Christianity, because we know ritual matters. We know returning multiple times a week, putting ourselves in postures of prayer—all of these things we do with our bodies help us live a life of faith. Antiracism needs to be the same way: It’s an embodied practice. And that embodiment is part of what uproots and displaces the shame we inherited.

Anti-Racism as Daily Practice: Refuse Shame, Change White Communities, and Help Create a Just World will be released on July 16, 2024. Click here to pre-order your copy today!