The Ego of Whiteness: Stories, Privilege, and Shame Resilience

Anti-oppressive work for people in privileged positions demands learning to tolerate and roll with the stresses to our cherished ego stories. According to Jones and Okun, white supremacy shows up in perfectionism, individualism, binary thinking, urgency, power hoarding, avoidance of conflict, and the belief in rational or objective positions. Those of us raised to identify with whiteness are often hesitant to step into the world of activism and consciousness-raising because our white-identified egos struggle to tolerate the shame of conflict. We personalize confrontation or generalized observations. If someone says something that brings up in us a feeling of shame, we’re more likely to attack that person for saying it and not exploring with curiosity the meaning of this shame.

In simple terms, my definition of the ego is “a story about myself that I want you to believe.” The more attached I am to that story, the more fiercely I will defend it against perceived assault, for beneath that ego-story is often shame.

My complementary definition of shame is “a deep story I fear is true about myself, one I don’t want you to believe.” In context with Jones and Okun’s article, I suspect my conceptualization of the ego is a psychological construct of whiteness that we impose upon each other and people of color, and not a descriptive feature intrinsic to humanity.

Mindfulness and meditation practice helps us reach deeper capacities of the inner Self, and work in community helps us access broader capacities of the collective Self. The deep Self helps us to recognize that stories of worthiness and unworthiness are simply that—stories that shape our experience but not the absolute truth of who we are. The broad, communal Self helps us to see how our Being and sense of worth finds function and expression in community.

A white guy sinking into the deeper Self. Photo by Isabell Winter.

This movement—downward into the Self or outward into Community—suggests strategies by which we can roll with and recover from shame. When I feel upset or “called out,” I immediately want to center my own feelings and react based on feeling attacked. This typically makes the problem worse. Here is a process I work with to move in a more generative direction:

  • Recognize that I am feeling ashamed/defensive or responding in a way that is harmful.
  • Name that out loud. “I’m being defensive/I’m feeling ashamed/I’m being really racist and sexist right now.” (This is context-specific and not always safe or appropriate, but it is remarkable in its potential to defuse reactivity. First of all, it stops me in my tracks. Second of all, it helps me move out of shame’s state of disconnection.)
  • Take a breath, letting my awareness drop into my body.
  • Sense the physical and emotional experience.
  • Take another breath, and expand around the uncomfortable feelings.
  • Ask myself—What is this person expressing? What are they asking for in this moment?
  • Identify a step I can take now to move toward what is being asked of me.
  • Take the step.

Notice that none of these steps involve telling the other person what to do, arguing with them, or agreeing with them without consideration. Often shame wants us to jump over the discomfort of the moment and defend or apologize excessively, both of which get in the way of us actually hearing what the other person is saying.

When I respond to a call-out with my ego, I notice that my responses often center myself or subtly try to make me look good (or really bad, if I’m in shame). Sometimes this is the best I can do. What I find even better is if my response centers the person I am talking to—not their perceived ego, but their expressed need and desire.

When a person expresses a need or desire to me in a way that arouses feelings of shame, it is tempting to want to dismiss or avoid the topic because I feel uncomfortable. My ego says that to take care of that person would be “giving in” or “rewarding the behavior.” Imagine if a person crossed the desert, was completely dehydrated, and standing behind you in line for the water fountain while you idly checked your phone. It would be understandable for that person to get impatient and loud in their need for you to move.

Your discomfort at being yelled at is less of a priority than their need for water in that moment, and from an outside perspective I think most folks would agree. Lecturing them about asking nicely is not helping anyway. Get out of the way, or if needed, help them get the damn water. Later you can discuss civility.

What trips up a lot of folks raised in whiteness is that pernicious wish to have the perfect response. It doesn’t actually exist, and believing we have it only throws us back into the dualistic ego dilemma. What we can offer is the loving response, one that has compassion for our own struggle and the struggles of the people we care for.

Leave a Reply