South Africa


White guilt, black shame — we can begin to heal SA’s twin wounds with courage, intelligence and compassion

White guilt, black shame — we can begin to heal SA’s twin wounds with courage, intelligence and compassion
White and black students hold hands at the University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa, 25 February 2016. The author writes that power relations tend to be attached to racial hierarchy as a substitute for ethnic cultural identities, and by extension, culture then assumes race-based hierarchical status. (Photo: EPA/KIM LUDBROOK)

Black people have freed both themselves and white people from the political structures of apartheid, but the legacy of damage lies deep in our collective psyche. To heal as a nation, we first need to understand the nature of the psychological damage and its effects.

At this time of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s death, it is right that we celebrate his inspiring vision of South Africa as the Rainbow Nation. It is equally important to acknowledge that he was very aware of the realities of our condition and the hard work that would be involved in building that vision.

I vividly recall his words at a book launch in Stellenbosch back in August 2011. This was a man deeply pained by the levels of inequity and violence in our country and pulling no punches in calling for social justice. Referring to the legacy of apartheid, he said “we are all damaged. We all need healing”.

He further challenged his audience, saying “we do not seem to have taken on board the fact of our woundedness”. The press proved him correct by ignoring this aspect of his speech and focusing solely on his call for a reparation tax on whites — a call met mostly by white defensiveness and denial.

What did Tutu mean? How are we all damaged? Why do we all need healing?

It is easy to see how being disadvantaged is damaging, how it undermines not only the physical fabric of a person’s life but also their sense of identity and self-confidence, so that even when opportunities arise, they may not be equipped to seize them.

Unhealthy shame derives from being rejected or unrecognised because of something you can do nothing about — not for your actions but for your very being.

It is less easy to understand how being advantaged, being part of the oppressor class, is damaging. Here it is more a matter of the heart, mind and (the Arch would say) the soul. Being advantaged eats away at sensitivity, empathy, humility — our essential humanity.

It is also very difficult for the oppressor group to see that they too are damaged by their “master” position. They become adapted to living with the fear, mistrust and distancing that is an inevitable result of their assumed superiority. Ironically, the oppressed, in freeing themselves, free their oppressors, at least in part. Black people have freed both themselves and white people from the political structures of apartheid, but the legacy of damage lies deep in our collective psyche. To heal as a nation, we first need to understand the nature of the psychological damage and its effects. This will require courage, intelligence and compassion.

White people carry an unhealthy burden of guilt for their whiteness and black people carry an unhealthy burden of shame for their blackness. The two are closely interconnected and yet serve to keep us apart.

To talk in these broad racial categories is of course a risky business. Not all individual members of these groups have been affected or afflicted to the same degree or now deal with the burden in the same way. Nevertheless, such group analysis does have value because we share a collective consciousness (and unconsciousness) that shapes us and our society. I use the terms black and white here not only in a skin tone sense but, as Steve Biko does, to convey a whole social and political experience.

First, we need to understand the role of shame and guilt in the human psyche. They perform vital functions in helping us to identify and resolve social problems, but in both cases can take either a healthy or unhealthy form.

Shame is recognised by psychologists as one of our primary feeling responses. As social beings, we crave recognition and acceptance within our social group and feel ashamed when our actions are deemed unfitting within the group. The distinctly uncomfortable feeling of shame makes us aware that we have breached some taboo or broken the social contract of our group. On its own, shame is a disabling feeling. However, with a sense of agency and responsibility it can transmute into a feeling of guilt, and in its healthy form guilt includes the possibility of making amends and moving on.

We can also feel shame for our group if they are in breach of their own norms or a wider social contract. The author Benedict Anderson expresses this well: “If we are not capable of being ashamed of our country then we do not love it.” During the apartheid years, whites had every reason to feel ashamed of their country. (I say “their” because at that time the government was operating in their interests and in their name). Few, however, have fully acknowledged this or the degree to which they were complicit in keeping the apartheid system functioning and/or how they benefited from it. 

By not acknowledging the shame they cannot contemplate taking any part of the responsibility. The result is that they either entirely deny white collective responsibility, claim that they should be absolved by now, or feel “guilty” in a sort of nameless and powerless way that leads nowhere. This is unhealthy, pseudo guilt.

In his brilliant book, Nation on the Couch: Inside South Africa’s Mind, Wahbie Long (citing the psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell) calls this “guiltiness”. This “guiltiness” protects against more difficult feelings of fear, shame or grief. It prevents the development of appropriate, healthy guilt accompanied by a sense of responsibility and the need to seek redress. It manifests instead as silent withdrawal, strident defensiveness or competing with the formerly oppressed for the victim position.

Unhealthy shame derives from being rejected or unrecognised because of something you can do nothing about — not for your actions but for your very being. As a group, black people were exposed to this disabling shame during apartheid. Their black skin, by definition, marked them as less human, less valuable in the eyes of the prevailing power structures. It rendered them even “illegal” if they moved from their designated areas and in the case of mixed parentage, they were offered the dubious privilege of being the shameful close cousins of the powerful.

This kind of unhealthy shame eats away at dignity, self-respect and confidence. In psychological terms it causes injury to the healthy narcissism that we require for self-recognition and recognition by another. This leads to the psychological defences either of passivity and self-harm or a grandiose narcissistic defence which allows us to export the shame to others in an even less powerful position. These wounds and their psychological defences can be found in individuals of all groups depending on individual circumstances, but in terms of group dynamics, the oppressed group is more often called upon to bear this unhealthy shame. 

There is now, I believe, a deep fear among whites that they are being called upon to take on this kind of overwhelming shame simply for being white. That is, in part, why they resist acknowledging the historic and appropriate collective guilt (let us call it moral responsibility) of their group.

Ironically, by resisting that responsibility they remain locked in denial and trapped in the disconnected and impoverished “guiltiness” that Wahbie Long identifies. It is very important that whites do the work they need to do to distinguish between being shamed in this way and being awake, accountable and active in seeking social justice.

There is another aspect of unhealthy shame, well documented in psychological studies, which occurs when a person is violated. When a violator does not acknowledge their culpability, the shame is borne by the victim. Indeed, simply the fact of having been rendered powerless and a victim is in itself shaming. Rape victims often experience this, as do victims of torture.

This shame is not theirs to bear but it often becomes internalised and prevents healing. It is as if they carry their abuser’s shame inside them and make it their own. Again, this is something that is experienced more by members of oppressed groups.

So how has this damage shaped us as South Africans and what do we need to do to heal?

I will look at white guilt first because I know it more truly, literally from the inside out, so that is how I will write about it. I also write in the first person to make it clear that I am not exempting myself from what I write about whites as a group.

As a white South African I was born into a group who were advantaged in terms of education, health, freedom of movement and social power. I was also part of a group that had exercised global dominion for a long time — the white English-speaking world. Belonging to such a group encourages self-confidence at best, a sense of innate superiority at worst. This place of privilege, being part of the oppressor group, is inevitably dehumanising at some level.

Like so many South African children, I was raised by a black carer. Her Christian name was Elizabeth, I never learned her African name but, in any event, I was not allowed to use her name and addressed her as Nanny.

My mother, having been raised by Zulu women in rural Natal, was a stickler for respect for age and not typical of white women of her context and class. However, it was clear to me from a very young age that Elizabeth was not accorded that respect by most white people she encountered. I can still remember how I burned with shame when she was refused access to the bus to accompany me to nursery school (I was also very frightened of travelling alone), or when, at the park, she had to sit on the grass, not the bench, or when whites (even children) spoke to her as if she was less than human. I remember too being pained and puzzled by her shame about her hair which she kept covered in a doek at all times.

What was this sense of shame I experienced? As social beings, we are, if not trained out of it, able to experience the pain, joy, fear or anger of another. I felt Elizabeth’s experience of shame. I also felt ashamed on behalf of my group who were behaving towards her in this way.

Over the years, like so many others, I learned to adapt to my group, to shut down on my empathy in relation to black people, exercising it only around white people. Nevertheless, the vague sense of guilt was there, leading me to believe that I had to somehow “look after” black people as I had frequently had to “look after” my Nanny despite being a child. This rendered me both powerless and condescending.

It was only at university, when exposed to fresh challenges to my thinking, that I re-awakened to that early shame, to the powerlessness of my potentially patronising white “guiltiness” and to a new kind of moral responsibility. Gradually, for this healing takes time, I could acknowledge the extent to which I was both damaged and advantaged by the warped society in which I was raised.

 “But”, the inevitable cry goes up, “how long do we whites have to go on feeling guilty?”

The very question itself reveals defensiveness and a lack of comprehension of the depth of this issue. Whites may hope that their collective responsibility was washed away by the remarkable forgiveness of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu and nothing more is required of them. Yet that is not the reality. Forgiveness requires a lot more. What is required is a full and empathic acknowledgement of the extent of injury to black people (both outwardly disadvantaged and inwardly damaged) and a humble acknowledgement of the extent to which we too were damaged and alienated by our very advantage.

There is a big difference between this kind of acknowledgement and going around “feeling guilty”. It offers the possibility of whites and blacks engaging in a manner that recognises both groups as wounded, though differently and to very different degrees. It would restore to whites their sense of full humanity and belonging together, with the responsibility to repair both social structures and relationships.

So, what about the black burden of unhealthy shame? The question could legitimately be put as to whether a white woman can write about black shame.

Well, as I have said, we humans come equipped with empathy. We also have imagination. We can ask “How would I feel if…?” and approximate another’s response.

Finally, as a woman, I claim the right to know something of what it means to be oppressed by the system of patriarchy and to have been shamed simply for being a woman. Nevertheless, I acknowledge my limitations and will draw on black voices.

The burden of unhealthy black shame is manifest in many ways. Some black people still experience themselves and their group as “less” than whites, leading to lack of confidence and passivity. As Frantz Fanon, psychologist and philosopher, put it: “The oppressed will always believe the worst about themselves.”

I remember Desmond Tutu, on another occasion, telling a joke at his own expense about internalised racism. Once, when he heard the announcement that the plane he was flying in was to be piloted by one of the first black SAA pilots, his immediate response was to grip his arm rest and exclaim “Oh my God!” His hearty chuckle in no way diminished the power of his teaching.

Whites need to acknowledge their long-standing and unearned privilege and the historic injury to black people.

In his Stellenbosch speech, Tutu sadly reflected on how many black people act out their self-hatred in violence, particularly against those most like themselves, even their own children. Others develop a narcissistic defence against the shame whereby they maintain a grandiose sense of their own power and importance. This latter defence is particularly observable in people who have been offered real-world power and who come to rely on that power to safeguard themselves from any breakthrough of the denied and unbearable shame.

The famous “Do you know who I am?” question is an example, as is the need for large ostentatious cars and a phalanx of bodyguards. When in the same speech Tutu called on ministers to give up their flashy vehicles, he perhaps underestimated how much he was asking of them. Giving up a car is one thing, giving up the symbols that protect you from a disabling sense of shame and inadequacy is quite another.  

Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde, when Minister of Public Works, bravely spoke out about the way in which incompetent people were being placed in positions in the public service — to the disservice of us all. Given our history of “Bantu” education and subsequent failures in education under the ANC, we are still very short of highly skilled black people. The urge to appoint black people in government is understandable; however, placing people in jobs that they cannot do is risky if shame prevents them from acknowledging what they need to learn. Such unhealthy shame makes any questioning of competency not a useful chance to up-skill but an intolerable threat to the person’s fragile and defended sense of self. Many of our government institutions are rife with stories of people in powerful positions who are simply not competent to hold them but who cannot be challenged or helped.

As Biko, Fanon and others have pointed out, only black people can free themselves from this internalised and inappropriate shame. Holding office and earning well may persuade the black elite that they have escaped the burden of shame. For the poor and the disempowered, that defence is not available. Instead, the tendency to export the shame to another is evident in our high levels of domestic violence and xenophobia.

The really serious risk of not addressing this unhealthy shame is that of re-enactment. Archbishop Tutu famously accused the ANC government of being worse than the old apartheid regime. While I don’t agree with his statement, I identify with his disappointment and his rage — many of us hoped for something very different from an ANC government. But this is the danger when violation is not adequately faced and healed — it repeats the violation — and the former victim becomes the perpetrator.

So how do we proceed? As I said, with courage, intelligence and compassion.

Whites need to acknowledge their long-standing and unearned privilege and the historic injury to black people. They need to responsibly face the damage done by their ancestors without taking on an unhealthy shame simply for being white. They need to demonstrate moral responsibility and actively seek ways to make reparation, offering their skills and resources as appropriate. At the same time, they need to do this in the full and humble knowledge of their own woundedness and the realisation that they need to do this as much for their own healing as for the healing of others.

Black people need to learn to face the shame they carry as victims and see that it is not theirs to carry. Nor must it be passed on to the next generation or exported to others. They need to step out from under that shadow, freeing themselves from victimhood through empowerment and self-love, declaring in the proud words of Fanon: “I am not the slave of the Slavery that dehumanised my ancestors.”  

The 2015/2016 student movement was a hopeful step in this direction. Although elements of it remained trapped in victimhood, this was an important movement by the “born free” generation as it came of age, bringing the issue of freedom into national discourse and demanding a new reflection and engagement on the unresolved trauma of apartheid.

Most importantly, we all need to understand and respect each other’s healing journeys, challenging and encouraging each other as we go. Each group needs to do its own work — separately and together. Wounds received collectively are best healed collectively, in groups that offer safety and encourage authenticity. 

Valuable processes that I have experienced include the Healing of Memories initiated by Father Michael Lapsley, Gender Reconciliation, now presented in SA by Genderworks, and African Constellations, headed by Tanja Meyburgh, which includes healing our ancestors and our fraught connections with the land. There are, no doubt, many traditional African processes that would also lend themselves to this work.

It is time for us to heed Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s call to attend to our woundedness. The hard work of healing is an essential part of becoming the beautiful Rainbow Nation that he so firmly believed was possible. He never gave up hope, neither should we. DM

Diane Salters is a psychotherapist and trainer of therapists. For several years she was the global president of her professional association. After 25 years in political exile, she returned to South Africa in 1993, working largely with NGOs and community groups. She lives in Simon’s Town.


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