Racism and its Grounding in Shame and Disgust
10/28/20

2020 Fellowship of St. Moses the Black Conference

A Talk by Fr. Stephen Freeman on Shame

Part I

My topic is looking at racism and its grounding in shame and disgust. And I want to begin with a quote from the book of Sirach, one of those books that many Orthodox Christians forget is in the Cannon, but in the fourth chapter of Sirach, the statement reads, “For there is a shame that brings sin and there is a shame which is glory and grace.” [Sirach 4:21] There’s a popular definition of shame that describes it as how we feel about who we are. And along with this, there’s a definition of guilt, “as a feeling about how we feel about what we have done.” Shame – how I feel about who I am, guilt – how I feel about what I’ve done. Those are oversimplifications, but they are a useful place to start and something to remember because race in our culture is a central part of how we see ourselves, that is who I am. It is inherently the case that shame is involved and shame is about how I feel about who I am. So today, I want to take us much deeper into the phenomenon of shame and see what’s really going on – how we can deal with it, how it affects relationship, and finally I’ll try to offer some thoughts on the place that shame holds in our spiritual life, both shame that is a sinful nature as well as healthy shame that is glory and grace.

Hard wired for shame

So, I will start off by saying we are hard wired for shame. And I’ll explain that and I pray this is not going to be a distraction here at first, but very worth considering before we think about any other aspect of shame – to think about the actual neuro-biological basis of the experience of shame – that is how our brains and bodies are wired for this experience. The psychologist Silvan Tomkins first identified nine structures in our human wiring that he labeled as “affects.” They are distress or anguish, interest or excitement, enjoyment or joy, surprise or startle reflex, anger and rage, fear or terror, shame or humiliation, disgust -that is, I want to spew something out, and dismell[i] – I can’t stand how it smells. These are reactions that are inborn. They’re not a product of the fall; they are a product of being human. Just simply think for a minute about the surprise – startle affect. When we play peek-a-boo with an infant, the child doesn’t need to be taught how to play the game. An infant knows the game because it consists in our surprising them, that is engaging a reflex that has been there from the beginning and it certainly manifests with them during the first year of life.

Tomkins theorized that these primitive affects wired in our bodies, combine later with our life experience over time, to form emotion and the major aspect of our personality. So, it’s useful to identify this and I’ve found it, as I’ve lectured on the topic of shame and written on it, very important to talk about this because when we speak of shame we tend to have in mind those more developed emotional experiences with all of their association. But it’s useful to think about it in its most fundamental aspects, particularly when you come to think of what is called healthy shame. It will be necessary to speak of healthy shame in order to discover the route past toxic shame and towards healing. So at this primary level, shame – as a reaction of my brain and body – shame is simply an affect of self-protection. It’s a self-protection signal. It marks a “stop” in our experience. It can be as innocent as signaling a boundary that I shouldn’t go there. Interestingly it’s also the affect that’s perhaps most deeply involved in our experience of the holy. Think for a moment about someone entering a holy place, such as an old cathedral. We instinctively (meaning when one of our affects is involved) – we instinctively become quiet, lowering our voice to a whisper. It’s the instinct of self-protection. There’s something here – a boundary – I should whisper. There’s some sort of vulnerability that we’re undergoing – as C. S. Lewis said. “Aslan is not exactly a tame lion.” We should approach carefully. And it can be said that we hide in a certain way, even if the hiding is to lower the volume of our voice. It would be possible, I think, to do an entire presentation on this alone, but we have much harder work to do today. This fundamental  affect of self-protection easily becomes mired in very negative, dangerous experiences and the body remembers these things. An immediate question for us: how does this have anything to do with the shame question if how I feel about who I am?

A good story for thinking about this is the Genesis account in the garden. Created by God, we are naked it says, and unashamed. [Genesis 2:25] There is no boundary of vulnerability between the man and the woman and God. They are utterly and completely safe. But with their first sin we are told, they become aware of their nakedness and there’s a new feeling – that of being unsafe and exposed and they hide. [Genesis 3:10] It is the most primal reaction of shame. Commonly (and this is interesting) we experience shame most notably in the face – when we are embarrassed (mild shame). When we are embarrassed, blood rushes to our face and we blush. We turn our face away, we look down, we cannot make eye contact. And in doing that, we hide. We cannot look at each other. Nothing is more exposed or exposing than our sense of self identity. Most of our lives are in fact, spent hiding in one manner or another. We’re told God clothed Adam and Eve  with garments of skin [Genesis 3:21] (I always think of those as Flintstone outfits) and we’ve continued to clothe ourselves with garments that seek to define our identity or to hide it. Tattoos, for instance are very popular in our current culture. They serve to clothe us with marks of identity and of course the clothing of our racial characteristics provides another such identity marker – one that cannot be hidden, though there’s ways you can play with it. The same is true, for instance of language dialects. All the various clues to our identity risk exposing us to unwanted, and even dangerous attention. As such, we spend a fair amount of time thinking to control precisely whatever it is that we expose of ourselves to others. We join groups for instance. One way of hiding is to be a part of a group. We joins groups of music or style of dress or use of words, etc. mark us as members. And that for us, creates a sense of safety and protection and our belonging.

A bit of an aside here. It’s worth noting that in adolescence, as we move outside the protective intimacy of the family and into the more social world that will eventually become the place of our adulthood that it’s there that we begin to make these first forays into creating identity. Adolescents and teens are extremely prone to clump themselves into cliques. It’s also the time when we begin to see bullying come to the fore, as some seek to define themselves by asserting dominance over others. Shame can be brutal. Make no mistake. Bullying is all about shame. It only works with shame. Our intimate relationships, of course, are intimate precisely because it’s there where we expose ourselves the most. As such, they are the most dangerous places in our lives just as they are potentially the safest places in our lives.

So, while I am speaking about the shame affect, I want also to touch on the affects of disgust and dismell. Disgust is our signal to spit something out. Dismell tells us to avoid something. Anyone who has raised a child has probably seen both of these many times at the dinner table. If a child doesn’t like the way something smells, you can’t get it in their mouth or they put something in their mouth and they don’t like how it tastes, they spit it out. They’re hard-wired for that and they’re difficult to ignore and so as we begin to think about racial identity, particularly as experienced in American culture, these affects (disgust and dismell) are also very much in play. And so it is to these racial applications that I’m going to turn my attention to right now.

My first experience of race

I want to share a story from my childhood. My first conscience experience of race was a baptism into full blown southern racism. I’m a child of the south, born in 1953 – a child of the Jim Crow south. I was four years old and I was with my mother in a local department store in Greenville, South Carolina. We were in this local department store and I got thirsty. Four years old – and I went for a drink of water. So this is 1957, and my mother found me drinking from a fountain marked “colored” and she snatched me up and scolded me lightly and said that this is the fountain for colored people, and that I was not to drink from it. And she said nothing else to explain it. She did not explain that we were racist and therefore we did not drink from the same fountain. And since there was no explanation, I was left with a four year old’s imagination to ponder the problem. At that time, the only reason I could think to not drink from something was because it was unsafe and unclean. The obvious conclusion was that colored people, as they were labeled, were somehow unsafe and unclean. And I recall that day wondering that whole day long if I had caught something and whether I was going to start to turn black. It’s a silly, tragic example of many thousands of lessons woven into the experience of the Jim Crow south.

Those lessons included not just ideas, but as in this case primal, neurobiological reaction. Disgust and dismell are far more primary than mere racial theory. Ideas are easy to change. Neurobiological reactions are something all together different. I first heard actual racial theory when I was ten years old attending a Baptist youth camp whose counselors were from Bob Jones University and they were teaching that blacks were just flat, plain out biologically inferior and tried to say it was scientific. Three years later, when I was thirteen years old I attended a Baptist Church for the last time in my life, when my older brother (who was a freshman at Clemson) walked out on a sermon that was preaching segregation and railing against the planned integration of Furman University. He left in disgust and I went with him since he was my ride home. It was my introduction to politics and the beginning of a journey out of my southern childhood. I recall that day actually arguing with my brother on the way home since that’s what brothers do. He’d done something totally unheard of – walked out of a church disgusted at the sermon and we argued about it. At the end of that argument, that day, I recall my brother spat in my face. Very painful day. It’s also a huge wakeup call in the beginning of my coming out of my childhood racism.

While reading Mother Katherine’s small book Race, Identity, and Reconciliation I was thinking about this deep programing of hardwiring in our culture. Jim Crow laws are gone, but there are many subtle ways in which these things still remain and so if I take these thoughts to something less charged, for instance than the racial context – say Appalachians, which is my own subculture, you can see some of the same things at work. For instance, a strong Appalachian dialect with which I am not speaking today. I learned to lose it. But a strong Appalachian dialect is equated in our culture with laziness, crime, stupidity, lack of cleanliness, etc. And all of that is strangely an acceptable prejudice in our culture – nobody marching about it – an acceptable prejudice. Television shows commercials, etc. that make use of these stereotypes with no compunction whatsoever. I hear echoes of it in my head when I hear phrases like “trailer park trash” and “the people of Walmart.”  But that doesn’t have quite the same charge that racism does.

Systemic aspects of racism

But we do this with various subgroups. The world has changed a great deal since my childhood. For instance, interracial marriage is now rather common when it was both unheard of and illegal back then. And there’s a lot more interaction between the races. However, as many have noted, there are structural or systemic aspects of racism built into many parts of our culture. A lot of it, I’m sure, is unconscious just as the hardwired reactions are unconscious. We’d oftentimes like them to stay unconscious because they’re terribly embarrassing to admit you even have them – that these thoughts ever even enter your mind.

I think of the role of shame and disgust as part of the deep structure of our culture if I can borrow that word from the world of grammar. There are no laws that can touch these things. They require the difficult work of healing within the human heart. I think it’s also the case that these deep matters of shame, disgust, and dismell are themselves terribly embarrassing for us. It’s relatively easy to talk about economic injustice and police brutality – terrible as they are. But it’s frightfully difficult to admit the presence of these very deep seated reactions – these are passions of a sort. But it’s those deeper reactions that form the psychological framework for the injustice that marks our culture. At least, give the framework that probably creates a certain sense of comfort in our culture because if I can keep you separated from me then I don’t have to think about these things. I do not have to confront what’s going on and what I feel inside me. If you’re not there – out of sight, out of mind.

Think about the work of healing. I want to take us to the place of healthy shame. As noted from the quote from the book of Sirach, “There is a shame which is glory and grace.” I’ve been asked any number of times by people why use the word shame to describe healthy shame? Why not call it something else? Isn’t it confusing? For some people “shame” is always a bad word. But the reason is simple. The underlying mechanism for healthy shame and toxic shame is exactly the same! It’s the same mechanism. They differ in intensity and cause. Toxic shame is painful in the extreme and it can be completely paralyzing. Healthy shame is painful in a small degree but it’s also essential to living a healthy life. It signals boundaries, for example. And a life without boundaries is very unhealthy indeed. So I’ll take you back for a minute to the example I used of entering the cathedral. We enter and instinctively become quiet. It’s an architecture that is designed to convey 20:35 the divine. The German theologian Rudolph Otto in his book published in 1917, The Idea of the Holy – one of the great classic theological works of the twentieth century – he famously described this very experience as that of the holy other, the ganz Andere or of the numinous. In its presence we are completely abashed he said. In colloquial terms this primary experience of God says to us you’re not Him. This same experience also reveals the naked truth of ourselves to ourselves. Adam and Eve see their nakedness which is true. They see the truth of it and they’re naked and they hide. In a healthier story, there is Isaiah’s vision. He sees the Lord high and lifted up in the sixth chapter of Isaiah [Isaiah 6:1] and at the cry of the Seraphim, “Holy, holy, holy” Isaiah cries out, “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people with unclean lips.” [Isaiah 6:5] Or in the book of Job in the forty-second chapter. Job, encountering God said, “I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” [Job 42:5,6] Therefore I despise myself and though it may sound like it, it’s not toxic shame. This is a healthy acknowledging of the truth. He sees God and in seeing God he sees himself. Even though it provokes this response of I despise myself, this boundary is healthy. He acknowledges the truth and so this is the beginning of a true and authentic existence.

Part II will be posted next week. It will include four strategies for dealing with these issues.


[i] “Dismell” is a word that Tomkins created. “If disgust is a word indicating a bad taste, dismell, Tomkins says, is his analogue for a bad smell.” Source: https://mentalhealthnote.blogspot.com/2008/07/dismell.html

Fr. Stephen Freeman is an archpriest in the Orthodox Church in America and serves as pastor of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, TN. He was educated at Furman University, Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, and Duke University. He is the author of the popular blog Glory to God for All Things, and of the weekly podcast Glory to God, on Ancient Faith Radio.

Bible verse addresses were inserted for reader convenience.

Talk transcribed and used by permission.

More on the nine affects: http://www.tomkins.org/what-tomkins-said/introduction/nine-affects-present-at-birth-combine-to-form-emotion-mood-and-personality/

This talk can be heard at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lYxlcPmCBFY

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