Coping with Knowledge of Slaveholding


As we begin to discover the pain and suffering our collective enslaver ancestors have caused, we may become overwhelmed with feelings of shame, guilt, remorse or even anger. This is a good sign!

Be with those feelings, truly feel them. After all, we’ve been taught for generations that our ancestors were good people, innocent of wrongdoing, that we are part of an honorable lineage, the very fabric of America.  Learning that we have participated in institutional racism in some way makes us feel that we have been tricked, or lied to, that we are bad people ourselves, by extension.

Processing shame and guilt and the many layers of feelings that arise in their wake takes time.  Here are some resources that can help:

Felicia Furman on guilt and shame:      

"Well, when I was a child, I didn't feel guilt or shame about my family’s owning slaves. I did feel guilt and shame over the way my parents treated African American people in our household, however. We had African American maids, nurses and cooks; I couldn't understand why they were treated a certain way. Later, I read books including “Black Like Me” by John Howard Griffin and began to listen to African American’s experiences of violence and discrimination. It was then I began to feel truly ashamed that my family played such a major role in the hurt that people like James Baldwin have so eloquently described. I decided to make my film, Shared Histories, as a response to these feelings and a growing sense that I needed to do something about it."    

Read Felicia's interview

Norma Johnson on exploring our fears:

"White guilt and shame regarding slavery is something I don’t really understand. Why would you feel guilty or shameful about something that you were not a part of? Unless of course, there is a feeling of being a part of it in the present. Whiteness has evolved as a very, very tricky opponent. Its dominance depends on one not knowing what they know. I sometimes wonder if white guilt & shame are moments of stepping into that knowing but not knowing what to do about it.

I often sense that fear is really what lies at the base of this shame & guilt. Perhaps overcoming these feelings is really about exploring the fears that lie beneath them. We humans seem to have a knack for complicating things, and we are all a part of that. But I really think that for white people to break the cycle of guilt and shame, it requires exploring their fears regarding the topics of genocide, slavery, race, reparations and whiteness. And included in that exploration is the conversation about fears white people have regarding white pushback/retaliation from others if they decide to talk about and act on dismantling systems of white supremacy. What are the fears regarding this kind of complicated membership with the white club?  

For white people, there is a lot to break down, to learn about, to explore and to feel. For most, thinking about race and the systems of white supremacy is a new concept. And like anything new, it’s going to take a while to get your groove on and to understand where you are in all this. But I ask white people to please, please not turn away from this. Because without you, it will never change, just continue to evolve. We’ve been inviting you to join us in this journey of black lives matter for over 400 years now."

Read Norma's Interview