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Shame Resilience and Accountability as Weapons Against White Supremacy

By Rama Ndiaye
Shame Resilience and Accountability as Weapons Against White Supremacy

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” —Audre Lorde, 1984
Brené Brown defines shame as an “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging or connection” (2012). This is a feeling I have experienced for too long while being on the receiving end of racist comments.

I currently work at an international school located on the east coast of China. We have about 70 staff and faculty members, more than half of whom are local hires. The foreign faculty and the leaders are predominantly white and American and I am one of two Black faculty members.

Most of the white foreign staff perceive themselves as liberals. However, it did not take long before the disappointment of the white moderate, as expressed by Martin Luther King, became an uncomfortable reality.

In the beginning, the White Supremacist views manifested in the form of disparaging comments towards the host country. Then, the more I would attend social events, the more I would hear white staff members make stereotype-laden statements about Chinese people and their behavior. A swarm of shame would envelop me, although I did not understand why at the time.

As the year progressed, and as the faculty became more comfortable with each other, I would start to hear jokes and blatant racist comments about people who look like me. A colleague once asked about my experience in China and how I was acclimating. I told him about the discomfort of having my picture taken and how difficult it is to find body lotion without whitening agent. He replied, laughing: “I could use being a few shades lighter!” The shame sunk in.

On another occasion, a different colleague said to me, “I don’t see what the big deal is with blackface anyway.” I replied that if, as an American, he did not understand the deeply offensive practice then maybe he should read more about the history of his own country. He nonchalantly replied: “This is exactly why I miss living in places like Australia. People make racist jokes all the time and no one gets offended!” I sunk deeper into my shame.

This aforementioned interaction became the catalyst for the open division that started to take place as it resurfaced months later. In the meantime, however, I was continuing to receive microaggressions from my white colleagues. These ranged from comments about my hair, to school leaders dressing up in Afro wigs for Halloween, to comments about how ugly black people can be, and being told by the director of the school that he “does not see color” and that he used to think that “all Muslims are terrorists.” I sunk so deep into my shame that I could feel the bottom of the barrel.

The behavior that was happening around me was clearly unacceptable and yet the more I (and others) tried to make structural changes by speaking about creating a more antiracist culture, the more divisive the atmosphere became. Alongside a group of colleagues—who experienced and/or witnessed the inequities and biases—I helped to create a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee to show the administration the gravity of the racist culture they were allowing and render visible the realities of the people of color in the school. The more work we did around DEI, the more ostracized we felt. I did not think I could sink any lower into my shame.

We spent countless hours researching, meeting and providing resources to our leaders, but they continued to perceive this as a BIPOC issue that did not concern the school culture at large. It was demoralizing.

What I have recently discovered, however, is that perpetrators of racist comments can also feel shame. For them, it happens when they are held accountable for their behaviors. This shame manifests through the action of “armoring-up.”

The first step in processing this shame starts with their thinking that they are not “good enough” (Brown 2012). There is also an expectation that I, as a Black person, could or should educate them about their role in this White Supremacist world. I would provide resources and they would demand more meetings or affirmation from me without understanding the emotional trauma it takes on BIPOC to relive their stories over and over again.

Once the perpetrators and bystanders would realize how much work it takes to actually understand, educate oneself, and create change, the next step of the shame process kicks in: the “I’m better than these people and my actions are fine; they are the ones who are too sensitive” stage of the shame process.

What if, instead of stewing in our shame, whether victim or perpetrator, we built what Brené Brown calls “shame resilience”—the process of finding (and understanding) our authentic self through empathy, courage and connection (2012)?

What if instead of keeping silent and being bystanders, we held people accountable by rendering our painful stories more visible? What if we all had the courage to practice critical awareness to better understand how White Supremacy creates different realities and upholds bias and racism?

Shame around racism disempowers and silences Black, Indigeneous & People of Color and ultimately keeps the White Supremacist status quo in place. As a Black woman, to avoid conflict and inevitable repercussions, I often take on the role of what Ruby Hamad calls “the passive silent victim” (2019). This role, she argues, keeps BIPOC in their place for the benefit of maintaining the White Supremacist hierarchy. Each time I decide to play this role, and just nod along the microaggressions, I feel an unbearable sense of shame. Speaking out against perpetrators often ends up in my being further marginalized but, the more I hold people accountable by speaking my truth, the stronger my shame resilience becomes.

White people’s shame resilience can only strengthen if they are willing to move authentically through shame. This will happen when they hold each other accountable, break the barriers of white solidarity, and extend true empathy for the painful, daily reality that BIPOC individuals face.

Perpetrators of racist comments and bystanders of microaggressions should not allow shame to fester—especially in an educational context—because not only does it push them away from feeling compassion and empathy towards someone else’s painful experience, it also strips them of their own humanity. It would be more compassionate if perpetrators and bystanders acknowledged and attempted to understand the ways in which they are upholding White Supremacy.

Guilt allows people to focus on their behavior and action (or lack thereof) rather than on their identity. When people are called out for their racist conduct, they too often feel that their inherent identity is being attacked and they seldom stay present long enough to understand that the behavior can be unlearned and positive change can occur.

In his piece "Avoiding Racial Equity Detours," Paul Gorski argues that the first step towards equity literacy is to “recognize inequities and bias” (2019). It is difficult to recognize our biases when our hurtful behaviors are tolerated.

Building shame resilience around the issues of racism and bias is one of the ways we can keep people accountable and move our schools towards more equitable and sustainable environments. We, as educators, are all responsible for finding ways to use shame resilience and accountability as weapons against White Supremacy.

Rama Ndiaye is a Grade 3 teacher at an international school in China. As an antiracist educator, she strives to guide her students to actively challenge and critically examine the world they live in while helping them foster the interconnectedness that unites our shared humanity.


Brown, B. (2012). The Power of Vulnerability. Audiobook, Sounds True

Gorski, P. (2019). Avoiding Racial equity Detours.Educational Leadership.

Hamad, R.(2019). White Tears/ Brown Scars. Trapeze

King, M. L. (1994). Letter from the Birmingham jail. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.

Lorde, A. (1984). Sister outsider: Essays and speeches. Crossing Press.

Please fill out the form below if you would like to post a comment on this article:


09/11/2022 - SadZ
First of all thankyou Rama for sharing your experience with us. Indeed it was an eyeopener and a lot was felt as I was reading it !
08/30/2022 - Khan
Thanks for sharing your experience, I appreciate your bravery because it's not easy to speak the truth. We all are equal and should respect each other and spread humanity rather than racism. God is the best artist and I cannot doubt a single percent of his creativity.
every person is unique and has own importance and identity spread awareness and being a teacher we can try to make a difference.
06/28/2022 - AZJ
Every line you wrote made me recall moments and experiences in my life - both professional and personal. And the more I read, the more I realized how important it is to talk about this topic. If there is no conversation, there will be no change.
09/27/2021 - Yazan
Thank you Rama, an enlightening article indeed. Thank you for sharing!
I love your quote about "shame". Profound pain that would make one feel unworthy of belonging. Unless shame resilience is taught, my heart breaks to think of students and in particular the youngest feeling in such a way.
03/28/2021 - Anne
Hi, this is Anne, I was reading your portfolio and directed to this article written by you on anti-racism. I can't even imagine racism happen in a primary school setting against the host country China, blacks, and Muslims. My heart is sunken when I see people are discriminated against because of their skin not because of their behavior.
I hope this will change in the future with people like you working as front liners and pioneers. I support you fully.

03/23/2021 - JohnF
Thank you for writing this article! Racial equity work should be central to the philosophy of an international school. These days, one should not be able to describe a school as being "international" unless is has embarked on an anti-racist action plan. Accreditation bodies and recruitment agencies should be holding schools to account. When a school leader explains that it will "take time" before the institution is ready for this work, such a statement falls very short of what is immediately required. It is also cold comfort to hear school leadership teams acknowledge that there is "room to grow" when they have taken literally no action even to name racism as an explicit problem. The constant drip, drip, drip of racism experienced by Rama, and by faculty and students everywhere, cannot continue to be denied or ignored; the wagons of privilege should not be allowed to circle any more. People are tired of waiting. It is time for action!
03/20/2021 - Abena
Hi Rama,

It's so saddening to hear about your experiences but even sadder that many (like me) will read this and respond with, "That happens to me too."

I applaud your bravery in sharing your experience and hope that FB groups like AIELOC, Brothas & Sistas in International Schools and Diversity in Mind can support and sustain you to be able to carry on with the resilience you've shown.

Know that in moments of deepest despair there is a whole world of people right by your side. We may not be in the same room, or even the same country, but we are available. Let's hold each other up and continue doing the work because it's the only way it's going to get done.

Look after yourself - prioritise self care and know you're not alone.
03/17/2021 - BJ
Thank you for sharing, it is never easy to speaks ones truth and put yourself out there exposed like that. The section that stood out to me in particular was about perpetrators and bystanders realizing how much work it takes to create change and in response entering into the shame process. I find with colleagues, friends, and family that they often begin the process with good intentions. They acknowledge injustice and want to do something about it. But get much more uncomfortable once the discussion progresses to a place where they realize we aren't just talking about "other people" but also our own biases, our own privileges' and how white supremacy benefits all of us who pass as white whether we like it or not. The same people who were allies just moments before retreat into the white wall of complacency that is both comfortable and safe from the complicated and harrowing conversation of race. I don't say this while sitting on a high horse casting stones either, I have done the same. I have let myself be drawn into the crowd of white voices grumbling "not me!" because it's easier. Often our first instinct is to get defensive and search for reasons we are "good" people and then get angry when it seems like someone is saying otherwise. It is difficult to drop your pride and admit deficiencies. Especially when society has been built to accommodate you, stroke your gentle white cis ego, and make you feel safe superior to others. Then we take that same bubble of white supremacy and bring it with us into these majority white micro communities of expats overseas and naively don't understand why the issues remain. I apologize for this long post, I don't mean to take over/away from your article, it just gave me a lot to think about and contemplate on and I am rambling at this point. Thank you again for sharing, you are appreciated.
03/17/2021 - Anson71
I would have thought the majority of expat educators would have been intellectual and worldly wise to be without these prejudices. It is unbelievable that people with those views are educating children. I would be outraged and appalled if my kid was subject to that type of thinking from someone responsible for their education. My heart goes out to the author for the suffering she has had to endure. She is spot on when she talks about white people holding other white people accountable for their racism if we want to make real change happen. Silence, they say, is the voice of complicity......
03/17/2021 - Tina
OMG this article is just PERFECT!
I have nothing to add. I have exactly the same feeling since I can think by myself.
We want and need another article like this... PLEASE!
03/15/2021 - Tina
OMG this article is just PERFECT!
I have nothing to add. I have exactly the same feeling since I can think by myself.
We want and need another article like this... PLEASE!