'Shame Stifles You': The Root Presents: It's Lit! Rejects Shame With Tarana Burke and Tanya Fields

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Illustration: Angelica Alzona, Image: Penguin Random House

Shame is a universal condition—no one is immune. In fact, it might be argued that shame is also one of the strongest drivers of human behavior, often causing our worlds to revolve around it. We have it inflicted upon us—especially those of us in already marginalized groups—and in turn, inflict it upon others. We live with it, and sometimes wallow in it, allowing it to obscure everything else we know to be true about ourselves.

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Shame may be universal, but we do have a choice in whether to receive it, how to process it, and how long we live with it. With that in mind, we were eager to invite our good friend and ‘me too’ founder Tarana Burke to this week’s episode of The Root Presents: It’s Lit! to discuss the already bestselling anthology of essays she edited alongside vulnerability expert Brené Brown and published this week, You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience.

If you paused at the idea of Brené Brown editing a book on the Black experience—one that includes essays by names like Kiese Laymon, Laverne Cox, Marc Lamont Hill, Luvvie Ajayi Jones, and Jason Reynolds, among others—don’t worry; it’s one of the first questions we asked. We were joined in our extensive and very candid conversation by the founder of the Black Feminist Project Tanya Fields, who contributed her own searing essay to the book, “Dirty Business: The Messy Affair of Rejecting Shame.”

Fields drops some serious gems in that essay, and in our conversation, especially with regard to overcoming her own acceptance of shame—much of which had been projected upon her for so long, she’d accepted it as her own.

“[But] once you say, ‘I’m not ashamed of something that happened; I’m not ashamed of something that I’ve done’...I found that shame is useless,” she told us. “We can feel remorse for things that we’ve done; something wrong. And...I don’t want us to confuse the two. A lot of times people are like, ‘you should be ashamed of yourself’—if you’ve made a decision that maybe hurt someone, or you’ve harmed yourself, or you harm someone else. And I don’t see any usefulness in shame because shame stifles you.

“And so, I spent a lot of time being stifled by shame,” Fields continued. “And once I had that moment where I was like, ‘OK, and? This is where I am; these are the decisions that I’ve made. And I have the ability to make different decisions. And so that’s what I’m doing. And you don’t get to use shame as a way to keep me in some particular station in life you think that I deserve,’ it opened up all of these possibilities to me.”

“That’s that’s exactly what the intent is,” Burke later explained, quickly adding, “And I mean, I said jokingly, it’s not for everyone, but the first audience for this book is us.”

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Hear more about the shame, vulnerability and resilience in Episode 32 of The Root Presents: It’s Lit!: Tarana Burke and Tanya Fields Remind Us “You Are Your Best Thing,” available on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, Google Podcasts, Amazon, NPR One, TuneIn, and Radio Public. A transcript is also available for this week’s episode.

DISCUSSION

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Shame makes me freeze, unable to change the bad I’ve done (or the bad results of what I’ve not done), but remorse might actually leave more room for me to correct things, while also inspiring me to do better, instead of just inspiring me to feel worse.

I’ve been struggling with some things for a while now, though I have made tiny bits of improvement. I’m so numb that while I was able to get my work life somewhat back on a decent track, I don’t have much energy for anything else, but I’m always learning, and still trying to claw my way back to something like normalcy.

May we all find ourselves and find ways to keep our heads up.