Some years ago, I read Shame Interrupted and learnt that shame was the root of most negative emotions.
That means emotions such as anger, fear, guilt, low self-worth, low self-esteem has one root; Shame. These are also common themes when dealing with sexual abuse.
With help, the woman on her healing journey can identify the triggers, separate thoughts from feelings and cultivate healthy coping strategies. However, many things can compound this shame.
Brene Brown describes shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.”
Within the black community, we are familiar with the message that we are ‘flawed’. Most women shame story is a personal attack on their bodies, their hair and their behaviours.
There’s also a generational shame that influences all aspects of our lives. Though often untold, our parent’s shame stories are lived out in the home and have an imprint on our lives.
Living in a marginalised community plagued by inequalities makes it challenging to separate one shame story from another. Without expert help, these stories can merge into one. Culturally competent therapy can help a woman identify where the embarrassment of sexual abuse start and end?
That intense feeling that Brene Brown described will be familiar for every black woman who’s been to school, the shops, shunned on the playground or at work. She understands implicit biases and many other experiences that send the message that you are not good enough to be here. It’s our everyday lived experience.
In summary, as black women, it is often challenging to separate shame from sexual abuse and chagrin from being black living in a white world.
Culture and sexual abuse
Shame is also connected to how certain parts of black culture process abuse and receives victims. For example, growing up in Jamaica, my experience is; the victim gets blamed; it was her fault. She has the responsibility of keeping herself safe and protecting men.
A woman raped can ask herself questions about what she was wearing and things she could have done to protect herself before even thinking about what she needs because it is embedded in her psyche to blame herself.
The media also portrays a sexualised version of black women highlighting specific parts of our bodies to fit the narrative they want to spin. They make some features of our bodies desirable while at the same time we can also get scorned and labelled vulgar and lose. The latter version is prevalent when the media misunderstands how some black women express themselves in dance; they label it improper.
Shame and religion
Humiliation is felt even in religious settings, where many things about back women’s bodies become problematic and need fixing. The message of eurocentric reform influences guilt and embarrassment in the one place we should feel welcomed and safe.
Our shape is different. Certain clothes highlight our natural form, which is the focus of many preachers sermons. Shaming a woman for having a particular structure is neither Christlike nor appropriate.
She is not responsible for a shape, nor can she change herself—confusion reigns when the feeling of not being good enough shows up in both religious and secular settings.
We feel it as our sisters gets shamed when they mature earlier than others, and she becomes the focus of men’s attention. The men never get cautioned. Instead, her body gets the blame for the unwanted sexual attention.
Many years ago, at a retreat (not wounds to Scars retreat), a fellow attendee and I had a very intense discussion in the middle of one group session. She felt that young girls were lost and inviting attention depending on how they dress.
She gave an example of a church elder (male) who spoke to a particular young woman he felt was not appropriately dressed.
I felt he was out of place and shouldn’t have spoken to her.
We had a back and forth for a while non of us were willing to give up. The discomfort in the room was palpable no one wanted to join or give an opinion either way, and I feel sometimes that’s the problem. Young black girls are often unprotected and used as an example of what is wrong. Older women who have also grown up in a culture of shame sometimes join the conversation not to defend but to rebuke and reinforce the message that she’s unworthy, not good enough.
Any censure or even a notice of her body can damage a young woman carrying the shame of sexual abuse. These messages about her form in dress or someone negative comment about her body adds another layer of confusion. Healing becomes complex, and therapy is needed to unravel shame from the abuse.
Churches often neglect to deal with their lack of awareness around race and used the same Eurocentric culture as the measuring stick for all women. Modesty gets viewed through the lens of what looks good on our white sisters.
In this environment, a black woman can be blamed for her body looking different in the dress prescribed by the organisation. She doesn’t feel able to break free from that culture for fear of being ostracised, so she tries to conform, denying the feelings, not knowing what to do with them or even if it’s “right” to feel them.
It takes a culturally competent counsellor to understand these nuances and appropriately help a black woman process sexual trauma.
A young woman dealing with the shame of sexual abuse can get re-traumatised when men, whether in leadership or not, chose to comment on what they are wearing
Men who show no interest in their lives beyond condemning or accusing.
That makes shame complex for many black women dealing with the pain of sexual abuse. In this environment, it is challenging to differentiate one shame from the next.
Sexual abuse, shame and counselling
As I work with black women healing from sexual abuse, this separation of shame becomes part of the work. It is often necessary to highlight the different layers of the emotion to put the embarrassment of sexual abuse in its proper perspective. With that done, she can work at managing triggers and develop methods of coping that can help her effectively move through the pain of abuse.
This woman maybe for the first time feeling able to talk about the shame of being black and a woman. For the first time, many are becoming aware of the guilt that they carry around their bodies. Without a culturally competent therapist, this woman can leave therapy with unresolved issues and no way of working through the shame triggers.
In shame interrupted, the authors said
“Shame is the deep sense that you are unacceptable because of something you did, something done to you, or something associated with you. You feel exposed and humiliated.”
An unravelling of all these elements is vital for a black woman working through sexual abuse.
It is natural for a victim of sexual abuse to believe that she’s to blame. The message that black women receive about their bodies makes it easy to blame themselves; this can impact her parenting, how she functions in the home, at work, and affect her ability to do life from a space of worthiness.