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Thinking Out Loud

The Complexity of Shame

by User Not Found | Jul 19, 2011
This blog post was guest-written by Debra J. Mumford

In September of this year, Traci West, Professor of Ethics and African American Studies at Drew University Theological School, will be the guest lecturer for the annual Katie Geneva Cannon Lectureship, sponsored by the Women’s Center at Louisville Seminary. Though her writings and lectures cover a range of social justice issues, Dr. West has written and lectured with depth and frequency on violence against women. In her book, Wounds of the Spirit: Black Women, Violence, and Resistance Ethics, West adeptly steers her readers through the complex intersections of race, religion, and culture that converge upon the lives of black women who are victims of intimate violence. West defines intimate violence as male-perpetrated rape, childhood sexual abuse, and wife/partner battering. Though West treats the subject thoroughly, using black women’s stories as points of departure for analysis of sociological theories and practices, she addresses one area better than many who have trod this ground before her and since – the area of shame.

Shame for many blacks is very complex and very real. Shame is a feeling of internal despair or disgrace brought about by one’s own actions or someone else’s. Women who are victims of intimate violence experience shame on many different levels. Some feel shame because they think they must have done something to incite the violent behavior. Some feel shame manifested as feelings of perpetual uncleanliness. They try hard to scrub away any reminder of the perpetrator and the violation that took place, usually to no avail. Some feel shame because they were violated by a black man with whom they were supposed to be in solidarity. If they were to admit to having been violated and actually press charges against the perpetrator, they would simultaneously be confirming stereotypes of black males, which have been socially constructed by the larger white society. 

Victims of intimate violence who are Christian may experience additional levels of shame. Some may blame themselves for not measuring up to the will of God as it relates to sexual chastity even though they were raped and had no control over their fates in that regard. Some may take their Christian teachings about forgiveness and turning the other cheek to mean they must immediately forgive the perpetrators without demand for justice or accountability. Some may feel shame about not living up to the stereotype of the strong black woman. After all, strong black women do not need help dealing with their problems. Strong black women are the ones who help others rather than those who receive help themselves. Some feel shame in considering divorcing an abusive spouse. Divorce may propel them into single motherhood which would only affirm yet another stereotype of black women in larger white society.

In order to minister effectively in African American contexts, one must understand the complexities of black cultures – of which shame is an important component. Traci West helps us better understand intimate violence in relation to black women in general and shame in particular. We will be fortunate to have her as our guest lecturer in the fall.

Debra J. Mumford is the Frank H. Caldwell Associate Professor of Homiletics; Associate Dean for Student and Academic Affairs at Louisville Seminary.

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