In my early teens, I spent a lot of time within the urban Christian community, or what we called “Holy Hiphop.” I am white and was raised in a protective home, where although we had our struggles, we were well provided for, taught Godly morals, and learned to love and accept people from every background.
Throughout my time in the urban community, I perceived an esteemed value placed on having experienced and come through “the school of hard knocks.” Being poor, mistreated or misunderstood—or otherwise given the short end of the stick in life—were praised for what made a man or woman great. The worse your experience, the higher your credentials. Over time, I adopted the belief that my solid upbringing and the good values of my family somehow disqualified me from having a voice in the community. At times, I found myself wishing I hadn’t had it so good, thinking that if I didn’t have it as bad as the next person, then they wouldn’t believe I was credible.
Ultimately my desire was to be understood, to belong, and to be an influence. Isn’t that really everyone’s bottom-line? But the worst thing possible began to happen. In my impressionability, I began listening to the message my enemy was speaking to me—that something about me was flawed. Maybe I was raised wrong. Maybe I was naïve. Maybe my parents were wrong. Maybe my gender was wrong. Maybe my race was wrong. Maybe my financial status was wrong. Maybe my hopes, dreams or ideas were wrong. If something about me didn’t line up with the culture around me… I was wrong.
As opportunities arose where I felt a sense of being flawed, I began to rebel against it. If speaking clearly and intelligently meant I might not understand the real world, then the way I spoke had to change. I remember one time traveling out of town with one of my girl friends. She too was white, middle class, and lived an overall safe and healthy lifestyle. We carpooled into the city with a family we knew, and were dropped off at our destination, not having our own car. We ended up at “Roach Motel”—a $30/night room without a deadbolt, without a working shower, and whose door didn’t even shut all the way. The neighborhood we were in was predominantly a poor black community. There wasn’t a street light or another business for several blocks. My friend was afraid. Truthfully, I was uncomfortable as well. We didn’t look like we belonged. We were 16 year old girls alone. We were easy targets for assault to anyone who may have been looking.
But in the middle of my somewhat reasonable fear, I felt another familiar feeling—the feeling that something about me is wrong. Being afraid in this situation must mean something bad about me. Maybe it means I’m sheltered. Maybe it means I’m racist. Maybe it means I’m ignorant, naïve, or otherwise disqualified from sharing in the world around me. So I pushed back. Instead of calling someone to come pick us up, as my girlfriend suggested, I decided to go for a walk around the neighborhood. I was hungry, so finding a place to eat was my excuse, but really, I wanted to prove this personal fallacy didn’t exist. I wanted to prove nothing is wrong with me.
My friend objected strongly to strolling through the streets, but seeing I was pig-headed about it, she opted to go with me so that at least we wouldn’t be separated. It was 3:00 AM. We walked uselessly through several blocks, passing small congregations of young guys loitering in the shadows; we walked boldly and silently past one group cat-calling us, only to have to turn around at a dead end and walk humiliatingly past them a second time. We never found a place to eat. We also didn’t get mugged, raped, abducted or otherwise harmed, as our fears suggested we could have been. So I proved my friend wrong. I won the unspoken war that was waging… or did I?
My driving force that day was not hunger, and it definitely was not wisdom. It was my need to disprove the internal voice that told me something was wrong with me. That voice was the voice of shame.
Shame says not that something we did was bad, but that we ourselves are “uniquely, inherently and permanently flawed.” Shame offers us no solution, except that we work fruitlessly to disprove it, trying always to gain back the ground that has been taken from us, to just simply bring our value out of the negative. When we have shame, we’re not even zero. Our value is permanently and increasingly damaged.