A Psychosocial Study of Guilt and Shame in White South African Migrants to Australia

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Despite recent research interest in migrant psychology, little attention has been paid to the emotional reactions of guilt and shame resulting from migrants’ decisions to leave their homeland. Universalist theories have yielded to an understanding of emotions as culturally contextualized and interpersonally constituted phenomena. For reasons associated with South Africa’s racial history and the social dynamics following the 1994 transition to democracy, some White migrants from this country display specific manifestations of guilt and shame related to their migration decision. Using a psychosocial research approach, 14 in-depth interviews were conducted with White South Africans who migrated to Australia following the democratic transition. Explicit and implicit expressions of migration-induced guilt and shame were evident in many research participants. In addition to guilt associated with leaving loved ones to an uncertain future, participants reported complex admixtures of guilt and shame at having been apartheid beneficiaries, internalizing racist attitudes, and “abandoning” their motherland at a critical historical juncture. Disavowed guilt and shame were evident in some participants, indicating defensive efforts to avoid acknowledging and experiencing these painful emotional states.

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