The Five Stages of Acknowledging Whiteness

Note: I know a lot of times these conversations are framed as “black and white”. As if these were the only two races that exist in the United States. This is obviously not the case. There is a broad spectrum in which racism impacts people of color, each person and their intersection of identity will be impacted slightly different. I do not want to narrow the scope.

An Invitation

I realized recently that recognizing my whiteness followed along exactly with the five stages of grief. I’m sure I’m not the first person to realize this, but this is my personal blog, so I’m going to write about it anyhow.

I hope if you’re reading this and you are white, that you will not automatically shut down because I’m asking you to think about your whiteness. I know it may seem like I’m attacking you, but believe me I’m trying to invite you in.

I am a white person from rural Indiana. I have done and continue to do racist things. I am trying to stop this in myself and in others, and I know you can join me in this. I know from personal experience that it’s terrifying to interrogate your whiteness, but you can do it.

Let’s begin.

1.Denial

This is the stage where I spent most of my life. And a stage where I see many other people continuing to live. This stage is epitomized by ideas like “I don’t see race” or “I’m white so race doesn’t affect me”. It is saying things like “white privilege no longer exists” or “racism isn’t real, you’re just overreacting”.

If you see yourself in one of these categories, I’d like you to do one of the following things: attend a class on race history in the United States or read a book about race relations in the United States all the way through. In some way, I’d like you to challenge yourself, just for a number of hours, to explore whether or not these things that the majority of the population are saying, that our professors and philosophers are saying, that your friends and loved ones are saying, might be true.

Or message me. I will have a conversation with you. If you are genuinely interested in listening and being listened to, I will have this conversation with you.

It is difficult to confront the truth about the United States. It is difficult to confront the truth about ourselves. As white people, we may want to ignore these truths to protect ourselves, but as a wise old white man once said “the unexamined life is not worth living”.

Please, in my least argumentative and least condescending voice, recognize that the racial hierarchy in the United States benefits you as a white person.

2. Anger

So you’ve come to realize that you are white and that white is a race constructed by society the same as any other. You’ve realized that by being born white, not through any fault of your own, you benefit from the color of your skin.

You benefit by avoiding being arrested for petty crime or misdemeanors. You benefit by having a higher likelihood of getting hired for a job. You benefit from the sheer psychological support of seeing your face everywhere, your voice on every radio or podcast or whatever you kids listen to. You know that you can be the President. That was never in question.

So you’ve recognized all of these things. And you feel angry.

I remember when I finally took the life-changing course “African American History”, the first thing I felt after fear was anger. I was angry that I had been lied to my whole life. Angry that I had fallen for the bait. Angry that I was a part of the problem. Angry angry angry.

And this was good, because I had moved on to the next step. But we run the risk of misdirecting this anger.

A lot of the time after the revelation, I felt irrationally angry at People of Color. I was angry because I was reminded of what a piece of shit I am, what a piece of shit my whole culture is. I was furious. I think this is where many angry white people actually live. I don’t think they are unaware of racial realities, but I think they are so blinded by their anger that they choose to hide in denial again, or worse, direct the anger at POC.

But that anger should never be directed at the victim, the anger must be directed at the systems of oppression. And the anger must be channeled and not used as a way to shut down. (See below for a more in-depth discussion of white emotions/fragility)

3. Bargaining

The next step, if you have come to acknowledge your anger, and agree to channel it towards positive action, is often bargaining.

I think of the conversations I’ve had with very intelligent and caring people who say things like “But we’ve come so far” or “It’s so much better now”. It’s a fine line between taking courage from the progress we’ve made and allowing it to make you complacent.

We as white people, myself SO VERY MUCH INCLUDED, often fall into the trap of being “good” white people. We are aware of our race, we are therefore not racist, maybe we have retweeted something or liked something and we get that little rush of adrenaline telling us we’ve done enough.

But we haven’t. I’m sorry to tell you there is no “enough”.

I know I fall back into this stage a lot. I think, “Oh, look, I wrote another blogpost and my friends liked it. I’ve done so much today. I can now sit back and pat myself on the head.”

Do not stay in this stage of bargaining. Do not stay here, where everything looks okay if you squint your eyes. Keep moving forward, friends. Take sustained action.

4. Depression

I have long had struggles with depression, as I think is apparent by now. If you’ve read the blog at all. So this one is a real doozy for me.

This is also, I think , where a lot of white people fall into the territory of white fragility.

Listen, as a human being, you have emotions, whatever your race, gender, or other identities, you have emotions.

It is critical to your survival and growth as a human being to recognize these emotions. It is good that you recognize when you are feeling triggered, saddened, hurt, angered, because these are signs that something is impacting you. BUT there is a big difference between recognizing your emotions and letting them control your actions.

I recently had a very close friend call me out for making a compromising decision regarding race and my culpability in supporting racism. At first I felt attacked. My immediate response was to shut down and rationalize away all the things she had brought up. “Well, but she didn’t understand that–” or “It’s not fair to say–“. I wrote some things in my journal. I cried. I texted my support group.

And then I pulled myself together and recognized that she was right. I made a mistake. I hurt someone I care about deeply. I compromised the progress I have been making as an activist for racial justice. And I resolved to change my actions moving forward.

It is always important to recognize your emotions, but we need to treat them like a wave. Let them pass over and through you.

My emotions are not the most important part of this process. I am not the most important part of this process. Although I need to be a part of this movement, this movement is not about me.

It goes along with being a white ally. Supporting without taking up space. Saving and channeling your emotions in a way that does not counteract what you are trying to achieve.

You will feel depressed when you recognize the great pain and hatred that exists in this country. You will feel depressed when you recognize some of that pain and hatred has come from you. You are human, you are white, but you are human. It makes sense that you will feel this deep grief.

But watch it like a wave, and then move forward.

5. Acceptance Activation

Finally, there is activation. I already wrote that we as white people must activate, so I’ll attempt to be brief here.

Activation is the final part of our process as white people with race, but it does not mean it is a stopping point.

Race impacts all aspects of our lives in the United States, whether we realize it or not. So, I’m not advocating that everyone quits their job and takes to the street (although that would be pretty cool, I’m just saying), I’m saying that we should do what I’ve read in so many wonderful articles, take our knowledge of race and spread it to our fellow white Americans.

It is not the POC that we need to convince they are under attack. It is our white friends and neighbors, roommates and relatives. These are the people we need to be talking to, which is difficult.

I hate conflict and I hate difficult conversations, but as I noted earlier, this isn’t about me. This is about achieving a society where people are treated equally regardless of their race and other marginalized identities.

Here is a guide that is a good place to start. There are many many many others out there.

Keep doing the good work you are doing. Keep being the good person you are being. Interrogate yourself. Talk with your fellow white people. Keep fighting. Keep fighting. Keep fighting.

And please know I write this with all the love I have in my heart. We are making mistakes and we are learning from them and I am here for you.

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