24 Comments

  1. Sonia Connolly

    Thanks for this – it was reassuring to read, even though my process has been somewhat different.
    1) “My family isn’t even from here, US racism isn’t my problem.”
    2) yup
    3) I got accused of this a couple of times (by white people), but first I didn’t realize I needed educating, and then I quietly read a whole bunch on the Internet before daring to open my mouth about race.
    Now I suppose I’m in a mix of still learning & 4 & 5 & feeling shame about unintentionally participating in racism. Is shame a separate stage or does it just permeate them all?

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    • kronda

      1) I met a Black guy from Jamaica who felt the same way. He said some Black folks in an organization he is part of tried to organize a sub-chapter on their own–but he didn’t understand why that was necessary. He said he thought people really make too big a deal out of racism. After all he was the only black person in his school in Jamaica and he never even ‘realized’ he was Black until he was a teenager and someone pointed it out.

      It was a classic example of lack of empathy. People are notorious for assuming that their experience == everyone’s experience. And as a Black man, if he doesn’t have a problem then maybe the rest of us are just making it up right?

      This is how I ended up giving an entire talk about empathy. :)

      I’m afraid I can’t really answer your question about shame, since I don’t experience racism from the perspective of a white person. Maybe someone else would like to chime in? Not that shame doesn’t factor into racism for Black folks, but it’s more internalized shame (generally speaking) and not shame associated with guilt. If that makes any sense.

      The only advice I can ever think to give anyone who’s going through the tough parts is to keep growing but also be kind to yourself. Just as men are victims of patriarchy (though many don’t know it), white people are also harmed by racism.

      So we’ll all be better off once we kick it to the curb!

      Reply

  2. I really, really, really love this. I’ve been working on a piece aimed at white middle class folks about a lot of this stuff and I think #1 is especially important/true because people just shut down. Here’s part of it:

    About the time we started toddling around, our path started to get littered with big, stinky, nasty piles of crap. Well-meaning adults pooped out, through action and words and movies and TV, messages about who to trust, who to fear and how to become a “success”. They really thought they were helping us but most of the time it was like walking behind a horse in a parade that’s just clopping along, dropping steaming, stinky piles of poop without even appearing to realize it. And because we were boxed in with everyone else, we just had to step right in it and keep on moving.

    That poop we stepped on as kids? It’s still on us and we’ve been tracking it ALL over the place.

    Some of us pretend like there is not some awful foul mess on us. We are convinced that if everyone just stopped talking about the poop, it would just go away. We often say that people who talk about race are racist or complainers who need to grow a pair and MOVE ON.

    Some of us are dumping gallons of perfume on ourselves to disguise it. We usually say things like, “I’m colorblind” or “I simply don’t see race”.We might be focusing a LOT on helping people of color but really having a hard time being close with white people. We tend to be overwhelmed by guilt and often think we’re better than other white people who show their racism more. We’re not fooling anyone. If we looked around, we’d see people of color holding their noses and giving us stink eye because we are still saying and doing racist things without realizing it.

    Some of us have decided if WE have to have poop on us so does everyone else and we’re rubbing it all over people, just so we don’t have to be all alone with our funk. We tend to be the ones that say and do overtly racist things to people of color or tell racial jokes or slurs in front to other white people. That, obviously, just sucks for everyone, although I have to say I don’t think we’re better or worse than any of the other white people. We’re just showing this stuff more.

    And some of us smelled something foul, figured out what the problem was and decided to try to scrape as much off as we can, so we could quit making a mess. We know we didn’t have a choice about stepping in this poop, but faced the reality that we all did. We don’t feel guilty about having racist thoughts because we didn’t intentionally learn them. Most importantly to me, we are actively fighting those messages every day and working with other white people to help them get cleaned up. “

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  3. Thanks for this. I was just watching some film of Jane Elliot on Upworthy (she famously does the blue eyes/brown eyes model for teaching racism) and she compared understanding racism/privilege to the stages of grief, which really resonated with me, as well. Anger and denial are easy ones to see and, from where I stand, the most common and as far as most people get. Then bargaining – this is an interesting one. I consider “I’m not privileged I am/grew up poor” and “but Black people use the N word!” to be forms of bargaining. the next, depression, matches well here. I’ve been wandering between depression and loneliness for a while. I don’t know what acceptance would look like in either model, partially because to me it sounds like giving up.
    Also in this process for me has been the line between acknowledging and working on my internalized racism and how it is both a result of and a contributor to institutionalized racism, and falling into “white women’s tears.” I worked with a group of white people on privilege and said from the outset that my biggest fear was that it would turn into “oh poor me,” which is pretty much exactly what happened – to the extent that a workshop on “healing the wounds of (white) privilege” came about. What I am struggling to find is a way to talk to fellow white folks about privilege and racism without making it about us, except in the case of what we can do EXTERNALLY. It’s hard to find the balance of talking about whiteness and knowing that racism is our responsibility without making it about us, because then comes the spiral of centering on whiteness and othering all else.
    Anyway, thanks for giving me more to think about. Hope I’ve made some sense. And if I’ve messed up, I’d love to hear about it.

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  4. Wow! Reading this gave me this eerie feeling you had read my mind! Thank you for this, especially #4.

    I was at #2 for most of my life. I would even accuse other oppressed groups of being racist, sexist, etc against me or white folks. I just didn’t understand. I thought I did.

    It wasn’t until several months ago that I finally realized I didn’t get and I moved on to #3. Then I wanted to talk to a member from every oppressed group and have them educate me. Again, I didn’t understand the anger and frustration I saw in their responses. Fortunately, I was able to find several blogs and other sites that were able to educate me. And then I reached stage 4……yikes. Anyways, stage 5, the ally stage, also takes a lot of education before understand what that means. I’m still learning.

    Thanks again!

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  5. Growing up a white person in a predominantly white community, we weren’t taught that racism was a “terrible thing” done by “terrible people a long time ago”, it was just something that wasn’t really discussed (i.e. MLK taught in terms of freedom/empowerment; the term “racism” itself was mostly avoided). I learned about it when I saw how the racial slurs hurled at the few non-white students at my junior high school affected those people, and later in life when I inevitably was shocked to discover it happening, however unintentionally, in my own thoughts and actions.

    For me, looking at my own prejudices has been the most important stage. Although I identified with every stage in your article, whether in myself or in others I know or have met, studied self-reflection will be the most important part of the process—a constant reflection on things like “why did that thought/idea just pop into my head?”, or “why did I automatically make that decision over the other one?” This isn’t a stage that I think one ever “completes”; it’s a life-long process.

    I do think that self-reflection is or will come to be the most important part of this process for anyone, but that’s more a result of a general personal philosophy I hold than my specific thoughts on unlearning racism, specifically.

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  6. Rebecca

    This lines up pretty well with what Beverly Daniel Tatum describes in “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” as the “Six stages of the development of a positive white identity.”

    She lists the stages as 1. Contact (Ignorance of racism.) 2. Disintegration (Growing awareness of racism as a result of personal encounters with said experiences.) 3. Reintegration (Feeling guilty, defensive and/or denial.) 4. Pseudo-independent (Seeing whiteness as a source of shame.) 5. Immersion/Emersion (Finding a positive self-definition by learning about the history of white protest against racism, meeting white anti-racist role models, and/or joining white support groups.) 6. Autonomy (Redefining white identity in a positive way, which empowers one to be an agent of change and enables one to be more effective in a multiracial setting.)

    She points out that we can fluctuate between the different stages at different times, and she goes into great detail about each on in her book. And she names the typical Racial Identity Development for people of color.

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  7. Thank you thank you thank you for this wonderful piece. I am somewhere between stages 4 and 5 right now (white, Southern woman). I can say with confidence that while I was never a full-on No. 1-type person, I was raised by those types, and it of course made its way into my way of thinking as a child/growing up. The older I got, the more the voice inside of me that said “THAT’S NOT RIGHT” has gotten louder and louder and now that I am a grown woman with a family of my own, I am become more and more passionate about smashing the system. I do feel sad and depressed some times, when I see my friends of color deal with things that I know would never happen to me. I get sad when I see people I call friends make classless jokes that they “don’t mean anything by!” and I think “how can you say that and why am I friends with you?” My only plan of action for now is to continue my dialogues with people actively seeking out people of color in social media, in writing, in entertainment, anywhere I can for perspective; and by showing through my actions that I not only see color but I see my own privilege and try to show others theirs, too. I am definitely sharing this piece. Thanks!!!

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  8. Thank you. I’ll save this for discussions with my trans-racially adopted children when things start getting dicey. It is a particularly intense process. Having been brought up with a pretty self-righteous version of stages 2 and 3 and I completely agree and, yes, it’s pretty lonely. It took such intense experiences (working as a war correspondent in Balkan inter-ethnic conflicts and living in an overtly, militantly racist country for the past 17 years, and finally researching trans-racial adoption) to get here that I usually don’t know where to start on the conversation. I have often wondered about the stages that led to greater understanding, because most of the stuff I read these days would have simply pissed me off and alienated me 20 years ago. I am currently trying to figure out what can be said that is at least slightly helpful and yet still somewhat brief.

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  9. The comments here by white people (I’m one.) and others are more sophisticated and understanding than I could make. So I’ll leave it there about my journey.

    What I want to add is that I think this whole discussion would make a terrific and important book. I think it would make an impact on the ongoing national discussion of what Mark Twain called the biggest issue in American history, an issue we are all trapped in whether we like it or not, whether we make progress or not.

    Would you consider expanding your 5 stages and these responses – and others that you might get from other people on other channels – into a book-length discussion? I have another friend who has done something similar with art; she has created a series of paintings depicting the journey of the soldier who massacres babies, whether Romans in the slaughter of the innocents when Jesus was born or Americans in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, the journey that takes him through anger, guilt, PTSD, discovery, and stages on the road back to healing of his own soul.

    What you have brought up is similar, for its origins lie in events as cruel and as unspeakable as the murder of children.
    In a sense every white person is the descendant of the soldier, and every black person of the mother and child. I think you have approached it in a promising way. And what you are able to produce is a vocabulary in which we can talk about this – and begin the healing process fresh with every aquaintance we make with one another.

    Think about it.

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