Five Stages of Unlearning Racism

Note: Today is Day 10 of my 30 day blog challenge. If you want to get my random thoughts about random stuff in your inbox, you can subscribe at the bottom of any post or mash the RSS button if that’s how you roll. 

First, a disclaimer: I had lunch with a good friend recently and she explained to me the following steps in her continuing journey of unlearning racism. I don’t know if there’s any official literature about this specifically, but as she explained these steps, it made incredible sense to me and gave light to many conversations I’ve had with people in every stage she described.

I’m recording it here so I don’t forget, because I will keep having those conversations with people as long as I’m still Black1 and alive. Remembering that there’s hope for people who are earlier in the process helps me to stay compassionate. 2

This is not an attempt to convince anyone that this is what their process should look like, but do feel free to share if anything resonates with you (or doesn’t), in the comments.

Stage 1: Racists Are Lynchers

This is what many white children in many predominantly white communities learn about racism: It was a terrible thing done by terrible people a long time ago. There were sheets, and beatings and lynchings and slavery and then Martin Luther King came and now the President is Black and it’s all better!

So if that is someone’s idea of racism and you come along and call them out on some (non-lynching) racist thing they have said or done– well no wonder they’re so defensive! Not only is it impossible for them to be racist, as it’s defined in their minds, but there’s no way they even know anyone who’s racist.

But I’ve never lynched anyone, they’re thinking. In fact, they’d like a gold star for it, thank you very much.

Stage 2: The Opposite of Racism is Color Blindness

This is a pretty logical leap on the surface. If people are being discriminated against because of their differences, then we should just work to see everyone as being the same, right?

Except, everyone is not the same. In fact, people (even within the same race–gasp!) are wildly different. The problem is that people in marginalized groups (not just racial), are not quite seen as full people. It’s a terrible thought, but there it is. If we were, then people in the dominant group–especially people in the media–wouldn’t be so quick to get some token Black person to ‘tell us what Black people think about’ (fill in current event of the moment).

Have you ever in your life heard someone ask a white person what they thought about George Bush or Bill Clinton just because they’re white? Think about why that is.

Stage 3: OK, I Recognize That There’s a Problem. Someone Teach Me!

Congratulations! You’ve figured out that your experience of the world as a privileged white person is not in fact universal. But now you expect people of color to explain to you What Is Really Going On And How To Fix ItTM.

Guess what? We’re busy. We’re busy trying to live our lives, keep our houses clean, do good work, get good grades, play video games, go to the beach and keep mentally sane despite dealing with at least one bullshit *ist incident per day.

Luckily there’s Google. And the library. And bookstores. And great blogs, vlogs and podcasts. And Twitter and Facebook. You want to learn about racism and what it’s like to live as a Black person in the United States? There are plenty of ways for you to do that respectfully. Unobtrusively. Without putting a greater burden on people who are already being oppressed every day.

You want to talk to Real Live Black People while you’re doing all this? Fine. There are places and times for you to do just that. I bet there’s some in your area too. Or if you’re really stuck in whites-ville, again the Internet will come to your rescue. Join a mailing list. Create a book club via Skype and read Black authors.

Oh and by the way? If you actually make use of all these resources, that is awesome. But don’t go looking for your gold star. This is the stuff that falls under, ‘being a decent human being.’ You don’t get a cookie for it.

Stage 4: Depression. (I Can’t Believe How Bad Things Are)

I participated in a six week discussion series about unlearning racism. In one of the sessions we watched a movie from I think, the eighties, about a mixed race group of men who come together for the weekend to talk about racism.

In the movie, there’s one white guy who, despite being open enough to volunteer for the experience, spends almost the entire time denying everything that anyone of color says to him about their experiences. It was maddening to watch. I thought they were never going to get through to him.

Finally, one of the facilitators just asked him over and over again: “What if what these men are telling you is true?”

And the guy, who has been in such deep denial, just starts to cry. He really didn’t want to believe some of the horrible experiences that he had heard from the other men. When white3. people educate themselves and begin to get an understanding of just how bad things still are, it can feel like a crushing weight. They might feel guilty, sad, overwhelmed. What are you supposed to do with this information? It seems unfixable and like there’s nothing you can do.

I can’t give you any comforting words about this stage. This is the stage I spend my life in, to some degree. The difference is that now you understand that as a white person, you have the choice, the privilege of choosing not to think about it–because that’s one of the luxuries of fitting in to the dominant group. Now you know the answer to the question, “Why is she always talking about race?”

Stage 5: Loneliness

My friend didn’t come up with this one, but when I pointed it out, she readily agreed.

So now you’re a somewhat enlightened, actively anti-racist white person. But guess what? Maybe your friends, co-workers, family and acquaintances haven’t been on this journey with you. But now you suddenly notice them saying things that you know are probably a wee bit racist. What to do? Are you going to spend every conversation calling people out? Are you going to lose all your friends? If you stay silent, are you a bad person?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I have watched friends struggle with them.

It might feel like there’s nothing you can do, but the good news is, if you get to step five, you’ve already done something pretty amazing–you’ve managed to begin clawing your way out of racist conditioning that everyone receives from birth. That’s actually a big deal. And chances are, though you may not spend every Thanksgiving convincing your family how fucked up Thanksgiving is, you’re probably going to start talking to someone, sometime. And that means they might begin to break out of the conditioning too. And that, I believe is the only way this thing will get dismantled. First, enough people have to know what the hell is happening.  Then we can work on smashing the systems that are keeping it in place.

Do you relate to any of these stages or experiences? Let me know in the comments!

1. If you’re wondering about my decision to capitalize, see this article (Back)
2. Compassionate doesn’t necessarily mean being willing to engage directly with people who don’t have a clue if I’m not in the mood. (Back)
3. Sub straight, cis, male, able-bodies or your privilege group of choice. (Back)


  1. 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?


    1. 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!


      1. I definitley can relate in feeling some crushing guilt about the terrorism on the black community. It’s overwhelming, and sickening, and honestly, I understand why they would be so outraged. Sometimes I find it hard to understand how BPOC can hold relationships with white community members, out of a pure lack of trust, based on history.

        For me, it took really opening my eyes to the current social state, and doing my best to put myself in someone else’s shoes (to the best of my ability, abut the known struggles that are experienced, as well as having fear about even going to the store for some candy. It seems almost inconceivable as a white person.

        Loneliness hasn’t been much of an issue for me. Of course, I have always been open about my feelings. Just know, Not everyone will share your thoughts on racism, but whether the discussion is welcomed or not, it is still important to bring these points to the table.

        Giving resources to white people to look up themselves can also give them room to educate themselves about their on ideas about race. Rather than getting defensive at the person they are talking to, they ill have time alone to process their thoughts and reactions, and hopefully to spark realizations within.


  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. “


  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.


    1. There is something called “radical acceptance” that talks about acceptance being not a sign that you are happy about the reality you are facing, but simply that you acknowledge that this is the state of things. Not sure if that helps? I do agree that “acceptance that quote is something that I don’t feel comfortable I do agree that “acceptance” is something that I don’t feel comfortable seeing as a landing place.


  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!


  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.


  6. 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.


  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!!!


  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.


  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.


  10. Just wanted to thank you for writing this post. Been working on #4 in therapy lately and it’s a strange sort of relief that it’s a widespread (and honestly reasonable) experience.


  11. Thank you so much for this. And thank you to all the bloggers, journalists, and just patient people who are helping some of us claw our way out. It’s painful for many, but so many have been gracious and patient. Thank you again.


  12. Thank you. I have been pondering how to overcome the shutdown, blankness, and defensive “i/ my people worked hard” when we try to talk about white privilege. (I am a white middle aged woman.) What has struck me is how the success or failure of these conversations really happens in micro-ways, in tiny gaps. There’s always this yawning crack in the ice that opens between the person at who says “white privilege is real/is bad” and the target audience, who is standing there blinking. … and… i mean this with all respect… what now? Why are you talking to me? What are you looking for from me? What am i supposed to say/do? What way forward are you offering me in this conversation? Since the target has no immediate power to change things, cannot legitimately apologize for the actions of others, and did not make white privelege happen, they only have a few likely mental defaults in that minisecond: “you must be saying i am a bad person” (cue resentment and defense) and/or “you want something i cant understand, fix, or give you and now im uncomfortable” and/or “i am not even sure where this is going so how can i agree with you and not resist in my mind?” While i’m not suggesting the comfort of white people should be your primary concern or that black people have a continual duty to be educating whites… if we are interested in productive conversation strategies to achieve the goal:
    I think these conversations are more successful when we make sure to include in the same sentence some kind of mental tag forward, some instructive device that can help a mind leapfrog the defensiveness and get on board. It can be anything, just something the target can cling to and agree to. The point is to not continue the cycle of shame and denial. White privelege exists–and we need to teach and model different behavior to our children. …– and we need to write our legislators to ask for more equity in crime sentencing. …– and we can all pray on this topic this week. It’s a small bit of psychological manipulation, but it keeps the target from focusing on it being about them.


  13. Thank you Kronda!

    This is so important and well written. I appreciate your candor and willingness to put yourself out there for the greater good.

    I am African American educator and I am raising racial consciousness at my unconscious Eurocentric school. I have been explaining why all my students benefit from hearing my perspective and breaking the cycle of their Eurocentric education. I am able to highlight things they should know, things they would want to know, but don’t know because our curriculum continues to support the ideals of white supremacy. Initially I got a lot of resistance but as I quiz them about whether they know this fact or that story, they are starting to see that they are many important things that they weren’t taught dealign with ethnic studies and our experiences with racism.

    Like when I told them about he largest act of domestic terrorism (besides what happened to the Indigenous peoples- which is huge and I feel bad writing that as an ‘aside’ but I digress) which was in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 when white racist destroyed the very affluent Black Wall Street and approximately 2000-3000+ people were brutally murdered and bombed.

    Anyway I have recently committed to speaking my truth without regard to white people’s comfort level and it has been not only liberating but educational for those who are forced to listen to me. And though many white people get uncomfortable talking about race or even listening to me speak about it (see #2 on your chart, race? what is race?) , I feel too that they are kinda hungry for someone to help them get it. It’s almost like eating your veggies. You may not want it or seek it out, but you know that at the end of the day, you need it. Anyway, your post makes it easier to help white people become “woke” as my students would say.

    As I do more race work, I have more compassion. Everyone drinks the racist kool aid. For whites they can become unconscious perpetuators of racism and for people of color, we internalize it. We are all taught to cater to white people and see through the eyes of the racial hierarchy. I consider myself ‘woke’ or enlightened to some degree and I will still catch myself behaving in automatic ways that perpetuate white supremacy. I am learned that behavior. But I have a consciousness around it, so I can unlearn it too. Thank you for your contribution to creating a world that is safe for my loved ones, including my beloved students!

    Power to the people,

    Stay black and woke!


  14. Great post! Many thanks. And oh so useful today.


  15. I just want to say thank you for this post. I searched for “the stages of racism” to get an overview for my first attempt to lead a group through unlearning racism, and this is really helpful. So are all of the comments here. What a great discussion! This is helping me to tie together the bits and pieces from my own journey of learning into a structured offering.


    1. Hi Amy. Thanks for the feedback! Hope your group session went well.


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