The 5 Stages of White Privilege Awareness

Stage One:
I’m not a racist!


When I was 19-years-old I went on a Spring Break trip to the Harambee Center in Pasadena.  We spent the week working in different parts of the city, doing home visits with some families in Watts, and discussing various issues relating to race and reconciliation.  On our first night in Pasadena I remember listening to a white man talk about race and he opened with this line to a group of 50 college students, the vast majority of whom were white: “You are all racists.  Every last one of you.”

Obviously not one for easing into things, that guy.  I was sitting near the back and I remember thinking, “WHAT???  Are you kidding me with this?  I am not a racist.  My boyfriend in high school was totally Korean.  How could I be a racist if I dated someone who wasn’t white?  I don’t think so. No way.”   I’d like to say that I listened with an open ear and thus began a lifelong quest of inner examination and contemplation surrounding race.  But I didn’t.  I completely tuned him out, full of my own righteous indignation.

Last week in Florida yet another jury let yet another white man off the hook for killing yet another black teenager.   I’ve served on a criminal jury myself so I understand some of the nuances of the law and how hard it can be to convict someone of something when you are splitting hairs over definitions of degree and struggling to decipher the legal lingo.  But when the interview with juror number 8 was aired and she claimed that race was not a factor whatsoever in the jury deliberations because “nobody brought up race,” news sources seemed to agree that it was settled then; that because nobody mentioned race during the deliberations, it clearly wasn’t a factor.  Fair and square.  Done deal.  If it’s not spoken or outwardly apparent, it doesn’t exist.

Nobody likes to be called a racist and at least part of our problem comes in the definition.  Racism, as defined by Merriam Webster, is (1) the poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race and (2) the belief that some races of people are better than others.  Most of us, when considering whether or not we are racist, look to that first definition.  Racist?  Not a chance!  We have never treated someone poorly or, heaven forbid, resorted to violence against someone because of their race.  We wouldn’t dream of it.  Taking stock of that first definition leaves most of us feeling like our conscience is clear and ready to defy anyone who would challenge us on it, like I did in Pasadena more than a decade ago.

But how about the second half of the definition?  The belief that some races of people are better than others.  This is where the line starts to get a little fuzzy.  Our first response might still be, “Me?  No way!  I don’t think that way!”   But upon closer examination we see another story playing out.

Take for example the studies that show that children, even black children, have a clear preference for white dolls over black ones — a distressing truth originally found in the 1940s but STILL remains the case all these years later.

Or the fact that most people on welfare are white but that most Americans think the majority of welfare recipients are black.

Or the findings of scientist, Eric Hehman, that President Obama’s blackness has an inverse effect on his perceived level of “Americanness.”

Our workforce still remains strongly stratified by race.  We continue to perpetuate the myth that black fathers are more absent than most when recent findings actually show that black fathers are more involved with their kids than any other race in the US.  And more than 40% of Americans think it’s ok to wear blackface on Halloween.

But still, we argue.  WE aren’t part of that.   

This, here, is the critical juncture.  This is the point at which we either keep shouting “not me!  not me!  not me!” or we admit that even though we may not fully understand it, we are a part of this.  We are the dominant race in a country whose kids are choosing white dolls over black ones; whose preschoolers make the black kids play the part of the “bad guys” on the playground; whose black citizens are imprisoned for drug possession at a wildly disproportionate rate compared to their white counterparts; whose white students routinely outnumber Latino and Black students in the gifted programs in our schools despite the fact that science shows giftedness to occur at exactly the same rate across all racial groups.  The belief that some races of people are better than others evidently exists at least on some level, although it might be simmering so far beneath the surface for some of us that we are unaware of it.

So even if we have never uttered a single word that could be construed as racist, even if we believe ourselves to be entirely above reproach, we have to be willing to look at the larger landscape and see that something is amiss.  And whether we are aware of it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we want it to be this way or not, we are an inextricable part of that landscape.  That is where I found myself about a year after that night in Pasadena; scratching my head and saying, “huh, there might be something more to this than I realized.”   But I had to stop fighting first.  I had to settle down and stop defending myself so ardently.  Only then was I was able to begin the hard work of digging down through those deeper, more painful, layers of my own prejudices and (gasp!) racism.


Click HERE for Stage One: I’m Not a Racist!
Click HERE for Stage Two: Get This Thing Off of Me!
Click HERE for Stage Three: Look at Me!  Look at Me!  I’m a WPGI!
Click HERE for Stage Four: Awareness Fatigue
Click HERE for Stage Five: What Now?

And for the complete series all in one place, click HERE.

  • Hannah

    I’m looking forward to this week’s posts! Today, I particularly liked the line “we have to be willing to look at the larger landscape and see that something is amiss.” So true!

  • kathryn seattle

    Have you hear of:
    I read about it in a book… forgetting which one at the moment. You can test yourself to see how readily you associate certain racial attributes with certain virtues. Anyway, according to the book (dang which one?!) if you fight your first instinct to associate a certain race with a good or bad word it’ll be revealed in the amount of time it took you to answer, thus revealing your true thoughts…. You can also take the test a lot, fighting your instincts each time, to eventually brainwash yourself to not associate attributes to race anymore… I haven’t taken the time to do either but probably should. :) Note: I didn’t go to Harvard so my description of this test is probably terrible.

    • kathryn seattle

      Alright, I decided to take the test myself and this is my result after one time through:
      “You have completed the African American – European American IAT.

      Your Result
      Your data suggest a slight automatic preference for European American compared to African American.”

      I suppose I already assumed that. For me I think being aware of my preferences and their fallacies is really the first step to recovery. This is a very interesting topic, at least to me. :)

    • nance

      That sounds really interesting, Kathryn! Thanks for the link. I’ll have to check it out.

  • Joshua Sherman

    Finding this interesting so far. You’re asking some great questions and have given some thought provoking examples of the extent of this systemic problem.

    One minor correction- as a demographic there IS a greater level of absence among fathers in the black community. This is not a myth.

    The author of the ThinkProgress article may have made an honest mistake in the way they interpreted the chart and study they saw (likely passing on this misunderstanding on to you.) The chart they listed, the study they cited, and the LA Times article they linked to were all woefully obtuse or inadequate in addressing the single most important question in understanding these statistics: What percentage of fathers of each race actually lives with their children vs the percentage that are absent?

    The US Census has numbers on this and they paint a vastly different picture than the narrative provided on ThinkProgress. For example, only 5.4% of white households in 2013 consisted of a single mother with children under 25 (4.3% with children under 18.) Among blacks it was 17.7% with children under 25 (14.8% with children under 18.) That means that as a group black fathers are on the right side of the NCHS chart 3 times more often than white fathers. Therefore, demographically speaking, they are significantly less involved in their children’s lives, not equally or more involved as the ThinkProgress author seemed to think.

    If you want to look at the numbers yourself, check out table H3 here:

    Please note that I’m not making any claims on why this is the case. And since I haven’t looked extensively at the cause(s) it would be premature to make any specific value judgments based on what I’ve presented. Nor am I trying to apply demographic trends to any particular individuals.

    I simply want to see stronger families and better lives for everyone in our country, and believe that accurately recognizing where we are is an important step towards progress in working together to make this a reality.

    • noncers

      You’re right – the percentage of black families without a father living at home IS higher. Thank you for the info and numbers.

      The article I linked was looking at rates of involvement across the various racial groups, specifically for dads who did NOT live at home. The Pew Research Center estimates that 67% of black dads who don’t live with their kids stay involved with them on a regular basis, compared to 59% of white dads.

      • Joshua Sherman

        This may be a question of what’s specific to the myth vs what’s relevant to the overall topic of paternal involvement.

        Both of the following are true:

        1) Demographically, black fathers are more involved than their white or latino counterparts when compared within the same living situation.
        2) Demographically, black fathers are less involved with their kids overall, mostly because they live with their kids less often than whites or latinos.

        For any folks that envision black fathers at home with their kids but disengaged more than white fathers, or that think that black fathers that don’t live with their kids just disappear and stop being involved, this provides a needed correction.

        For the group of black men within each generation that are worried about whether they will be a good father, this provides both hope and a challenge. It provides hope in that these stats underline that there is nothing inherent to blackness that affects one’s potential as a father. The challenge is that they need to be intentional in decisions they can control that may impact whether or not they end up living with their kids if they want to reach their full potential for paternal involvement.

        I’ve attached 2 graphs that show this in detail. I’m happy to share the Excel sheet if that’s of interest.

        Note- this does not begin to address causation or look at the various relevant factors (culture, socio-economic factors, education, etc.) But it’s a good step towards more fully understanding the situation.

        Lastly – the absence of Asians and other minorities in this comparison is due to limits in the data/sample size of the NCHS survey.

    • Andrew Lyke

      I believe that the new study shows that African-American fathers who are engaged with their children are more highly engaged. That’s important to note. As we work to strengthen family life among African Americans, it good to have solid evidence of extraordinary modeling within the community.

      • Joshua Sherman


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