The 5 Stages of White Privilege Awareness
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.
Get This Thing Off of Me!
My husband, Jason, used to ride his bike to work. He rode every day past the Olympic Sculpture Park near downtown Seattle and one day he came home and told me that his ride that morning had been exquisite. His riding had been so fast, so smooth, so easy. Maybe, he thought, he was getting more fit? Maybe all those months of riding were finally paying off and he could look forward to riding with such ease everyday? But as he sailed down Elliott Avenue full of pride at his new level of physical fitness, he glanced up and saw the flags in the park. They were all billowing hard and flying in the same direction. He realized then, considerably deflated, that he had only felt so powerful and strong because he had been riding with the wind at his back the entire way.
A few years later, during a Faith & Race discussion at our church, Jason likened that morning ride to the pervasive nature of white privilege and it remains one of the best analogies I’ve heard on the subject. If you are a white person in the United States, you have been riding with the wind at your back your entire life. And you have probably never noticed that all the flags around you are flying in the same direction.
Two things in particular brought the flying flags into sharper focus for me. The first was a well-known article by Peggy McIntosh called White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack. In it, McIntosh says,
I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege . . . I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible weightless backpack of
special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.
She goes on to explain in further detail about what can be found in that invisible backpack. If you are unfamiliar with the article, here are a few of the “special provisions” she mentions…
- I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be
followed or harassed.
- I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see
people of my race widely represented.
- When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown
that people of my color made it what it is.
- Whether I use checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work
against the appearance of financial reliability.
- . I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not
- I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without
having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the
illiteracy of my race.
- I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.
- I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
- I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who
constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my culture any penalty for such
- I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and
behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
- I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to “the person in charge,” I will be facing
a person of my race.
- If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I
haven’t been singled out because of my race.
- I can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys,
and children’s magazine featuring people of my race.
- I can choose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or
less match my skin.
After reading through the complete article, I pondered her list in the weeks and months to come. I was embarrassed to admit, even to myself, that I hadn’t considered any of these things. Ever.
The second thing that illuminated my white privilege was a book and a corresponding email discussion with a friend. I can’t remember the name of the book. It was a novel about the friendship between a white woman and a black woman. It’s been over 12 years now and I actually can’t remember much about it except that it brought up many of the same themes as the article on the invisible backpack. The book combined with the article and I suddenly had so many questions. I wasn’t sure where to go; who to ask. I finally decided, with trepidation, to turn to my friend, Janelle, who is black, and asked her if I could email her with some of my questions. It wasn’t her job to educate me and she didn’t need to do it, but she responded with such kindness and she never made me feel embarrassed by my utter and complete ignorance on the subject at hand.
That email conversation with Janelle was a turning point for me. I was suddenly propelled beyond a merely intellectual assent to a set of beliefs about white privilege and into something much more personal. Hearing from my friend about her experience at our predominantly white college and growing up in a mostly white town changed everything. Now there was an actual person involved and I was deeply pained by her story, particularly to realize that I had been part of her circle of white friends in college and as such had interacted with her from a place of un-seeing insensitivity.
This then brought me to firm standing in stage two of white privilege awareness: anger. I was angry about my whiteness, angry about my undue privilege, angry about the wind at my back, angry that I had not noticed, and angry that other people were not yet aware. The burden of the invisible backpack, which was supposed to be undetectable, was suddenly brought to bear and I wanted it off.
Look at Me! Look at Me!
I’m a WPGI!
pronounced “whip-gee” or White Person who Gets It.
Back in 2004 I attended the UYWI conference in Southern California. I found myself standing with a group of friends waiting for one of the sessions to start when one of the women in my group made a crack about white people. Jason had wandered off in search of some food so I was the only white person left in the circle and I wasn’t sure what to do; how to respond. Should I laugh? Nod knowingly? Pretend I hadn’t heard? I don’t remember exactly what I did but I do remember wanting to show them that I was cool with it. I got it. No big deal. I’m a WPGI.
A couple years later in 2007, while attending our church’s Faith & Race seminar, I said something in my small group about my eagerness to learn more and one of the men of color in my group responded by saying gently, “It’s not my job to teach you anything.” I was aghast. Not because I felt like he had misunderstood my meaning. Not because I had said something stupid. I felt agitated and anxious because I was worried about losing my street cred. I wanted him, and everyone in my group, to know that I’ve got this stuff down. I am white. I am privileged. I’ve got the backpack. I’ve got the wind at my back and I know it. All hail to the people of color. You know, ’cause I’m a WPGI.
Once we pass through denial and anger, we desperately want the world to know that we GET IT. We post status updates and pictures on Facebook that demonstrate just how much we get it. We let slip during oh-so-casual conversations that we love kimchee or mole or pho. We laugh uproariously at jokes we don’t fully understand, even jokes at our own expense. We write blog posts about white privilege awareness.
Here, though, is the primary problem with Stage Three: it’s a fallacy. There is no such thing as a WPGI. They don’t actually exist. For the white person who has moved through the first two stages of awareness, bulking up and trying to throw our weight around as a WPGI is really just a form of bargaining that stems from some semblance of survivor’s guilt. If we can just show you that we understand; that we get it; that we are aware of the wind at our back; we might be given a small reprieve and our crushing sense of culpability allowed to recede.
I wanted my friends at the conference to feel like I was one of them. I wanted to be the cool, aware, humble white one allowed inside the inner circle. But I will never know what it is like to be a person of color. I will never know what it is like to sit by my friends in the cafeteria and eat food that looks and smells strange to them. I will never know what it is like to have my hair touched by curious hands. I will never wonder whether or not I was accepted to my college of choice because of the color of my skin. I will never be called a credit to my race. I will never know what it is like to have my husband followed discreetly in a department store. I will never know the anguish of a mother whose teenaged son played his music just a little too loud and payed the ultimate price. I will never know. I will never get it. Trying to prove that I do, while perhaps threaded with some measure of good intention, is merely a demonstration of my arrogance and my presumption. And ultimately it only serves to show just how much I DON’T understand.
Sometime around 2009 I began to notice a waning of personal enthusiasm during discussions of race. I was no longer striving to be a WPGI, my anger had started to dull around the edges and I was beginning to wallow. In the intervening years since that email conversation with my friend, Janelle, I had slowly peeled away and peered into some of the deeper recesses of racism and the result was an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.
I was taught in school that the civil rights movement had by and large eliminated racism. That’s the official party line. The unjust laws were overturned at last. Everything is now fair and square and the playing field all but leveled. But in reality, while the civil rights movement did change the rules of the game and made things “fair” for all, the starting line is still substantially staggered, with white folks continuing to get a rather hefty head start.
I was first introduced to the concept of a staggered starting line when I read an interview with NYU sociologist Dalton Conley on PBS. A staggered starting line is found when one looks at something like the racial wealth gap in the United States, for example. As Conley explains, “It takes money to make money. Part of the reason that there’s this enormous gap is because whites have long had higher wages and wealth to pass on from generation to generation.” In fact, he points out, 50-80% of our lifetime wealth accumulation is due to past generations. Staggered starting line.
As of 2010 71% of whites owned their own home compared to 45% of blacks and 47% of Latinos. While most Americans might equate that with white folks pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps in pursuit of the illustrious American Dream, it’s much more deleterious than that. Following World War II, the government gave low-interest loans to returning veterans and other whites but excluded blacks and other minorities from taking part. I can directly trace my home ownership to the wealth and home ownership of my grandparents and my husband’s grandparents (and likely much farther back). We used some form of money from both sides of our white families to help us purchase not one, but TWO homes. My black friends don’t necessarily have those generations of wealth and home ownership to draw from because their ancestors were excluded. Staggered starting line.
The National Center for Children in Poverty reports that higher education is one of the most effective ways that parents can raise their families’ incomes. And children from a family with college-educated parents are nearly three times more likely to reach college than a person whose parents did not, according to the US Census Bureau. Both of my white parents went to college. My husband’s white mother went to college. They all attended university in the 1960s when discriminatory laws and attitudes excluded most blacks and other minorities from attending, thus putting both me and my husband in higher income brackets as children and greatly increasing our odds of going to college ourselves. Staggered starting line.
Being white with white ancestors means that I have started several rungs higher on the proverbial ladder than my black friends and that realization feels incapacitating at times. Demoralizing. Depressing. It’s tempting to just shrug, shake it all off and say, “I’m not responsible for the past. That was then and this is now.” But the truth is that we are all “inheritors of the past,” as Conley puts it, and our inglorious history has bequeathed us with this staggered starting line. Only the person at the front of such a starting line wants to believe that everyone else is being given a fair shot. But the reality remains that every white person in this country, regardless of current or past financial status; regardless of educational status; regardless of their belief or lack thereof in white privilege; every last one of us benefits from the legacy of slavery that set us up with a system of such vast inequity that it continues to linger on to this day.
When I mentioned to a white friend that I was working on this series about white privilege, her eyes lit up and she said, “Oh, that’s GREAT! I would really like to know what I’m supposed to do. Nobody ever tells us what to do with it.” I knew exactly what she meant but I fretted all the way home, thinking, “well, dang, how am I supposed to figure out what to do? I haven’t a clue.” And that’s where a lot of us get stuck, I think. We get stuck in stage 4, depressed and unsure of our next move. We become incapacitated by our guilt and while we remain solidly aware of our privilege, we operate almost solely out of a sense of culpability and contrition.
It’s ok to feel guilty. Dr. Brené Brown says that guilt can be “adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.” Brown believes that guilt can actually be the precursor to meaningful and lasting change. Increasing your awareness about your privilege ought to make you feel guilty but it also ought to propel you forward. To what, though? This is the hard question of Stage Five. What now?
One of the reasons that I felt such distress after my conversation with my friend was because there are no straightforward answers. There is no to-do list whereby you can systematically check things off one by one in order to find absolution. Stage Five is about acceptance and a willingness to sit in a state of perpetual unease without trying to alleviate it. It’s about leaning into the discomfort of your awareness and then using that discomfort as a catalyst to change your life trajectory.
Stage Five is taking a closer look at your neighborhood and choosing to live somewhere that is not entirely homogenous. It is a closer scrutiny of the schools you choose for your children to attend; eating food that seems foreign or frightening; reading a novel that examines issues of race; exploring the history of your family and tracing some of those threads of privilege that are inextricably woven throughout its entire existence.
It is giving your employees the day off for our national holiday commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. It is advocating for more accountability in our legal system. It is speaking out against the sentencing disparities and selective enforcement of our nation’s drug laws.
It is asking questions and hearing the stories of other people, even after you think you’ve got it all figured out. It is continuing the conversation with your Sikh neighbor even though you made the incorrect assumption that he was muslim because of his turban and you are deeply embarrassed. It is teaching your kids about the wind that will be at their backs their entire lives. It is taking a meal to the black mama across the street whose kids play at the same playground as your kids who is reeling after the Dunn shooting and saying, “I am so sorry that this has happened again. I am so sorry that a white man has shot another black child. I am so, so sorry and I grieve with you.”
Perhaps these things seem paltry? Insignificant. I think they feel woefully inadequate because they are woefully inadequate. We want answers and we want a check list because we want to set things right. We want to make some sort of amends. We want justice; restitution. But there will be no easy absolution for our race.
It is no coincidence that I connected the 5 Stages of White Privilege Awareness to the 5 Stages of Grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Every stage is an experience in grief. Each stage an anguish. But even in the midst of great grief, even in the darkest of hours, hope lives. So we hope. We hope and we stand in solidarity. We advocate and we listen. We make space for the grief and the anger and the hurt and the frustration that we will never fully understand. And we let our voices rise up to sing with the multitudes who have been singing for generations before us; Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us; a song full of the hope that the present has brought us. Facing the rising sun of our new day begun. Let us march on till victory is won.
Want more? Here are a few things to keep the conversation rolling. If you have suggestions for other reading material or resources, please share in the comments.