I Don’t Feel Bad About Being White, 2
Parent, teacher, activist, religious folk, and anyone else reading,
Two questions for you:
- Are you white or do you have white people in your life?
- Have you ever thought it was important to develop your (or your students’ or child’s): ability to express emotions? or nutritional habits? or intellectual understanding? or general capacity for ‘–x–’ [fill in blank] by doing ‘–y–’ [fill in blank] in order to grow as a human being?
If you answered “yes” to any of this then racial identity development theory is for you!
So, I need to nuance my recent proclamation about being white and not feeling bad about it. Here’s the nuance:
- Sometimes some of us do feel bad about being white.
- This is totally normal.
It’s part of this thing called “racial identity development,” which I first read about in a most amazing book, A Race is a Nice Thing to Have: A Guide to Being White or Understanding the White Persons in Your Life by psychologist Janet E. Helms. (The title alone screams, “read me!”)
The basic idea is this: In a society where race is everywhere, developing a racial identity is as much a part of our lives as is developing a gender identity or developing emotionally or intellectually. We all do it. Even white folks.
And, just like any kind of development, there are better and worse, healthier and unhealthier, more whole and more fragmented ways to develop and grow. And, just like any kind of development, if we know something about how it works, there are things we can do to support our own (or our students’ or our children’s) growth.
So do any of the following descriptions of stages of white identity development look familiar to you?
(**With thanks to the also amazing Mary Foulke for much of the paraphrasing below.)
Contact Stage: Here a white person hasn’t yet encountered any moral dilemmas caused by racism and generally has “positive feelings” about people of color. The belief that we have an “equal” society is pretty much accepted at face value.
Disintegration Stage: Uh oh. Encounter(s) with racism cause the white person to realize people are treated differently based on race. This causes inner conflict and cognitive dissonance. “What do you mean we’re not all equal?” Or, “If we’re not all treated equally, what does equal even mean?”
Now cognitive dissonance is stressful. To get rid of that stress one tries to re-create a coherent understanding of reality (smoothing the contradictions between “equality claims” and realities of racism). And in how we respond disintegration, then, whites make a huge, pivotal choice.
Reintegration Stage: One response looks like this or a variation of it: “Well, white people must in fact be better or at least the ‘most normal’ after all, and all those problems people of color have must be their own fault and/or inferiority.” This person may develop fear or anger towards people of color, and/or experience anxiety in racially diverse situations.
(Reading this description you may say, “there it is: the racist!” And, yes, true. But wait. Our responses to this person rightly vary depending on whether it’s the family member we’ve had the same damn argument with 500 times or the 19-year-old who only knows what she’s been taught. But recognizing there’s a developmental issue here—for some people beliefs are symptoms of an attempt to integrate contradictory experiences—potentially opens up really different intervention strategies than merely dismissing this person as a recalcitrant human being.)
Pseudo-Independent Stage: The other response looks like the white person who concludes racism, rather than people of color, is the problem and that white people are the one’s who perpetuate it. “So . . . what I’ve been taught is ‘normal’ isn’t normal after all. Equality isn’t really all that true.” This person tends to experience high anxiety in encounters with racism.
Here’s one important thing. People in this place often do feel bad about being white. This is the “white guilt” place. This is also the place, I think, where a lot of us white liberal types live.
Recognizing this “feel bad” place as normal reduces its power. This is critical because if we want to effectively engage in meaningful anti-racist living (or support our students’ or children in doing the same) we cannot stay stuck in this place.
I had a friend once who discovered a helpful analogy here. Late for a meeting, it dawned on her as she sat stuck on the subway feeling bad about being late that sitting around feeling bad about being white was about as meaningful for actually doing something about racism as forcing herself to stand up during her subway ride would be for actually doing something about her lateness.
In this “feel bad” place the white person has rejected a negative (superiority-based) sense of their racial identity (that’s good!) but hasn’t put together a positive racial identity (that’s bad!). Without a coherent sense of identity it’s difficult to take meaningful action (I’m just gonna punish myself by standing up). More insidious, we may find ourselves romanticizing or trying to appropriate the identities of others (I’m gonna look down with a big, syrupy smile on my face at those who are sitting down so they know I realize how much they deserve to sit while I suffer standing; yuck).
I don’t happen to myself love the language of “positive white identity.” But when Helms and other similarly amazing psychologists (see Beverly Daniel Tatum and Robert T. Carter) use that language, by definition they mean an identity built on antiracist commitment, abilities and activity.
So how do we move in to more coherent identity? Turns out, there’s life beyond white guilt!
Immersion/Emersion Stage: Here one starts to ask ‘who am I racially?’ ‘who do I want to be? and finds ways to immerse herself in struggles with racism. She also revisits prior feelings about race and racism and better understands where they came from. This place, writes Helms, can be “akin to a religious rebirth.” Cool.
And even one more.
Autonomy Stage: Here’s the white person experiences the absence of a need to denigrate or idealize people based on group membership and has an increasing awareness of the complexity of racism and other forms of oppression. She experiences a desire to learn form others who are different (without romanticizing such people in the process).
I would add to autonomy too the recognition that anger and outrage against racism is possible for the white person and that anger is the productive move out of the ineffective stance of white guilt. I would also add that here there is less anxiety experienced in encounters with racism and more often coherent, empowered challenges to it. Also cool.
We act our way out of the “feel bad” place and into healthier places, even when we don’t get it just right (oops, I set my alarm earlier to be on time, but forgot to iron my shirt—so, I’m still late but not quite as late as last time!).
Of course, none of this is about a completion or final realization. We never arrive and stay. (If I get in great shape by running for a year, but then quit, I don’t stay in the place of “in great shape.” I have to keep running.) It’s all always about a process.
And I think it might be better to understand these “stages” as something more like frameworks. They’re operative interpretations and understandings through which we see the self and the world and then make choices about how to act in response. Sometimes they overlap with each other, or we use more than one at a time.
But the point is, if you’re on this journey (and/or trying to support other white people in this journey), please don’t think you need to reinvent the wheel. Educator, parent, clergy, activist, I urge you to check this stuff out. There are people out there who’ve been figuring this white race thing out for a long time, with brilliance and genius that they’ve generously shared with the rest of us.
Check it out. You just might find you move (or help someone else move) from that “feel bad” place more quickly than you could ever have imagined possible.
And the more of us who do that? Well . . . not to be hyperbolic . . . but the more we’re going to really undo this thing in all the places that we live.