The 5 Stages of White Privilege Awareness
I’m not a racist!
When I was 19 I went on a Spring Break trip to Los Angeles. There were 50 of us and we spent our days working throughout the city at various nonprofits and community centers and our evenings discussing issues of race and justice. On the first night of the trip, while we ate pizza and decompressed from the day, we listened to a welcome talk given by a white man who worked at the neighborhood center where we would be sleeping each night. His opening line to us was this: “You are all racists. Every. last. one of you.”
Not one for easing into things, that guy. Consistent with the demographics of the small private Christian college I attended, the overwhelming majority of our group was white. I was sitting near the back and I remember thinking, “Excuse me??? Who are you calling racist? My high school boyfriend was totally Korean. How could I be a racist if I dated someone who wasn’t white? No way.” I’d like to say that despite my discomfort I listened with an open mind and thus began a lifelong quest of inner examination and contemplation surrounding race and my own whiteness. But I didn’t. I completely tuned him out, full of my own righteous indignation.
It might have helped if our speaker had defined his terms. And maybe he did, I wouldn’t know. Understanding the terms is important. I didn’t like being called a racist. Nobody does. But the problem stems largely, I think, from the definition; the designations we make for what racism is and isn’t. So let’s start there. Racism, as defined by Merriam Webster, is:
- (a) the poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race and/or
- (b) the belief that some races of people are better than others.
When I considered whether or not I was racist, I was looking to that first part of the definition. Racist? Not a chance! I have never treated someone poorly or, heaven forbid, resorted to violence against someone because of their race. I wouldn’t dream of it. Taking stock of that first definition left me feeling like my conscience was clear and ready to defy anyone who would challenge me on it. My dukes were up.
But the second half of the definition — the belief that some races of people are better than others — is where the line started to get a little fuzzy. My first response was still a stubborn, “Me? No way! I don’t think that!” But on closer examination even I had to admit that there was another story was playing out, both in the culture and in my own mind. There are studies, I discovered, that show that children, even black children, have a clear preference for white dolls over black ones. This was originally discovered by husband and wife psychologists, Kenneth and Mamie Clark, in the 1940s and, if you’re like me, you probably assume it’s an outdated study. Certainly we’ve come a long way since the 1940s. That was then and this is now. But Kiri Davis repeated the study in 2006 and found that the results hadn’t changed.
There’s also the fact that most people on welfare are white — whites actually take in a whopping 69% of government benefits — but most Americans think the majority of welfare recipients are black. 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 the opposite. And we continue to uphold and perpetuate the myth of Asians as the “model minority.”
But still, I argued with myself. I’m not part of that.
This, here, was the critical juncture for me. It was the point at which I realized I could either keep shouting “not me! not me! not me!” or I could admit that even though I might not fully understand it, I am a part of this. I am part of 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 does exist, at least on some level, although it apparently simmers so far beneath the surface that many of us, myself included, are often wholly unaware of it. I kept looking at the first half of the definition and exonerating myself. But I eventually realized that even if I had never uttered a single word that could be construed as “racist,” I was still racist. I know this because, even now, after years of self-reflection and efforts to override my conditioning and socialization, when I hear about an accomplished scientist or brilliant author, my mind conjures a white person. The belief that some races of people are better than others.
Even though I had believed myself to be entirely above reproach all those years ago, I finally came to a place where I could look at the larger landscape and see that something was amiss; and that I, myself, was an inextricable part of the landscape. The U.S. has a systemic problem with race and I am part of the system. That is where I found myself about a year after that night in LA: alone in my apartment, eating a hearty piece of humble pie and wondering how I had been so blind. It took me longer than it should have but I got there eventually. But I had to stop fighting first. I had to settle down, stop defending myself in order to allow these other stories to unfold before me. It was only after I stopped fighting that I was able to see the world, and our country in particular, in new ways. And that was when I was finally ready to begin the hard work of digging down through those deeper, more painful, layers of my own prejudices.
Get This Thing Off of Me!
My husband 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 morning ride had been exquisite. It 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 happened to glance up and notice 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, so strong because he had been riding with the wind at his back.
This is what white privilege looks like. If you are a white person in the United States, regardless of class or status, regardless of how broke you are or how hard your life has been (none of this should be minimized in any way, it’s just not the point of what we’re talking about here), you have been riding with the wind at your back your entire life. And if you’re like me, you probably never noticed.
There’s 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.
McIntosh 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 the article, originally penned in 1988, I pondered McIntosh’s list for weeks. It was a few years after my trip to Los Angeles and I was embarrassed to admit, even to myself, that I hadn’t considered any of these things. Ever. Which is the point.
Around the same time I read a book that further illuminated the unacknowledged privileges I enjoyed. I don’t recall the name of the book but I remember it was a novel about the friendship between two women; one black and one white. It brought up many of the same themes as McIntosh’s article and I suddenly had so many questions. Is what I’m reading reflective of reality for Black women? Is so, what is my role in it? What does it all mean? What now?
I wasn’t sure where to go with my questions; 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 profound kindness despite my utter and complete ignorance on the subject at hand.
That email conversation with Janelle was a turning point for me. It propelled me beyond an 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 friends in college and had likely 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.
In 2004 I attended an urban youth workers conference in Southern California. I found myself one afternoon standing with a group of friends waiting for a session to start when one of the women in my group made a crack about white people. I was the only white person in the group and I wasn’t sure what to do or 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. It’s fine, I’m a WPGI.
A few years later in 2007, while attending our church’s Faith & Race conference, I said something in my small group about my eagerness to learn more from the people in my group. One of the men of color in my group leaned forward and 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. No, I felt agitated and anxious because I was worried about losing my street cred. I wanted him, and everyone else 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 I had passed through the stages of denial and anger, I desperately wanted the world to know that I GOT IT. I’m sure that those of you who have passed through those first two stages know what I’m talking about. 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 essays 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. The guilt feels intolerable. And I believed, for a time, that if I could just show the world that I understood; that I got it; that I am aware of the wind at my back; I might be given a small reprieve and my 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.
Ten years after that night in L.A. I began to notice a waning of personal enthusiasm during discussions of race. I had given up on being 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, both personal and cultural, and the result was an overwhelming sense of hopelessness.
Like all American kids I had been 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. Everything is now fair and square; the playing field leveled. But in reality, while the civil rights movement did change the rules of the game in an attempt to make things “fair” for all, the starting line is still substantially staggered, with white folks getting a rather hefty head start.
According to NYU sociologist Dalton Conley, a staggered starting line is found when one looks at something like the racial wealth gap in the United States. 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 in the U.S. is due to past generations. That’s a 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 the 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 (via inheritance when our grandparents died) to help us purchase our home. We couldn’t have done it without them. 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 thus 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 friends of color 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. It’s not like I made the laws.” But the truth is that I am an “inheritor of the past,” as Conley puts it — as we all are — 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 to this day.
When I mentioned to a white friend that I was working on an essay about white privilege, her eyes lit up and she said, “Oh, that’s GREAT! Are you going to tell us what to do? Nobody ever tells us what to do.” I knew exactly what she meant but I fretted all the way home because I wasn’t sure I had any suitable answers. This is 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 aware of our privilege, we operate almost solely out of a sense of culpability and contrition.
Here’s the thing: It’s ok to feel guilty. Dr. Brené Brown says that guilt can actually 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 is the precursor to meaningful and lasting change. Increasing your awareness about your privilege ought to make you feel guilty. How could it not? 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 we can systematically check things off one by one in order to find absolution. Stage Five involves 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.
For my husband and me part of Stage Five has meant taking a closer look at our neighborhood and choosing to live somewhere that is not entirely homogeneous. It meant a closer scrutiny of the schools we chose for our children; eating food that might feel foreign or frightening; reading books that examine other narratives than our own; exploring the history of our families and tracing some of those threads of privilege that are woven throughout its entire existence. It’s meant asking questions and hearing the stories of other people, even after we think we’ve got it all figured out. It’s meant teaching our kids about the wind at their backs.
Maybe for you it will mean giving your employees the day off for our national holiday commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Maybe it’s advocating for more accountability in our legal system. Or speaking out against the sentencing disparities and selective enforcement of our nation’s drug laws. Maybe it means taking a meal after the Davis, Martin, Rice, Brown, fill-in-the-blank shooting to your Black friend across the street whose kids play at the same playground as your kids and saying simply, “I am so sorry that this has happened again. I am so sorry. I grieve with you.”
Do these things seem paltry? Insignificant. I think they feel woefully inadequate because they are woefully inadequate. We want answers and we want a checklist 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 Five Stages of White Privilege Awareness to the Five Stages of Grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Every stage has been an experience in grief. Each step 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 center other people’s stories. 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 a song that does not belong to us but to which we can join our voices from the back, with the multitudes who have already 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.
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.
- Take this fascinating test. Select “RACE IAT.”
- Read the full article about the invisible backpack.
- Read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
- Read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
- Check out This…is White Privilege
- Feel like this doesn’t apply to you because you are broke and have never had a leg up in your life? Remember that class privilege is not the same thing as race privilege. Check out this article to delve into that a little further.
- Read The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness by Michelle Alexander
- Read the anthology White Privilege by Paula Rothenberg
- Read Dear White Christians by Jennifer Harvey
- Watch 13th on Netflix
- For a closer look at why this should matter to Christians, watch Dr. Brian Bantum’s sermon given at Quest Church in Seattle.
- Need a laugh while you keep learning? Check out this comedy piece by Aamer Rahman.
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?