A Love Letter to All the Overwhelmed White People Who Are Trying
You may not know my name, but you probably heard about what I did.
In 2018, when my video of two Black men unjustly arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks went viral, I was thrust into an international conversation about race, and as a middle-aged white lady, I was overwhelmed, confused and ashamed, to say the least. That’s probably how you’re feeling right about now, minus the onslaught of media in your life.
That day in Starbucks, I didn’t just see Donte and Rashon as Black, but I saw myself as white. And truthfully, not just saw, but felt. I felt my whiteness. And that was a revelation to me as it may be to you at this moment. But in the days, weeks, months and years since Starbucks, I have come to firmly believe one crucial concept. For however many years you have been on this earth, like me you likely have not considered your race as an essential part of your identity.
Of course I knew I was white, just like you do. I just didn’t consciously identify myself that way. Maybe it’s because it felt like it was unnecessary to acknowledge, or because it felt like the default, or because it felt embarrassing for reasons I could not yet articulate. But before that day, “white” was in the silent backdrop of how I defined myself, and then, the day I went viral, something shifted. I suddenly saw my own race as important, as having meaning, meaning that I had yet to fully understand.
Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison said, “No one ever talks about the moment you found out that you were white. Or the moment you found out you were black. That’s a profound revelation. The minute you find that out, something happens. You have to renegotiate everything.” And that’s what I did then, and what I continue to do now.
As you are likely doing, I ravenously consumed information about race and racism. I watched, read and listened to everything I could get my hands on and the more I consumed, the more confused I became. After spending a week appearing on national television being asked my opinion (My opinion? How could I have an opinion?) about what needs to happen in this country to eradicate racism, I was more paralyzed than I had ever been about something so foundational to who I am as an individual and as a member of society — my own race and its meaning.
Eventually I found my way to academia — and the concept of white identity development. There is a whole field of study on the psychological stages we go through when we grapple with our racial identity. Much like the stages of grief, the stages we go through are not linear, perfectly normal and expected.
In 1990, psychologist Dr. Janet Helms developed a now often-referenced and studied theory on white racial identity development. The basics of the theory include six identity “statuses” that define a white person’s likely pattern in responding to situations that involve race. The stages start with contact (when you’re basically oblivious) then, with exposure to new information or more contact with people of color, move to the disintegration stage (guilt, shame, and sometimes denial). At this point, a person could move to the reintegration stage (fear, anger and resentment of people of color) or, with some positive motivation, to pseudoindependence (an intellectual understanding of systemic racism and the recognition that they have some personal responsibility to dismantle it). The final stages are immersion/emersion (actively trying to figure out what significance their race has in society) and autonomy (a deep understanding and commitment to being actively antiracist in your everyday life). This theory has been further developed by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum and other scholars, so if you’re like me and need to have every single bit of information, I encourage you to do some deeper reading.
Going through these stages takes time. But it also takes a sincere desire to push through when you feel defensive or ashamed or guilty. It takes humility. And it takes a deep desire to know all parts of yourself, even if they are parts you may not like. Sociologist Robin DiAngelo, in her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Race,” says, “If I can’t hold what it means to be white, I can’t hold what it means not to be white.” What does it mean to be white, and why should you care to find out? A decade in therapy has taught me that the parts of yourself that you can’t or won’t see or acknowledge always find their way out in damaging, hurtful or dangerous ways, both for yourself and for the people around you. Examining that part of myself has led me to intentionally work to cleanse the clouded lens I was born and raised with so that I can actually do better, see better, and be better as a human being, and yes, more free, more comfortable in my (white) skin, and more fully and authentically myself in all of my relationships.
So my advice to you, having been where you are, is to sit back and listen. Don’t talk unless in white spaces to interrupt racism and to tell others you are on the path to antiracism (please join us at @privtoprog on all social media platforms, the organization I cofounded with Michelle Saahene, the first person to speak up in the Starbucks that day). You will make mistakes, you will need to sit with that, and no matter how uncomfortable you feel, you will need to push through. It’s too easy to get stuck in your feelings and give up. Don’t. I hope hearing about my experience allows you to take your guilt and shame and turn it into an opportunity to use your privilege for progress. You can find me at From Privilege to Progress for more advice and information. I hope to see you there.