Words by Sahar Mushin
Who are you and how have you become this?
I’ve often heard it said in social justice circles, and witnessed myself, the denial, or innate inability, for many “white” Euro-Americans – those uninformed on education to counter oppression – to recognize themselves as racial beings. Forgetting for a moment systemic oppression, or the internalization of stereotypes about People of color, white people often get awkward or defensive just by being called white. The flip side of this is white people who are uncomfortable describing a person of color to another by acknowledging their race (“what did he look like” “um…he was a…. black guy”). These individuals often fall into the same category of people who swear they are color blind.
There is a concept in social justice describing how white people place intention above consequence. At early stages of racial identity formation, white people are defensive: unwilling to acknowledge having perpetrated harm. A person of color points out to a white person that their actions or words form a microaggression that was trauma triggering, and the white person respond with, “I’m a good person; I can’t be racist” – as if racism is only the intra-personal, and not largely systemic and internalized. This stage of identity formation in a white person is marked by a lack of self realization.
I’ve similarly heard cis-people, arguing the use of cis (born in the bodies gender you identify with). I myself, at my first circle of acknowledging pronouns, said, “Well, I don’t care what people use for me.” Someone was kind enough to inform me, “Well, some people do care, and if you make an effort, they will be more comfortable to acknowledge how they chose to identify. Nowadays, in spaces, I routinely name my pronouns (she/her they/them or anything said with love).
The Dominant Social Value
How deep do people walk themselves into conditioned traps, such as the unconscious euro-centric fixation on individualism, which is an example of ethnocentric monoculturalism. Many cultures believe in collectivism, so why does one cultural opinion dominate; why do people believe white is right?
This narrow minded ideal of individualism has led to the trap of isolation. People are so spiritually deprived from authentic nourishing human connection that they grasp at void fillers and enter into digital dissonance looking for connection in all the wrong places.
This sense of a void, this seeking for connection, shows the rift in our ability to be in healthy contact with a group or tribe. From another perspective, as a deeply spiritual person, I understand every momentary sense of loss as an echo of the original separation. It is, as if, being born into a world of duality and separation has left a permanent scar that still causes pain. Like arthritis on a rainy day, it creeps up in hardship and stuttered moments of loneliness, an aching reminder of something amiss. In my experience returning to resonance is found by mending that core wound of separation from Source. This is done in myriad ways, time in nature or being around something that brings you wonder. Another incredibly healing and connective activity is taking time to assist other’s in some capacity toward ease (aka service or activism).
Cultures that retain their sense of connection understand this feedback loop between sustaining others and sustaining the Self. Anyone who commits their time and energy to helping others knows how rewarding it is, not just spiritually, but psychologically and emotionally.
Stages of Development
Multicultural competence counseling research and textbooks written by Derald Wing Sue are the source for the following models and stages of racial identity formation. Most models of white racial identity formation include the reality of systemic racism, “Research has found that the level of white racial identity awareness is predictive of racism and internal interpersonal characteristics.” One such model is typified as the seven step process.
The stages begin with Naiveté phase, described simply by racial curiosity and can often be equated with a 2-year-old. By the time children are fully into toddler age range they’ve already (for research re-enacted over decades) failed the doll test. The largest percentage of participants identifying out of two dolls (one black and one white) a good one (the white doll) and a bad one (the black doll). For those aware of implicit bias, it is not just the white children overwhelmingly choosing white as right.
The second step is those who I opened this article talking about. The Conformity phase, is marked by contradiction, for example “I’m not racist, but I would never let my daughter date a black guy.” It consists of minimal awareness of Self as a racial being, strong belief of universality of values and norms governing behavior, and limited accurate knowledge of other ethnic groups (i.e. relying on social stereotypes).
The Dissonance phase, occurs when the inconsistencies that have previously been compartmentalized are forced to the forefront of a person’s consciousness. What follows is acknowledging whiteness to some degree, and re-examining cultural values as not necessarily universal.
In the resistance and immersion phase, begins a more authentic acknowledgement of racism in society, in others, and in themselves. Problematic perceptions of other white people can form. White guilt and fragility may develop. This happens along with white liberal syndrome which manifests either as paternalistic protector (white savior) or over-identification with a minority group (as an escape from their own whiteness). In this later case of over-identification white people will often find this role is not appreciated and experience rejection. In response, the person may return to the protective confines of white culture (conformity), experience conflict (dissonance), or move forward (introspection).
The introspection phase is a compromise from extremes of unconditional acceptance of white identity and the rejection of whiteness. Less defensive responses and guilt based motivations are there-in. This stage is marked by redefining what it means to be “white”, by seeking an individual and group reformation. This is a transitional phase similar to the dissonance stage. Progress is made by asking the quintessential questions of, “‘Who am I in relation to my ‘whiteness?’” Or “‘Who am I as a racial/cultural being?’”
Answering questions like these and others involves dialogue and observation within one’s own social group, as well as interactions with members of various minority groups.
Integrative phase: A non-racist white Euro-American identity is formed, emerges, and becomes internalized. This phase is characterized by understanding Self as a racial/cultural being, appreciating racial/cultural diversity, and commitment to eradicating oppression. There is a comfort around, as well as strong connectedness with, members of culturally different groups. Most important is the inner sense of security and strength that needs to develop to function in a society that is only marginally accepting of integrative, aware white persons.
The seventh step and final phase is commitment to antiracist action.
“White privilege is the ability to acknowledge it but do nothing about it” (Sue)
This final phase is characterized by social action, consequent change in behavior, and increase commitment to countering oppression. Life is not linear nor is this (one of many models of racial identity formation) absolute. Movement into this phase can often be lonely, and isolating, as there is strong pressure in society to not rock the boat, as such it is still possible for regression back to early phases. This is why as you progress it is important to form alliances with POCs or other liberated white people.
I’m all about feedback loops, and one can be found in the stages or phases of POC identity formation, and how they are reflective of white identity formation. POC identity formation differs between different cultures, sub-cultures, and similarly has further deviation from individual to individual based on other relevant and individualized factors. The Bronfenbrenner model, charts some of these factors like nested characteristics within from the proximal microsystem to the distal exo-, and, macro-systems.
The African American racial identity formation begins at the preencounter phase, here the individual devalues their own blackness whether consciously or unconsciously and concurrently values white eurocentric values. Just as in early phases of white racial identity formation the spiritual bypass based belief in universality limits the personal authenticity in expressions of diversity.
The encounter phase, begins with a profound crisis or event (such as the assassination of MLK or the shooting of Michael Brown) which challenges previous idealism. This stage is marked by guilt or anger in response to the recognition of ethnocentric brainwashing.
In the immersion/emersion phase there is a withdrawal from dominant culture and immersion in African American culture. Feelings of anger and guilt diminish and black pride begins. This happens alongside a lack of internalization of positive attitudes about one’s own blackness.
The next stage internalization is characterized by integration between the new and old identities, and a sense of inner security. There in is a greater sense of tolerance, flexibility and multiculturalism.
The final stage internalization/commitment is also, similar to white racial identity formation, marked by actions that reveal a commitment to social justice.
Identity formation is a quintessentially important point of understanding. Its akin to recognizing your place on the path of life, as well as possible pit stops and destinations. As beings who are societally racialized, awareness of racial identity formation is a form of education to counter oppression. It is helpful in clarifying levels of self awareness and enlightening knowledge necessary to liberate self and others.