Disclaimer: This blog post is a personal telling of one of my experiences that has shaped my understanding of race/ism, as a white woman in the United States. While I link to some resources, this is not a guide to understanding race/ism as a white person in America. For more information here's a list of 30+ Resources to Help White Americans Learn About Race and Racism, here is a booklist from the organization White People Challenging Racism.
Several years ago, I was introduced to an article titled From White Racist to White Anti-Racist by long-term anti-racism and anti-oppression facilitator Tema Okun. Okun explains that “the basic purpose of this article is to help white people understand our identity as white people within a racist system which assumes our superiority while at the same time challenging that assumption and replacing it with a positive, anti-racist identity.” The article presents the idea of the empowerment ladder, which distinguishes different stages that white people go though while developing an awareness of their relationship to racism.
The empowerment ladder has nine different distinct stages from “I’m Normal,” to “Be Like Me,” to “Guilt and Shame” to “Community of Love and Resistance.” An important part of the ladder theory is that a person can’t move from a lower stage of racial awareness to a higher stage without experiencing each the intermediary stages. However, a person can move from a higher stage, but then quickly drop back down to a much lower stage after a challenging interaction regarding race. I highly recommend reading the article for an explanation of the theory behind it -- and for a deeper understanding regarding race and race-relations.
Since learning about the empowerment ladder, I have tried to use it to ground myself, and my racial identity, as a white person. My white identity is uniquely shaped by the fact that as a child I did not look white. Frequently, when I was a baby and toddler living in The Netherlands, people would come up to my mother and ask, “is haar poppa donker,” which literally translates to “is her father dark?” As a child, I recognized that my parents were white, and I deeply wanted to be perceived as white. Because I did not feel white, I rarely reflected on my own white privilege.
“Denial and Defensiveness” is the fourth rung on the ladder and is the point when “we are forced to acknowledge the significance of racial difference usually through the depth of an emerging relationship or by witnessing undeniable racism.” One particular racial interaction when I was a child highlights this stage for me. It was dusk, and I was walking to my best friend Annie’s house for dinner. I was probably about nine or ten, and the privilege to walk three blocks alone was countered with several warnings about personal safety. I was on high alert as I began the trek to Annie’s. Suddenly, I realized that someone was walking behind me. I hastened my step and snuck a glance behind me. I saw a black man carrying a duffle bag; in my memory he was large, but I have no idea if that is true or not. Nervously, I crossed the street. After I was "safely" to the other side, the man yelled out: “What, you’ve never seen a black man before?”
I was mortified. I wanted to yell something back, but I didn’t know what to say. For so much of my life I had felt like I didn’t belong, but this one interaction forced me to acknowledge both my own whiteness -- and my own prejudice. In retrospect, I see now how this interaction highlights how race and gender can combine to create complex situations that are difficult to decipher. As a young girl, I was socialized to be wary of all strange men for personal safety reasons. However, in this instant, this socialization was combined with personal prejudice rooted in the media's constant messaging that black men are dangerous and scary. I would like to think that my instinct to cross the street would have been the same had a white man been following me, but I don't know if that is true or realistic.
My journey to understanding and accepting the significance of my whiteness has been a long and difficult one (though nowhere near as difficult or traumatizing as perpetually experiencing institutionalized racism). It’s easy to become complacent as a white person – to stop questioning the system and accept institutionalized inequality as normal. Frequently, I drop down the ladder and then have to do the work to move up it again. As a white person in the United States, I will always be racist. However, I can also strive to be anti-racist, as well.