My White Racial Identity Development Journey Revisited

In the fall of 2002 I attended an anti-racism conference at Hampshire College. One of the presenters was working on a book about white people challenging racism. They asked white people at the conference to write about their journey of awakening about white privilege, and their white racial identity development. I submitted my writing, but never heard whether the book was published. My guess is that it was not. I’ve also lost track of who the person was who was going to publish the book.

I’m 57 now, and I was 40 when I wrote it, so a lot has changed. This includes my understanding of the issues at play. That said, I’m still going to publish it as is to show that we don’t “arrive” at a place with our identity development, whether it’s our identity as an anti-racist or with our whiteness.

I’m sharing this to give a glimpse “behind of the curtain” of what it meant for me to go from unawareness to awareness of my white privilege, and my white identity development. I’m including the exact instructions we were given for our writing.

The instructions for each of us to write our chapter on White People Challenging Racism are in italics below.

First, let me clarify that it’s o.k. to write about YOU. In fact, that’s exactly what I’m asking you to do. Specifically, I’m asking you to write the ever-unfolding story, up to the present, of your personal journey from unawareness to awareness about the system of white privilege we live in, and from passivity to power and action in the work to educate about and end that system.

I understand that you are still in process and in progress on this issue. We all are, and that is fine. I also understand that for most of you, WPC was not the beginning of your journey on this issue. That’s fine, too. I want the whole story, including how you’ve used WPC to move forward on that journey. And I want you to write that story without even a hint of disparagement of yourself or your efforts on this issue. I’m aiming to put together a book that can inform and inspire people who are also on a journey to untangle the web of white privilege. In general, the story of your progress and successes in this area, no matter how small they seem to you, will be inspiring to people. On the other hand, the story of how bad you feel, and all your regrets, will generally NOT be inspiring for people.

My Journey Toward Wholeness*

* This title is taken from the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Anti-racism Campaign which is entitled, “Journey Toward Wholeness.”

I am a racist. I don’t want to be, but I am. Because I grew up in a racist society, I couldn’t help but absorb some of the notions that I have been bombarded with daily. Whenever racist notions pop into my head I have to fight them, I have to challenge them. But I didn’t always do that. I had to learn to challenge my assumptions. I also had to learn some facts, and I had to meet people who were different from me. I had to seek those people out, because they weren’t coming to me in “white-ville” where I lived.

Having my assumptions pointed out to me, then realizing how deeply held they were helped me to notice when I was making them. Learning facts helped to debunk many of the stereotypes I learned. Getting to know many people of color made it much easier to notice how ridiculous my assumptions were. For example, if I encountered a lone Black man on the street, rather than succumbing to the stereotypes we continually see on TV and feeling threatened, I could easily think, “That could be George, or Derrick, or James, or Jonathan, or Martin or Reginald,” who are some of the most nurturing people I’ve ever met. I don’t want to be racist, but this stuff is ingrained in me. Realizing how hard this is for me sometimes helps me to be patient with those who aren’t as far along the path of awareness. I’m trying not to be racist and I still have racist thoughts — imagine what it’s like for folks who aren’t trying! It also helps me to be easier on myself when I focus on how far I’ve come rather than how far I’ve got to go.

My Early Years: “I’m not racist”

I grew up in Tolland, CT., a very white and mostly middle-class town. People around me weren’t overtly racist in my recollections, but I’ve realized more and more over time just how pervasive the racism was. I thought that a racist called Black people “n*****s” and was hateful, and maybe even caused harm. I didn’t really understand all the subtleties around racism like I do now. I guess maybe I got some of it though, because I knew there was a difference between calling someone a n***** to be mean and spiteful, and calling them a n***** as a joke. I thought it was okay to say it as joke. But I never heard of white privilege. It never occurred to me that I had anything to do with racism. I thought I was an outsider looking in at racism and it had no effect on me.

I remember one African American family in our town during my elementary school years, and one or two more when I was in middle school, and then maybe one more when I got to high school. This was in a town that had 8–10,000 people in it!

In first grade Sandy was the only Black girl, and her brother Neiman was a year ahead of us. I just loved to look at Sandy. I loved her hair — she would braid it and it would stay without elastics! And she got to wear all kinds of different elastics with the colored plastic “bubbles” on them, all at once! She might have six different braids in her hair at one time, something a white girl would never do. And I loved her fingernails. She had long slender fingers and long nail beds, and she got to wear nail polish. I remember one time when she painted every nail a different color. I was enthralled. It seems to me now that the way I viewed Sandy was as on object, rather than as a person. She was something to be studied, not someone to get to know. She’s the first person of color that I recall knowing. Or maybe I should say, “observing,” because I never really knew her.

When I was a youth, we went out to visit my mother’s extended family in the mid-west. They used the word “n****” all the time. It was the word they used to refer to Black people, even if they weren’t trying to be disparaging. I remember being disturbed by this, but I’m not sure if I ever said anything in my younger years. Later, as a teen I remember asking my cousin Ronnie, “Are you telling me that you think that simply because you have a different color skin from someone that you’re better than they are?” and he said yes! I couldn’t believe it! It was hard to take, because I really liked Ronnie. In fact, I loved him. I just couldn’t understand how I could be related to people who believed such things. And I couldn’t understand how my mother came from this family. She was the first anti-racist I ever met. When we would tell racist jokes as children, she would tell us not to. We’d say, “It’s just a joke Mom!” and she said, “it’s not funny and it’s not a joke.” I didn’t understand for years just how right she was.

Not only did my cousins use the word “n*****” all the time, one of their epithets was “n***** lover.” I remember my brother getting into an argument with one of my cousins because she called him a n***** lover. She thought he was upset by the epithet, but he was really upset that she thought it was an epithet. I just couldn’t understand why that was supposed to be such an insult, or how they could talk about other people with such hatred. I wasn’t like them. I wasn’t “racist.”

I’m not sure when I realized how messed up society is regarding race, but writing this has made me realize that I’ve known something was not quite right from a pretty young age. I just didn’t understand my part in it, or how society operated, but somewhere in my late teens or early 20s my consciousness began to awaken. I knew things were not right — there couldn’t be entire categories of people who were “inferior,” there must be some other reason for people of color to be so poor, so uneducated, so unfortunate (and by the way, while growing up, “people of color” or “minorities” as we called them then, meant Black people — I have no idea when the existence of other races and their experiences emerged in my consciousness).

The first concrete memory I have where I tried to understand just what was going on is from when I was 27 (I’m now 40). I worked for a guy who had worked in his father’s restaurant in East Hartford and there had been a number of Black employees there. He used to make all these negative generalizations about them, which really bothered me. The thing was, he was speaking from his own personal experience with African American people, not from something he saw in the media or got from hearsay. His assumption was that there was something about their Blackness that caused them to be unreliable, but I knew it was something else. I remember thinking that maybe it was that they didn’t have any good role models in their neighborhoods. In other words, I was using my (erroneous) assumptions about the life experience of Blacks to come up with an explanation for their behavior.

In the next year or so following those conversations with the restaurant owner, I took my first sociology class. I was at Manchester Community College full-time and it was my last semester there. I’d already decided that I would major in Sociology when I continued on after MCC, but this was my first actual course. I started gaining some understanding of how society worked, but it wasn’t until I went to Eastern Ct. State University for my bachelor’s degree that my eyes were really opened. My first semester there I took Criminology, mainly just to get some Sociology credits under my belt. I was FLOORED to find out that young, African American males are the number one victims of violent crime, not the number one perpetrators! I remember thinking, “what else do I think I know that’s wrong?”

Awakening: My White Privilege

It wasn’t until about two years ago that I remembered an incident in which I very clearly benefited from my whiteness. I was about 23 years old and went to look at an apartment in Rockville. I happened to show up at the same time as an African American woman and her daughter. The superintendent, who was white, showed us the apartment he had for rent. It was a dump. Neither of us wanted it. The woman and her daughter left immediately, but for some reason I lingered, I don’t remember why. Once they were gone, the superintendent showed me another apartment that was also for rent, and it was much nicer. I took it. At the time, it never occurred to me that he purposely waited until the woman left, it seemed sort of like my “good luck” that I happened to stick around. I’ve come to believe that he purposely waited to show me the good apartment because I was white.

I was not able, at that time, to recognize that incident as racism in action. In my mind, I “just happened to be in the right place at the right time.” It’s only been since my consciousness has been raised that I’m able to see racism in action when it benefits me. I was pretty much trained by our society to only see racism in action when it is to the detriment of people of color. It’s just in the last few years that I’ve been able to see that racism has two sides: one oppresses people of color and one privileges whites, but I had to be taught this. It didn’t just come naturally. I had to be taught that the whole point of racism is to uphold the power and privilege of whites, the result is that people of color are oppressed. But in our society, part of what keeps racism going is that as McIntosh (1988) says, “we’re meant to remain oblivious” to our privileges. The way we do this is to focus on the results of racism, the oppression of people of color, and feel badly about what’s happening to “those poor people.” Maybe if they were more like us, they’d be able to help themselves out of poverty!

So how did I get my education about white privilege? I think the first time I ever really “got it” was in undergraduate school when I read McIntosh (1988) for a course called Minorities. I was BLOWN AWAY!!! She lists all sorts of privileges that white people can count on at any time, and the one that struck me the most was that band aids are colored to approximate the color of white peoples’ flesh. In other words, the underlying assumption is that people using band aids will be white! Or even worse, PEOPLE are white! The depth of that assumption just really got to me. There were other items on the list that really made me understand just how I benefited from racism, but that was the one I just couldn’t get over.

My senior year we read a paper by a man who was a law professor at Harvard, or some other prestigious university. He spoke about the racism he has had to deal with throughout his career and his life, and the assumptions people continually made about him and how he got to be where he was. I remember showing both the McIntosh piece and the piece by this law professor to my brother when he said, “Slavery was over years ago, Blacks need to stop using that as an excuse, things are just not that bad any more.” I remember feeling vindicated when he later said, “You’re right, racism is still alive and well!

I’d have to say that it was my graduate school education that really got me forming an anti-racist identity though. My first year there I worked as a research assistant to Drs. Noel Cazenave and Ken Neubeck for their project on racism in U.S. welfare policy, which ultimately became a book. Noel proposed to teach the course “White Racism” as an experimental course and I volunteered to be the first teaching assistant. The hoops we had to jump through to get that course approved were ridiculous! It was finally approved by the Curriculum and Courses Committee and it proved to be a HUGE learning experience for me (both the approval process and the course). I learned as much, if not more, than the students taking the course. I really learned the difference between what sociologists mean by the term “racism,” and the everyday meaning that most people mean when they use the term “racism.”

One time during the class there was a white student who just wasn’t “getting it.” I said to him, “If you met someone for the first time on the phone and were trying to get to know them, in the first ten sentences or so, would you even mention that you’re white?” He said no. I said, “That’s because people — including you — assume you’re white because whiteness is taken for granted. That’s how pervasive the assumptions are in our society, you’re assumed not to have a race if you’re white!” I think he got it, and I think I really got it then too.

There was one handout of Noel’s in particular that really helped solidify my understanding of white racism. I’ve included it here (see Figure 1 below) because I think it will help a lot of people who don’t quite get why it’s not the same thing when people of color exclude whites as it is when whites exclude people of color. I think by that time I understood the systemic nature of racism, but what I didn’t quite get until then was how much ideology played into it. All those “jokes” I told as a kid, and all those stereotypes I bought into, were part of the whole system of racism. In fact, ideology is what allows the system to continue because it makes racist behavior “okay” when you believe that whites are better or superior.

Figure 1.

The sociological perspective of white racism, black racial bigotry and level of analysis
The sociological perspective of white racism, black racial bigotry and level of analysis

While in grad school I took courses on racism in U.S. social policy, and got even more clarity on just how pervasive racism is in our society. It wasn’t just the outcomes of the policies that were racist, it was clear that policies were written based on assumptions about people of color, and those assumptions were based on racial stereotypes. There was that ideology at work again.

At some point, I got my hands on two articles from Teaching Sociology which really solidified my understanding about privilege such that I was able to teach it to others. I wove together the information I got from Bohmer and Briggs, 1991 and Lucal, 1996 into a lecture for Sociology of Gender at Eastern Ct. State University. It was my first time teaching on my own, and I was a little nervous about bringing up such loaded topics as male privilege or white privilege, but I did it. It proved to be quite a success! The methods those authors suggest include beginning to teach students about racism (or sexism or classism) on the systemic level so that they really understand what institutional racism means. Then, once they get that, they can handle discussing the individual level material about racism without getting defensive. I have now used this lecture in every course I’ve taught and have never once received a defensive comment such as, “I never owned any slaves!” or “I’m not racist!”

I bring this up to point out that my teaching is part of my journey. When I got out of grad school and realized I was never going to get a Ph.D. and become a professor, I decided that I needed to take some time to figure out what would be the best way to affect the social structure to dismantle racism, given my particular bundle of skills, abilities, talents and place in the social structure. What I’ve come to realize is that I need to work where I’m “at” when it comes to anti-racism work. I try to use my position in the organizations in which I participate to advance the cause of racial equality. I really learned this lesson from an anti-racism training I went to that was sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s “Faith in Action” Department. Before I discuss that, I’d like to say a little bit more about my teaching.

I’ve thought for a long time that my ideal place to teach would be at a Community College. I went to one, and my experience was that people there thirst for knowledge. They really want to be there, because for many of them, this is IT. They know how important their education is because they’ve either worked the crappy job with lousy pay, or their parents have. However, the universe had a different idea for me. I moved to New Haven from Willington, CT and started looking for adjunct teaching positions. What opened up for me was a position at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, an institution with a predominantly white, upper-middle-class student body. When I first began teaching there, I thought, “This isn’t where I want to be, I want to be with the adult students, the students of color, the poor students.” But then I realized, THESE are the students I need to be teaching.

One of the things Dr. Noel Cazenave told me was that my voice needed to be heard in the classroom. The reality is, because I’m white, what I say has more legitimacy among whites. So if Noel, a Black man, teaches about white racism, he “has an agenda” or “has a chip on his shoulder.” But if Barb Nangle, a white woman, teaches about white racism, you better listen up! It must be valid. So at an institution with a relatively privileged, white student body, I’m more likely to be heard and taken seriously than someone like Noel. I don’t like it, but that’s racism for you.

In addition to having some measure of legitimacy because of my whiteness, it is the privileged students who need to learn this information more than underprivileged students do. The underprivileged students live this stuff, so they get it. Privileged students don’t even know they’re privileged, so I try to teach them about that. I see this as part of my social activism. Actually, I see it as a major part of my social activism. I also feel it’s an obligation I have. Now that I know I have this privilege, I feel obligated to do something with it. What I choose to do with that privilege is to take the power I have in the classroom and use it to spread knowledge about white privilege among privileged whites.

Faith in Action

When I moved to New Haven in 2001, I joined the Unitarian Society of New Haven. Not long after I started going there, there was a service presented by the Anti-racism Transformation Team. I immediately approached them and told them I wanted to be on the team. I had experience doing church committee work at the Unitarian Fellowship of Storrs where I began my church life three years earlier, and had an intense personal interest in anti-racism. Because I joined this committee, I was able to attend a 2 ½ day training in February of 2002. It was there that I learned about doing anti-racism work where you’re “at.” I later left that church because it wasn’t really a good fit for me as a whole, but when I left the Anti-racism Transformation Team I told them that one thing I’ve learned in my anti-racism work is that you have to work where you’re “at,” and where I was “at” was not USNH. I felt like I was an outsider telling “those people” what “they” needed to do with “their” church, rather than an insider saying, “here’s what we need to do.”

In April of that same year, I attended a conference at Hampshire College entitled, “Understanding Whiteness, Recognizing Privilege: A Conference Toward Racial Justice.” Dr. Enoch Page, Peggy McIntosh, Robert Jenson and Tim Wise were the keynote speakers. Once again I was blown away by what I learned! Wise spoke about the recent spate of school shootings in which no one mentioned one thing all the shooters had in common: their whiteness! You can be assured that if it was a bunch of Arab boys, or Asian boys, or Black boys shooting up their schools their race would have been mentioned.

At this conference, the most meaningful workshop I attended was entitled, “White People Challenging Racism: Moving from Talk to Action.” I committed to a friend who was there at the conference to teach that same workshop as a five-week adult education course at my job because that was a place I was definitely “at” (and I have yet to teach that course, by the way). However, I transformed that workshop into something called “What Does Racism Have to Do with White People?” which I co-led with my friend James McKissic at a GLBTQ youth conference last spring. I’m going to co-lead it again this spring with another friend. It’s been interesting to distill all the things I’ve learned over the years into a 1.5 hour workshop AND break it down to the level where teenagers can understand it. But I think translating the information to as many audiences as possible is imperative.

In addition to all the workshops, articles, classes and trainings, I’ve learned a lot from my job. I work in a predominantly white agency, but most of the people with whom I’ve worked most closely over the years have been African American. For the first time in my life, I’ve found myself in the minority on many occasions. I now know what it feels like to not be clued in to what’s going on, or to feel like I’m an outsider, just like McIntosh (1988) mentioned. I’m now also acutely aware that I don’t really have an ethnic identity because I work among people who are strongly ethnically identified and I see the difference between them and me. I’ve also learned that this is a product of racism — one of the prices white people pay for their privilege is that they have to give up their culture. We’re not allowed to be Irish or German, we have to be simply “white.” One of the suggestions that was made in the training by the UUA is that in order to heal that wound, in order to progress toward wholeness, you have to explore your ethnic heritage and reclaim it. I’ve been working on that slowly but surely. I’m trying to understand what it means to be Irish American, and what it means for me to be Irish American.

Working among African American people has been very educational for me because I am in unfamiliar territory all the time. I notice things like all of my African American colleagues dress much more professionally than I do. I’ve come to realize that this is also racism at play: I have the privilege of dressing in my own style and they don’t. They are judged by the color of their skin from the moment they walk through the door, so they can’t take the chance that their clothing might not be up to par, or their hair might not be just right. It shouldn’t be a privilege to dress less professionally, but it is.

I’ve been told a few times by some of my co-workers that I’m an “honorary soul sister,” but I know how untrue that is. I notice that ALL the Black women at work know and are friendly with each other, regardless of status or area in which they work, and sometimes I feel excluded. But honestly, in the scheme of things, I can deal with that because they’ve been excluded for centuries! I think it’s about time some white folks experienced what it’s like to be excluded. And for the vast majority of my life I have felt and continue to feel included and valued.

There is so much more I could talk about, but I’m going to end with something I learned at an anti-racism workshop at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association. One of the panelists in the workshop said, “It used to be that the worst thing someone could call me was a racist. I’m beyond that now. If that were to happen now, I’d say ‘what have I done that has caused you to perceive me as a racist?’ so we can have some dialogue and maybe I can learn something.” I loved that and I try to model that attitude. I used to be paranoid of being perceived as racist too, but I’m over that now myself. I’m aware that I grew up in a racist society and could not help but internalize some of those messages. What I try to do now is notice it when those messages come up, challenge those messages, and act in a way that my anti-racist self can be proud of.

Barb Nangle is the Founder of Higher Power Coaching and Consulting. She works with people who are tired of drama but don’t know how to stop. Her newsletter, “Happy, Joyous and Free” shares examples of how to change deeply entrenched patterns of dysfunctional behavior. Sign up here. She’s also the creator of the podcast, “Fragmented to Whole: Life Lessons from 12 Step Recovery.”

Bibliography

Bohmer, Susanne and Joyce L. Briggs. 1991. “Teaching Privileged College Students about Gender, Race and Class Oppression.” Teaching Sociology. 19:154–163.

Lucal, Betsy. 1996. “Oppression and Privilege: Toward a Relational Conceptualization for Race.” Teaching Sociology. 24: 245–55.

McIntosh, Peggy. 1988. “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies.” Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, Wellesley MA.

Written by

Creator of the podcast, “Fragmented to Whole: Life Lessons from 12 Step Recovery" who writes, speaks and coaches about healing & growth. HigherPowerCC.com

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