The Five Stages of Whiteness

How America Constructs White Identity

Sam Heath
Sam Heath
Sep 13, 2019 · 12 min read

One afternoon I was foolish enough to think I’d had the original idea of writing about the Five Stages of Grief but instead changing it to the Five Stages of Whiteness — the Five Stages out of Whiteness, that is. The Five Stages of White People Becoming Woke. I googled these phrases to make sure my idea was snowflake unique only to be disappointed that plenty of people had already written of how white people stair step into being woke.

Then I got to thinking. While I could fairly deeply chronicle my journey into a realization of matters of race, racism, and reconciliation, I could not articulate with near the same amount of detail my journey into whiteness, my road into a world where race was at the core of my identity yet also an invisible and unmentioned piece.

A shot from the film Inside Out. All five emotions — sadness, fear, anger, disgust, and joy — watching Riley.
The five emotions from the film Inside Out. Image from flickr.

It’s like those islands in the Pixar film Inside Out. The film is set inside the mind of a young girl named Riley, and five emotions — Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust — help Riley navigate how to feel about and react to her pre-teen world. She has five “core memories,” shown as floating islands around the control center hub of her inner self. The core memories dictate the key components of her personality.

I feel as if one of my core memories is about the importance of being white. Like that memory shaped my entire personality and determined some of my primary ways of engaging the world. And yet. Yet that memory is hidden, or at least hidden to the point where I am shaped by it but am unaware of the scope of its existence, or even its existence at all.

I would like to do a thought experiment on what five stages got me into a place where being white was such a part of who I am that I did not even realize it until early adulthood, that I could not even articulate that being white was a thing, that I had no tools for being aware of the prevalence and standard that is White Culture.

Toni Morrison said in an address at Howard University on the intersection of racism and fascism, “The move toward a final solution is not a jump. It takes one step, then another, then another.” I’m going to identify one step, then another, for a total of five steps that, for me and most likely others, describe my journey into a tangible, powerful, and veiled white identity.

This is the beginning of cultural conversion by proxy, where no one wears white hoods and burns crosses because no one needs to, since mainstream, normative American culture does such a fine job on its collective own.

Like the musical South Pacific says, “You’ve got to be taught!” And the teaching begins with absenteeism. Whiteness begins with and thrives best when there is little or nothing to which it can be compared. White Slight is where black people and black cultural artifacts are not acknowledged or present. This is an absence, a lack of rightful recognition.

My schooling was not only done primarily by white teachers; my schooling was also largely about white people. The Western canon, even after the year 1800, as presented to me, was not just dominated but completely represented by white males. I hardly read anyone of color for most of my primary and secondary education. This is the beginning of cultural conversion by proxy, where no one wears white hoods and burns crosses because no one needs to, since mainstream, normative American culture does such a fine job on its collective own.

Stage Two: White Light

If Stage One was an absence, Stage Two is a presence, a light. White people and white things populate this stage. And this is not merely a presence but an affirmation. It is domination by prevalence and preference. Stages One and Two might overlap. In most cases, like with my Western canon example, the absence of something usually leads to the presence of something else. I separate these two stages because I want to emphasize the order. You first need to remove a voice before replacing it with someone else’s. The black voice was skillfully removed in order to make room for the insertion of a white one. Cultural hegemony is achieved because of a carefully crafted and maintained and affirmed white bubble.

Not only was my education in school sans black voices, the voices I was told to prefer were white — William Shakespeare, Mozart, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, John D. Rockefeller, and Ronald Reagan. These were the better and best voices not just in American but in all the world! William Shakespeare was the greatest playwright, Mozart the virtuoso composer, Washington the most virtuous president, Lee the best general, and Reagan the global champion of freedom. (That nearly all of these voices were white and male would take a further enlightenment in my development.) These white figures were a light in the darkness, showing the way to true humanity.

Stage Three: White Right

After looking around my life and not seeing voices of color, after looking around and seeing only or primarily white people, I then experienced people not just saying white voices were to be preferred but that this was a moral decision. White voices and artifacts were better not just because they were the best, but they were the best in comparison with other voices. Here begins some of the narrative where boys and girls are fed racial stereotypes, trumped-up versions of people and cultures that do not just recognize difference or hierarchy (both fine concepts), but stereotypes that manufacture difference, then place people on a hierarchy, then oppress anyone not at the top. “White is right” fits here, for white culture is equated with goodness. This is not descriptive but prescriptive. It is not only saying “this is the way things are” but “this is the way things should be.

As a kid I believed that America was discovered by Columbus, America was always the immigrant’s land of opportunity, America was awesome for being a melting pot, and being colorblind was the polite, civil response. I missed more subtle forms of racism, such as whites mimicking stereotyped black speech, movement, or dress. I would see white people be perfectly polite to African Americans, then turn around and use the N-word in white company. This all came about because there was the implicit belief that whites and white culture were better, that other cultures were inferior, that all black people deserved was a surface level cordiality.

We lump, assume, and stereotype to preserve our own identity, an identity that really only exists in comparison to an Other we malign.

In this stage, all things black, both people and artifacts, are rejected because they are tainted. This is a denigration of all that is black. I would argue that most white Americans are here. White Fright really is a response to fear white people feel. They fear contact with The Other because that contact will stain. Whites are so convinced of the evils of black people and artifacts that it is just a reflex at this point. We warn our children of the corrupting evils of ghetto culture, loud music, interracial dating, welfare queens, interracial adoption, interracial neighborhoods, and especially interracial school attendance, particularly if we are talking about private schooling. We rant about black-on-black crime or prison statistics without the proper qualifications or ghettos or the number of black single moms or black drug use or absent black fathers. We also flee diversifying neighborhoods. (In the twenty-first century, the tipping point for white flight — and this is true even in suburban America — is when a minority population reaches about 20% of the neighborhood. In other words, when a white neighborhood becomes 20% black, Asian, or Hispanic, white people leave.)

Not only do we whites objectify black people, we objectify black culture by making the mistake of even thinking that black culture is a single unit. We lump, assume, and stereotype to preserve our own identity, an identity that really only exists in comparison to an Other we malign.

Growing up, I am not sure anyone ever out right told me that hip hop was corrupting music or that black people were just too angry or that I should be suspicious of anyone calling into question the legitimacy of Columbus Day and Lee-Jackson Day as holidays, but somehow I knew. I was trained to be like the Grinch hating Whoville’s “noise, noise, noise, NOISE!” Except black people were the Whos.

Stage Five: White Fight

White Fight is not go-along-with-the-crowd support. This is activism; this is evangelism. This is oppression, both implicit and explicit, both individual and institutional. Whites here post violent words and even move toward acts of violence. This could be a violence-moderator like a Richard Spencer or a David Duke, but this could also be a violence-inspirer like a Donald Trump. Stage Fivers work for the criminalization of Others and are direct descendants of those who instituted vagrancy laws, Black Codes, and Jim Crow. Those trapped here do not just accept the Story but perpetuate it with the sweaty sincerity of an End-Is-Near sign holder. They do not simply articulate a position but work toward recruitment for the ranks. Here, one becomes a champion of white culture, which means a champion of white supremacy. The white story is not just the loudest; it’s the only story. All else is noise.

Nine hooded members of the KKK on horseback, with a cross in the background.
Nine hooded members of the KKK on horseback, with a cross in the background.
Members of the Ku Klux Klan around 1935. Image from flickr.

Circumstances and people stopped me before I got to this stage. But I certainly had the makings of an initiate. I spoke the white gospel to other whites, and I likely did tangible harm to black brothers and sisters in both word and deed. I could talk about race without talking about race with the best of them. I thought collegiate affirmative action was a joke because it took spots from more-deserving whites, that the civil rights movement ended racial injustice, that black people simply were not working hard enough and needed to stop complaining about the consequences of their own choices. I was on my way into Stage Five without being aware of what I was truly arguing for.

The Five Stages of Whiteness, in short, go like this: absence of black culture, presence of white culture, praise of white culture, denigration of black culture, and then actively promoting white culture as a means of domination.

These five stages are also on a spectrum, one of increasing harm, one where the movement is from ignorance to engagement, or unaware to aware. If you can get a kid tracked into the early stages, like industrial labor tracking in the school system, then you’ve got them. After that, the subsequent stages are almost self-perpetuating.

At its worst, white identity kills. An implicit identity can lead to explicit actions, as we saw with the white man who accused of stabbing a teenager of color because the teen’s rap music made the man feel threatened. A white identity creates certain expectations and manifests itself in malicious assumptions of others.

It took multiple visceral confrontations with my white culture and others’ non-white culture for me to see my programming. It took me being on a bus in Belize to actually be the only person of my race in a space and then to recognize it. It took living in a city-constructed ghetto for over a year where countless black individuals believed that I was an undercover cop — because why else would a white dude live here?

It took me having a negative reaction when asked to consider giving a black applicant more funding because his fundraising base was going to be more limited than all of his white peers. It took me learning the difference of sympathy and empathy, the difference of awareness and action, the difference of black culture (which is extremely hard to define) and black experience. It took me wrestling with the falsely presented dichotomy of Martin and Malcolm. It took me discovering other voices like Zora, Baldwin, and Toni Morrison.

I wanted to jump into action, to right all the wrongs, to play savior. I started a campaign of — and here I’m borrowing a term from the scholar Chenjerai Kumanyika — “micro-reparations,” where I smiled extra big at any black person I passed, made sure to say a really heartfelt “thank you” to any black cashier, or psychologically flagellated myself if I found myself feeling any trepidation upon seeing black males, especially at night, especially in groups.

I did not want to be motivated by white guilt. I also did not want to primarily be motivated by anger, anger against my upbringing, my culture, my country, myself.

I was weary and could not find a clear path of action items to fix this. The brilliant podcast series by John Biewen called Seeing White made me aware of the Racial Equity Institute, an organization committed to teaching and training individuals and institutions about the realities of race and power. They recommend for white people, following a racial awakening, simmering in a state of lament for awhile, rather than jumping into any kind of direct action.

So I read. I listened. I became so immersed in non-fiction and fiction texts from black people that I started to consider that if black people have to learn white culture out of a combination of fear and survival, could whites learn about black culture and experience out of love and appreciation? I did not want to be motivated by white guilt. I also did not want to primarily be motivated by anger, anger against my upbringing, my culture, my country, myself.

My path to understanding my whiteness and caring about that whiteness was largely done by learning the history of how race is a social construct invented as a justification after the fact for an economic need: bodies. I met and talked with others who had a different path to discovery. It takes all sorts of things to pull people out of the Stages: experiences, examples, people, stories.

A photo of James Baldwin in a shirt and loosened tie.
A photo of James Baldwin in a shirt and loosened tie.
The author James Baldwin. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

Of all the figures I read, James Baldwin struck me the most. He was a writer who had a much bigger role in the civil rights movement than most give him credit for. He wrote essays, novels, and plays. His writing helps bridge the views and voices of MLKJ and Malcolm X. In Baldwin’s 1962 letter to his nephew from his book The Fire Next Time, he is gracious enough to refer to white people as “innocent and well meaning.” The innocence does not mean their actions are baptized. The innocence comes from ignorance. I do not know at what point, due to globalization and the Internet, whites lose the ability to claim ignorance anymore when it comes to matters of race. If we’re not there, we’re close.

My identity is not primarily in being white. It can’t be. And I do not want it to be. I certainly do not want my identity based on something society constructed as a way to oppress others. My identity is wrapped up in being human, what the Jews and Christians call being made in the “image of God.” That humans are image-bearers means that humans have inherent worth. “Red and yellow, black and white / All are precious in his sight,” goes the song.

Baldwin famously said in 1968, “Now, this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith risking myself, my life, my woman, my sister, my children, on some idealism which you assure me exists in America which I have never seen!

See it now, Jimmy. See something in me, please. See my intentions. More importantly, see my actions. See me trying to learn from and participate in a color-filled world where being white is a piece rather than the whole. See my constant longing for this Copernican shift. Continue to call me out from the grave, but see me. See me trying to understand that risk you talked about, see me trying to come to terms with the identity that was handed to me, an identity that I willingly seized. See me trying to see people as you saw them — as people, all equally deserving of honor, respect, and worth.

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