Equity & Diversity Opinion

The White Journey to Racial Awareness: A Stage Theory

By Jal Mehta — July 27, 2017 5 min read
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The events of the past few years - the killing of unarmed black citizens by the state, cameras capturing these events on video, writings by Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement -- have brought truths that have long been well-known within communities of color to the attention of white people. In the corners of the world where I travel - academia, policy, schools, educational organizations - these events have also sparked lots of conversations about race, and, among white people, some significant self-examination of themselves and their beliefs. While surfacing these issues is better than not, many of these conversations have not gone well. Dawning white realizations about the realities of race in America can seem to people of color like too little too late. At the same time, I have been fortunate enough to see a few white leaders who take on questions of race in productive ways.

Out of these experiences, as well as my own journey as a half white/half Indian person over the past few years, I’ve developed a heuristic that captures some of what I’ve seen and experienced. Roughly, I see different stages in how white people approach race, stages which in turn engender different reactions from people of color.

White person stage

Person of color reaction

Stage 1: Ignorant

There is no problem here; making offensive comments, stereotypes, out of ignorance

Anger, hurt.

Stage 2: Absent

I’d rather sit out the race discussions; they are unsafe places where if I say the wrong thing I’ll get crucified.

Anger at passivity of white friends and colleagues.

Stage 3: Confessional/learner

Lengthy testimonials about own growth and privilege; seeking affirmation from people of color; seeking to consult people of color on issues of race; heavily worried about how they will be perceived on issues of race.

It makes me tired; why are they so slow and late to the party; why are they making it my job to educate them.

Stage 4: Comfortable; white ally

Able to see dimensions of interpersonal and institutional racism. Willing to raise race and able to move forward conversations and actions about race. Comfortable in own skin; discussion of race no longer seems threatening.

Finally, someone who gets it.

Stage 5: Transformational

Able to see dimensions of interpersonal and institutional racism. Willing to raise race and able to move forward conversations and actions about race. Comfortable in own skin. Because of credibility, can ask hard questions, transcend dichotomies, open up new possibilities.

These folks are a rare breed.

Like other stage theories, later stages encompass earlier ones. The stages have parallels to Bob Kegan’s theory of adult development. People familiar with that theory will see parallels in the shift from three to four to what he calls the shift from the socialized to the self-authoring mind, from “I’m worried about how I will look with respect to race” to “I understand how race and racism shapes our lives, and I have chosen a position for what my role will be in trying to create a less racist society.” It also parallel’s Kegan’s work in that each subsequent stage requires “holding as object” the previous stage: thus when one moves from ignorant to absent, one is recognizing the dangers of ignorance. When one moves from absent to confessional, one is recognizing that being absent is itself problematic. And when one moves from confessional to comfortable, one is recognizing that confessional, by itself, is not that helpful; one can recognize some of the privilege that goes with white skin without constantly perseverating about it. Holding stage three as object also helps one to recognize in what settings and in what ways it is helpful to invoke race as well as when discretion is the better part of valor.

It’s important to recognize that organizing into stages doesn’t mean we all have to think the same things. Stages 4 and 5 require acknowledging interpersonal and institutional racism as a historical and contemporary fact; if you don’t believe me, watch the news, follow black twitter, or read a history book. But acknowledging the presence of racism does not mean we will all take the same positions. Part of becoming what Kegan calls “self-authoring” is finding a way to connect your own racial understanding and awareness to other parts of your identity and belief system, which, in turn, will enable an authenticity of response.

If you are a White person reading this and you buy into the logic, you may be asking, “How can I move myself along this trajectory?” There is no one size fits all answer to that. Part of it is expanding your own understanding of race and racism, particularly the historical ways in which it has shaped our society. For me, a big part of the shift was teaching in a program in which the plurality and sometimes the majority of students were students of color. As I taught these students, I learned about their lives, and I also learned the ways in which my fears of directly discussing race in the classroom was interfering with my ability to connect with them. More positively, I learned how when I talked with forthrightness and candor about race how appreciated it was by students of color, for whom race is not a classroom issue but an everyday reality. Another turning point was when I realized how to integrate my understanding of race into my broader scholarly and teacher identity; it no longer felt like a role I had been cast to play, but rather became part of who I was.

A few caveats: This is an observation and reflection, drawn from the settings I know; it is not a piece of scientific research. There are people, including me, who don’t fit easily into boxes of “white” or “person of color.” It reflects the American experience of race; it may or may not hold elsewhere. And, ironically, it foregrounds White people’s experience with race, which is not exactly ideal. There could be a complementary chart of stages of being a person of color who interacts with white people, but I’m not the person to develop it.

At the same time, I think it is worth sharing. We talk a lot about how teachers need cultural competence if they are going to teach in schools where 83 percent of teachers are white and the majority of students are black and brown. But if we want this for teachers, they need to experience adults who are similarly culturally competent in higher education settings and among school system leaders. My hope is that this framework will help white people reflect on where they are and where they might aim to be, and, in the longer run, help people of different races work together more productively to create the kind of economically and racially equitable society that we all deserve.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.