Today, we are talking about the social identity of white people in America and how it can be lived in a way that promotes healing and justice. But since both race and class factor into this—since both intersect and mutually reinforce each other—we must talk about middle-class identity in America also.
We must talk about both at the same time.
One interesting clue that this is so comes from the Brookings Institute, which reports the curious finding that many Blacks whose actual earnings would qualify them to be in the middle class do not identify themselves as such or are much less likely to do so than whites.
There is, in other words, a quality of “whiteness” to being middle class that Black people are especially sensitive to, and, historically speaking in America, you can trace it directly to New Deal programs from the 1940s like the G.I. Bill. A program like the G.I. Bill helped create what we know of today in America as “the middle class,” together with its central individualist assumption that if you work hard and play by the rules, you will overcome any obstacle and succeed. Conversely, if you fail, well, that’s your fault—something must be wrong with you.
Given the video from earlier, I hope you have already put two and two together. The G.I. Bill has been this nation’s largest affirmative action program by far, which almost exclusively benefited whites. Blacks were systematically excluded, for the most part, by the stranglehold of Jim Crow and its grip on state governments, South and North, that were given the responsibility for administering it. Blacks were shut out of what scholar Chuck Collins calls the “wealth-building express train” that the G.I. Bill essentially was. Given this leg-up, white people worked hard and played by the rules and succeeded. This is true. But white people then went on to forget about being given a huge leg-up. An entire mythology was spun around how white people did it all by themselves. Politicians like Ronald Reagan in the 1980s would speak of such things as “Welfare Queens” and white middle class minds would imagine people who are lazy, people trying to game the system; and they would imagine themselves as the innocent and virtuous ones in this scenario, who were being unfairly victimized.
As for the faces that the white middle class would conjure up in their imaginations, at Reagan’s provocation? Black faces. They would imagine the faces of Blacks–even though this most definitely does not reflect reality. When Reagan spoke of “Welfare Queens,” he was, essentially, blowing a race- and class-based dog whistle. He was not the first to do such a thing, and definitely not the last.
Again and again: race and class. Class and race.
But what I especially want you to see here is the extraordinary quality of self-deception underlying all of this. There is an extraordinary quality of convoluted logic and misunderstanding in the white person’s mind that regards success something earned purely through individual effort, condemns others who may not be as successful as lazy or stupid, and in no way acknowledges the larger historical and systematic causes of things like poverty or racism that can crush even the most hard-working and intelligent of individuals.
The thing is, the middle-class equation of “individual hard work + playing by the rules = success” blinds white people to the realities of forces that are not individual but systemic—forces which the poor know all too well, and people of color also, and others. This is the main way by which middle-class consciousness is a serious impediment to fighting systemic racism.
Class and race. Race and class.
This understood, we are ready to fully engage the topic of the journey towards the psychological and spiritual health of white middle-class people. There are stages to this journey. Many of the stages are characterized by certain kinds of threats, together with survival strategies that people unconsciously develop to cope. The healthiest stage is where a person no longer responds to their world via robotic survival strategies and faces the fullness of their reality—all its joy and all its woe—with courage, compassion, creativity, a sense of humor, an appreciation for complexity, and a deep sense of humanity. At this healthiest stage, the work of healing and justice flow out of self-love and love for the world—and this represents quite a change, for in earlier stages, the work was compelled by self-disgust and fear……
I consulted many scholars, of many races, whose specialty is the study of white identity development. Initially I was surprised to discover that such a specialty exists, but it does. Some of the researchers involved include Rita Hardiman, Janet E. Helms, Joseph G. Ponterotto, Wayne Rowe, Haresh B. Sabnani, and Derald Wing Sue. Much of what I am about to say tracks their findings. I will say that the emphasis on threats and survival strategies is mine, and so is the affirmation of class as an integral factor in how a white person grows over time.
There are essentially seven stages in the journey of white identity development, towards healing and health. This is a lot to cover, I know, but how rare the opportunity to get a bird’s eye view of the entire forest, when day-to-day life is usually caught up in the details of just a few trees. Knowing middle-class white identity from a big picture perspective is very important to the effectiveness and quality of our justice work.
So here we go.
Stage 1 takes place from birth to about 4 or 5 years of age. During this phase, white babies come to develop a bias in favor of white and against Black. Research shows that babies as early as six months old notice racial differences and how their caregivers respond. Take, for example, the white caregiver who believes that merely talking about race is racist. A lot of whites believe this. They think that the best sort of talk takes a strictly colorblind approach. So, race differences become unmentionable. But to a baby, not to acknowledge something as obvious and as in-your-face as race difference means that something is really wrong. It’s not that babies are thinking this through consciously and rationally. They aren’t capable of that yet. But they sense some kind of threat which is enough to trigger the reptilian part of the brain to activate, and a survival strategy is born– that of avoidance. Black is somehow bad, somehow forbidden, somehow dangerous. Note how the baby’s white identity is being formed through feelings of fear towards the Other, and that fear—that primal fear–may stay in place for life….
But what if the baby’s caregiver is overtly racist? Say, a white baby who is four years old expresses positive curiosity about a Black person. Or maybe this same four-year-old white baby talks about a Black person in a way that is respectful. This breaks the social rules of the overt white racist’s world. The child must learn. So they are chastised, and chastisement works, because the threat that babies face is rejection by caretakers. If they are rejected, they fear the worst: death. The reptilian part of a baby’s brain lights up and the result is the survival strategy of conformity. Of cutting off parts of oneself in order to be acceptable to people your survival depends upon.
And once again, a baby’s white identity is being formed through feelings of fear. Fear that may stay in place for life…
While all this is happening, children from birth through 4 or 5 years of age are also being socialized to be faithful members of the middle class. They are taught to experience themselves as individuals whose hard work earns their success. They are taught to judge others only on the basis of the individual actions of those others. But at the same time, there’s all this unconscious bias and fear they feel towards Black people, which Black people have done nothing to deserve. It’s self-contradictory. It’s very confusing. White children can just feel so very confused about the whole thing.
But then comes Stage 2. Stage 2 represents the completion of the white socialization process, started by caretakers and extended by educators, peers, the church, media, and the larger surrounding community. By this time, things are no longer confusing. Things have, in fact, become very clear. The white person knows what to say and what not to say. They are completely versed in middle-class values that make a person blind to the reality of systemic oppression. This is when a white person might think that just talking about race is racist. When they hear stories of Black drivers being pulled over by police at rates that dramatically exceed whites being pulled over—when they hear of Black people being incarcerated at rates that, compared to whites, boggle the mind–always they go to that middle class ideology that lays blame solely on the individual. That individual Black person must have done something. This individual Black person must have done something. Even the most obvious, unjustified, egregious assault can be explained away if the victim was not absolutely perfect in behavior and did not have a perfect record. Stage 2 white people just can’t conceive of systemic oppression.
A sign like “Black Lives Matter” feels, to them, like hatred.
In fact, if there’s any sort of threat that’s felt by Stage 2 white people, it’s the threat that some Other is actively trying to take away what they think they have earned solely through their individual hard work. Stage 2 white people therefore call up a survival strategy of hostility and invective towards social and political liberals and call them “libtards” and “snowflakes” and worse. Stage 2 white people are on constant guard against liberal elites who, for some perverse reason (to their way of thinking), want to enable lazy people who are Black and Brown (and, yes, the poor white) to be even lazier and to sponge off of society through higher taxes.
White identity development theorists say that some white people can stay in Stage 2 for many years—even a lifetime…
… unless something truly powerful happens to threaten the Stage 2 white person’s bubble. Call this stage 3, the dissonance stage, or the disturbance stage. The white person watches video of a police officer with his knee on a Black man’s neck, and that man ends up dying horribly. This is after seeing all the other videos of all the other deaths of all the other Black men and women, at the hands of police.
It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Disturbance of the white bubble can happen like that.
Or, the person starts learning some history. White identity development researcher Rita Hardiman quotes someone who once read a library book. “I was a grown man,” this white person says, “before discovering that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson (those wise, saintly men whose pronouncements on liberty and justice leaped from my textbooks and echoed from the mouths of our Independence Day orators . . .) had owned slaves. It was shocking to learn that demigods who had influenced documents affirming the thrilling, limitless doctrine that all men are created equal had been otherwise capable of holding men in bondage for the profit from their sweat. I well remember discovering these new lessons in the Midland County Library, in my twenty-first year, and then standing outside, looking up at the windswept streets, and thinking, ‘Hell, if they lied to me about that, they’ve lied to me about everything.’”
Or, maybe it was a preacher who, one day, happened to talk about the G.I. Bill and how it was a “wealth-building express train” but just for white people, and so what happens now to that white middle-class myth of self-created success?
A white person can move on to Stage 3 in all sorts of ways. Through interactions with people. Through events in society. Through information presented in the media, in books, in church, and elsewhere. However it happens, the eventual result is severe disorientation, because part of the privilege of whiteness is to not know. White people just do not know that they don’t know. So, when they do come to know, it’s shocking. They find themselves in disbelief. How could trusted loved ones and teachers not have said anything? Does this mean they intentionally lied? How could they have lied? What does it mean about the success of people I have looked up to? What does it mean about my success? Am I a fraud? Am I a phony? Am I a sucker?
The threat a white person feels in Stage 3—the magnitude of it—cannot be underestimated. It is the existential threat of total self-disgust. The entire ugliness of racism in America since at least 1619, when the privateer The White Lion brought 20 African slaves ashore to Jamestown in Virginia, crashes down upon a white person. You look upon the world, and present arrangements that used to seem normal, inevitable, and the result of benign choices are now exposed as the result of past violence and cruelty that whites have all but forgotten—until you dared remember. Until your eyes were opened. Slavery. Jim Crow. Redlining. G.I. Bill exclusion. New Jim Crow. School-to-prison pipeline.
“It is not permitted,” says Black writer James Baldwin, “that the authors of devastation should also be innocent.”
You just feel yourself as unclean and impure–innocent no more. Yes, you were not a slave owner. Yes, you were not a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Yes, you were not a legislator whose vote affirmed Jim Crow laws. But your life today benefits from what they did, while Blacks suffer and die. The sin has been passed down to the children. The children feel the sin on their very souls. There is the feeling of uncleanness. There is the feeling of self-disgust—and, what is disgusting does not deserve to live. What is unclean must be cast out. The reptilian part of the human brain in a white person’s brain goes on overdrive in this stage. And—being all about threats and surviving threats—that reptilian part of the brain generates two very different survival strategies which have only one thing in common: not flight, not freeze, but FIGHT!
Call one of these survival strategies Stage 4. White identity researchers give it different names. Janet Helms calls it “reintegration.” Joseph Ponterotto calls it “defensiveness.” Haresh Sabnani calls it “retreat.” Essentially, the individual white person salvages their sense of self-worth by disengaging from the race issue and withdrawing into the white world. Some folks also and at the same time actively blame the victim. All the feelings of self-disgust—all the feelings of self-impurity—are weaponized as instruments of resentment towards Black people and other minority group individuals. It’s stage 2 all over again, but with a vengeance. Further truths about historical oppression will come knocking, but the stage 4 white person resolutely refuses to open that door, ever again. Instead, they surround themselves with an echo chamber of alternate-reality truths and conspiracy theories. These are the white people who are over-the-top zealous about Making America Great Again.
Again, the reptilian part of the brain is on overdrive. The revelations of stage 3 are explosive and threaten with feelings of soul-shaking disgust towards self and other white people. So, the survival strategy is to passively withdraw and/or fight back. Blame the victim.
But not everyone goes from stage 3 to stage 4. This is where the idea of white people moving from one stage to the next in lockstep and continuous fashion falls flat. White identity theorists have found that quite a few people go from stage 3 straight to stage 5. They are still fighting to save themselves from enormous feelings of self-disgust, but the direction their fight takes is very different. Janet Helms calls it “immersion.” Joseph Pontoretto calls it “zealotry.” Here, in stage 5, is where white anti-racism emerges for the first time. The white person throws themselves into it with a passion, in pursuit of a deeper understanding of racism in America, of white privilege, and of how to become a part of the solution.
This is a very good thing!
This is a very good thing!
However, at this stage, the white person still imagines their world (as a middle-class person would) on purely individualistic terms and still doesn’t get the reality of racism as systemic. This is a real problem, because a white person’s privilege is not a wholly personal possession they can get rid of or do with whatever they want. Privilege is systemic. Privilege is reinforced through the policies and practices of the education system, law enforcement, employment, housing, and on and on, that benefit whites and not Blacks. This is what it means to say that racism is “prejudice plus power.” Racism is not, primarily, on the level of individual interactions between individual people. While niceness shown across racial lines is an admirable and important thing, it’s not going to make racism go away.
But they don’t necessarily get this at a truly deep level. And so, white people at stage 5 can act like anti-racism is something they can completely succeed at—that they can win at–if only they work hard enough and if only they are zealous enough. Stage 5 zealotry exists on a continuum, and at the extreme, what manifests is out-and-out perfectionism. Perfectionism, and endless games of “gotcha.” The extremely zealous white person at stage 5 may reject all things white as categorically bad and value all things Black as categorically good. They want to be “woke.” They are endlessly vigilant in patrolling their unconscious biases and those of other whites. They like to signal their antiracism virtue and use all the up-to-date antiracism terms and criticize people whose vocabulary might be older. And then there is a thing called “cancel culture,” where conversations that could have been genuine learning opportunities are turned into public humiliation, where context gets lost and facts are distorted and nowhere to be found—nowhere—is compassion.
There is so much to be said about stage 5 antiracism. The intentions are all good. But more problems are generated than solved. One is that whites at Stage 5 cannot stand whites at Stage 4 and tend to see them as inhuman, as inexplicable. Civil rights icon, the Rev. C. T. Vivian—god rest his soul, and I will also say I knew this man—he once said, “When you ask people to give up hate, you have to be there for them when they do.” But with stage 5 anti-racism, you won’t be.
Another problem is a pattern of stage 5 white people overpromising and underdelivering, the classic case of which is Unitarian Universalism’s “Black Empowerment Controversy” in the late 60s and early 70s. That’s a whole raft of sermons in itself, but here I mean to articulate the overarching thing: overpromising and underdelivering.
Yet other problems include people of color being burned out, or just not treated as real human beings with both gifts and flaws. And then there is this problem: the appearance of one circular firing squad after another of white people whose deep personal shame inevitably erupts in the form of rage, because that is where shame always goes–to rage. The tragic irony is that this rage gets unloaded upon people who are supposed to be fellow well-intentioned white antiracists
White identity at Stage 5 does indeed reflect positive growth in the very needed direction of antiracism. But it is still a survival strategy like the others, meant to defend against powerful inner feelings of self-disgust. It is self-focused, but what the world needs is more whites who are more at peace with their personal issues so that they stop getting in their own way as they serve people who are truly more vulnerable—a focus that is less and less distracted by inner noise…..
Like we heard Vicky say earlier, there is need for evolution. So, on to stage 6. A stage 6 white person finds themselves in a place of creative frustration. At stage 5, they tried as hard as they could to purify themselves from any connection with racism, and they goaded themselves on with guilt and shame and other negative emotions. But no matter how hard they worked, they learned that they could not remove their white privilege, they could not stop benefitting from racist policies and practices of the education system, law enforcement, employment, housing, and on and on. Their zealousness knew no bounds, and still, they hit the wall.
The middle-class mentality around individualism is just not working. It’s got to go. So does cancel-culture and that shame-triggering-rage dynamic that fuels circular firing squads in our liberal communities, which exhausts our communities if not fracturing them completely. There is frustration, disillusionment, exhaustion.
There has to be a better way.
But what is this way? At stage six, the white person knows enough to say, quite honestly, that they don’t know …. yet.
Perhaps this is perfect timing to really hear something that James Baldwin said in his book from 1963 entitled The Fire Next Time: “White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
All their lives, from stage 1 all the way to stage 5, fear and threats and survival strategies have been at the center of what it means to be white. In stage one, whites are avoiding a dangerous Other and they are compromising their self-integrity so that they don’t displease caregivers. In stage 2, whites are suspicious towards people who are trying to steal from them and take away what’s rightfully theirs. In stage 3, whites are overwhelmed by self-disgust and so they either go to stage 4 and defend against the self-disgust by fully withdrawing into the white world and/or by blaming the victim, or they go to stage 5 and defend against the self-disgust by taking up a perfectionistic style of anti-racism with zeal, often excessive zeal.
Over and over and over, what we see in this journey is a pattern of threat resulting in some survival strategy response that just creates more problems than it solves.
But is there a way to stop merely surviving, and to thrive?
Can white identity grow beyond being something essentially fear-filled, to something more positive?
Baldwin says it won’t be tomorrow when whites get there and it may very well be never. I hope and pray he’s wrong about that.
I can’t come to you today to say I have the perfect answer—that I know the solution, the way. But here is what I believe: No one can do this work for white people; white people have to do this work for themselves. I am white, and I am publicly owning this work. Which is, as Baldwin suggests, white people finally and fully accepting the ineradicable impurity of being born white and owning that with compassion and courage. White people–you and I–giving up perfectionism and a need to be pure, admitting that mistakes are going to be a part of the deal, seeing ourselves on a justice journey facing social problems that will always be way bigger than any of our individual change efforts so it’s a race we can never finish and never win but we will never give up on it, we won’t, because we run this race not out of fear but out of compassionate, courageous love for our white selves and for all.
Love, even for whites at stage 4. Love, which tries to build bridges of understanding, not a wall.
Aren’t we done yet with all talk of walls, anyhow?
“Love,” said James Baldwin, “takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use,” he says, “the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace–not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
James Baldwin is a Black man. This is what a Black man wants for white people.
Stop relying on survival strategies, and find healing. Thrive.
Allow compassion to help you realize the degree to which the journey of white identity from stages 1 through 5 is anchored in fear. Allow compassion to help you acknowledge the complexity of this journey which, in reality, is not a straight shot-sort of thing where you leave one stage and the door to that old stage is shut to you, its not, which means that you can mostly be in stage 6 or higher but something happens and you find yourself regressing to the raw self-disgust of stage 3…. But here is where compassion can help too, to support your ability to simply notice the regression that’s happened, to hold those feelings non-reactively and non-judgmentally, and to help ease you back to where you mostly usually are.
Above all, allow compassion to take you beyond fear to a place of spiritual realization where you realize that whiteness is something that is done to people–but there is another identity beneath and beyond all socialization categories of race and class and anything else done to a person through socialization; there is another identity that we were born with that socialization cannot change or distort or take away; and we Unitarian Universalists describe it as our inherent worth and dignity identity, and some people will even call it our Child of God identity, and that identity is the power of Love, and if we can live more from that identity, well, we will have the courage to love more than we ever thought possible.
Compassionate, courageous love is the strategy. “[N]ot in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
Such love is like a gospel song that makes your heart swell and it grows too big to want to leave anyone out, including your own flawed self. And you act like that every day of your life. Justice work flows out of that.
When we are truly ready to live into this, because we’ve gone through all the other stages and there’s just nowhere else to go, and it’s like writer Anais Nin says, “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”…
when that day comes…
when we are truly ready…
… that is stage 7.
May all white people finally get there.