How to be White and Woke: Understanding how toxic shame keeps White Americans defensive in issues about Race.

Race Matters: Candid Conversations on Race & Culture0 comments

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Ethnic minorities in the United States contrary to what critics think have developed significant endurance and thus a thick skin when it comes to issues of racial discrimination, harassment, and marginalization.  From Native Americans to African-Americans to Asian-Americans, all ethnic minority groups have had to bear the brunt of both individual overt acts of racism as well as covert and often invisible systems of racism here in America.

For any ethnic group to challenge the status quo and ask White Americans to listen to their concerns regarding race typically means the racism (both individual behaviors and collective systems in society) has reached a threshold that a particular ethnic member or group can no longer ignore or dismiss.  Yet, oftentimes instead of affirming this person’s courage to speak up and speak out against racism, White Americans struggle mightily to even listen to the feedback given to them.  This “thin-skin” by White Americans gained international attention recently with the Coronavirus pandemic and President Trump labeling it as the “Chinese Virus” and even his own leadership mockingly calling the “Kung-Flu”.  

But why do so many White Americans respond in anger, defensiveness, or dismissiveness?  As a psychotherapist and workshop facilitator on issues of racial reconciliation, I believe issues of race trigger such strong reactions among White people because the educational systems in America do not teach what we can psychology call the Majority identity Model.  In laymen’s terms, White Americans do not learn about the racial implications of being White in America.  You can graduate from high school, college, graduate school and enter the workforce as the CEO of a Fortune 500 Company with limited or no understanding of how to engage in discussions about racial understanding amidst a global economy where race is an everyday political, economic, or social reality.  The best our educational system offers most folks is a mandatory “diversity” or “cultural competency” class or in the work world an HR Department that has a “Diversity and Inclusion” component embedded within a company.  However, what’s sorely missing are spaces where White Americans can sit and listen to the feedback of their ethnic peers.  But to do so means White Americans would need to confront their own ignorance of identity by acknowledging where they fit in their development.

The Majority Identity Development Model has 4 stages as described by multiple theorists including G. R. Atkinson et al, Cass, Poston, Helm’s, Root, etc.

  1. PRE-EXPOSURE STAGE–Little thought has been given multicultural issues or to one’s own role as a majority group member in a racist and oppressive society.  In this stage, White Americans don’t think much about their own White racialized heritage as they are the majority.  Furthermore, this is the stage where the person is likely to espouse a “colorblind” motto. They may see racial differences but in no way do they feel it’s pertinent to have discussions centered on race erroneously believing that it does nothing more than promoting racial division.  This seemingly “color-blind” position also is the stage where unconscious racist beliefs are highlighted by unconscious or implicit racial bias.
  2. EXPOSURE STAGE–The individual is confronted with the realities of racism and prejudice. He or she is forced to examine his or her own role as a majority group member. In this examination, it is learned how the European-American view has been taken for granted as the “proper” (only) view. Anger and guilt arise.  These emotions get channeled in either a positive way or become entrenched in a “blame the minority” mindset. 
  3. – ZEALOT-DEFENSIVE STAGE–As a consequence of the Exposure Stage, one can become a zealot for minority causes or become defensive about majority view and perhaps even withdraw from finding out about multicultural views altogether. In becoming a zealot, the person is reacting to his or her own or the majority culture’s collective–guilt.  Or in becoming defensive, the person either attempts to have contact with majority culture individuals, or he or she tries to defend the majority culture values by pointing out all of the “concessions” made by the culture to minority cultures.
  4. INTEGRATION STAGE–The overly strong feelings of the Zealot- Defensive Stage subside, and a more balanced view takes its place.  Instead, a deeper appreciation of one’s own culture allows one to have a secure, self-confident identity, allowing for appreciation of other cultures. One is able to accept differences both intellectually and emotionally.  Relationally, this is one where White Americans display cultural humility and look to people of color to uncover racism.  They also no longer feel shame about their Whiteness but can be proud of who they are while also showing deep empathy, compassion, and understanding of the racial inequities that present themselves structurally within society. 

If our educational institutions give space to allow teachers to learn this alone and teach it to students across the U.S., it would go a long way in mitigating White America’s collective guilt related to racism.  In addition, we would be able to finally take steps to actively address and reconcile our racial differences instead of the common knee-jerk reaction of defensiveness, deflection, or dismissing issues of race altogether.

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