Becoming a White Anti-Racist
By Sarah Pirtle, MEd.
Director of the Discovery Center for Peacebuilding since 1992
WHITE ANTI-RACIST JOURNEYS
Founder of Bridge4Unity, Deborah Snow says, “Racism lives in a heart- broken place. Changing it requires work of the heart.”
Racism tries to steal the soul of humankind. To grasp this as a white person, there is a walk that needs to be walked deep inside.
Ruby Sales comments, “The culture of whiteness forces everyone to give up their humanity.” Racism, oppression, colonization — they try to turn all of us inside out. As Nikole Hannah-Jones summarized, “Systemic racism is rooted inside the soul and psyche of our country and culture.”
To underscore how inwardly this is installed, Holly Near observes that “institutionalized oppression produces a deeply personal effect.”
African American community leaders in Franklin County, Western MA participated in a presentation called “A Conversation About Racism: Staying Curious, Moving Forward, and Being Part of the Solution” January 2022. During the talk, Jeanne Hall said, “Racism is going to destroy this country.” Gloria Matlock observed, “It wasn’t designed to be fixed.”
What follows here are realizations about developmental stages white people go through in choosing to be anti-racist.
I use both those two terms — white and European American — within this essay. Each time I say “white” I don’t mean it as a person unconsciously encapsulated in the helmet of white supremacy but I also mean it as a general description. My friend Emmy Howe uses the term white justice seeker in the trainings she leads for teachers through Wellesley College.
One step is embracing basic racial identity. One member of Bridge4Unity said: “White people — place yourselves in a race. Embrace your whiteness. See your lens. Take in your identity.”
In 1995 Dr. Janet Helms created a White Racial Identity Development Model. She explains, “This framework identifies a continuum that leads to white individuals developing an anti-racist white identity.”
This is a paraphrase of how Helms describes the first two stages:
Contact: In this stage, individuals adhere to the “colorblind” motto. They lack an understanding of racism and often have minimal experiences with people of color.
Racial and cultural differences are considered to be unimportant and the individual often does not perceive themselves as belonging to the “dominant” group or having biases or prejudices. They may even believe that racism is propagated by the discussion and acknowledgement of race as an issue. In this stage, if an individual is confronted with real-world experiences or knowledge that uncovers the privileges of being white, they may move into the disintegration stage.
Disintegration: In this stage, the “colorblind” motto is challenged by new information and experiences. The individual becomes increasingly conscious of their whiteness and the privileges that it brings to them. They may experience feelings of guilt and shame. These emotions of guilt and shame can be modified if an individual decides to channel these emotions in a positive way but when those emotions continue to dominate, they may move into the reintegration stage.
When I first started leading trainings on changing racism in the late 1990’s through an organization directed by Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian called Communitas, I looked for ways to promote conversations. I wanted to develop support among white people to talk candidly about racism that came not from fragility and tip-toeing but from rooting ourselves in how a beloved community fosters growth.
It was helpful to present Dr. Helms’ model. To describe the stage of disintegration, I held up two hands to show the struggle. I said, “There is a huge dynamic to face. On the one hand a white person is trying to hold onto, ‘I am a worthy person,’ while in the other hand they are now able to grasp, ‘life threatening racism pervades and interlaces ourselves and our country.’”
The following new description of stages is offered for discussion. It’s built from experiences, reflection, and comparing thoughts with others of European descent.
Note: The voice of “I” is meant to be both personal and general.
WHITE ANTI-RACIST IDENTITY GROWTH: Becoming a co-transformer
A picture of inner and outer changes of a white woman
becoming a European American justice seeker.
First stage: Embedded
Steeped in white supremacy conditioning but unconscious of it. Embedded in white culture but don’t realize that I’m white. Holding a jangled picture where all social space is instead seen as white space. Thinking I’m regular and ‘normal.’
Next stage: Eyes begin to open.
Racism exists and it’s brutal. I feel it.
We inherit what generations before us refused to face. Will we face it?
Note: These next states are described as stages but they don’t unfold in a straight line. There’s going forward, but there’s also bouncing back.
Dealing with emotions with responsibility:
What’s at stake is that if I get stuck inside my own guilt or shame I could short-circuit. I could lose the power to act if I keep the focus on myself and my feelings. The trick is facing the emotions, following and learning from them and moving through them, while going forward.
Here’s examples of emotions rising:
- Noticing my racism and feeling sickened.
- Disgust with other white people.
- An earthquake stage. Feeling the familiar world turned inside out by facing this truth.
- I hate my white self. I’m ashamed of white supremacy.
If you listen to the emotion, it can lead to new insights about how conditioning is sitting inside, and that gives a chance to ferret out stuck places and make action more possible.
More understanding of the magnitude of the situation:
Facing the history and present day experiences of white women betraying black and brown women.
Hearing the message:
“White women, go and learn by yourselves. Give us space. Take responsibility.”
Part of the separation is for white people to do emotional work together. At one stage, white women often mistakingly ask women of color to witness their emotions. By really facing the travesty of racism, a host of emotions come up. These might be helplessness, empathy, despair, fury that the travesty is there. But these emotions are to be brought to other white people for listening and learning and brought to oneself.
Gaining insights about guilt:
The fancy dress-coat of white supremacy is felt, and in wrestling with divesting of it, the promised lies and binds get clearer — such as the promise of social safety if you join in driving the engine of racism. Instead of taking on guilt, a clarity comes that guilt is meant to be carried for learning and meant to be carried by those who keep racism driving.
Becoming engaged and committing to step in and speak up. Grasping responsibility for changing racism. Embracing the meaning of “Black and white together, certainly Lord,” Reaching for the anchor of human unity.
Carrying out the commitment:
Suggesting changes related to structural racism in groups that one is part of. Speaking up and intervening consistently in racially problematic situations.
Reading, talking, reaching for information.
Persevering despite mistakes:
At times feeling inept, but struggling not to become paralyzed. Seeing the need to grasp more fully the centuries of brutality and the way racism is interlocking U.S. culture now.
Being in a place where people are welcome to tell me my mistakes.
Sometimes I can listen and say — Tell me more.
Sometimes I get mired and pull back.
I see more of what I have to learn.
I realize I am awkward in discussions about race and lean into becoming more comfortable with being direct and addressing what is racially problematic.
I decide no matter what that I won’t turn back.
I’m a European American within an anti-racist community. Whether I’m welcomed or seen is not the point.
I’m in the struggle and I won’t leave. I’m committed to keep going.
How to be an active anti-racist becomes a life-long question, pushing and guiding.
Spiritual breakthroughs of understanding develop a deeper well inside for continuing this work.
There is a love within a beloved community which is the opposite of white supremacy, and this is deep and abiding.
What is the Beloved Community?
A safe place to learn and grow.
A place where we link rather than rank in a hierarchy.
We transform guilt and shame into propelling qualities.
We are willing to hear yours’ and others’ deep truths.
We are open to feedback.
We ask ourselves questions.
Fostering self responsibility, self care, self knowledge.
Where are we aiming for?
That we shift into a community of transformation where we all insist this must stop.
Jeanne Hall said:
“Look into your heart and see if there’s something you have to do.”
As we know, racism is very much alive this very day. We who are walking on this journey are creating a turn around together. We take in the reality, wrestle with the responsibility and actually take on the change over.
We forge connection. Our unity must be restored so we can take action together, BIPOC women and European American finding an honest way forward.
We aim to keep being a place where growing and learning is happening. Spiritual power pushes for activism and social change. There’s a world that is wanting to be born through us. We are all needed in the turn-around on this planet. We circulate soul strength. We each add ourselves into the struggle.
We build roads as we walk. Together we create a landing place for all people.
A song from the past lifts up:
Black and Brown and White women together, certainly Lord.
CHANGE-OVER: STEPS ON THE JOURNEY
“Racism is a moral knot that white supremacy ties, and then we have to untie it,” says Will Rowan from the music quartet Windborne.
They grew up surrounded by racism. But early on they chose a different path. That’s the name of a report by John Blake of CMN that appeared on January 2, 2022. He talks about white people who grew up in families and communities where racism was the norm. That was the case for me in my family.
Blake writes, “They rejected those beliefs early on. They zigged when everyone else around them zagged… They possessed an innate ability to self-correct when they were young and defy expectations at an age when the pressure to conform is the highest.”
As he studies the lives of white people who choose to go against racist programming, Blake identifies these abilities in common:
They can imagine being in someone else’s shoes.
They have been moved by a story.
They have been transformed by a relationship.
They are willing to pay the price.
Change happens one to one, person to person. Whether we have an encounter, or hear about it and feel it so deeply that we ourselves can learn from it, we are participating in this change over. The words in Hebrew for the repair of the world, tikkun olam, describe that sensation and that commitment.
When I had been leading and attending anti-racism trainings for twenty-five years, I said to myself, “I don’t want to be a sham. I don’t want to be untrustworthy. I have to pause and do more inner work. I want to show up and speak out against racism, but I don’t want to imply that I’m doing enough.”
At that time I went to a workshop led by Ruby Sales at Rowe Conference Center, and talking to her was a turning point. I told her, “I keep waking to a new level of my ignorance. I feel like I can’t grow fast enough.”
She said to keep going. Stay steady. You have decided you are on this journey. Take one more step each day. What Ruby said pointed a way forward. I could commit to keep going despite the realization that I have far to go, much to learn, much to do.
Racism with its teeth doggedly tries to take down human unity. What has to happen to leave off being a person who has been conscripted by white supremacy? How do we signal that we are unwillingly to be marching in that army.
I reach to learn how to be a person who is a European American member of the human race and as such is campaigning, straining, dedicated to take all that is associated with white supremacy and throw back that membership.
When I think of how to stay on the path I hear: Walk again as a human being. Lean into Umoja and feel for it in your bones. Do the inner work so you can trust yourself. Do the outer work and say, no one can take me off this path.
To declare that you are on the journey and won’t turn back is to arrive in a solid place. When the helmet is wrestled with and begins to come off, there is continually more work to do, but important inner decisions have been made and these count. These provide a new orientation.