Why talking about race is especially hard for White people
Laura Marti – June 13, 2023
Feature Image: Boston College
Talking about race is challenging for many people, but it can be particularly difficult for White people. Why is that? Discussions about race often evoke strong emotions and opinions, which can make it difficult to have a productive and respectful conversation. People may have different experiences, perspectives, and understandings of race, and they may bring different levels of awareness and sensitivity to the topic. They may not even recognize how they’ve been socialized to believe particular narratives about race/ism.
This has been my experience as a White person. Most of my life I felt uneasy discussing race because I was uneducated about it, and I was afraid of saying the wrong thing. I didn’t feel I had the language to participate in meaningful discussions, and didn’t want to offend someone. So it seemed easier just to avoid these conversations altogether rather than have open and honest dialogue. I also carried the false belief that race didn’t really affect me. I didn’t realize that everyone is hurt by racism.
JANET HELMS, PhD
In my search to better understand the difficulty of talking about race, I discovered Dr. Janet Helms. Dr. Helms is an American research psychologist, scholar, and educator, now Emeritus Professor at Boston College, well known for her work on how we relate to one another across racial differences. She is a pioneer in understanding what makes talking about race so difficult. Her research led to a model of White Racial Identity Development that she introduced in the 1980s, which helped forge the language we use today to talk about race. You can learn more about her here.
In an interview found on the Teaching While White podcast (Episode 16, 3/3/21), Dr. Helms outlines how White people come to understand their racial identity, and how her work can be a pathway towards establishing a positive, antiracist, White identity.
Helms named six stages, which she calls “statuses,” that characterize a White person’s pattern of responding to racial situations in their environment. Below is a summary of Dr. Helms’ six statuses.
CONTACT – Unaware of own racial identity; does not think of oneself as “White” but as “normal.” Tendency to view racism as “individual acts of meanness” rather than as an institutionalized system, and typically does not recognize or acknowledge “White privilege.” This is an obliviousness to being racially White.
DISINTEGRATION – Awareness of racism and White privilege increases as a result of personal experiences. Common emotional responses to this new information include shame, guilt, denial, anger, depression, and withdrawal. May attempt to persuade others to abandon racist thinking.
REINTEGRATION – This is a state of trying to protect one’s racial privilege. May feel pressured by others to “not notice” racism. Feelings of guilt and denial are transformed into fear and anger toward people of color; a common response is to “blame the victim.” Chooses to avoid the issue of racism, if possible, rather than struggling to define a non-racist identity. Percentage-wise, many White people live in the reintegration stage because the disintegration stage is the most painful and difficult to navigate.
PSEUDO-INDEPENDENCE – Individual is abandoning beliefs in White superiority. Has an intellectual understanding of the unfairness of White privilege and recognizes personal responsibility for dismantling racism. May choose to distance oneself from other Whites, and actively seek out people of color to help him/her better understand racism.
IMMERSION/EMERSION – Actively seeking to redefine Whiteness. Asking self-questions such as “Who am I racially?” “What does it really mean to be White in the U.S.?” Needs support from other anti-racist Whites who have asked similar questions. Focus is on developing a positive White identity not based on assumed superiority. Takes pride in active anti-racist stance.
AUTONOMY – Has internalized a positive White racial identity. Actively anti-racist within own sphere of influence. Development of racial identity is not static; this person continues to be open to new information and ongoing self-examination. Able to work effectively in multiracial setting in “beloved community.”
Helms thinks of her White Racial Identity model as being separated into two halves: internalized racism and recovering from racism. Progressing through the first three statuses represents a person moving toward abandoning racism. As one develops an anti-racist White identity, three more statuses follow. A moment of awakening usually occurs when a person realizes our real racial history, yet that person can also slide back into Whiteness because it becomes too difficult to sustain their antiracism (regression or reintegration).
These statuses are not fixed, they are dynamic. She says we need to be aware of that and always ask ourselves, “How have I changed? How has racism changed? And how am I changing the world and society in order to make it a better place?” Also, it is not inevitable that people move through these statuses progressively, which is why she changed the name from stages to statuses. Dr. Helms says that people can move in and out of these statuses at any moment – we are constantly cycling through, moving back and forth, depending on the situation or social environment we are in.
The Teaching While White podcast is an excellent starting place to understand her theory and research: Racial Identity for White People with Dr. Janet Helms.
A FEW THINGS I LEARNED FROM JANET HELMS
Talking about race/ism is hard for White people because many of us aren’t listening. Black people have told us they experience racism and racial trauma on a regular basis, in its many forms, but since we don’t experience it, we don’t believe them. We may not want to hear it because it makes us uncomfortable. Perhaps we refuse to listen because we don’t want it to be true and we want things to stay as they are. We then invalidate the lived experience of Black people. But if we want a more humane society that truly treats all people equally, we need to listen to Black voices that tell us where racism exists and recognize their experiences as valid. If we want to help dismantle racism, we need to become more aware of what racism looks like and increase our and others’ awareness of how the system is not working fairly for Black people.
Dr. Helms tells us that talking about race/ism is also hard for White people because we are blind to our own racial identity. Many White people do not yet have an awareness of their Whiteness and are unable to recognize the extent to which Whiteness perpetuates racism in our society. White people are essentially born into the ‘contact’ status where we don’t see White as a race. Helms says that often a moral dilemma (such as realizing POC are treated differently) shakes up our obliviousness and can then move us into ‘disintegration,’ which can present an opportunity for growth. At the same time, as awareness grows, it can feel threatening to think we have privilege related to being White, and that we may have to give that privilege up to fight racism. This can cause us to regress back to the safety of protecting our racial identity.
White people often don’t feel other people’s pain, especially others who look different from them. There are injustices happening around us every day that White people should be feeling something about, but we are often apathetic because it is an ‘other’ group. Helms suggests that White people need to see and engage with these events because they keep us from escaping the reality of what racism looks like.
White people don’t recognize the ways in which they’ve been socialized to cope with race. When you are socialized in the system in which you are the majority, it’s very difficult to see the ways in which racism is built into our systems. There’s a socialization that people of color have automatically, but they don’t always have a language for. So her White Racial Identity Theory gives not only White people a language for thinking about themselves, but also people of color a language for understanding the different perspectives or orientations of White people as they engage with them.
Dr. Helms’ encouragement is that there’s a good way to be a white person! Developing a positive White identity helps us recognize racial injustice, moves us toward an ability to feel our common humanity (empathy), then hopefully leads to compassion and engaging in opportunities to actively dismantle racism. Read more in her book.
Ultimately, talking about race and Whiteness is critical for building a more just, equitable society. It’s our only way forward. Helms says, “Only White people can end racism.” We have to do the work of increasing our awareness and having difficult conversations that may implicate our own selves. We need to listen with a bent toward learning. Learning is not just about gaining a skill or acquiring knowledge – learning is about a change in our understanding that leads to growth in our humanity. We need to open our eyes to the reality of our White racial identity and how it can cause harm to people of color. We need to validate the trauma people of color carry, and also recognize their equal dignity. Dr. Helms’ research gives us meaningful tools for accomplishing all of these.
We also need to help other White people along in their journey. As we move forward ourselves, it may be tempting to lose our patience with others’ lack of understanding. But the antiracism journey is a lifelong process for all of us. When we see others who are not as far along, it’s helpful to remember the different statuses we have been through and let that move us to compassion. I can definitely see where I’ve moved in and out of these statuses. One thing that helped me in my journey was having a few people who were safe, and who helped me to move toward ‘pseudo-independence,’ ‘immersion,’ and ‘autonomy’ when the things I was learning were overwhelming. That is what kept me from falling back into ‘reintegration.’
Let’s be bold and patient, clear and kind, determined and compassionate to everyone, regardless of where they are on their journey, moving together toward the goal of dismantling race/ism. Using Dr. Helms’ list of statuses, where are you? What might help you move to the next level? Who are the people helping you along on your journey today? And how are you leveraging your awareness of race/ism to help bring real change?
DR. HELMS’ BOOK
A Race Is A Nice Thing to Have: A Guide to Being A White Person or Understanding the White Persons in Your Life, Dr. Helms says this about her book:
“We are living in an era in which White political leaders are attempting to ‘protect’ White people from their own history by suppressing Black history. Yet, by discovering what Black history means about Whiteness, White people have an opportunity to decide what kind of human they want to be. My book, A Race Is A Nice Thing to Have, is intended to encourage White people to uncover the long-lasting effects of their suppressed racial history on who they are today.”
Toward a Model of White Racial Identity Development (Change Now)
White Racial Identity and Anti-Racist Education: A Catalyst for Change (Teaching for Change)
Janet Helms studies the mechanisms of inequality (American Psychological Association)
YouTube:Francesca Maximé – ReRooted – Ep. 32 – What is Whiteness? with Dr. Janet E. Helms (Be Here Now Network)
YouTube: #47: Race and Therapy – Dr. Janet Helms (PsychHub)
A Race Is A Nice Thing to Have: A Guide to Being A White Person or Understanding the White Persons in Your Life (Cognella Academic Publishing, 2019)