The idea for stages of White awareness comes from the work Janet E. Helms on positive racial identity development. Helms describes six stages of White awareness: contact, disintegration, reintegration, pseudo-independence, immersion, and autonomy. At each stage, there are opportunities for awareness and action. Helms’s stages of White racial identity are about finding a positive racial identity as White while becoming an active antiracist.
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|Stage of White Identity
|What You Can Do Next
|“Colorblind” motto. Sense that talking about racism is a racist act.
|Learn about the Contact stage
|Aware of racism in family or community. Sense of (White) guilt often mixed with curiosity. Focus on individual actions and merit, such as, “I have a black friend.”
|Learn about the Disintegration stage
|Blame-the-victim or other defensive attitudes. Caution, this is a regressive stage!
|Learn about the Reintegration stage
|Becoming aware of skin color privileges. May look to people of color for teaching. May confuse racism with other kinds of discrimination.
|Learn about the Pseudo-Independence stage
|Concern deepening enough to start conversations with other Whites about racism.
|Learn about the Immersion stage
|Positive White identity while also an active antiracist.
|Learn about the Autonomy stage
In the first stage of awareness of white identity, individuals adhere to the “colorblind” motto. They see racial differences, but do not find it necessary. In fact, they may feel that talking about racism is a racist act. In this stage, people generally are not consciously racist.
However, this seemingly non-racist position often covers unconscious racist beliefs. If the individual is confronted with real-world experiences or knowledge that uncovers the privileges of White skin, they may move into the next stage, disintegration.
People in the disintegration stage have new experiences that confront prior conceptions of race, people of color, and media. Because the new information or experiences feel challenging, individuals are often plagued by feelings of embarrassment, anger, guilt, or shame. These strong emotions can be transformed when the person decides to channel these emotions positively. However, when those emotions continue to dominate, the person may move into the regressive reintegration stage.
The reintegration stage is marked by a “blame-the-victim” attitude that’s more intense than anything experienced in the contact or disintegration stage. Not everyone goes through this stage as it is regressive marked by strong feelings of shame, guilt, defensiveness, or superiority. Individuals may feel that, although Whites do have some privileges, they probably deserve them and are, in some ways, superior to minority groups. If the person can combat these feelings, they may be able to move on to the next stage of a positive white identity. However, many well-meaning White people get stuck in this negative identity when the pain of racial injustice feels confusing or overwhelming and there is not enough support.
Pseudo-independence is the first stage of positive White racial awareness. Although an individual in this stage does not feel that Whites deserve privilege, they look to people of color, not themselves, to confront and uncover racism. They ask people of color to explain and teach them, and they are unaware of the burden this places on the other person. Pseudo-independents feel comforted because these efforts validate this person’s desire to be non-racist. Although this is a positive White racial identity, the person does not have a sense of how they can be both White and non-racist at the same time. They are still expecting people of color to solve the issue.
In the immersion stage, the person makes a genuine attempt to connect to his/her own White identity and to be antiracist. This stage is usually accompanied by a deep concern with understanding and relating to other Whites who are or have been dealing with issues of racism. A sense of taking responsibility begins to develop.
The last stage of positive white identity, autonomy, is reached when an individual has a clear understanding of and positive connection to their White racial identity while also actively pursuing social justice. Helms’s stages of White racial identity are about finding a positive racial identity as White while becoming an active anti-racist. These individuals have found that balance, even as they stay open and recognize there is always more to learn.