As a Black woman dealing with racism, I remember I used to get so upset trying to speak to White people about racism. Why couldn’t they just understand? It all seemed so simple to me. As I observed people and had many conversations, both online and in-person, I started to see similar patterns of behavior when it came to facing racism. In thinking about racism, I was reminded of the Five Stages of Grief (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) developed by David Kessler and Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. I realized that facing racism has a similar process. There are stages of facing the reality of racism.
Before you read any further, let me be clear, these are the stages of facing racism that I have noticed in my personal and professional life. To be sure, there are others and this list is not exhaustive but hopefully will provide some understanding about Facing Racism in America.
10 Stages of Facing Racism:
1. Denial- The first stage of racism is Denial. Instead of facing the truth that racism is and has been a persistent problem in the United States, it is easier to deny that racism exists. Denial means making tweets that say, “This isn’t us,” when in fact, history shows that it is you. America was built on the backs of enslaved Black men, women, and children. In the wake of two mass shootings perpetrated by two White men in recent days, the conversation of White supremacy started to surface. Tucker Carlson stated on his Fox News show, “If you were to assemble a list, a hierarchy of concerns, problems this country has, where would white supremacy be on the list? Right up there with Russia probably. It’s actually not a real problem in America.” Tucker, like many other White people, are in denial. Countless historical and current events dispute Tucker’s claim, yet he, like many others, have chosen to be willfully ignorant. They have chosen to remain in denial.
I recall reading a study (and I am sorry that I cannot find it to cite it) that people can only look at themselves for a few seconds in the mirror before turning away. I believe the study said it was just 15 seconds before someone will look away from their own reflection. It is difficult to look at yourself physically because our minds immediately start pointing out what we perceive are “flaws.” Similarly, it is even harder to look inside yourself, see yourself, and admit the truth about yourself-all the ugly parts that you dress up so no one can see them. Facing your inner self is painful. It doesn’t feel good. It is uncomfortable. And like anyone that feels discomfort, the first thing you want to do is try to alleviate the discomfort. Most people do that with denial. “This isn’t happening.” “Our President isn’t racist.” “America isn’t racist.” “It’s not me that is racist. You’re the real racist.” People say things like this because admitting the truth says a lot about them and their families and their friends. It means everything they have ever believed about themselves, and this country is a lie. It means their husbands and daughters and church members and neighbors, etc., supported a racist, and how can that be? “What does that say about me? So, I must deny that racism even exists.”
2. Avoidance – The second stage of racism is Avoidance. “I unfollowed Hannah. All she does is talk about race.” “I’m blocking you on social media.” “Don’t come over for dinner if all you are going to do is talk about race.” This phase is similar to denial, except the person can’t entirely deny that what you are saying bears some truth. Instead of facing the reality of racism, they would rather avoid the conversation. They would like to pretend as if they do not know anything about racism. How many times have you heard, “Why do you keep talking about racism?” “Just stop talking about race, and it will go away.” “Talking about racism just makes it more prevalent.” Talking about an issue does not cause an issue, it brings awareness to an issue, and that is the part that many White people want to avoid because it makes them accountable. If they know about racism, they can no longer rest in the denial phase. They can no longer claim, “I had no idea.” They can no longer rest in their ignorance. And if we are honest, some people are comfortable going to bed every night oblivious to anything going on around them. It makes it easier to sleep at night in your king-size bed with Egyptian cotton sheets when you don’t have to think about kids being locked in cages sleeping on a floor.
3. Anger– The third stage of racism is Anger. By this phase, White people can longer deny or avoid the reality that racism exists yet they still do not want to face it, so they become angry. “How dare you question the President and call him racist!” “Go back to where you came from!” “Racist bitch!” It is easier to respond in anger than it is facing the truth. Anger allows them to have a villain, and that makes racism acceptable. It’s not racism. It’s Colin Kaepernick. He’s the villain.” “It’s not racism. It’s Representative Ilhan Omar. She’s the villain.” “It’s not racism. It’s those immigrants coming to steal our jobs. They are the villains.” “It’s not racism. It’s liberal Hollywood. The elite. They are the villains.”
White people who are not ready to face racism will find a person(s) to point to in order to make racism justifiable to them. Then it stops being about racism and starts being about the person(s). The villain is the source of the problem so that can now justify racist behavior. It is like, “I wouldn’t behave this way, but they made me do it. They made me lash out.” Their anger is really a reflection of their refusal to look inside themselves and instead of facing inwardly to deal with themselves, they turn their anger outwardly.
4. Deflection – The fourth stage of racism is Deflection. I like to call this phase the, “But What About” phase. White people can no longer deny racism exists; they can no longer avoid the conversation about racism, but because they do not want to face the truth, it is time for deflection. Ivanka Trump demonstrated this phase after the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. The world started to call her father, Donald Trump, out on his racism, and she could no longer deny that her father has stoked the flames of hatred in America. The videos of his racist rhetoric were talking points on almost every news station, in the newspapers, and saturated social media so she could not avoid the truth. So, it was time for her to deflect. In typical fashion, she chose not to address her father but shine a spotlight on Chicago the go-to city for anyone that really wants to say, “But what about Black on Black crime?” Deflection merely means the person still does not want to face the reality of racism. They can no longer deny that racism exists, but they are not ready to deal with that knowledge so they must deflect. It also helps them accept the actions of racism.
5. Victimhood – The fifth stage of racism is Victimhood. At this stage, the evidence of racism is overwhelming. They can no longer deny, avoid, get angry or deflect. So now it becomes about them being the victim. “White people are oppressed too.” “Irish people were enslaved too.” “I feel threatened.” “Your tone when you speak about racism makes me uncomfortable.” “I feel attacked.” “We are the real victims.” This is a phase that seeks to take the focus off the injustices that Black people face and now make it about White people. If they cannot deny that racism exists, now they must make themselves the victim. If any sympathy is going to be given, it must be given towards them. Enter White tears. They work every time. This is yet another tactic that helps them avoid facing racism.
6. Separation – The sixth stage of racism is Separation. White people can no longer deny, avoid, deflect, or play the victim, so to now it becomes about separating. When I make an argument about police brutality, inevitably someone will come on my posts and say, “Not all police are bad.” So now they have dismissed my argument and made it about all police. No one said all police are bad. But they don’t want to deal with the reality that police are killing unarmed Black people. When I write about the 53% of White women that voted for Trump, a White woman will always say, “Not all White women.” No one said all White women, but they must make it known that they are not like “those women.” (I think it is common sense when someone makes a statement they don’t mean EVERY anything in the world but that goes back to stage 4, Deflection. Instead of listening to the argument they deflect to separation to make sure they are not grouped in with “those people.”) They are not like “those White men,” with tiki torches spewing hate in Charlottesville, Virginia. They are different. They aren’t in the group of people that are tearing young children away from their parents and locking them up in cages. They are different. They are separate from “those White people.” They are the “good White people.” “I’m not like Trump. I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could have.” What they fail to understand is that racism doesn’t start or end with one person. Trump didn’t invent racism. He just used what was already there for his benefit. Racism is embedded into systems all White people benefit from regardless if they are racist or not. There is no parsing out racism. Fighting racism means admitting even if you are not racist, you have benefitted from racist systems. But they do not want to admit that so they must separate themselves as if that absolves them from facing and dealing with racism.
7. Rationalizing – The seventh stage of racism is Rationalizing. Somehow White people must make racism make sense, so they start to rationalize. I like to call this phase the, “If they would just…” phase. “If they would just pull up their pants then…” “If they would just stop playing their music loudly then…” “If they would just comply then…” When you do not want to admit something, you start using anything to rationalize it away. White people believe if Black people would just stay in their place, all would be well. If Black people would just conform to what White people want, racism wouldn’t exist. They have formed a quid pro quo rationalization, but there is no quid pro quo when it comes to racism. There is no “if Black people would just _______________ (fill in the blank) then” because Black people are criminalized, penalized, and murdered for doing almost anything. We have seen countless videos in recent months of Black people being harassed for walking, barbecuing, swimming, driving, etc. The list is endless. You cannot rationalize away racism.
8. Depression– The eighth stage of racism is Depression. By this phase, White people understand they cannot deny, avoid, get angry, deflect, play the victim, separate themselves, or rationalize away racism. The reality of racism is sinking in, and it doesn’t feel good. This is the current phase America is in after the mass shootings that took place in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. America is realizing that indeed, America is racist, and that realization has caused some to be depressed. “I can’t believe this is happening.” “I’m so sad.” “Who have we become?” “I ‘can’t eat. I can’t sleep.” Still, this is a phase that is about them. They are still centering themselves. The attention is not on those that have experienced racism; it is about how this realization has made them feel. If they are depressed since Trump has been elected, imagine how Black people have felt every single day since before the Presidential election? The feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and despair are nothing new for us. We wake up with those feelings, go throughout our day with those feelings, and go to bed with those feelings.
9. Acceptance – The ninth stage of racism is Acceptance. This is the phase I am waiting for America to reach. There is no more denying that racism is real. There is no more denying that racism is embedded in just about every system in America. There is no more denying that America elected a racist into the highest office in the land. The evidence is clear. This nation was built on racism, and this nation continues to feed off the undying fruit of racism. It is time for America to stop dealing with the fruit and deal with the root. Now it is time to accept this painful reality. You cannot deny or rationalize it away. It simply is. Facing this truth and owning this truth is difficult for many, but until you are able to get to this phase, change will not take place. Dealing with racism means accepting that racism exists. It means accepting that yes, your father was a racist. It means acknowledging that your family wealth was gained due to slavery. It means you are in your position not because you were better qualified but because the other applicant was Black and the hiring manager didn’t like Black people. It means acknowledging some ugly and hidden truths about yourself that are difficult to admit. But only through admitting and accepting them can you begin to change.
10. Action – The final stage of facing racism is Action. I like to call this phase, “So Now What?” Now that you have admitted that racism is real, now what? What do you do with this reality? Now isn’t the time to sit and do nothing. Do something! Stand up. Speak out. Advocate for others. Donate your time. Give resources. Attend a local meeting that focuses on race relations. Read. Educate yourself. Equip yourself to speak to those that are where you once were when it comes to facing racism. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. Check yourself. Understand that people are in different phases of facing racism. Listen. Don’t assume because you now understand that racism is, in fact, real, that you are the spokesperson for race relations. Some people have been in this fight for justice for a long time. Listen to them and learn from them.
Understanding these 10 stages of racism have helped me maintain my composure when I speak to people about racism. (Most times. I’m not perfect.) I used to get so upset when people would deflect or lash out in anger. Now I understand there are stages they must go through in order to get to accepting and facing racism. My job as a writer is to continue to hold up the mirror until they see themselves, face themselves, and are ready to accept the truth.
Categories: Current Events, Politics, Race Relations
Great post full of truth. This and so many other things I’ve read and learned over the years have shown me that white people have very severe cognitive dissonance about what they’ve done throughout history and to this day. They go through all of these stages because they don’t want to face and accept who they are and what they’ve done.
This resonates so much for me. I just resigned from a job in March because of racism and it has still torn me up inside.
I detect no lies!
Have you read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility? She’s White, so that book and her lectures, were very enlightening. White people can speak to the kinds of things that really go on in their heads, and she did say some very similar stuff to this.
I’ve not read it although I hear people mention the title quite a bit. When I was driving this came to me and for some reason it all made sense as I thought about my interactions with White people when I am talking about racism. Even now I’m sure I can expound on this list and just may some day.
I think this would make an excellent book actually, if you expanded on it. It would fit right in with Joy DeGruys White Rage, the book: Angry White Men, and DiAngelo’s book.
Very well laid out. I’d say I’m in the Depressed stage at this point, only now coming to realize much of the history I learned in school was bull____, and just how cruel my white ancestors really were. I’m working toward acceptance, hopefully to be followed by action. Thank you for this.
Very insightful. Thanks! Pre-Trump, I thought racism existed but that it was mainly institutional and structural and that it was a disease dying of its own weight. I didn’t think there were still *that* many people in America who were “consciously” racist. Wow! Was that off base! Of course, #45 has made it a lot worse. But they are still here…in droves.
*I* don’t encounter it much. Now, I realize that some of my white acquaintances most likely are very racist but they just don’t talk to me about it; they know from other things I say not to show it openly. I need to probe. I need to watch.
You might enjoy this post too. https://petersironwood.com/2019/07/11/essays-on-america-labelism/
Thank you for posting this article. It had occurred to me that I was seeing in peoples posts on Facebook, that there seemed to be a correlation between stages of acceptance of grief and accepting my role regarding racism. So I googled “stages of overcoming racism” which led me to your post. You put words to what I am feeling. It’s been a long road, gonna be a little longer to arrive, though we’ll keep walkin till the walkins through.