CSWAC Blog

Transitions & White Anti-racism: Thoughts from a White Guy

June 15, 2012

There is something important and precious about white folks genuinely struggling for clarity and understanding about our common culture and the inescapable cognitive and emotional poison we’ve ingested by growing up here.   Even more important is what we actually DO with our insights, vulnerability, courage and freedom as we focus on becoming an authentic piece of anti-racist solutions.

I am white and also very hungry to equate that with constructive anti-racist behavior. It is important to me to be working that agenda while recognizing and owning that I have been handcuffed to destructive misperceptions about myself, about people of color, and about my country along with her systems and structures that control everything.   I am a learner.

I appreciate the work of William Bridges who describes the human, three-stage process we all go through when facing significant changes in our lives.  He calls it Transitions. I see a powerful connection to what white Americans face in our own transition and the necessary journey to become anti-racist whites.

A critical reality is that people don’t change automatically or easily when facing difficult challenges – especially when our identity, our very perception of ourselves is intimately involved.    Instead, we go through a three-step process that starts with endings.

Stage One of transitions, accepting the loss and the ending of “what we had,” is understandably difficult.   Fears and “what ifs” can permeate our thinking.    Letting go can leave us vulnerable, guilty, and frightened.   We don’t know for sure what is in the future or if we can, or even want, to pursue it.   We are facing a loss of comfort with an ingrained privilege and consuming myth of the “rightness of whiteness.”   Letting go is seen as risky but hanging on can be stifling.   Picture a trapeze artist needing to let go in order to grab the approaching bar.   Some lives are lived without ever allowing an ending and a letting-go to take place.

So what does this have to do with being white and effectively anti-racist? The “perceptual saturation bombing” from every institution in America contributes to a horrible distortion of reality as it empowers us to feel superior while being just as thoroughly armed to deny it, consciously and unconsciously.

For white people struggling to truly understand and deal with racism, this is a critical, but often-missed part of the work.  We have a thousand “reasons” why we are not racist, all of which block an acceptance of reality.  Accepting our “disease of racism” is not unlike the need to accept a serious malady before we can actually get to the work of healing.

Bridges describes what we get upon successfully letting go in Stage Two, The Neutral Zone.   Here is uncertainty on steroids, sometimes referred to as wandering in the wasteland.  We don’t have the security of what we had and feel ill-prepared and lost.   The second stage of transitions can be empty, lonely and de-energizing.  Often one feels anger at being duped by those people and institutions we were taught to trust, and love.  The white person without the sturdy support of an abandoned racist identity now struggles with “What fills the void?”  Questions of, “Who am I and what will I become?” gnaw at the vulnerable person in the neutral zone.   Genuine pain is felt when we also struggle with, “What have I been?”

Clarity can emerge from courage, reading, thinking, observing and talking to others who have struggled with this frustrating stage. Courage to explore new possibilities for understanding oneself and a more accurate understanding of racism in America generates sparks of what the newly aware white person can become. We discover new acceptance, amplified energy, new optimism and insights that begin to replace the emptiness in the Neutral Zone as we transition to Stage Three, the “New Beginning.”

There is a new focus and a receptivity of the work ahead to make the new challenge or identity meaningful.  We might now hear:  “This isn’t easy, I may stumble at times but I now see this as an opportunity.”   This new perception of oneself is no longer anchored by what was lost but is now empowered by what can be, by the excitement of grabbing that trapeze bar, and even a peaceful centeredness while being simultaneously challenged.  White people often talk with relief of no longer hiding, living a lie, pretending or wasting energy being inauthentic.

Stage Three New Beginnings can be dangerous when the unleashed energy generates activism that is less grounded in collaboration and accountability.  People in this stage are feeling driven and may want to go out and slay dragons but can, unfortunately, charge ahead blindly and attack the wrong dragons.  Active listening to victims of racism with a new receptivity is priceless.  The energy and new focus demands thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and a true acceptance of oneself as a learner.  Vulnerability can be an act of strength.

But the look on someone’s face in Stage Three is beautiful. It reveals optimism, ownership, hunger to learn, receptivity, motivation, humility, impatience and a true awareness of the new beginning… and it all started with endings, with letting go.

Muster the courage and the friends to help with the struggle because it is about freedom –  yours and that of the victims of racism.  Also, please be there for other whites beginning their transitions!

We will not, and don’t have to, get it perfect before we engage in our transition toward new white beginnings.  We start with ourselves, change is unlocked from the inside.  There are more anti-racist whites available than ever before to help with this work. We all are pawns and perpetrators of racism – that is a horrible reality that we pay for and can’t escape.  But we can also be recovering, passionate learners and that’s the beginning of a new anti-racist identity and a new freedom.

“Things end, there is a time of fertile emptiness, and things begin anew”

 -William Bridges