The 5 Stages of White Privilege Awareness — STAGE FIVE
When I mentioned to a white friend that I was working on an essay about white privilege, her eyes lit up and she said, “Oh, that’s GREAT! Are you going to tell us what to do? Nobody ever tells us what to do.” I knew exactly what she meant but I fretted all the way home because I wasn’t sure I had any suitable answers. I think this is where a lot of us get stuck. We get stuck in stage 4, depressed and unsure of our next move. We become incapacitated by our guilt and we operate almost solely out of a sense of culpability and contrition.
Here’s the thing: It’s ok to feel guilty. Really! Guilt is different from shame. Dr. Brené Brown says that guilt can actually be “adaptive and helpful — it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.” Brown believes that guilt is actually the precursor to meaningful and lasting change. Increasing our awareness about our privilege ought to make us feel guilty. How could it not? But it also ought to propel us forward. To what, though? This is the hard question of Stage Five. What now?
One of the reasons that I felt such distress after my conversation with my friend was because there are no straightforward answers. There is no to-do list whereby we can systematically check things off one by one in order to find absolution. Stage Five involves a willingness to sit in a state of perpetual unease without trying to alleviate it. It’s about leaning into the discomfort of our awareness and then using that discomfort as a catalyst to change our life trajectories.
For my husband and me part of Stage Five has meant taking a closer look at our neighborhood and choosing to live somewhere that is not entirely homogeneous. It meant a closer scrutiny of the schools we chose for our children; eating food that might feel foreign or frightening; reading books that examine other narratives than our own; exploring the history of our families and tracing some of those threads of privilege that are woven throughout its entire existence. It’s meant asking questions and hearing the stories of other people, even after we think we’ve got it all figured out. It’s meant teaching our kids about the wind at their backs.
Maybe for you it will mean giving your employees the day off for our national holiday commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Maybe it’s advocating for more accountability in our legal system. Or speaking out against the sentencing disparities and selective enforcement of our nation’s drug laws. Maybe it means taking a meal after the Davis, Martin, Rice, Brown, fill-in-the-blank shooting to your Black friend across the street whose kids play at the same playground as your kids and saying simply, “I am so sorry that this has happened again. I am so sorry. I grieve with you.”
Do these things seem paltry? Insignificant. They feel woefully inadequate because they are woefully inadequate. We want answers and we want a checklist because we want to set things right. We want to make some sort of amends. We want justice; restitution. But there will be no easy absolution for our race.
It is no coincidence that I connected the Five Stages of White Privilege Awareness to the Five Stages of Grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Every stage has been an experience in grief. Each step an anguish. But even in the midst of great grief, even in the darkest of hours, hope lives.
So we hope. We hope and we stand in solidarity. We center other people’s stories. We advocate and we listen. We make space for the grief and the anger and the hurt and the frustration that we will never fully understand. And we let our voices rise up to sing a song that does not belong to us but to which we can join our voices from the back, with the multitudes who have already been singing for generations before us: Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us; a song full of the hope that the present has brought us. Facing the rising sun of our new day begun. Let us march on till victory is won.