Human Rights Policy and Nonprofit Organizational Development

Anti-Racist White Identity and the Grieving Process

In Policy Blog on December 17, 2008 at 7:39 pm

Some thoughts on developing an anti-racist white identity.  More to come soon on anti-racist theory more generally– a personal favorite.

1.  “Social Identity” discussed by social psychologists as group membership, identification with social group, and the personal meaning associated with membership in that group.  As Whiteness is a cultural default, white people’s social identity is constructed as the ‘normal’ based on the existence of an ‘other.’  White identity differs from other identities in that it is often experienced as the norm.

 

There is an automatic association between the self and the White in-group and thus with the privileges that such entails.  Part of the dominant discourse of Anglo Whiteness in the US is a notion that society basically functions as a meritocracy.  White Americans believe that they deserve what they have, and do not generally recognize the role their status as in-group members has played in their succeses.

 

2. There is a framework for understanding the grieving process that is generally accepted by mental health professionals.  Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is generally credited with first describing the grief cycle.  The process involves a series of steps:

 

·    Shock and denial

·    Volatile reactions (including anger, even at the person who has died)

·    Disorganization and dispair

·    Reorganization (re-conceptualizing and reorganizing a life which incorporates the lack, loss or change)

 

Geriatric social psychologists have applied traditional grief theory to life changes and the loss of abilities upon which an individual has based their sense of identity.  For example, retirement may cause a sense of loss and a modified grief process for someone who formed their identity around their occupation.  Similarly, the loss of a limb can cause a grieving process as a person re-conceptualizes their sense of self.  This could be particularly strong for someone who previously thought of herself as an athlete.

 

3.  As discussed in number 1, race is central to the understanding of self. For Whites, acceptance of their White identity means acceptance of the privileges that entails as well as their membership in the preferred, definitional in-group.  (By definitional I mean that in US society, White is the neutral by which other races are defined as different.)

 

To grow into a full understanding of the form and function of Whiteness in US society necessitates, for one, accepting that ones privileges are a function not of a meritocratic society but of a system of institutionalized racism.  It also means accepting that by simply being, White people are complicit in institutionalized racism and violence, and according to most definitions, are themselves racist.

 

For White people, coming to a full understanding of institutionalized racism in the United  States means a radical readjustment of their understanding of themselves and their social identity.  It makes sense that Whites developing and anti-racist White identity would go through similar reactions to people undergoing the loss of a loved one, because it is such a radical adjustment of social identity.

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