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What keeps us from understanding our whiteness? Let’s look at a few examples of how the lack of white consciousness exacerbates racism.

  • In a recent meeting with executives of a large foundation, the topic of racism was raised. The CEO, a white woman, shared that “kids these days are less racist than older people. Once we older folks die off, there will be less racism."
  • In a video from Whiteness Project, Leilani, who is 17, shares that racism will end if we “stop talking about racism. Just stop.”
  • Also from the Whiteness Project, we meet Lena, who is 21 and passes for white. Her father is Arab-American and they live in a small town on the west coast. Lena recalls asking her father to not attend her sports events or be seen with her in public. “I think it’s much better for you if you look white,” she shares.

I lived more than twenty years before I began to understand my whiteness and what came along with it.

092221_Deanna Blog Image 3We white folks have varying awareness of and relationships with our whiteness. Yet our lives are greatly shaped by it.

What keeps us from understanding our whiteness as a social construct? Who benefits, and who is harmed, if we are unaware?

Simply mentioning whiteness can elicit a wide range of defensive moves from white people. Brené Brown's shares in her July 2020 podcast, titled Shame and Accountability, that even talking about whiteness or race can elicit such an intense shame response,  shutting us down, even if personal racism isn't mentioned or accused. Brené shares the following:

"I want to focus, really, on shame today, and one thing that has struck me over the past few weeks as we’ve seen the country and the world mobilized to take on COVID-19 and white supremacy to lethal pandemics is how we’re talking about shame, how we’re weaponizing it, and why getting clear on the differences between being held accountable for racism and feeling shame is not the same thing as being shamed.

And this distinction, I think, is critically important, especially for those of us who are white. We’re trying to do anti-racism work, some of us have been doing it for a while, some of us are brand new to it. We need to understand the difference between being held accountable for racism and experiencing shame as a result of that accountability, and how that’s different than actually being shamed for being a racist."

If you are white, when did you first know that whiteness brings things with it? Typical reactions include the following when race or whiteness are mentioned:

  • thinking race doesn’t impact people significantly
  • thinking young people are more enlightened and anti-racist than older people
  • believing that talking about racism increases racism
  • pushing back on the idea that whiteness impacts white people's lives
  • presuming that people that acknowledge the implications of race are weak, lazy, or opportunistic

Let's dig into the concept of White Consciousness. White Consciousness is

“One’s own awareness of being white and what that implies in relation to those who do not share white group membership” (Rowe, 1994).

"The idea that consciousness, the cognitive and sensory experience of one’s relationship with the world, is shaped by one’s white racial identity." (Perhamus)

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Many people presume that racism only impacts Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC). It impacts white people too, as we reap the unearned benefits of it, even to the point of being convinced that it doesn't exist. 


Who benefits from white people believing that race doesn't matter?

Much research and many models define phases of race consciousness for both BIPOC people and white people. As we’re focusing on whiteness in this series, here is one example of an Integrated Model by John and Joy Hoffman:

  1. CONFORMITY: In the first stage of conformity, people of color and white people feel that they are just “regular Americans.” Unconsciously, members of both groups strive to emulate whiteness in actions, speech, dress, beliefs, and attitudes because whiteness is perceived as positive.
  2. ACCEPTANCE: In this stage, white people can still dismiss or diminish comments or actions that indicate that racism is alive. They express the view that everyone has struggles and people should just accept the way things are and try to be American. They expect people of color to “get over it” and go forward as Americans which really means be more like white people.
  3. RESISTANCE: White people move from their acceptance stage to the resistance stage where they profess that racism is a thing of the past. White people often express their belief that there is a new racism and that is the racism that they perceive is against white people. This is popularly referred to as “reverse racism.”
  4. RETREAT: If their assumptions about people of color and their own lack of privilege are proven false, they may enter the retreat stage. They may feel guilty and ashamed by how hard life has been and still is for people of color. They are also frustrated by, annoyed, and impatient with other white people who don’t get it.
  5. EMERGENCE: After feeling guilty and ashamed, white people may move into the emergence stage where they start to understand their privilege and how it has and continue to benefit them. They also now begin to take control over the type of white person they want to be like.
  6. INTEGRATIVE AWARENESS (both): In the last stage of integrative awareness, Hoffman asserts that white people and People of Color both come to the conclusion that there is much more to them than their race or gender. Both groups are able to positively identify with their own racial group while also acknowledging that other aspects of their identity (their gender, their talents, and abilities, their unique experiences) contribute to their personhood.

These phases are not linear. We move back and forth based on context and the people with whom we are interacting.

Learning about race consciousness, particularly white consciousness, has been transformational for me. All around us, I notice the presumption that whiteness is normal and right. There is pressure to shut down examples of racism, eschew responsibility by claiming to be free from the racism of ancestors, blame those that experience racism, and be paralyzed by guilt when we can’t look away or deny racism.

Race consciousness is critical for white people to understand themselves and their place in this world.

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Martin Luther King Jr. shared that “all meaningful and lasting change begins on the inside.” Doing inside-out work in anti-oppression commitments includes these four components:

  • Build self-awareness
  • Understand the history of systemic oppression
  • Understand how oppression plays out today
  • Build our knowledge & skills

Where do you notice your resistance or awareness about your race?

Race consciousness is critical for white people. I have deep and abiding urgency and hope.

We can work for justice. We can learn.
We can be curious and acknowledge the racialized world we live in.

Holding up the mirror, with an increased understanding of how our whiteness impacts us every day, is critical in working for justice, anti-racism, and anti-oppression.

Fellow leaders and learners, I wish you courage and resilience for the journey.

Peace to you,

Deanna Signature


Read previous parts of the "Let's talk about whiteness" series here: 


What Im Reading-1

What I’m Reading & Watching
Regarding This Topic:

Questions to Consider
Questions for Consideration
Regarding This Topic:

  • Who do you think benefits if white people are not conscious about our whiteness?
  • Is white consciousness a newer concept to you? How do you feel, in your body, when you read about it?
  • Which stages of race consciousness do you recognize in yourself currently or in the past? How does that change with your environment?
  • How can you show bravery to learn more? What do you wonder about white consciousness or race consciousness? 

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Deanna Rolffs (they/them)
Post by Deanna Rolffs (they/them)
September 22, 2021
Deanna Rolffs (they/them) is a strategist, facilitator, coach, systems thinker, and Process Consultant who works with executive leaders and teams at the intersection of organizational theory, leadership development, justice, and equity. Their process consulting approach focuses on organizational transformation via thriving teams, brave leadership, equitable systems, and inclusive communities. Deanna served as a Senior Consultant with Design Group International since 2018, became a Senior Design Partner in 2021, and launched L3 Catalyst Group in 2023.