Handout 2: Four Stages of White Identity Formation: A Model
This model can be a valuable tool to help people who identify as White to better understand their identity formation. A limitation of such a model is that human beings are all different and that each of us is constantly evolving and changing. Keep in mind that these stages are meant as guidelines. They are not stagnant but fluid: A person can remain at one stage or move between stages during their lifetime. Take care to use this model neither to label or stereotype individuals nor to generalize about people who identify as White.
Stage 1: Pre-Awareness
This stage is characterized by unawareness of the privileges of White skin. Like fish not knowing that they live in water, White people in the United States can survive without noticing the advantages and privileges that accompany Whiteness. Believing stereotypes about ethnic minorities, and not seeing race or ethnicity—or indeed any cultural differences—are symptoms of this stage.
Stage 2: Awareness and Guilt
This stage is initiated by a personal encounter with a Person of Color (or sometimes with a story in the media) that brings awareness of racism. Feelings of guilt may surface as an individual connects themselves with historical oppression of ethnic minorities by White people, which causes internal discomfort. In this stage, a White person may question their loyalty to Whiteness, which can cause internal conflict as well as conflicts with family and friends.
Stage 3: Rejection and Disengagement
The internal discomfort that surfaced in the previous stage can result in a variety of responses. Some White people try to make themselves feel better by avoiding contact with ethnic minorities. Some White people make an effort to engage with ethnic minorities out of guilt and/or a need to feel good about themselves. Still others try to distance themselves from their Whiteness, such as by rejecting certain privileges that White skin brings.
Stage 4: Integration and Reengagement
In this stage, a healthy White identity is emerging. This stage is characterized by a willingness to be critical of White/dominant culture without self-punishing guilt. People at this stage work in collaboration with others, both White people and ethnic minorities, to resist and transform white privilege and systemic racism, with respect and accountability. There is awareness that moving back and forth between stages is normal.