Updated: Oct 1, 2021
In a diverse country like America, power determines an ethnic/racial group's ability to assert its identity or have it assigned to them.
Existing in the majority since colonial times, whites (as a collective) have maintained the privilege of asserting their identity. According to the 2020 U.S. Census, non-Hispanic whites comprise 57.8% of the country’s population. Whites have made up the racial majority of Americans since 1607, when the Jamestown colony was first established. Whites asserted an American identity -- we the people -- in the very first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, though we know that document only applied to whites.
If I were to ask you to define the white identity that we have asserted, which is separate from an American identity (race does not equal ethnicity) or a Christian identity...how would you answer that? For a long time I did not know how to answer that question; rather, I was in denial about the answer to that question.
After reading Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s 2018 editorial on denial as the core of racism, I began to ponder the role of denial in identity creation, and how denial would exist on the spectrum between a mostly asserted or mostly assigned group identity. Kendi details how President Trump’s rhetoric is a unifying force in American denial today, specifically, the more racist Mr. Trump sounds, the more Trump country denies his racism, and the more his opponents look away from their own racism to brand Trump country as racist. Through it all, America remains a unified country of denial . Kendi continues to highlight how previous presidents -- praised for their commitment to equality and civil rights -- played a role in fortifying the bastion of racism in America. Kendi’s essay, along with other experts' elucidations on identity formation, have illuminated for me that denial of the white individual’s and group’s role in perpetuating racism may be the most powerful force that serves as the bedrock of the white American identity.
We may think that we are contributing to the erosion of racism by pointing out and condemning obvious racist remarks and figures; however, in doing so, we are simultaneously strengthening the institution of racism by separating ourselves from it.
Denial is a prevalent theme across several frameworks of white racial identity development, with the goal of the anti-racist essentially being to "break up" with white supremacy. And just like what follows from the break-up of a relationship, those who begin the process of moving towards an anti-racist identity must also endure the various stages that follow after a loss. For breaking up with white supremacy should be a process of willful losing.
In Helms’ (1992) continuum towards developing an anti-racist identity, denial is a critical component in the first four of six stages.
In the initial Contact stage, whites express denial through adhering to the idea of color-blindness, which seems non-racist, but in actuality denies the real world experiences and struggles experienced daily by people of color.
In the Disintegration stage, whites may deny feelings of guilt and shame associated with being confronted with one’s privilege or role in sustaining white supremacy.
The Reintegration stage is characterized by a blame-the-victim philosophy that denies the role privilege plays in perpetuating white supremacy. Phrases such as personal responsibility encapsulate racist attitudes at this middle stage.
The Pseudo-independence stage places the onus on people of color to unpack and combat racism; in doing so, white people deny their necessary participation in what should be a joint effort marked by their concessions of power and privilege.
In Hoffman’s integrated model, both whites and people of color start at the Conformity stage, move through four different stages, and reconvene at the final stage of Integrative Awareness” throughout the four stages that whites experience apart from people of color, denial is expressed in the following views: everyone has struggles and people should just accept the way things are and try to be American, people of color should “get over it,” reverse racism is a real force, and their (white person's) personal suffering is on par with the suffering that has come as a result of institutional racism.
I'm reminded of a former student who created a genre piece for a research project on the #BlackLivesMatter movement that showed two houses next to each other -- a black house and a white house. The black house was ablaze and EMS/fire/police were headed to the scene, but they are preoccupied with the white homeowner yelling from their front porch, But what about me?! My student’s metaphor accurately depicts the attempt of whites to normalize the oppression experienced by people of color.
Helms’ and Hoffmans’ models affirm mental health experts’ claims that denial is one of the most common defense mechanisms. After confirming that President Trump used the term “shit-hole” to describe countries where immigrants are hailing from, Democratic Senator Richard Durbin exposed the depth of denial of white racism by stating, I cannot believe that in the history of the White House in that Oval Office, any president has ever spoken the words that I personally heard our president speak yesterday. By denying the role that previous presidents have played in reinforcing racism, Durbin denies his own role in maintaining the status quo. And those of us at home, shaking our heads with brows furrowed, trick ourselves in thinking that we are better than those who display their racism overtly. In doing so, our own covert racism continues unchecked. We remain in relationship with white supremacy.
Whites retain the power to use denial as a component of their identity formation because they have comprised the majority of the American population for over four hundred years. However, that is expected to change by the year 2045, when it is anticipated that the United States will become “minority white." While it is certainly possible (and probable) that a white minority will retain a mostly self-asserted identity, many minorities must grapple with ethnic/racial identities being assigned to them by more dominant groups.
How will a “majority minority” impact the power whites have to assert (or deny) identities assigned to them? Kendi explains how the anti-racist lives by the opposite heartbeat [of denial] -- the heartbeat of confession. Through the cathartic act of confession, which is mentioned or implied in the final stages of several identity development models discussed, whites can then assume their role in combating racism and use their privilege of existing in the majority to assert an identity for themselves that finally deviates from co-opting BIPOC cultures while simultaneously denying their value to society -- an identity that is built not upon denial of systematic, historical oppression, but on a clear understanding of racial injustice, and an active role in correcting it.
Helms, J. E. (1992). A Race is a Nice Thing to Have: A Guide to Being a White Person or Understanding the White Persons in Your Life. Content Communications.