As American novelist and professor Toni Morrison says, every black person comes to the point when they realize they are not white. Race is a meaningful difference in our society. At some point, black people recognize that, in American society, they are the “other.”
CNN broadcast a segment called, The First Time I Realized I Was Black - https://www.cnn.com/interactive/2017/02/us/first-time-i-realized-i-was-black/. You’ll see videos of black figures who detail the painful moments when they first realized they were “the other.”
Below is a set of stages that black people go through as they begin to realize that they have been forced to acquiesce to white cultural standards.
1. Compliance: At this stage, we give preference and considerable importance to the values of the dominant culture (European). We devalue our own racial/ethnic group. The best example of this is Samuel L. Jackson’s character Stephen in the movie Django. Stephen loved and honored his white master while belittling and abusing those of his own race.
2. Conflict: Here, we begin to receive conflicting messages and challenges to the stereotypes of one’s racial/cultural group. We feel a growing sense of our own heritage and move away from the perspective that the dominant culture’s values are all good.
3. Protest and Absorption: At this stage, we feel pride in our heritage and a general distrust of and anger toward the dominant culture. Often, we recognize that a black person must leave the particularity of their experience at the door to make white people feel comfortable. We realize we’ve been wearing a mask to get along in a world governed by white standards. As we learn the history of oppression (lynchings, false imprisonments until this day, police brutality), it might make us sad, enraged, or intensely focused on eliminating oppression. I can recall breaking down in tears. As Maya Angelou said, if you’re not angry, it’s because you’re sick. Be angry, but not bitter. Bitterness feeds on the host. Warning: You can't stay there in anger; if you do, you will implode or explode. Extremism is not mentally, emotionally, or spiritually healthy. You should be angry at injustice, but do not let yourself be damaged by it.
4. Self-Examination: Here, we recognize the cost of intense feelings toward the dominant cultural group. We begin to focus on self-discovery and recognize that no culture is all good or bad. We might even feel disloyal as our perspective broadens. We might acknowledge a tension between feelings of allegiance to our own cultural group and feelings of autonomy.
5. Multiethnic appreciation: At this stage, we come to understand our intrinsic connection as human beings while maintaining to the commitment to heal the legacy of anti-black racial dehumanization.
Reflection Question for Black People:
These stages involve a level of emotional labor that comes from feeling one way on the inside and displaying a different emotion on the outside. This is often referred to as “double consciousness.” This term, coined by W.E.B. DuBois in his book The Souls of Black Folk, refers to the possession of a dual identity leading to an internal conflict in a society where one’s culture is subordinated.
Black people have been conditioned to live next to people who have a history of dishonoring their personhood. We are accustomed to placing other cultures on a higher pedestal. How can black people be genuine and authentic when they are always trying to manage someone's perception of them? This type of practice is a burden and does injury to black people.
Unfortunately, the injuries that are most respected are the injuries that are most visible. Part of the conditioning is the fear of bringing up our own reality. It leads to an internalized racism which occurs when a black person is forced to conduct themselves in a way that reinforces or upholds white supremacy.
As a black person, at what point did you realize you were not white?
How did it affect you, positively or negatively?
If all people, including black people, have the right to not be invisible, to be respected and to develop their own identities, what can we do to ensure that black people can develop a racial identity in America without injury?