By Beth Hall
Originally published 2018, updated 2022
The irreducible price of learning is realizing that you do not know. One may go further and point out—as any scientist, or artist, will tell you—that the more you learn, the less you know; but that means that you have begun to accept, and are even able to rejoice in, the relentless conundrum of your life.
— James Baldwin
More than twenty years ago, while my son James was still in preschool, I read to him from books like Jeanette Winter’s Follow the Drinking Gourd (1988). The goal was to talk with him, an African American boy, about the legacy of slavery before he started kindergarten.
Winter’s picture book relates the story of an old white sailor called “Peg Leg Joe” who went from plantation to plantation in the pre-Civil War south, teaching enslaved blacks a folksong that he wrote, the lyrics of which held directions for following the Underground Railroad to freedom. Dramatic full-color paintings and a simple text make this part of U.S. history accessible to young readers. However, its emphasis on the role that white people played in the black flight to freedom make it an unbalanced introduction. “Joe had a plan” appears repeatedly in the text, making it sound as though the idea of escape and freedom originated with him, rather than with the people who were living the horror of slavery. Throughout the story, the people who are escaping are depicted as being wholly dependent on the elements and on the actions of benevolent whites, rather than on their own thoughts, ideas, and decisions.
— Kathleen T. Horning
In retrospect, I am not surprised that James’s father and I chose a book that featured benevolent white folks, as we were certainly concerned about how our son would manage the juxtaposition of whites as both enslavers and as parents in our adoptive family. I remember James concluding that there were the “good” white people and the “bad” white people. He had a four-year-old’s concrete worldview and necessarily created simple categories to make sense of the dilemma and his own experience.
“Mommy,” James explained as part of our discussion of ancestors. “Your ancestors were the good white people. They helped my people to get away from slavery and now you will love me forever.”
That simple explanation was tempting to me. How I longed to prove I was a “good” white person! It would have been so comfortable to leave it at that were it not, of course, for the facts.
My ancestors on my father’s side owned slaves—and a plantation. Clearly, they did not land on the “good” side of the slavery debate. The truth is, regardless of whether our ancestors owned slaves, all of us who are identified as white have benefited from—and still benefit from—racist attitudes and institutions that privilege us over people of color. For those of us who have adopted transracially, the latter group includes our own children.
All those years ago, I was trying to teach my Black son about race and racism, but as a white person it was me that had the most learning to do—and I am still doing it, decades later. It’s widely accept that hearing or seeing parents can never fully understand how their deaf or blind children experience the world—what it feels like to be them. The same is true of white parents who adopt or foster children of color. We can never fully understand—because we have not personally had the experience, and cannot—what it feels like for our children to be routinely and repeatedly impacted by racial bias and systemic racism. It’s just about a miracle—and a gift to our families—if we can keep that idea consciously in mind.
Because we white people grow up in blissful ignorance about the ways that race and racism are woven into every aspect of our society, we tend to be very proud of ourselves when we learn a thing or two! I have seen, in myself and other white folks who are working hard to be racially conscious, the urge to prove we are the “good” white people by putting down those who are less “woke” than we believe we are. I have come to understand that this is yet another form of white fragility, or what Robin DiAngelo, the orginator of that phrase, defines as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.” In other words, the desire to be seen as “getting it” is a way of reducing the stress that comes with owning our own white privilege, as well as our own collusion with and appreciation of that privilege.
DiAngelo outlines four questions white folks can ask ourselves to determine if we are exhibiting white fragility:
- Am I trying to change the subject?
- Am I using inappropriate humor to deflect?
- Am I getting defensive or angry?
- Am I going out of my way not to focus on “the negative?”
For those of us who like to think we have graduated to a new level of racial consciousness, I suggest some additional questions:
- Do I try to prove my allyship by mentioning examples of my friends of color or my anti-racist actions, particularly in conversations with friends of color or anti-racist allies I want to impress?
- Do I find myself preferring to spend time with people of color over white folks, with a secret sense that doing so validates my sense that I “get it”?
- Do I get defensive when people of color point out my shortcomings, rather than listening and thinking about how I might be able to act or think differently to be supportive?
- Do I go out of my way to criticize how other white people fall short in their racial awareness, rather than working on myself or finding ways to support other white folks in their growth?
When I have positive answers to these questions, it signals to me that I am trying to “escape” or “be excused for” my whiteness, rather sit with the discomfort of it. When I start struggling to prove my own worthiness as a racial warrior by proclaiming my accomplished allyship with people of color, it is time to look harder at my inner narrative around my own whiteness and my own racism. This is not to say that any of us should apologize for who we are, but rather that if we need to prove our mettle by being better than others, we are probably shying away from some hard work we need to do ourselves. Rather than depending on being superior to someone else in order to feel good about myself, I need to return again and again to challenging all my bias and privilege, and derive my sense of self-worth from being open to learning and growth, and from sharing what I am learning with others who face the same challenges.
For me, the most accurate measure of my own honesty is when I feel empathy for other white folks who are struggling to recognize their own privilege and superior attitudes—because then I know I am acknowledging that I am in this lifelong struggle with them, I am not above it or above them. Fighting the good fight doesn’t mean accepting racism in ourselves or our world. It does mean forgiving our learned and deeply ingrained assumptions while always pushing ourselves to do better—to be better.
Racial Identity Development for White People
In his landmark book Shades of Black (1991), William Cross describes several predictable stages in the development of Black identity. I believe these stages to be largely similar (although differently nuanced) to the stages of identity development for most Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans living in a white-dominated society. Building racial identity is an ongoing process that continues over a person’s lifespan. Some may stay at a particular stage without change, depending on temperament and life experiences. In her book Black and White Racial Identity Development: Theory, Research, and Practice (1991), Janet Helms suggests that there are similarly predictable steps in the development of racial consciousness for white people. In our race-conscious society, where white people receive benefits just for being white, many live out their lives without thinking about their own racial identity at all. When a white identity develops, Helms outlines seven stages, which Gail Steinberg and I adapted as follows in our book Inside Transracial Adoption:
- Being white doesn’t count. (Pre-Conscious) This colorblind approach is a learned trope that allows us white folks to remain privileged by furthering the status quo.
- Uh-oh. You mean we’re the bad guys? (Contact) This stage brings an awareness of white privilege—the invisible advantages that white people, including me, enjoy in life, because our society was designed with our needs in mind. “I don’t want to be like ‘those’ white people! I feel uncomfortable, guilty, shamed and angry. It is not so a great to be white.”
- I am responsible for educating you. “I am woke!” (Reintegration) The blinders have been removed. I see racism everywhere. I get it! I join the Race Police, finding most other white people guilty. I weep tears of pain at the injustice I now see everywhere. I lose many friends — white friends. White people tend to run when they see me coming — and if I am paying attention, I may see that people of color are doing the same.
- Why can’t you see I am one of the good guys? (Disintegration) I realize I am not exempt from my group. I am white; therefore I am under suspicion. I am beginning to hear that people of color consider my new truths to be old hat, mundane, even obvious. My belief in myself is threatened; in frustration, I am tempted to blame the victims.
- Now what do I do? (Pseudo-Independence) I can’t get through the living room without bumping into the elephant, but I still don’t know what to do about it. I understand white privilege and am shamed by it, but feel overwhelmed at the thought of being responsible. How did I get to be so white? Why didn’t I notice? How can I change all that I am?
- Moving beyond good guys and bad guys. (Immersion/Emerging) I need to find positive racial identity for myself. I seek new ways to think about whiteness, other than either unconscious privilege or the bad-guy role. I understand that I have the responsibility of taking on racism within my own group—the white people tribe—so I explore what it is to be racially conscious. I seek out support from white people who have fought injustice and actively worked against racism.
- I am a work in progress. (Autonomy) I develop an ability to see people simultaneously as individuals and as members of my group. I feel pride because I am changing and my changes are affecting lives. I understand that I am a work in progress, that I will never be completed or perfected, but I must do what I can—knowing that, unless I am challenging the system of racism, I am colluding with it.
I opened with the words of James Baldwin and I’ll close with them as well, because almost half a century ago he saw so clearly that whiteness was a purpose-built fantasy, not an objective reality:
American became white—the people who, as they claim, “settled” the country became white—because of the necessity of denying the Black presence, and justifying the Black subjugation.
If you are (considered) white, it is tremendously difficult to grapple with the “relentless conundrum” of holding an identity that was fabricated from whole cloth in order to confer, wield, and deny power, an identity built on lies that makes it almost impossible for you to live a fully honest and authentic life. I have found the process to be an endless one; it is not “fixed” but is instead a feedback loop requiring vigilance, and ongoing assessment and reassessment. This cycle also holds the promise of growth and joy; I am grateful for the opportunity for ongoing learning, rather than defining success as reaching an endpoint. Until we can own the part of the conundrum that is alive in us every day—face our own whiteness—we can’t become the change that we want and need to be.
Beth Hall is the white adoptive mother of a Latinx daughter and an African American son (both now adults). She co-founded Pact, An Adoption Alliance in 1991 to combat the discrimination she witnessed against adopted children of color and their birth families. She is the co-author, with Gail Steinberg, of the book Inside Transracial Adoption (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2nd Edition, 2013), as well as numerous articles on adoption and race. She is a nationally known advocate for adopted children of color who regularly lectures and leads workshops on ethical, anti-racist adoption practices.
 Baldwin, James, “Dark Days,” Esquire, October 1980
 Horning, Kathleen T., Madison Public Library, WI, School Library Journal, 1989
 Baldwin, James, “On Being ‘White’…And Other Lies,” Essence, April 1984