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My Reflection on White Racial Identity Development

Lori Korth

Northern Illinois University


My white identity is not something I thought about much growing up. I was in the

contact stage for most of my childhood. I was innocent, ignorant, and neutral to racial issues

because I was not exposed to diversity until I entered college. My neighborhood and school

district were at least 95 percent white. Growing up I did not question race. One of my best

friends was black but I did not even realize that she was a different race. I only remember asking

my mom why she did not get a tan like I did and I was sad I could not have beads in my hair like

she did, otherwise we were no different.

Once I entered high school I became more aware of race through the media. As I became

more aware that there were different cultures and different races, I began to question why they

seemed to be getting special treatment, such as the television channel Black Entertainment

Network which targets the Black population. While I realized that I was White, I did not yet

realize the privilege that came along with simply being born White. According to DiAngelo

(2011), “…white people are taught not to feel any loss over the absence of people of color in

their lives” (p. 58). In high school I did not see it as a disadvantage that my classmates were

essentially all White. Although I also did not see it as an advantage or as “good.” I just saw it as


I see some of Helms’ (2008) views on reintegration in myself during my early years of

college. I did not see how it was White people’s responsibility to fix racism or the problems of

people of color. I believed that people of color were responsible for fixing their situation of

living in predominately low socioeconomic status locations ridden with crime. There were also

times that I believed some of the typical stereotypes about people of color. I often thought that

Blacks complained too much about perceived racial injustices, that they were reading into things

that were not there and were not letting go of the past. However, as I took more sociology

classes and interacted with a more diverse population my views began to change.

I began to develop Pseudo-Independent, Immersion/Emersion, and Autonomy schemas

throughout the remainder of my undergraduate career at Northern Illinois University. I do

remember thinking along Helms’ (2008) lines that I was a “good White” person because I was

not racist and my intentions were good, compared to a “bad White” person who was overtly

racist. I remember a specific instance where someone I knew was complaining about Blacks,

ranting how they come to NIU through the CHANCE program, get their education paid for, but

do not attend class and fail out. She then went on to denigrate Hispanics by stating all illegal

immigrants are Hispanics who are only here to live off of Americans. I recall thinking in the

moment that I could not believe that these statements were coming out of her mouth, a women I

am supposed to respect, but who I know see as at least partly a bad person for saying these

things. Afterwards, she said not to listen to her she was just ranting. However, this is one area

where I have struggled since transitioning schemas. How can you work with someone, be

friends with someone, love someone in your family that you know has racist views?

According to DiAngelo (2011), Whites do not have to think about race and racism. Since

Whites do not encounter racism on a daily basis there is no penalty for not thinking about it,

“which frees whites from the psychic burden of race” (DiAngelo, 2011, p. 63). This is true;

Whites do not have a burden placed on them of having to think about their race and

consequences of their race every day. However, that does not mean that there is no burden if

social justice is a core part of your belief system. It can create an internal struggle between what

you believe, the conversations you want to have with your friends and family, and being

penalized by those close to you because they do not have the same internal belief system as you.

My cousin is very conservative, but I have also come to the realization that he is racist. I have

seen posts that link all Muslims to being terrorists. A mosque is being built in his town and he

stated that it was a sad day, there was nothing peaceful about a mosque, and that this is why

Minnesota was number one in recruiting terrorists. I was completely taken aback by this and

could not believe that someone I am related to feels this way. I struggle with wanting to educate

him about diversity and racism but knowing that there is literally nothing I can say that will

change his mind and with knowing that I let someone say and think these things and not doing

anything about it. I feel that I carry this burden of trying to make other Whites nonracist and

being a failure when I sit back and let it happen.

Helms’ (2008) Immersion/Emersion is a schema in which a White person goes through a

self-discovery process where they begin to view Whiteness through a critical lens. Helms

believes that this process would be easier and more comfortable if White people were able to be

around more nonracist White people during the process. Part of the reason I developed more in

college was because I had never been exposed to diversity, but it was also because I was around

more people who were well educated and interested in exploring differences in people as much

as I was. It was finding people with similar interests in social justice and diversity that made me

feel comfortable exploring other cultures and myself. I mainly found those people in an

organization called Huskie Alternative Breaks and through my major Community Leadership

and Civic Engagement. Prior to meeting my current friends, I was uncomfortable talking about

race. As DiAngelo (2011) states, “Whiteness is not recognized or named by white people…”

(59). I did not feel it was my place because I did not feel I had a race. Even though I was aware

of White privilege and the benefits it afforded me, I did not see it as a race. Now I do feel that it

is my place because I want to learn about other races/ethnicities and their experiences and the

only way I can do that is actually interacting with them and having these discussions.

I have made it a point to learn more about other races/cultures/ethnicities in the past year

so that I can become a more aware person and gain as much knowledge and insight as I can so I

will be the best student affairs professional I can be. Last year I worked on a class project

looking to spread the word about undocumented students and the struggles they face. Prior to

this experience I struggled with how I felt about the undocumented community, as I knew that

they are people and deserve respect but also that they broke the law to get here. Throughout the

process I learned that there is so much more that goes into why many undocumented people are

here, what they have to go through to stay here, and the psychological toll it takes on them.

Taking that opportunity to learn more about the undocumented community has made me want to

learn about other races and cultures even more so. I saw how my lack of knowledge was

harming others by how I acted toward and around them. It was never in a purposeful way, I

simply did not know that the term “illegal” is hurtful and degrading.

What I have seen and experienced since entering Northern Illinois University as a

freshman has changed me as a person. Through looking back at these experiences, I have

realized that they have influenced me so much they are one of the main reasons I want to go into

student affairs. I knew that I developed and grew as a person both in and out of the classroom,

but I did not realize how grateful I was for the opportunity to experience so many new types of

people and ideas. I was so sheltered growing up and was stunted by it. I knew going into

college that I came from a very limited background educationally and socially, but I did not

expect to be so affected by the people I would meet. This new insight will help me be a better

student affairs professional because I better understand why I want to be one. I knew I valued

diversity, but now that I know how much of an impact it had on me I will make it a priority to

include diversity in my practices and encourage students to explore other cultures. I plan on

becoming a community service director. Specifically, I want to make sure to plan diverse

service experiences that introduce students to a wide array of backgrounds and social issues.

Through the Alternative Spring Break program, I also want to travel to diverse locations and

again work with diverse social issues. Many times groups can get in a routine and continue

working with the same issues because it is what they find interesting but there are other social

issues that need light shed on them as well. Creating a diverse student leader group will be very

important to me. I realized that I gained a lot of my initial interactions with racial diversity

through my leadership positions. I want others to have that same chance and to be able to have

an even better understanding of the importance of exploring themselves and other cultures

through their positions on campus.



DiAngelo, R. (2011). White fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3), 54-70.

Helms, J. E. (2008). A race is a nice thing to have: A guide to being a White person or

understanding the White persons in your life (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Microtraining

Associates, Inc.