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Moving toward ‘racial sobriety’

In workshop materials, Fr. Clarence Williams lists ways Americans might exhibit Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ various stages in relation to members of a different group.

Denial might be exhibited by whites insisting that they have never had greater social or economic privileges than blacks. Non-whites might deny that racism affects their lives or they might want to be designated as “white” themselves.

Whites might become angry when they see non-whites enjoying certain privileges, or when their racism is pointed out. Blacks might become angry at the effects of racism or the refusal of whites to acknowledge it.

Whites might “bargain” by saying that they can protect their own status by separating themselves from blacks (“white flight,” for instance). Blacks may set themselves apart from members of their own race or refuse to allow themselves to be controlled by whites. Some may set up conditions that whites must fulfill before blacks would even attempt to forgive.

Whites might experience depression when they begin to discover their racist attitudes and behavior. Blacks might become depressed when they recognize that they are trapped within a society that accords a higher position to whites. Some might decide it’s best for blacks to just “keep to their place” rather than challenge the status quo.

Depression might take the form of self-blame: “I blame myself for allowing my pain to destroy me.”

Acceptance for whites means to begin to value people according to their humanity, not their color, and to begin the process of recovery from racist attitudes and behavior. Blacks might begin to accept themselves as people operating within a hostile society, by recovering their self-esteem and by challenging racist attitudes and institutions.

The result of “racial sobriety,” the final goal, is that members of both races examine and enter relationships in different ways, Williams said, forgiving themselves for inappropriate actions and forgiving those who formed them with racial attitudes.

The final stage, witness, consists of telling others what’s been learned on the journey.

-- Pamela Schaeffer

National Catholic Reporter, January 18, 2002