Peeling the Onion

Lately I’ve been reflecting a bit about my own journey to understand and undo racism in my life. I was steeped in it – growing up mostly in east Texas where the lines dividing “us and them” were drawn clearly and never crossed. I remember a few years ago I pulled out my old high school year book. I grew up in a small town (about 20,000 at the time) and we had two high schools – one white and one black. As I looked at my yearbook I was stunned to see that there were black students who went to my “white” school. It shames me to no end that I NEVER SAW them.

But don’t worry, my plan is not to take you step by step through this long journey I continue to be on, but simply to talk a bit about the fact that it is a journey. I think the classic metaphor of peeling an onion one layer at a time is very apt in this instance.


Perhaps there are people who have some kind of enlightened moment when they wake up all of the sudden to discard their own racism. But I’d be skeptical of anyone who claimed that kind of experience.

I began to wonder if there is some kind of generalized path that this journey tends to take. And was particularly intrigued a few months ago to learn about a theory developed by Dr. Milton Bennett called “The Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity.”

He posits 6 stages of development, the first three being “ethnocentric” and the last three being “ethnorelative”. The following descriptions of these stages are taken from a pdf file located at The Intercultural Communication Institute.


1. Denial of cultural difference is the state in which one’s own culture is experienced as the only real one. Other cultures are avoided by maintaining psychological and/or physical isolation from differences.

The fact that I didn’t even see the African American students in my high school would indicate I was at this stage.

2. Defense against cultural difference is the state in which one’s own culture (or an adopted culture) is experienced as the only good one. The world is organized into “us and them,” where “we” are superior and “they” are inferior.

This is where people with the most blatant type of racism would fit – those who openly criticize other races/cultures.

But there are also those in this stage who have rejected their own culture and see it as only negative – valueing another culture as superior to their own.

3. Minimization of cultural difference is the state in which elements of one’s own cultural world view are experienced as universal.

At this stage people talk about the idea that we can be a “colorblind” society and tend to minimize the different experience of people of color.


4. Acceptance of cultural difference is the state in which one’s own culture is experienced as just one of a number of equally complex worldviews. Acceptance does not mean agreement – cultural difference may be judged negatively – but the judgment is not ethnocentric.

At acceptance, a person has seen that there are very real differences in culture and in the experiences of persons of color in this culture.

5. Adaptation to cultural difference is the state in which the experience of another culture yields perception and behavior appropriate to that culture. One’s worldview is expanded to include constructs from other worldviews.

A person in adaptation might say: “To solve this dispute, I’m going to have to change my approach.”

6. Integration of cultural difference is the state in which one’s experience of self is expanded to include the movement in and out of different cultural worldviews. People at Integration often are dealing with issues related to their own “cultural marginality.” It is common among non-dominant minority groups, long-term expatriates, and “global nomads.”

As I look at these stages, I think most conflicts in the progressive blogosphere about racism have to do with the difference between stages 3 and 4 – from minimization to acceptance. That’s just my take on it – others may disagree. And I think the move from minimization to acceptance has to at least incorporate the acknowledgement of the limits of one’s own cultural experiences and an attempt to see the differences with others. For me this has often meant hearing the experience of people of color as being different from my own – and not generalizing my experience to them. This song by Tracy Chapman is perhaps as good of an illustration of that as you’ll find.

There is fiction in the space between

you and me.


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  1. if Bennett’s stages reflect at all on your journey. I know I can see mine in them.

    • Robyn on December 30, 2007 at 7:03 pm

    …I feel obligated to point out that, for however much the stages reflect reality, they are relative to all forms of difference, not just issues of race or ethnicity.

    Gender-variant people (people of gender?) will recognize this.


    • kj on December 30, 2007 at 7:05 pm

    have chatted a bit, laughed, and am now ready for some serious  reading and thinking.  Thanks, NL, in advance.

    • kj on December 30, 2007 at 7:34 pm

    utterly subjective:

    Denial:  probably broken early, as one parent was Irish Catholic Democrat, the other Scots Atheist Republican.  That may seem to be small differences, but in that time and place, it was considered a ‘mixed marriage.’  also, growing up Catholic in a predominately non-Catholic neighborhood, I knew we were “different.”  (Again, small potatoes.)

    Defense:  see above. I identified 100% with the Irish Catholic Democrat parent, and had a strained relationship with the other parent, it seemed, from birth!

    Minimization:  again, see above. Twelve years in Catholic schools.  This began to break down when my mother died during my junior year in high school, and in my anger, I defied the identity (Catholic) I’d embraced.

  2. online exercises you can take at a web site called Project Implicit from Harvard. If you go to the site, click on “Demonstration” and it will take you through a couple of pages of explanation before you get to the exercises.

    I’m not sure what to think about this – but I imagine it gets at some of our unconsious biases in an interesting way.  

  3. Dear Lord, don’t start me on this one.

    I was born in Chicago, the son of a Unitarian minister.  In 1970, when I was three, we moved to Atlanta, Georgia, for the specific reason that my parents wanted to be close to the bosom of the civil rights movement.  Unlike Mitt Romney’s father, my Dad actually did march with King, and indeed, we visited Ebenezer Baptist many times when I was a child.  My Atlanta experience was post-Martin, Jr., of course, but my father once did a memorial service with Daddy King.  MLK was never called anything but “Martin” in my house; my family apparently knew him well enough to call him by his adopted first name but not well enough to call him “Mike,” the name he was born with.

    My parents divorced in the late seventies, and in 1982, my maternal grandmother, in Tyler, Texas, became very ill.  Mom and I moved to East Texas.

    It was like I’d gone back 100 years in time race relations-wise.  In Tyler, there was also a black high school and a white high school, segregated by housing rather than by law.  I had heard the “N” word once or twice from schoolmates in Atlanta, but now, it was commonplace.  Blacks and whites simply didn’t associate with one another.

    It was a slap in the face, but it was a needed one, as I had heard tales from the Movement from my parents but had never seen outright racism first-hand.  I look back on my East Texas days with loathing but also with the realization that I got a sorely needed education that racism is still alive and well in these United States.

    I work in civil rights now, in the dreaded Voting Section of the Justice Department.  My boss, despised by most in the Section, had to resign recently after announcing that “minorities don’t become elderly the way white people do; they die first.”  I’ve seen this administration’s efforts to roll back voting rights first-hand.

    I don’t want our country to go back to the way East Texas was in the 1980s and the way the South in general was in the 1950s and 1960s.  The only thing that stops it is our vigilance.

    By the way, this is my first post at DD, though I’ve been around the blogs for awhile…my dKos UID is 3294.  Guess I still have enough South in me to say “howdy, y’all!”

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