When did you first realize you were white?
When did you first realize you were black/Asian/Latino/Native American/multiracial?
When I pose the former question to people who are white, I’m often met with blank stares. Not always, of course — some people talk about being raised in environments where they were the minority, seeing friends of color being treated differently in high school, or taking classes in college where they learned about privilege and systemic racism — but often, people look at me as though I’m asking when they realized that the sky is blue or the sun is hot. In contrast, when I ask people of color the latter question, I almost always get a concrete answer: an age, usually accompanied by an anecdote about the moment when they were first made aware that they were different. These stories are most often from early childhood, and the aftermath of these moments — shame, rage, self-loathing — can be heartbreaking.
In time, these feelings may give way to appreciation of and pride in their heritage, but that transformation usually takes years of exploration and self-reflection. The process by which people of color come to terms with their racial identity has been studied for decades, and because many people seem to go through similar stages, researchers have come up with a few models to describe it. These models don’t fit everyone perfectly — not everyone goes through all the stages or traverses them linearly — but they can be a helpful tool to understand the different ways in which people can experience their race as they make sense of it.
This is how it went down for me.