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Five Levels of Race Awareness

Having lived over half a century in America and with some experience traveling to other countries, I’ve observed what could be referred to as Five Levels of Race Awareness which can help provide a framework for understanding and discussing race issues.

LEVEL 1 – Unaware

In some communities there is a plentiful potpourri of diversity, ethnicities and nationalities that permeates business operations, the marketplace, religious practice, education, neighborhoods, and home life. A religious service might be multi-lingual with traditions from many faiths represented. At home, families might observe holidays and celebrate traditions from various cultures and religions under one roof. A single restaurant may serve cuisine from around the world. A workplace might have employees from various nations, ethnicities, and viewpoints. People might follow news sources from around the world. Children growing up in this environment, without significant external influences, may feel they are “one with the whole” and see everyone as “one” people. This is carried into adulthood. Then passed on to the next generation.

Note: Some would criticize this type of environment claiming that it represents a melting-pot of assimilation that results in individuals and groups losing their own identity. There could also be criticism of those in the community considered to have privilege due to their race or financial status — stating that they should acknowledge people with different heritage and inherent challenges in life. Such critics would likely advocate for Level 2.

LEVEL 2 – Aware

There are some communities where language, religion, and culture are forces that segregate people into their own groups. Yet, these groups make an effort to come together for significant community events. Religious services in such a community would be distinctly unique for different faiths without much or any effort to have multiple faith groups worshiping together simultaneously. Restaurants may offer a diversity of cuisine, but not under one roof. In other words, there’s more separation with clearer individual group identities. There’s an effort by leadership to have ‘unity’ among a diversity of independent groups. Children growing up in this environment may have a strong sense of their own identity as it fits into a smaller group, but they will also have a natural desire to positively connect with and respect people who aren’t like them. This is carried into adulthood. Then passed on to the next generation.

Note: A criticism of this type of environment might be that it accentuates differences among people, and divides them up, instead of bringing them together as one people. Such critics would likely advocate for Level 1.

LEVEL 3 – Positive

There are some communities where language, religion, and culture are forces that segregate people into their own groups. Different religious services would reflect a self imposed segregation between faiths and ethnicities. Shops would be distinctly owned, operated, and frequented by specific ethnic groups. There may not be any effort among these groups to reach out to one another (unlike with Level 2), but there is generally a positive attitude toward the other groups and a general sense of caring about the other group’s welfare. Children growing up in this environment will have a positive (although vague) impression of people who aren’t like them. This is carried into adulthood. Then passed on to the next generation.

Note: Those crucial of this environment would likely advocate for Level 1 or Level 2 stating that it’s important for people to be more intermingled, aware, respectful, and caring about one another.

LEVEL 4 – Indifferent

There are some communities where language, religion, culture and race are forces that segregate people into their own groups. In such communities, there may be entire neighborhoods of people segregated based on religious beliefs, ethnicities, economic status, or other factors. There isn’t a palatable awareness of or concern about anyone else but those in one’s own group. Yet, there is also not any palatable negative attitude toward others. There would be no gang wars or unprovoked violence acted out toward other groups. Children growing up in this environment will likely have only vague impression of people who aren’t like them, and they won’t care much or at all about others who aren’t part of their own group. This is carried into adulthood. Then passed on to the next generation.

Note: Those critical of this kind of environment would likely advocate for Level 1, 2, or 3 described above.

LEVEL 5 – Negative

There are some communities where language, religion, culture and race are forces that segregate people into their own groups. An intentionally isolationist segregation is heightened by racial tensions and enmity between groups. Children growing up in this environment will be indoctrinated to hate people who aren’t like them. Some of that hate will be based on actual events, feuds, and violence between groups. Other aspects of the hate will be based on bigotry that is founded on a very small sampling of data, and partly founded on myths. This hatred and mistrust is carried into adulthood. Then passed on to the next generation who are somewhat defenseless against adopting the attitudes of those around them in the culture they are immersed in.

Note: This kind of environment is what creates and fuels hate groups. People living in this context could probably move to a less violent and hateful environment such as Level 4, but would not immediately feel comfortable in Level 2 or Level 1.

Gateway Ideologies and Organizations

Communities, organizations, and individuals who are immersed in Level 4 described above are at risk of being draw to gateway ideologies that move people toward Level 5 or make them susceptible to being scouted, recruited, indoctrinated, or groomed into extremist organizations. The soft soil already exists for suspicion and fear. The tools of understanding and appreciation for others don’t exist.

So, seemingly benign groups that simply care about equal employment opportunities for white men (for example) that don’t espouse any hate or advocate violence, those groups can (though not always) serve as a stepping stone to other more serious groups.

It’s not the case that all people who don’t embrace racial and cultural diversity are 100% militant violent racist white supremacists. There may be ‘undecided’ people in the middle who can be drawn toward more positive views, or pushed into negative influences. Random acts of violence toward diverse groups of ‘nationalists’ may end up pushing those on the fence deeper into violence and hate rather than pulling them out.

Reflecting on Race and Community

There are discussions about what kind of community among those described above will help foster a better way of life for everyone. Some believe that a diversity of interwoven united people is ideal.

Others express concern that in such an environment, the next generation receives a watered down sense of identity where the richness of their ethnicity and heritage isn’t fully passed on. These people would advocate a community where there are distinct ethnic / racial / cultural groups that purposefully have positive interactions, but retain their own unique identities.

So, sometimes there can be tension between those who advocate for Level 1 and Level 2 described above, but generally these two types of communities are mostly at peace within and with others when it comes to issues of race.

There are people who might be identified as “racist” who have a positive view about people of other races, yet don’t want to mix with them and fear their own race or culture is threatened with extinction. It’s a kind of racism that offends and concerns others, yet doesn’t on the surface seem to have a direct harmful impact on others.

The more repugnant forms of racism that are frequently given as examples of true racism are hateful speech and actions towards people of other races.

People Have Ever Changing Views

Most communities, groups, and individuals don’t fit nicely into any single category or level of racial awareness. There are many points along the continuum, and any one individual can change over their lifetime, or over the course of a day depending on the circumstance, context, and situation they are faced with. People sometimes slip back into old racist attitudes and fears that they’d long broken away from, but are still occasionally haunted by.

Any minority community, whether defined by race, religion, ethnicity, or other unique identifiers, can feel that they are being overlooked in a democratic society that is controlled by the majority, unless that majority makes an effort to reach out to, affirm, and support the minority groups in the society. So, that is an essential part of the equation.


Author’s Note: This is a revised and expanded version of a document I wrote a year ago on 27 Aug 2016.

By Greg Johnson

Greg Johnson is a freelance writer and tech consultant in Iowa City. He is also the founder and Director of the ResourcesForLife.com website. Learn more at AboutGregJohnson.com

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