Opinion | Susan Knopf: Climbing the ladder of race awareness

Susan Knopf

Each of us is prejudiced, even if we don’t know it. You say you’re not prejudiced against people of color? Perhaps you laugh at Apu’s accent on “The Simpsons” and think people from India talk funny. Maybe people dressed ethnically make you uncomfortable. We all have some prejudice.

I’m taking a course through the Summit Colorado Interfaith Council. We reviewed “The Ladder,” created by Tema Okun of DRWorks. It’s useful. I think our country is stuck in a maelstrom circling two rungs.

Before we step onto “The Ladder,” let’s understand it’s linear but not one way. You start on the first rung and climb each rung to get to the top. No skipping. It’s possible to get stuck and go up and down.

The ladder is not linear in the sense that you can’t be at the top and then suddenly drop to the first rung as a result of a “challenging interaction.”

Let’s grab “The Ladder” with two hands and put a foot on the first rung: “I’m normal.” This is also known as the “innocence/ignorance stage.” In this stage, we don’t see ourselves as white. We think race is unimportant. We don’t comprehend the power connection between race and racism. We believe racially different people want to assimilate.

In our class, we discussed times when identity made each of us feel uncomfortable. As a Jew, I rarely feel truly comfortable. Three of my grandparents were born abroad. Under this administration, my family wouldn’t be able to immigrate. Cousins sponsored our families. My family would’ve died in World War II, never setting foot in America.

Not everyone wants to blanch their culture and assimilate. Can we accept each other as equals without needing to be the same?

The next rung of the ladder is “What are you?” It’s our first meaningful contacts with people of color. This made me think of Vi, my study mate at college. She shared stories about living in the Baltimore inner city. I understood our childhoods were very different. I realized how fortunate I was to experience real personal power and protection.

The Ladder

9. Community of love and resistance

8. Collective action

7. Taking responsibility, self-righteousness: White can do right, especially me.

6. Open up, acknowledgment: Houston, we’ve got a problem.

5. Guilt and shame: White is not right. I’m bad.

4. Denial and defensiveness: I am not the problem.

3. Be like me: We’re all the same. You’re the problem.

2. What are you? First contact

1. I’m normal: Innocence, ignorance

The third rung is “Be like me.” In this stage, we see racism as an individual problem, and we don’t see ourselves as part of that problem. We don’t understand the power of race. Yet we feel “apologetic, guilty or fearful of people of color.” Interesting, because this is when we think “people of color should ‘just get over it.'”

Can you feel yourself getting stuck? The next rung is “Denial and defensiveness” also known as “I am not the problem.” Here, we are aware of being members of a dominant group and still blame people of color for creating their own problems. Does this sound familiar? This is where the maelstrom gets moving.

I know people stuck on this rung who made it up to the next rung and found it so uncomfortable that they regressed. They just couldn’t find the door in the ceiling.

“Guilt and shame” is the next rung. You can see why people retreat from this stage. It’s also known as “White is not right. I’m bad.” In this challenging stage of development, we acknowledge race is a big problem, and we’re all involved. People of color are still blamed. I hypothesize that some of the violent protesters who are destroying public property are stuck on this rung.

The door in the ceiling is “Open up, acknowledgement.” It’s also known as “Houston, we’ve got a problem.” On this rung, we see racism as illogical. We begin to relate to people of color who are like us. We feel apologetic for our privileges.

On the next rung, “Taking responsibility, self-righteousness,” we acknowledge our membership in the powerful white group. We begin anti-racist work and believe we are better than other white people.

The last two rungs of the ladder are “Collective action” and “Community of love and resistance.” In the last stage, “We are constructing organizations and communities with cultures which balance the needs of the individual with those of the community and which sustain life.”

I work in such groups, but I know I haven’t arrived. I still feel anger when I believe someone is prejudiced against me for race, religion, age or gender. It is difficult not to categorize others by identity. As we all embrace this struggle, we will find peace, and I believe harmony will be restored in our nation.

Susan Knopf’s column “For the Record” publishes biweekly on Fridays in the Summit Daily News. Knopf lives in Silverthorne. She is a certified ski instructor and an award-winning journalist. Contact her at

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