Clueless in Columbia: The Unbearable Weight of White Inertia

As I follow the news about racism at the University of Missouri and the resignation of its president, I can’t help but notice how little attention is paid to the fact that yet another white man in a position of authority has shown himself to be clueless on the subject of race.

Instead, the story is of a seemingly well-intentioned man caught in the open with nowhere to hide, confronted by angry students aggressively challenging his understanding of race, and knowing before he opened his mouth that he was in over his head.

“I will give you an answer and I’m sure it will be a wrong answer.”

Pretty much a white person’s nightmare come true. And I’ll bet plenty of white people, including college presidents, breathed a sigh of relief that it was him and not them.

However we feel about him and his predicament, the speed with which he has disappeared from the news underscores the view that he is not the real problem. Hapless, perhaps, or incompetent, or just unlucky, but nothing like whites who would call out ‘nigger’ or use human feces to draw a swastika on a wall. Those people are the problem, we are told, racists who still block the way to justice and equity 150 years after the Civil War.

But they are not. There are not enough of them. They are not powerful enough to account for the stunning and persistent racial disparities in income, wealth, political power, jobs, healthcare, schools, housing, not to mention mass incarceration, police violence, and segregation.

No, the reason for our continuing national failure is the great multitude of white people, who are, on the subject of race, not only clueless, but invisible, silent, and inert.

Many pride themselves on good intentions, sincerity, a desire to be good and do no harm. They are aware of no prejudice in themselves, some claiming to see no color at all, as if that were a virtue. When something terrible happens—the murder of black people at prayer, for example—they may feel anguish, even outrage. But it doesn’t last, as the media lose interest and white people resume their lives, like drivers going on down the road after rubbernecking the scene of a crash.

This is what white inertia looks and sounds like, white people moving through time and space with what Martin Luther King described as the “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity,” that he believed to be the most dangerous thing in the world.

I often hear from colleges and universities wanting to ‘start’ a conversation about race, and I wonder how it is in 2015 that places of higher learning are still just starting out, not to mention hiring presidents who are clueless about race. Until I realize they’ve been here before, many times, perhaps, but cannot sustain what they begin, cannot turn it into more than a conversation or a campus event or yet another plan to do something about it, somehow, someday.

And the reason is not a reluctance to engage by people of color—most of whom cannot escape the subject of race—but white people, men in particular, most of whom do not show up in the first place, and those who do, don’t stick around very long.

There are times when white people openly commit themselves to racial justice in ways that might be noticed. There were the abolitionists, for example, and, more than a hundred years later, the freedom riders.* Otherwise, it’s hard to see where most ‘good’ white people—the ones not consciously engaged in oppressing people of color—have done more than watch, anchoring the status quo with the weight of their consent.

White inertia is a complicated thing, a mass of many layers, its outer edge wrapped in ignorance, unable to act on what isn’t known.

Just below is the refuge of heaping blame on bad individuals who act in overtly racist ways, providing the reassuring comfort of not being one of those, and therefore not the problem.

Deeper down, propping up ignorance and blame, is the investment in being seen as the kind of people for whom race does not figure in the treatment of human beings. It comes with the assumption that people actually know what they believe and feel, what we are predisposed to do in the blink of an eye that it takes to form an impression. But the study of implicit bias and the science of the brain make it clear that we do not, that we have no idea, because our awareness is but a tiny window on the unconscious brain that controls most of our lives, shaped by a lifetime of experience in a society that is anything but neutral or kind or just on the subject of race.

But I didn’t mean it, I hear again and again. It wasn’t my intention. Good for you, I want to say, but it doesn’t change the consequence.

And then, going deeper toward the core of white inertia, is the dull, leaden feeling of being overwhelmed—it is too much, too big.

I have watched them sink in the direction of despair, nibbling around the edges of guilt and shame.

And the fear of what stands to be lost—innocence, the wages of privilege, who we think we are, identity, goodness, worth, America, American.

And then comes the last line of defense, when all else fails, digging in, dropping all pretense, to let loose the anger at how awful, how unfair it is to be made to feel this way, the white man in Oklahoma accosting me mid-way in the workshop, “You’re just trying to make us feel bad,” as if I would travel more than a thousand miles for that.

And, besides, where is it written that white people should not feel bad about this country’s continuing legacy of race? Are people of color to be the only ones, to carry it alone? And just what did they do to deserve that?

But such questions are buried beneath the full weight of white inertia—nothing to offer, nothing to give that might actually disturb or make a difference, resentful, fending off guilt, sick and tired, leave us alone.

It isn’t pretty, and of course white people are not all the same. But that isn’t the point. It is the pattern that is all too familiar to anyone who pays attention. A pattern that comes as no surprise, so predictable, for why would we imagine that hundreds of years of race privilege and oppression would bring out the best?


Having worked on these issues for most of my life, I believe we have two choices: We will stay stuck in this until forced to move by events or circumstance, lurching from one crisis to the next. Or we will find a way to do what our ancestors did not—to take responsibility now, as we are called to do as citizens and human beings, as if our lives and much more depend upon it.

Of course that’s easier said than done, and I have been around enough white people struggling with this to have some idea of what comes up and what is needed.

What can I do? Start where you are. Make it your business to find out what you do not know. Read, listen. Learn what racism does to people of color, has done for hundreds of years. About whiteness, where it came from and why, and what it has to do with you. Of course we’re involved. Of course we’re biased. Of course our silence is consent. Of course we’ve benefitted one way or another from generations of racism. We are all human beings born and raised in a world we did not create or choose, that shapes our lives inside and out.

Of course this is hard.

Now I feel guilty. To which I will say there are few things more useless than white people preoccupied with feeling bad about themselves. This is not about you.

And helpless. Because you are, if you think you’re supposed to change the world. But you are not. You are here to make a difference, which you may never get to see.

But I’m just one person. Who isn’t? Each of us is a leaf on a tree, and the tree may not need any one of us in particular, but it doesn’t live without us. As Gandhi said, what we do as individuals doesn’t matter, but it matters that we do it.

I matter and I don’t. Exactly. It’s a paradox. Best get used to those.

I still feel overwhelmed. Then imagine you’re a parent and your child’s life is in danger and you don’t know what to do and it scares the hell out of you. What do you do now? Sit there and be overwhelmed while your kid dies? I don’t think so. Breathe. Open your eyes.

But I’m afraid. With good reason. But pretending that you’re not, and not preparing for it, is one of the biggest reasons good intentions come to nothing. Make a list of all the ways you can get hurt doing this, and then a list of what you need to take care of yourself. “Don’t do this alone” goes at the top. There’s a reason social movements depend on numbers of people, including that loneliness and isolation are invitations to powerlessness and despair. Join a group. Start a group. Make a friend into an ally. Find a we you can believe in and be part of it.

All right. I educate myself, join a group. What then? Just look around. You’ll know. It will be obvious, if not painfully so.

That’s the simple answer, the one I always hope will be enough.

But I notice you asked this question before, which makes me wonder where it’s coming from, if this isn’t a bit of sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity. I suspect you already know the answer to your question. You just don’t like it very much. You’re holding out for a quick fix, a way to make this go away so you can stop feeling so bad, so you can avoid having to nail yourself to the present.** A way to think you’ve done your bit and now it’s up to someone else.

You already know what people do to make change happen. You’ve seen it in history books and the movies and on the news. They come together and commit themselves to one another and what needs to be done. They study the situation, identify the goal, analyze and strategize, assess the risks, and then organize to agitate for change. And they keep on doing that until the day when power yields. Just as those brave students in Missouri must now prepare for the long haul as white inertia reasserts its weight.

That’s what it takes, and always has.

And, in case you’re wondering, you don’t have to make this your life. But it does have to be part of your life.

Which means the real question, the one that counts, the only question, really, is not what can you do, but what are you prepared to do?

What do you have the knowledge to do, the courage, the allies, the resources, the will? How far are you willing to go, in the world and inside yourself?

And, if you don’t know that, do you care enough to find out?


*I omit the Civil War because Northern whites were not fighting to free black people from slavery.

**The idea of nailing yourself to the present has been attributed to Pema Chodron, author of, among others, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times (Shambala, 2000).

19 responses to “Clueless in Columbia: The Unbearable Weight of White Inertia

  1. Lena Rothman Wednesday, November 11, 2015 at 12:32 pm

    Thank you for this most excellent essay Allan. I am a white SURJ (Standing Up for Racial Justice) activist and have been an activist for the past 30 years. I just blew up the other day on my FB wall because I posted a petition for people to sign for Tamir Rice’s family. A couple of people “liked” the post but said nothing about signing. My “friends” were offended but I don’t mince words (I said it was racist to not sign) because the bottom line is that “white inertia” is a white privilege and I understand and have also felt helpless, powerless, overwhelmed. What a luxury to have these feelings and not be the one that has to worry about my child making it home safely and not being gunned down by a killer cop.

  2. Anne Batterson Wednesday, November 11, 2015 at 12:38 pm

    A timely, thoughtful, and challenging post. The results of inertia are already filling the news.

  3. annaleejohnson Wednesday, November 11, 2015 at 5:01 pm

    Fabulous . . . love the ending. XX A

  4. Lundy Bancroft Thursday, November 12, 2015 at 12:57 pm

    Thank you so much for taking this on, Allan. Thoughtful, committed, conscientious piece. I would like to add a thought: I agree that the media like to make it look like those uneducated, “redneck” white people (with also the hidden message that they are poor) are the problem, it is actually educated and powerful people who sustain the racist system; and I would add that it isn’t just the inertia of people of privilege, but also the fact that there is a smaller group of white people at the top of the pile who are very powerful and are gaining tremendous economic benefits from keeping people of color down and intimidated, and that’s why they work so hard to keep the system working the way it is.

  5. Cate Monaghan Thursday, November 12, 2015 at 1:58 pm

    Excellent blog, Alan. Thanks for putting this out into the world. As you have always pointed out – while society frames this as a racist problem. It is a problem of white privilege, that all whites enjoy the privileges, even if some more than other. When we focus on race instead of privilege, those at the top have succeeded in their divide and conquer tactics and every one suffers. I really liked your metaphor of the tree and the life-threatening illness. White privilege is a disease that is killing us all, although blacks and other minoirties have suffered the lethal affects more at this point. It will certainly kill us all in the end, unless we do more than just step up to the plate. We need to change the rules of the game. Otherwise, the “house” always wins.

    • Lena Rothman Friday, November 13, 2015 at 3:14 pm

      Cate-while I do agree with you that this is a problem of white privilege and that we probably agree that race is a social construct to separate us, at this time in his-story I think we still unfortunately need to call it by its name which is “racism”. White people are very slinky in that if whites can find a way out of being called a “racist” they will. Naming is a very important key in liberation of any oppressed grouping in the US.And, we’ve yet to deal with classism which is yet another un-nameable power over position perhaps holding up all the others.

  6. margaretbooker Friday, November 13, 2015 at 1:45 pm

    Well done and spot on. The folks I know who wish the conflicts would just go away and who are punished because they aren’t racists could get good stuff from your insights. I’m going to share.

  7. Cate Monaghan Friday, November 13, 2015 at 3:46 pm

    In case you did not watch it. The “Grey’s Anatomy show on NBC last night had a wonderful couple of scenes about racism or not and white privilege. They even used the phrase white privilege. Don’ t know how many people watched it. But even a million would be a huge impact. Shondra Rhimes, the shows creator is always tackling tough issues like this. Well worth checking it out on NBC.com

  8. Jean Saturday, November 14, 2015 at 4:07 am

    I’m not disagreeing, but can’t help point out in this case it may have been easier to pass judgment than to see the whole person. While one may not be an activist, a more passive person may not be as obvious or boastful in their role to stand up against racism. Does this make them white inertia? What about the parents that raise their children with a vast awareness of the harm racism has on people of color, modeling right from wrong on the playground, neighborhood get togethers, etc., along with the options they have to become actively involved when they get old enough? Then there are the teachers that do the same and so much more. Neither of these groups are silent 90% of their day but during that 10% they may be judged unfairly as white inertia. Can anyone be ‘on’ all the time? Both of these demographics have a significant impact that carries decades into the future. It’s these people that fight for the end of racism, for equality for those of color, or disability, or any diversities without any accolades or noise, but instead with love and kindness and most importantly, by being good role models.

    • Francois Tremblay Thursday, November 26, 2015 at 4:03 am

      Riiiight… because the impact that parents have on their children’s beliefs, which is dwarfed by the impact of their friends, the media, what they are taught at school, the implicit attitudes of their parents and people around them, and so on… turns children into non-racists. Magically. Because that’s how reality works.


  9. Frank Staropoli Tuesday, November 17, 2015 at 3:45 pm

    So spot on. I recognize myself here, even with all that I’m “doing” to counteract white ignorance. In the process, I keep uncovering my own ignorance at deeper levels.

  10. Nancy Friday, March 25, 2016 at 10:53 am

    I found this to be thought provoking and detailed enough to offer first steps for those of us wanting to make a difference.

  11. JustinMiller Friday, April 22, 2016 at 9:38 am

    Thank you for what you have written and for taking these topics “head on.” I do not disagree with anything that you have written and was curious about something. The writings all seem to be one sided. Have you written anything about the person/people of color’s responsibility/challenges (or suggestions) for the way they may have an impact on changing the way things “have always been”? How can they be part of making a difference in a “white privileged” society? I’m not much of a wordsmith so I hope you can understand what I’m asking. Thanks!

    • Allan Johnson Sunday, April 24, 2016 at 9:20 am

      Given that people of color have done almost all the work of dealing with racism for more than four hundred years, my biggest concern is with getting white people to engage with these issues. That said, the last chapter of my book, Privilege, Power, and Difference, is “What Can We Do?” a question that applies to us all.

      • JustinMiller Wednesday, April 27, 2016 at 10:19 am

        Having really enjoyed reading your writings I was a bit disappointed with this response. Frankly, it sounds like someone running for office.

        “Given that people of color have done almost all the work of dealing with racism for more than four hundred years…” – when did these works begin? Seriously I’d like to know. I’m not undercutting how terrible slaves were treated and the conditions however, I think of “working” to make things change different than enduring/dealing (slavery/racism) situations thrust upon you. When I think of folks that worked, lead and fought for things to change, I think of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks. All of these were in the 1950’s. I’m not trying to be adversarial so if I’m missing something or misunderstood something please let me know.

        My original question was, have you written anything that suggests what people of color can do to improve their situation and make a difference in a white privileged society. Based on the last part of your response, I did order your book and hope to find something useful there.

        No matter what past work has been done by anyone (regardless of color) the work isn’t done. I understand why your priority is “getting white people to engage with these issues” and I agree that the bulk of the work for changing white privilege does need to happen by white people. One of the reasons I enjoy your writings is that they are thought provoking and make folks (me anyway) look deeper.

        However, I think it is important that your readers who are people of color to know that there are things they can do and that they shouldn’t wait around for the ‘good’ white people to fix this.

        My best friend of nearly 30yrs, in random conversations about conflicts, challenges, etc., always says, “yeah but at least you’re white” and I would just look at him like he was crazy and laugh. It has not been but about the last five years that I have started to understand why he says that and what it means to him.

      • Lena Rothman Wednesday, April 27, 2016 at 10:57 am

        Justin,please don’t let it take another 5 years for you to understand that the responsibility for racism is white peoples responsibility.People of color have enough to do to survive racism.

  12. JustinMiller Wednesday, April 27, 2016 at 11:56 am

    Lena, your comment has no bearing in regards to what I said – please read what I wrote again.
    Nowhere do I suggest that white folks are not responsible for racism.
    I do not disagree with Allan’s sentiment that more white people need to be made aware and engaged. Nor do I disagree that the majority of the work to make a change should be made by whites.
    I simply suggest that in addition to white people recognizing that “white privilege” does exist and that there are things they (whites) can do to make changes that there may also be things that people of color can do to remain proactive. That thought was what spawned my initial question to Allan – out of serious curiosity if he had addressed thoughts/suggestions for people of color. Guess I’ll see when I read his book.

    • Allan Johnson Wednesday, April 27, 2016 at 5:45 pm

      What work have people of color been doing for generations to combat white racism? For starters, in addition to the often overwhelming job that everyone has to raise families and earn a living, they have had to deal every single day with the devastation of their communities caused by segregation and mass incarceration, have had to overcome persistent discrimination in everything from jobs to healthcare, have had to coach their children to avoid police violence. On top of that, they have most recently managed to mount mass demonstrations against police violence through such organizations as Black Lives Matter and Dream Defenders, and college students have begun using social media to create a national network for sharing information about how most effectively protest campus racism.

      Just dealing with being of color in this society is in itself a full-time job, one that white people do not have to deal with. It’s time for white people to pick up their share of the burden of dealing with our national legacy of racism. We’ve had a free ride for hundreds of years, and we are called as citizens and as human beings to bring that to an end through our own commitment to change.

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