The Racism of Good White People

In the news a few days after I posted “Clueless in Columbia,” I came across another prominent white man speaking on the subject of race. “It isn’t possible to prevent racism,” he said, “because there is no law that says you can’t be an idiot.”

This was Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, a national organization representing college and university presidents.

‘Idiot,’ of course, is shorthand for some lack of intelligence or self-restraint, by which Mr. Hartle would have us believe that racism is the province of the foolish and the stupid.

Being pretty sure I’m not that, you can imagine my relief.

Which lasted for the nanosecond it took to remind myself that the kind of racism he was talking about—the overtly mean and hurtful act—is not the only way of doing harm. In fact, it may not amount to much compared with all the rest.

Consider this: If the everyday norm for people of color was to be treated equally when it comes to jobs and income and housing and education and health care, the courts and police; to feel safe as a general condition of life; to be free to live in any neighborhood they could afford; to be seen and heard and accepted and taken as seriously as anyone else—I can imagine they’d find a way to deal with the occasional white idiot calling them names or scrawling racist graffiti on the wall.

Not to mention that in such a world, racist idiots would be far more likely to keep it to themselves. Now, there’s a thought.

In such a world. A world in which, obviously, we do not live now.

And that simple fact is what Mr. Hartle’s sweeping reference to idiots and racism would obscure.

But wouldn’t it be wonderful if he were right, how much easier to put it off on some fringe group of maladjusted malcontents. It would be the kind of relief I expect was briefly felt by many white people celebrating the election of Barack Obama as the dawn of a post-racial era.

They were as wrong about that as Mr. Hartle is about idiots and race. And I suspect that white people who see themselves as intelligent and well-intentioned know that he is wrong. That the racial trouble we’ve been in for hundreds of years is far more than bad things done by people who are bad or stupid. Whatever you may think humanity has come to, there are not enough of them for that.

Which leaves the rest of us.

I’ve never met a white person, including the man looking back from my mirror this morning, who wants to consider themselves a source of racism. Especially given the strange but prevalent idea that we are what we do, a sort of one-drop rule by which a single racist act is all it takes to reveal ourselves as racist human beings—as in, this is the sum of who you are.

That being a heavy load to carry, we tell ourselves we are not one of them. We are good. And good people do not do bad things, because, well, then they wouldn’t be good.

This is where we get lost, I think. And where we try to hide. It is why we need to look more closely at what racism really is and how it works, so that we can see more clearly what it has to do with us. Including how dangerous a good person can be.

In a culture that sees the individual as the point of everything, it’s no surprise that racism is viewed as nothing more than what individuals feel and think—an attitude, a conscious tendency to discriminate and harm.

Some people, we think, have this condition, and some do not, which is why a student could go off to college and be surprised to encounter racism there, as if it were a disease believed to have been eradicated, or contained somewhere else. And why universities and corporations are so quick to respond to racist incidents by trying to innoculate students and workers with training and education and rules to prevent further outbreaks.

But that isn’t how it works, what keeps it going, what gives it power, which is why we’ve been stuck in this for so long.

White racism of course includes overt acts of hostility and bigotry. But, racism amounts to much more than that, because it takes much more to enforce and perpetuate a system of white privilege that has existed for more than 300 years, from unconscious bias to segregation and structures of political and economic power.*

White students who make a racist video or wear blackface on Halloween or draw swastikas on the wall are not simply behaving. They are also enacting a system of privilege that has a history, a culture, and institutions that do not originate with them, and whose authority is not their own.

If we think of racism in terms of its consequences instead of people’s motivations and intentions, the overt racist behavior that makes the news has much in common with acts of racism that do not.

There is the white employer, for example, who helps produce racial gaps in jobs, wealth, and income by being drawn to favor job applicants with Anglo-sounding names. Or the school teacher who uses racially-biased tests that over-identify students of color as learning-disabled. Or the police officer who suddenly feels threatened by the sight of a black man reaching into his pocket, or the physician or teacher or grocery clerk who attends more to whites than to people of color, or the white person who asks someone of color where are they from or who cannot tell one from another or feels afraid and calls the police about the black man jogging by the house.

None of this requires that we know what we are doing, that we act with conscious hostility or prejudice. The consequences do not depend on who we are, how good or bad, intelligent or not.

And those consequences are everywhere, not because bad people are everywhere, but because society is everywhere, the web of ideas and institutions into which our inner and outer lives are woven from the beginning.

It is this that gives the lone act of racism such weight, so that what is done to one can feel as though it is being done to many. And by many. Because it is.

And we can no more escape our connection to that, than we can stop breathing the air that is breathed by everyone else.

This is why white people so often intuitively recognize the racist act, and why it can make them so uncomfortable, so vulnerable to that moment of recognition when we know it is not possible to live in such a world without it being part of who we are. And what we do.

In other words, the racism of good white people.

There is, for example, our inertia on the subject of race, including our silence, which is racist because white privilege depends on it to continue.

But silence is just the beginning, there being so many ways to see and choose and value white lives over lives of color. And I do not need to search the news for an example.

For many years I taught courses on social inequality, seminars on gender, race, and class, small groups with lots of discussion.

One day, a black student approached me to say that she had noticed, repeatedly, that I would interrupt her in ways that I never did with whites. It made her feel invisible, dismissed, as if what she had to say didn’t matter.

Not recognizing myself in what she said, the path of least resistance for a white person in that situation was to deny and defend by telling her that of course I value her as much as anyone else, that I wouldn’t do such a thing, having spent my life, after all, working on issues of privilege and oppression, that she was being too sensitive, or even blaming her own lack of self-confidence on me. I might have given her advice about holding her own in a conversation, asserting herself more, perhaps.

I short, I would have made this about her and not me, by subordinating her experience to my own in refusing to see myself as I was seen, to honor another point of view. By dismissing anything I might do without conscious intent as if I had not done it at all. By presuming to know what I did not, about myself and her.

However gentle, however ‘reasonable’ my tone, however ‘good’ my intent, I would have put her in her place, so that I might stay comfortably in my own.

This is how racism happens.

This is how it works, day by day, loading the odds in favor of whites in the shaping of a life, everything from getting a job or buying a house or excelling in school to healthcare and feeling accepted and safe.

It is the kind of routine, mainstream, everyday racism that does not rely on being outwardly vicious or mean. But in the cumulative weight of its effect, in its power to perpetuate white privilege in all its depth and fine grinding, soul-killing detail, I’ll wager that it’s far worse than anything that makes the news.**

Which is why white people can be so quick to deflect and deny what they have done in those countless small moments, because we know, intuitively, as human beings, that the consequences are anything but small.

But, you may wonder, was she right? Did I actually interrupt her more than whites?

I suppose it would matter if she was putting me on trial, my ‘innocence’ as a ‘good white person’ at stake.

But she was not. As I listened to her, it was clear that she was not demanding that I humble myself in guilt and shame, admit to being one of those bad white people after all, ask forgiveness, make amends.

No, she was asking to be seen and heard, as one human being harmed by another, that I consider her experience of me to be as real as my own, that I consider the consequence, that I pay attention, that I take responsibility for my part in what happens between us. And she was taking a considerable risk to do it.

I told her I had no awareness of the behavior she was talking about, but that I had to assume she was not imagining or making it up, that I was sorry this had happened, it being the last thing I would want in my class. And that I would do whatever I could to attend and notice so that it would not happen again, which was, after all, what both of us wanted.

I was not on trial that day, in part because I had no innocence to lose, the ‘good white person’ being a fiction, a device to separate ourselves from the reality of race. Nor was I guilty of ‘being white,’ the fiction of white people born into an original sin for which we must spend our lives in guilt and shame.

In a way, what happened was not about me at all. Or about her. It was the monster in the room that she and I, in our own ways, were trying to see clearly, and come to terms with, both in the world and ourselves. And, in those moments, I believe we found a common ground on which to stand in that struggle, the ground of the human being.

Which is, really, all we’ve got.

*I first encountered the sociological view of racism as anything that perpetuates white privilege in David T. Wellman’s book, Portraits of White Racism, Cambridge University Press, 1977. I refer here to ‘white’ privilege because that is the only form of race privilege in this society. For readers who doubt this, please see “What Is a System of Privilege?

**I first encountered this idea in the video, The Color of Fear (StirFry Seminars, 1994), as expressed by Victor Lewis.

7 responses to “The Racism of Good White People

  1. tiffany267 Wednesday, December 2, 2015 at 10:37 am

    What a thoughtful perspective on race-based discrimination. I love how you point out that our prejudices come from “the web of ideas and institutions into which our inner and outer lives are woven from the beginning”, because it is really true.

    I also love how you pointed out that white people are not being punished or shamed for being racist – we are simply being challenged to face the consequences of our (often subconscious) behaviors and habits.

    I really saw a parallel in this narrative to other forms of discrimination, especially sexism. I think most of this could easily apply to a conversation about men and sexism.

    • Denise E. Wuensch Thursday, December 24, 2015 at 9:15 am

      It seems the absence of shame and guilt is a most important ingredient in promoting this conversation among white people. And it also seems that this is where the conversation needs to happen.

  2. Anthony Enright Wednesday, December 2, 2015 at 10:45 am

    WOW, what a wonderful post, so eye opening. Sadly so true.

  3. Sharon Simone Wednesday, December 2, 2015 at 12:16 pm

    Although the link I am going to post here leads to a rather lengthy story, I feel it belongs in this difficult and critical conversation you have opened, The heart of it is about racism of the kind you are discussing and about a profound action I was led to take…an action of standing down…and the consciousness that allowed this action issued from having sat for two days with a river! Thank you for the space to share stories of this nature, Here is the link.

  4. tiffany267 Sunday, December 6, 2015 at 4:46 pm

    Not to take up your whole comment section, but this Washington Post article reminded me of your blog post.

  5. BongMasakayan Tuesday, December 29, 2015 at 9:07 pm

    Whoever says that it is impossible to prevent racism (Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, a national organization representing college and university presidents) may want to tell that in front of organizations such as: Rainbow Push Coalition, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Black Wall Street Merchants Association and National Urban League among many other black organizations and see how acceptable his comment is to these minorities. Believe me Terry…. you would not be so white after you make that speech.

  6. Meg Vigerstad Wednesday, March 29, 2017 at 1:46 pm

    Thank you for writing this, Allan. I just noticed it as I was reading your most recent post. I especially like your statement that we have no innocence to lose, since the “good white person” is a fiction; and the white person born into guilt and shame is also a fiction. As a white person, I find it daunting to learn to see what I have been socially conditioned to not see. So, when someone offers a mirror, I need to not let my vision be clouded by these useless ideas that you have described.

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