“The white commonsense view on racial matters is that racists are few and far between, that discrimination has all but disappeared since the 1960s, and that most whites are color-blind. This new common sense is ultimately false.”Eduardo Bonilla Silva, Racism Without Racists 1
I cried when Obama was elected. I’m one of those (mostly white) people who really truly believed his election meant the United States had finally turned the corner and become a “post racial” society. Yes, I heard the overt racism during the campaign, and the oft-repeated story of the couple in Pennsylvania declaring to a door-to-door pollster “I’m voting for the n*****!”2 It seemed that even racists were finally able to look past skin color while acting in their own best interests.
So what happened? How did we end up with Donald Trump giving shout outs on national TV to white nationalist militias while there are massive racial protests in cities across the country on a scale that dwarfs the civil rights protests of the 1960s?
How did white folks like me read the situation so wrong?
We Saw What We Wanted to See
“In the 2008 election, Americans saw what they wanted and longed to see. Whereas Blacks and other people of color saw in Obama the impossible dream come true, whites saw the confirmation of their believe that America is indeed a color-blind nation.”Eduardo Bonilla Silva, Racism Without Racists 3
“In the 2008 election“, writes sociologist Eduardo Bonilla Silva, “Americans did not see what was in front of their noses. They saw what they wanted and longed to see. Whereas Blacks and other people of color saw in Obama the impossible dream come true, whites saw the confirmation of their believe that America is indeed a color-blind nation. But facts are, as John Adams said, ‘stubborn things’, and since the late 1970s, racial propgress in the United States has stagnated and, in many areas, regressed. Socioeconomic indicators revealed severe racial gaps in income, wealth, housing, and educational and occupational standings in 2008. Now, eight years later, the gaps…are wider.“
White People Do Not Understand Racism
Racism is discussed at some length here. The simplest definition is prejudice + power. It is the requirement of power that tells us why there is no such thing as “reverse racism”. In order for something to be racism, there must be oppression.
There are basically two kinds of racism: Interpersonal/attitudinal, which is the individual, personal holding of negative attitudes towards a different race or culture, and Systemic/structural, which refers to institutional and cultural practices that perpetuate racial inequality. Structural racism is why the average wealth for a white family is $170,000 while the average wealth for a Black family is one tenth of that, at $17,000. Stretched out across multiple institutions, the root causes of structural racism are not always easy to pin down, but the results are clear and obvious.
The racism that matters most is systemic and structural rather than individual and attitudinal, but our ability to fix systemic racism is dependent on our ability to recognize it, and that ability is dependent on our individual and attitudinal racism. We have to be able to see racism.
The New Racism
““The expression of racism is to fundamentally deny its expression.”Ibram X. Kendi
From the end of the 1960s until the last four years and the presidency of Donald Trump, public displays of overt racism have socially unacceptable, but the view that discrimination has all but disappeared is false. “Today, ‘new racism’ practices have emerged that are more sophisticated and subtle than those typical of the Jim Crow era” writes Eduardo Bonilla Silva writes, arguing that these new practices are just as effective as the old ones in maintaining the racial status quo.
Aversive racism is the racism of well intentioned progressive folks who know that racism is bad and have strong convictions about fairness, justice, and racial equality but at the same time have negative feelings about Black and Latinx people.
Kevin works in film, and considers himself an artsy, progressive guy. He and his wife live in Burbank, because Burbank is a “safe place to raise a family”. His friends are all show biz types. All of them are white.
Burbank, according to Kevin, is a safe neighborhood. I live in Highland Park. My neighborhood, once working class Latino but now heavily gentrified, is “rough” and “dodgy”. Altadena, nestled against the San Gabriel mountains above Pasadena, is, according to Kevin, a “ghetto” full of “crackheads” and “gangs”, which are Kevin’s code words for Black people.
Truth is, both Highland Park and Altadena are safer neighborhoods than Burbank. Burbank is whiter, however.
Aversive racists attribute racial inequality between whites and people of color to causes other than racism. A workplace is entire white “because Blacks just don’t apply”. Kevin has no Black or Latinx friends because his friends are film people, and film people are white. It does not occur to Kevin that the film industry might be so lacking in diversity because of racism, despite the fact that this very topic has been in the news lately. 4
Colorblind racists declare that “they don’t see color”. Like aversive racism, colorblind racism attributes racial inequality to causes other than race. If neighborhoods are segregated, that’s by choice, because people like to “stick with their own”. Colorblind racists are distressed that Black people “self-segregate”, but have no problem with the fact that they live in all white neighborhoods because they do not see this as a racial phenomenon.
Both the racism and the flawed logic become a bit more apparent when you consider how colorblind racism explains (or can’t explain) why white families have an average net worth of $175,000 whereas Black families have a net worth of one-tenth of that at $17,000. If systemic racism and white supremacy are not the issues and we live in a true meritocracy, it must be because some individuals are lazier or perhaps less intelligent than others, and by pure coincidence, the divisions are conveniently racial.
Colorblind racism assumes that white is the default race and culture, even while many whites say that white is not a race, and white America is defined by its absence of culture. (I often used to say this myself, believing I was being complimentary). “Culture” is like spice, a little something extra that you can add to the bland default of whiteness, something that non-white people have. Strip it away, and you have the baseline of whiteness.
Thus, whiteness, the “norm”, is not perceived as a racial category, whereas other races are, and so a white neighborhood is perceived as a “normal” neighborhood whereas a Black neighborhood is seen as “racially segregated”. The burden becomes on Black and Brown people to assimilate by losing the “spice” that makes them Black and Brown, becoming the default, cultureless white.
Ironic, or hipster, racism is engaging in racist behavior and then defending it as being performed ironically or satirically. Examples of ironic racism are Abercrombie & Fitch’s chinese laundry t-shirts that read “Two Wongs Can Make it White”. “We personally thought Asians would love this t-shirt” said Abercrombie & Fitch’s PR firm. 5
“It looks a lot like gaslighting,” said writer Zinzi Clemmons when explaining why she resigned from writing for “Girls” creator Lena Dunham. “‘‘It’s just a joke. Why are you overreacting?’” was the response of one of Dunham’s friends when she was called out for frequently using the n* word to be provocative.
Closely related to ironic/hipster racism (and to gaslighting) is first-amendment warrior racism. These are people who assert that words and ideas themselves don’t matter, that any time racism is couched in humor it is harmless because humor diffuses the harm. The ability to express any idea is an end in itself, whether or not it’s a bad idea is of no consequence. First amendment warriors like Jesse Singal and Catholic writer Heather King claim that expressions of racism do not make them racist because they are practicing art for art’s sake. Anyone who criticizes them is a bully, a totalitarian, anti-art, or a practitioner of “cancel culture”.
Cultural racism is prejudice directed at culture rather than at race. My stepfather, for instance, was highly critical of Black people not because he felt they were racially inferior but because he believed them to be “culturally” inferior. They were lazy, he said, did things half-assed, and were prone to crime. This is the sort of racism that leads to racial profiling and “driving while Black”. Its defenders say “but it’s not about race!”
Casual / Everyday
Everyday racism is the racism of microaggressions, those indirect, subtle, and often unintentional discriminations that leave the victim feeling uncomfortable or insulted. Often, the victim is left asking herself “Wait, did that really just happen?”, questioning her own sanity and reactions, and if she concludes that it does and dares speak up about it, she will inevitably be accused of being oversensitive. 6
Microaggressions hurt in a death-by-a-thousand-cuts way, because while each one seems subtle and minor enough, the accumulation can be devastating.
Not all micro-aggressions are that micro, either. A lot of damage can be done in a 15 second conversation. Mexican American writer Myriam Gurba tells a story about a conversation between her and a white woman student at a writing workshop Myriam was leading. The student asked Myriam whether she had had a quinceañera. When Myriam said that she had not, the lady replied “Oh, I’m sorry that your family was too poor.” Her pity may have been genuine, but it was pity nonetheless, and pity based on an assumption of poverty, because why else would a Mexican American family not have a quinceañera.
Just Among Friends Racism
Just among friends racism, also known as “two-faced” or “backstage racism” is the explicit racism that white people engage in amongst themselves as a form of social bonding. It’s called “backstage” racism because it happens in a backstage or private, all-white, just-among-friends setting rather than in a frontstage, public setting.
A study of millennial college students by sociologists Joe Feagin and Leslie Picca revealed that in this age of “racial tolerance” young and often progressive identifying white people have simply taken their racial stereotypes and intolerance underground. 7
In the racial frontstage – in public – we white folks generally adhere to social mores, avoid blatantly racist behavior, and signal our public tolerance by being gratuitously polite towards people of color. When we’re backstage, among white friends, many of us relax and cut loose with statements and behaviors we would never say in public. More often than not, this comes in the form of racist jokes, and if anyone in the group objects to the racism, they are turned on for being a party pooper.
Racism is a white problem.
Regardless of how much we white people say we detest racism, we are the sole reason it has flourished for centuries. And we are the only ones who can stop it.
Stopping racism means more than posting a meme or two on social media but defending our friends when a person of color calls them out on their racism. Stopping racism means more than voting against Trump and then declaring we’ve done our job and there’s nothing more that we can do. Stopping racism means more than saying “I am not a racist” and then tweeting that MLK was much better than the Black Panthers because he was all about non-violence and they were “scary” and “violent”. Stopping racism means more than explaining to Black people that we are on their side and here’s how Black Lives Matter can retool their message to win over more white people because they sound “too angry”. Stopping racism means listening to what Black and Latinx activists say when they talk about defunding the police instead of insisting that “defund the police” is not a good motto from a marketing perspective. Stopping racism means acknowledging we have white privilege and trying to figure out how to use that privilege to open doors for people of color, or literally shield them from rubber bullets during protests. Stopping racism means listening to people of color instead of arguing with them when they explain why something we might not consider racist actually is. Stopping racism means trying not to be the boss.
Whether or not we are each personally racist, we benefit from systemic racism. We benefit from white supremacy because resources that should be divided between all of us only go to half of us; our piece of the pie is larger than it should. Ending racism is going to take some work. There are no quick fixes. It’s not a spectator sport. There is no neutral.
- Bonilla Silva, Eduardo “Racism Without Racists” 5th edition, Rowman and Littlehead, 2003, 2018, pg 17
- “Racists for Obama”, James Hannahan, Salon.com, Nov 3, 2008
- Bonilla Silva, Eduardo “Racism Without Racists” 5th edition, Rowman and Littlehead, 2003, 2018, pg 204
- “Latinos Love Hollywood, but Hollywood Hates Latinos” Congressman Joaquin Castro, Variety Magazine, Aug 18, 2020
- “Asian Americans rip retailer for stereotypes on T-shirts” SFGate, April 2002
- “What exactly is a microaggression?” Jenée Desmond-Harris, voxmedia.com, 2012
- Picca, Leslie & Feagin, Joe “Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage” Routledge, 2007