It’s hard out here for whitey: a reality-free idea of racism

Imagine a world where the legacy of U.S. racism against black people – the middle passage, slave labor, the rape of black women to reproduce a workforce, Jim Crow laws, the KKK, lynching, workplace discrimination, the massive over-incarceration of black folks – was erased. Where the legacy of racism against other groups – the genocide of indigenous peoples, laws explicitly excluding Asian populations from the U.S., Japanese internment, the current vilification of Latinos and Muslims, not to mention prejudice against Jewish, Irish, and Italian immigrants before they were brought into whiteness – imagine if this wasn’t even a consideration.

Imagine pretending massive inequality doesn’t exist in the U.S.,. Pretend there’s not a racial wage gap that intersects with the gender wage gap. Imagine wringing our hands about the plight of the white man in the great recession, when the recession really looks like this:

Chart showing the recession had a greater impact on black, Hispanic, and Asian household incomes than white households

Imagine forgetting that when a white person says something racist, it is seated in this history, in generations of dehumanization and oppression, in continued marginalization and exclusion. Imagine forgetting that when a person of color says something against a white person, it is based in the same legacy, in the history of hurt the person of color has experienced and white people’s position of relative power and privilege along racial lines. Imagine a world where we forgot about the realities of race and racism.

You don’t have to try too hard. We’re there. This is where the national conversation, or lack thereof, around race is at, particularly among white people. And in a context where talking about race at all is the new racism of course people of color are the new racists, because they have to engage with the reality they live in.

We live in a world where a study can be published purporting to show that white folks feel anti-white racism is so powerful it’s eclipsed anti-black racism. The study only engages with racism along a black and white line, ignoring the rest of our complicated racial system. These grand distractions from the real conversation that needs to be had are considered important enough to inspire a round table discussion in the pages of the New York Times (which, to be fair, includes a lot of reality-based critique of this racial fantasy, but still offers a lot of legitimacy to these bizarre feelings).

I wish I was surprised by this study and the importance it’s been given. But we’ve been headed this way for a long, long time. Colorblindness is the rule on race, particularly among white folks. We’ve decided the way to not be racist is to pretend race away.

In this context, the tide can turn against affirmative action because it’s exclusionary to white folks, and we’re pretending there’s no racial hierarchy. White feminists try to avoid addressing race in projects like Slutwalk, more afraid to talk about it than of the dangers that come with not engaging in the complicated relationship between race and sexism. Hate crime laws, supposedly designed to protect minority groups targeted with bigotry, can be used to charge people of color with committing hate crimes against white folks. Fake controversy can be drummed up about Jill Scott and Common visiting the White House, largely because they engaged with the topic of interracial dating at all.

White folks have an extraordinary ability to make everything about us, and now we’ve even managed to do that with racism.The study on white people’s feelings on racism should come as a wake up call. We have to talk about race and racism. No matter how scary. We’ve made a world that’s shaped by race, where race is a very real thing and where the consequences are undeniably powerful. We can’t just pretend it away.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted May 26, 2011 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

    Powerful piece. It is refreshing to see this being addressed. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Posted May 27, 2011 at 12:09 am | Permalink

    While I generally agree with the thrust of the article, I have three issues.

    1) While Common was attacked for empty reasons, I am of the understanding (based on The Daily Show’s coverage of the matter) that the “controversy” did not focus particularly on interracial dating.

    2) People of racial minorities are capable of committing racially-motivated crime against white people, so I do not see why it is a terrible thing for them to be able to face hate crime charges. There is a concern if hate crime designation is applied in inappropriate circumstances, but you can offer that same sort of criticism of any law. Presently a black person is about as likely to be implicated in a racially-motivated hate crime as a white person (which is a concern given the average oppression dynamics), but given the average relative adversity of being a black person (which tends to place them in more adverse circumstances), I do not have strong evidence of abuse here.

    3) As a stylistic matter, generalizing people of races (or other demographics) is a device that tends to get people to hunker down in their positions rather than open conversation. It can be unwieldy to add qualifiers all the time (to say “white people *tend to*” rather than just “white people”), and you may feel more comfortable doing so as a white person, but stripping an argument of nuance makes it too easy for those who oppose you to refute your point. Granted, those who strongly oppose you are going to try to reject your argument anyway, but you want to make their efforts seem marginal/empty/weak/petty to the people on the fence.

  3. Posted May 27, 2011 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Thanks for this. I’m white, and most of the members of my family are determined to keep their heads in the sand about matters of privilege and racism. My dad constantly tells the story of my uncle being passed over for a job, supposedly because the company needed to fulfill its Affirmative Action requirements by hiring a black person instead. My family seems to think that because blacks are no longer kept as slaves, there’s no such thing as racism in this country. I wish I could get through to them!

    • Posted May 27, 2011 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

      AA is, from my vantage point, can be a debatable point, but it really depends on the implementation. An application of AA that incorporates the person’s life experience that shows an otherwise slightly/somewhat less impressive candidate has done more with the the opportunities available to them and has overcome obstacles and can be rated as a more desirable candidate should have a desirable effect. While privileged groups can sometimes benefit from this sort of treatment, it should tend to benefit people from disadvantaged groups, and it rewards them for a damned good reason — we might expect those individuals to be as good or better contributors to their employers in the long term. This approach, if well-executed, can provide a high level of validity for the process.

      More blunt forms of AA (such as quotas or assigning a point value to race) are understandable given their relative ease to apply (and they are sometimes less corruptible), but they can run afoul of validity arguments, which allow for someone to make a case of “reverse discrimination” or that a company could force itself to hire unqualified people. The impact of race varies from person to person (you can overestimate in some cases and underestimate in others), and not accounting for it can fuel this sort of negative sentiment and further racism. Although in the case of your uncle, he’s either assuming he was actually better (which can overlook another person’s accomplishments or his own weaknesses), or someone in charge of hiring said something to him that can probably be regarded as unethical and would undermine the person hired for the position, and both of those explanations would represent problems.

  4. Posted May 28, 2011 at 3:00 am | Permalink

    Okay this is actually something I have a rather uncomfortable relationship with. I’m white. And … I try not to be a jerk but not being black I don’t know what it means to be black. I also recognize that ignoring race is almost as bad as being a total racist jerk. And the last time I spoke with a black friend … I ended up trying to prove to myself and him that I wasn’t racist. This means I’m not relating to my black friends without the whole racial thing between us meaning we can’t really be friends which kinda by default makes me racist. What’s a good method for dealing with the very clear history of discrimination without eliminating personal experience or human relations?

    Within feminism I think it’s also a huge issue, but I feel a little more justified in my selfishness there. I think the whole thing needs to be presented as not a 0 sum game. I’m not losing anything by spending a little extra energy on minorities as opposed to white girls, but I’d much rather devote my energies to everyone regardless of race. For example with the pay gap I believe the last statistics put Hispanic women at 52% of what white men make. I want to wake up tomorrow in a world where all women and all men earn what they’re worth rather than what someone thinks they have to pay them because of their race or spongy bits. However, I think I’d be a little frustrated if I woke up tomorrow still at 80% or wherever I am, and saw that Hispanic women were now at 92%. I’d be a little jealous I think. There’s this weird idea that we’re not in it together; that if she wins I lose. But I want to be able to pursue all interests simultaneously.

    The last thing I have to say is, I had a relationship with a guy who was constantly all about “white rights” and “men’s rights.” He dumped me saying he could “never date a feminist,” so I guess I got as lucky as you can get in a situation like that, but he illustrated an important point. He was Whitey McWhitewhite from an all white family in a white conservative neighborhood. He actually considered my Eastern European descent as minority. As such, he had no human concept of people who weren’t white and an idea that this faceless “other” was coming to “take our jobs.” He wasn’t a genius but he also wasn’t stupid and had come up with a legion of arguments meant to protect his position. He was the first actual friend I’ve had that was against affirmative action. He cognitively knew that racial and gender issues are not about a 0 sum. He expressed that he would lose nothing if women really were considered equals, and yet he also would call gay and transgender people “its,” get mad if I said word one about money, have a fit every time anyone mentioned immigration rights or affirmative action, and … well he saw no reason why he should know how to cook since clearly I was going to do all that for him or else. So I think with this sort of person there’s a dangerous disconnect. This guy does not have a single black or latino friend. He knew no Hispanics or African Americans growing up. He doesn’t get that people who aren’t like him are people. I don’t know that he will ever change and while I’d like to believe that adults can change I think that people need to make an effort to integrate more thoroughly. Kids need to grow up with kids who don’t all look exactly like them. I’m afraid that this is the only way to extend the concept of humanity to members of races that are not your own.

  5. Posted May 29, 2011 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    I love this line:

    “And in a context where talking about race at all is the new racism of course people of color are the new racists, because they have to engage with the reality they live in.”

    So true. I get so sick and tired of being told that bringing up race is racist, we should all be colorblind. It takes a lot of privilege to believe that colorblindness is possible. It requires one to never have experienced enough racism to understand the utter impossibility of it, or the fact that the racism that communities of color have undergone and are still undergoing is not easily erased.

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