Common White Misconceptions about Racism
We have worked to address many of the common misconceptions about racism. However, given their tenacity, we end by revisiting many of the most common arguments we hear. Regardless of intentions, these
arguments (some seemingly innocent and others seemingly progressive) serve dominant interests and ultimately function to protect rather than to challenge racism. In this way they can be conceptualized as ideologies of White supremacy.
“Why can’t we all just be human? Isn’t it this focus on race that
divides us?” In Chapter 8 we discussed the discourse of individualism and how it functions to obscure the reality of racism and White privilege. While individualism asks, “Why can’t we all just be different?” the “just human” discourse asks, “Why can’t we all just be the same (after all, everyone’s blood is red under the skin)?” Remember that a key dimension of White socialization is a sense of oneself as existing outside of race. Of course on the biological level we are all humans, but when applied to the social level, insisting that we just see each other as human has similar effects as individualism. Once again the significance of race and the advantages of being White are denied. Further, this discourse assumes that Whites and peoples of Color have the same reality, the same experiences in the same context, and that the same doors are open. Whites invoke these seemingly contradictory discourses—we are either all unique or we are all the same—interchangeably. Both discourses deny White privilege and the significance of race. Further, on the cultural level, being an individual or being a human outside of a racial group is a social position only afforded to White people. Someday, if and when racism is overcome, this discourse will make sense, but to pretend that day has already arrived is a form of willful ignorance that works to deny the reality of racism.
As for the claim that focusing on race divides us, evidence shows that we are already divided by race on every measure of demographics and outcomes. We would argue that it is the refusal to take an honest account of the power of race as a social construct that keeps us divided.
“I have a friend who is a person of Color, which shows that I’m not
racist.” First, keep in mind that we are not defining racism as something that only some people are, but as a system that impacts everyone. All Whites who swim in the cultural water of Canada and the United States are socialized into psychological, institutional, and economic investments in upholding the racial system that privileges them. This socialization is not something we had a choice about nor is it something we can avoid. At the same time, this does not mean that we can’t challenge our socialization and work to overcome it, although this takes a lifetime of commitment. Having peoples of Color in your life is of profound importance but does not in and of itself end White supremacy in the wider culture that shapes
you, them, and your relationship. Friendships alone are not enough to overcome all of our socialization;
Whites still experience White privilege and maintain institutional control. Having a friend of Color does not, in and of itself, mean that you are educated about the complexities of racism, that you have worked to address your internalized dominance, or that you consistently treat your friend with cross-racial sensitivity and awareness. In addition, how much knowledge you have about the history of your friend’s racial group and your receptivity to hearing about their personal experiences of racism will also impact the depth of your relationship.
“I went to school with a lot of people of Color. In fact, I was the
minority at my school.” What seems like a racially diverse environment for Whites does not always appear diverse for peoples of Color. But if you are White and went to school with a lot of peoples of Color, you probably grew up in an urban environment, and possibly urban poor. Even so, most schools with a racially diverse student population are still segregated within the school, mirroring the racial segregation of wider society. In addition, as you progress through life, upward mobility will often move you away from these schools, neighborhoods, and friends. We often find that White people who had a lot of childhood friends of Color rarely keep them because our schools, workplaces, and other environments channel us in separate directions. This illustrates the power of White solidarity to trump early cross-racial friendships.
Some Whites experience being a minority when they travel to another country. These experiences are important because they can provide some understanding of what peoples of Color experience here in Canada and the United States. However, being a minority in these contexts is not the same, because for most Whites, this is a temporary situation. While you can experience prejudice and can be discriminated against as a White person in the minority—and that is of course hurtful—it is not racism. First, to be in the minority as a White person is usually a situation Whites have chosen to be in and can easily escape. Second, in the larger society we are still affirmed as more valuable than peoples of Color and we receive White privilege.
In the context of another country, keep in mind that most of the countries in which a White person would be a minority have a history of being colonized by White people and of being forced to defer to Whites. Further, our movies and media have been exported globally and Whiteness has worldwide currency. For example, blepharoplasty, a surgical technique to make the eyes appear more “Caucasian,” is the most popular cosmetic
surgery in Asia and the third most frequently requested procedure among Asian Americans (Motapharthi, 2010); light skin is advertised in countries such as India as the most beautiful, and skin-lightening cream is a huge industry around the world (Li, Min, Belk, Kimura, & Bahl, 2008). While Whites might feel like outsiders when traveling in non-White countries, they are still elevated in myriad ways.
“People of Color are too sensitive. They play the race card.” “Playing
the race card” is a common accusation Whites make when peoples of Color bring up racism. To accuse a person of Color of playing the race card is to assert that the person’s claim of racism is false. This is insulting to peoples of Color because it suggests that they are dishonest and that they lie about racism. This expression also reveals the lack of knowledge Whites have about racism and our arrogance that we could understand it better than peoples of Color.
Because of the factors we have discussed, there is much about racism that most Whites simply don’t understand. Yet in our racial arrogance, we don’t hesitate to debate the knowledge of people who have lived or studied these issues for many years. We feel free to dismiss these informed perspectives rather than to acknowledge that they are unfamiliar to us, reflect further on them, or seek more knowledge. Because of our social, economic, and political power within a White supremacist culture, Whites are in the position to legitimize peoples of Color’s assertions of racism. Yet we are the least likely to see, understand, or be invested in validating those assertions, and the least likely to be honest about their consequences.
Because most Whites construct racism as specific acts that individuals either do or don’t do, we think we can simply look at a specific incident and decide if “it” happened. But racism is infused in every part of society and in our perspectives. It is reinforced every day in countless and often subliminal ways. Our inability to think with complexity about racism, as well as our investment in it, makes Whites the least qualified to assess its manifestations. Our investment in denying racism also ensures that we will most often determine that “it” did not happen. The very concept of a race card at all, in a society so deeply divided by race, is a cogent example of White denial. Ironically, it’s not much of a card to play since raising racism rarely gets peoples of Color anywhere with Whites. Very few Whites believe that structural racism is real or have the humility to engage with peoples of Color about it in an open and thoughtful way.
“This is just political correctness.” Charges of political correctness
often surface when Whites are being challenged to acknowledge racism.
Like other terms that originate as a challenge to unequal power, the concept of political correctness has been co-opted by dominant interests. Political correctness originated as a term to describe language, ideas, policies, and behavior that seek to minimize social and institutional oppression. Now, it has come to mean cultural sensitivity that has been brought to absurd levels. As soon as the term political correctness surfaces, discussion ends, for no one wants to be accused of being “PC.” Take for example the word feminism, which is simply the idea that women should have equal status and opportunity, but has now become a derogatory term with insulting variations such as “femi-nazi.” Consider how conservative pundits have managed to take the idea of equality for women and equate it with Nazism, and how such absurd perversions of the term have been so normalized that many young women today don’t want to be associated with feminism. We might reflect on whose interests it serves to position political correctness as something to be avoided.
“People of Color are just as racist as we are. In fact, now there is
reverse racism and White people can’t get into college or get good jobs.” If you define racism as racial prejudice, then yes, anyone across any race can have just as much racial prejudice as anyone else. But racism is not merely racial prejudice. Racism is racial prejudice backed by institutional power. Only Whites have the power to infuse and enforce their prejudices throughout the culture and transform it into racism. If you understand what racism is, then you understand that there is no such thing as reverse racism. The term reverse racism implies that power relations move back and forth, one day benefiting one group and the next day the other. But as we can see from the founding of Canada and the United States to the present time, White power and privilege remain deeply rooted and intact.
For example, while the United States has elected a biracial President, and this is very significant, focusing our attention on isolated exceptions allows us to deny the significance of the rules themselves and whom they serve. The vast majority of CEOs, Fortune 500 executives, managers, professors, doctors, lawyers, scientists, and other prestigious positions of leadership and decision making are Whites. While Whites are the majority of people in the United States and in Canada, their overrepresentation in leadership does not match their numbers in society.
Programs such as Affirmative Action in the United States and Employment Equity in Canada are often cited as examples of reverse racism or special privileges that peoples of Color and Indigenous peoples have over Whites. These programs were developed in order to redress the reality and pervasiveness of White discrimination against peoples of Color.
Still, commonsense understanding of these programs is very limited; for example, no employer is required to hire an unqualified person of Color, but they are required to be able to articulate why they didn’t hire a qualified person of Color.
Federal protections are important because although many Whites claim they would “hire the best person for the job,” they do not understand that because of the constant messages that peoples of Color are inferior, who we perceive as the best person for the job will likely be someone White. According to Pager (2007), White men with a criminal record are slightly more likely to be called back for a job interview than Black men with no criminal record, even when they are equally qualified. In addition to unconscious preference for White applicants, another way racism manifests in the workplace is through the concept of “fit.” This is the tendency to prefer people whose cultural style matches the workplace culture. Unfortunately, the culture of the workplace, unless owned by peoples of Color, will likely be White. This plays out in industries such as fashion, wherein there is a very specific and limited ideal of female beauty (such as narrow noses and slim hips), and in schooling when teacher candidates are evaluated based on whether the staff will be able to relate to them.
Although women were not originally included in Affirmative Action, White women have numerically been the program’s greatest beneficiaries. While Affirmative Action and other programs have made an impact on increasing the numbers of underrepresented groups in employment, these programs have not come close to reaching their goals. Still, states such as California and Washington have ended Affirmative Action, and the Supreme Court ruled that giving points based on race could not be used in college admissions.
When thinking about programs such as Affirmative Action, it’s important to remember the dynamics of race. Because Whites are seen as “just people” rather than as White people, when they are hired it is assumed to be because they are qualified. When peoples of Color are hired (regardless of whether an employment equity program had anything to do with their hire), Whites often assume that they were hired due to a special program. This assumption reveals that Whites see peoples of Color as inherently unqualified; we have difficulty imagining they could have gotten the job on their qualifications alone. Further, this assumption reveals the sense of entitlement Whites have to all desirable positions (“they got my place in law school” or “they got my job”). This also suggests that we are not quite as colorblind as we often claim.
“Racism is a thing of the past. Besides, I didn’t own slaves; I wasn’t around when Indians were put in residential schools.” Many White people are woefully uninformed when it comes to the continuing presence of racism. Seeing ourselves as individuals, with no connection to our nations’ pasts, erases history and hides the way in which wealth and social capital have accumulated over generations and benefit us as a group today. Canada and the United States were founded on the exploits of slavery as well as genocide, and racism did not end when slavery or the residential school systems ended (Zinn, 1980/2010). Legal and institutional exclusion of peoples of Color, in addition to illegal acts ranging from lynching to racial profiling, continue today. Racist acts of terrorism and the state- sanctioned killing of peoples of Color, such as the executions of Vincent Chin (1982), Dudley George (1995), James Byrd (1998), Amadou Diallo (1999), Kendra James (2003), Kathryn Johnston (2006), Trayvon Martin (2012), Andy Lopez (2013), Sammy Yatim (2013), Michael Brown (2014), Tamir Rice (2014), Akai Gurley (2014), Tanisha Anderson (2014), Eric Garner (2014), Freddie Gray (2015), Andrew Loku (2015), Walter Scott (2015), Jacqueline Salyers (2016), Alton Sterling (2016), Philando Castille (2016), Terence Crutcher (2017), Jose Nieves (2017), Charleena Lyles (2017), and countless others are commonplace.
Peoples of Color were denied Federal Housing Act (FHA) loans as recently as the 1950s. These loans allowed a generation of Whites to attain middle-class status through home ownership. Home ownership is critical in the United States because it is the means by which the average person builds and passes down wealth, providing the starting point for the next generation. Peoples of Color were systematically denied this opportunity and today the average White family has eight times the wealth of the average Black or Latino family (Federal Reserve Board, 2007). Excluding peoples of Color from the mechanisms of society that allow wealth building continues today through illegal but common practices such as higher mortgage rates, more difficulty getting loans, real estate agents steering them away from “good” neighborhoods, discrimination in hiring, and unequal school funding.
Racial group membership is consistently traced to inequitable outcomes on every indicator of quality of life and these outcomes are well documented and predictable (Hughes & Thomas, 1998; Williams, 1999). Limiting our analysis to the micro or individual level prevents a macro or big picture understanding. At the micro level (“I didn’t own slaves”), we cannot assess and address the macro dimensions of society that help hold racism in place, such as practices, policies, norms, rules, laws, traditions, and regulations. For example, in the United States peoples of Color have
been formally—and now informally—prevented from participating in government wealth-building programs that benefit White Americans.
Consider, for example, the ways in which schools are funded through the property tax base of the community in which they are situated. Given the fact that youth of Color disproportionately live in poor communities and their families rent rather than own, youth of Color are penalized through this policy, which ensures that poor communities will have inferior schools. In turn, this practice ensures that middle- and upper-class students, who are more likely to be White, will get a superior education and have less competition in the future workplace—an example of institutional racism and White privilege (Kozol, 1991).
In light of all the possible creative options for funding schools to ensure that every child has equal access to quality education, the current acceptance of the status quo is an example of institutional racism. Other examples of institutional racism that serve to reinforce the ways in which schools reproduce inequality include: mandatory culturally biased testing; ability tracking; a primarily White teaching force with the power to determine which students belong in which tracks; cultural definitions of intelligence, what constitutes it, and how it is measured; and standards of what constitutes good behavior as determined by White teachers and administration. Rather than serving as the great equalizer, schools function in actual practice to reproduce racial inequality. Insisting that we could not have benefited from racism because we personally didn’t own slaves is extremely superficial and hides the reality of White advantage at every level of our past and present society.