Dynamics of White Racial Superiority

Dynamics of White Racial Superiority

If we are White we receive constant messages that we are better and more important than peoples of Color, regardless of our personal intentions or beliefs (Fine, 1997). These messages operate on multiple levels and are conveyed in a range of ways, for example: our centrality in history textbooks and other historical representations; our centrality in media and advertising; our teachers, role models, heroes, and heroines all reflecting us; everyday discussions about “good” neighborhoods and schools and the


racial makeup of these favored locations; popular TV shows centered around friendship circles that are all White, even when they take place in racially diverse cities such as New York (Friends, Seinfeld, Sex and the City, Gossip Girl; Girls); religious iconography that depicts Adam and Eve, other key Christian figures, and even God as White; newscasters referring to any crime than occurs in a White neighborhood as “shocking”; and the lack of a sense of loss about the absence of peoples of Color in most White people’s lives. These are examples of implicit (indirect) rather than explicit (direct) messages, all telling us that it’s better to be White. Although we can attempt to notice and block out each one, they come at us collectively and so relentlessly that this is virtually impossible to do. While we may explicitly reject the notion that we are inherently better than peoples of Color, we cannot avoid internalizing the message of White superiority below the surface of our consciousness because it is ubiquitous in mainstream culture.

Let’s look a little more closely at the increase in racial segregation as an example. Whites are the racial group that lives the most racially segregated lives (Johnson & Shapiro, 2003), and Whites are most likely to be in the economic position to choose this segregation (rather than have it imposed on them). In the United States we are actually returning to pre- integration levels of racial segregation; schools and neighborhoods are becoming more racially separated, not less (Frankenberg, Lee, & Orfield, 2003). In fact, racial segregation is often what defines schools and neighborhoods as “good” for Whites; we come to understand that a “good school” or “good neighborhood” is often coded language for “White,” while “urban” is code for “not-White” and therefore less desirable (Johnson & Shapiro, 2003; Watson, 2011). At the same time, although we prefer segregation, most Whites profess to be colorblind and claim that race does not matter (Bonilla-Silva, 2006). Even when Whites live in physical proximity to peoples of Color (and this is exceptional outside of a lower-class urban neighborhood), segregation is occurring on many other levels in the culture (and often in the school itself), including images in media and information in schools. Because Whites choose to live primarily segregated lives within a White dominated society, we receive little or no authentic information about racism and are thus unprepared to think about it critically.

STOP: Not all our messages are as implicit (under the surface) as de facto segregation. We are also surrounded by friends and family who make direct comments and jokes about people of other races.


Stereotypical media representations compound the impact of racial segregation on our limited understanding of peoples of Color. Most people understand that movies have a profound effect on our ideas about the world. Concepts of masculinity and femininity, sexuality, desire, adventure, romance, family, love, and conflict are all conveyed to us through the stories told in films. Anyone who is around children—even as young as 2—will see the power of movies to shape children’s interests, fantasies, and play. Now consider that the vast majority of all mainstream films are written and directed by White men, most often from the middle and upper classes. In fact, the top 25 highest grossing films of all time worldwide were all directed by men (with one woman as co-director for Frozen) and all White (with one man of Color director for Furious 7) (Box Office Mojo, 2017). Of the top 100 films worldwide, 99 were directed wholly by men. Of these top 100 films, 95 were directed by White people. Because of the racial segregation that is ubiquitous throughout society, these men are very unlikely to have gone to school with, lived nearby, been taught by, or been employed by or with peoples of Color. Therefore they are very unlikely to have meaningful or egalitarian cross-racial relationships. Yet these men are society’s “cultural authors”; their dreams, their desires, their conceptions of “the other” become ours. Consider the implications of this very privileged and homogenous group essentially telling all of our stories.

The life and work of Jay Silverheels (Figure 8.1) illustrates the challenges peoples of Color have dealing with racism in Hollywood.

Because we all share the same socialization through the wider culture (the frames in our glasses metaphor) familiar images are an effective way to quickly communicate a storyline. For example, consider a director making a film about a White teacher who is courageous enough to teach in an “inner-city” school and, in so doing, teaches the children valuable lessons that it is assumed they wouldn’t otherwise receive. The director will very likely pan the camera down a street to show houses and apartments in disrepair, graffiti, and groups of Blacks, Latinos, or Southeast Asians hanging out on street corners. The audience, because it has seen this association many times before, immediately knows that we are in a dangerous neighborhood, and the context has been set. Over and over, White male directors depict peoples of Color and their neighborhoods in narrow, limited, and stereotypical ways. Not having many (if any) cross-racial friendships, most Whites come to rely on these images for their understanding of peoples of Color, reinforcing the idea of a positive “us” versus a negative “them.”


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