Whites and peoples of Color.

Whites and peoples of Color.

So the first problem with the binary is that it is a false division. It reinforces the idea that racism only occurs in specific incidences, and is only done by specific (bad) people. Of course, racism can certainly manifest as individual acts of meanness, ignorance, and violence. However, the focus on individual incidents, rather than on racism as an all- encompassing system, prevents the personal, interpersonal, cultural, historical, and structural analysis that is necessary in order to challenge it.

The second problem with the binary concerns the impact of such a worldview on our actions. If, as a White person, I conceptualize racism as a binary and I see myself on the “not racist” side, what further action is required of me? No action is required at all, because I am not a racist. Therefore racism is not my problem; it doesn’t concern me and there is nothing further I need to do. This guarantees that as a member of the dominant group, I will not build my skills in thinking critically about racism, or use my position to challenge racial inequality. Further, if I conceptualize racism as an either/or proposition, then any suggestion that I have racist thoughts or feelings places me on the wrong side of the binary. As a result, all of my energy will go to denying and negating this possibility rather than to trying to understand what these thoughts and feelings are and how they are manifesting. If you are White and have ever been challenged to look at an aspect of yourself related to racism—perhaps you told a joke or made an assumption that someone pointed out to you was racially problematic—it is common to feel very defensive. This defensiveness reveals the binary that informs our understanding of racism; we interpret the feedback to mean that we have done something bad and are thus being told that we are bad people. This binary, which is the foundation of how Whites conceptualize racism (Trepagnier, 2010), and the defensiveness it triggers are primary obstacles preventing us from moving forward in our understanding.

As a person of Color, you may also be invested in denying racism for a range of complex reasons including these: You have also been socialized to see racism in binary terms; You have been socialized to see peoples of Color as “just as racist” as Whites; Denying racism helps you to cope with its overwhelming dynamics; You have had some measure of success in mainstream society and rationalize that members of minoritized racial groups just need to work harder; You have an immigrant experience that is different from that of some other racial groups; You do not carry the weight of internalized racial oppression because you have not grown up in the U.S. or Canadian contexts; Whites are more comfortable with your


racial group, with the shade of your skin, social class expression, or other aspects of your identity. Yet there are costs for this denial, including a disconnection from one’s cultural roots and separation from other minoritized racial groups. Ultimately, this denial supports the dominant group.

The racist/not-racist binary illustrates the role that ideology plays in holding oppression in place, and the ideology of individualism in particular. Individualism is a storyline or narrative that creates, communicates, reproduces, and reinforces the concept that each of us is a unique individual and that our group memberships, such as our race, class, or gender are not important or relevant to our opportunities. This narrative causes a problematic tension because the legitimacy of our institutions depends upon the concept that all citizens are equal. At the same time, we each occupy distinct race, gender, class, and other positions that profoundly shape our life chances in ways that are not natural, voluntary, or random; opportunity is not equally distributed across race, class, and gender (Flax, 1998). Individualism helps manage this tension by claiming that there are no intrinsic barriers to individual success, and that failure is not a consequence of social structures but of individual character. According to the ideology of individualism, race is irrelevant. Specifically, individualism obscures racism because it does the following things (DiAngelo, 2016):

Denies the significance of race and the advantages of being White Hides the collective accumulation of wealth over generations Denies the historical context of our current positions Prevents a macro analysis of the institutions and structures of social life Denies collective socialization and the power of dominant culture (such as media, education, and religion) to shape our perspectives and ideology Maintains a false sense of colorblindness Reproduces the myth of meritocracy, the idea that success is the result of hard work alone

Let us be clear—we are not arguing against individualism in general. Rather, we are arguing that White insistence on individualism in regard to race prevents cross-racial understanding and denies the salience of race and racism in White people’s lives. Further, being viewed as an individual is a privilege only available to the dominant group. In other words, peoples of Color are almost always seen as “having a race” and described in racial


terms (e.g., “a Black man,” “an Aboriginal director”), whereas Whites are rarely defined by race (e.g., “a man,” “a director”), thereby allowing Whites to move through society as “just people,” while peoples of Color are seen as part of a racial group (Dyer, 1997; DiAngelo, 2016). This dynamic also allows Whites to see themselves as objective and peoples of Color as having “special” or biased interests and agendas.

Of course to see oneself as an individual is a very different dynamic for peoples of Color. While for White people insisting that one is an individual is often a strategy for resisting acknowledging that their race has meaning, for peoples of Color it can be a strategy for coping with always being seen in racial terms. Since peoples of Color are denied individuality by dominant society, individualism can actually be a way to challenge racism and an important counter to the relentless imposition of racial identity on them. Because the social and institutional positions are not the same between Whites and peoples of Color, the dynamics of how ideologies are used are not the same.

Thus to challenge a particular form of oppression requires different tasks based on one’s position. If we fall into the dominant group, one of our tasks is to look past our sense of ourselves as individuals and examine our group history and socialization. If we fall into the minoritized group, one of our tasks is to claim individual complexity. That is, to challenge the way in which society has focused solely on our minoritized identity and denied us a sense of individuality.

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Whites and peoples of Color.
Whites and peoples of Color.

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