When You’re A “Good” White Person Called Out For Racism
Being a better ally starts with knowing when to shut up, and when to speak up
In white social circles, when accusations of racism (or even just the word “racist” itself) enters a conversation, there’s a standard go-to defense that always seems to rear its head. It goes something like this:
“One of my dearest friends is black. I’m not racist.”
“I have black kids. How dare you accuse me of being racist?”
“What?! I voted for Barack Obama — twice! And I give to African American charities. I don’t have a racist bone in my body!”
Or some variation of those themes. And we get offended. Very offended.
As a white person myself, I fully understand the urgent, innate response to refute any allegation that uses such charged language. If we happen to get called on the carpet for having said or done something that someone else implies is “racist,” we get hot under the collar because we know we’re not racist.
This untruth is what bothers us, at least on a surface level.
But it actually goes far deeper than that. If it’s implied that something we’re complicit in is perhaps racist, and our immediate knee-jerk reaction is denial and anger, then in all likelihood what it really comes down to is the fact that we feel like our personal character is being attacked. Like our morality is being called into question.
When we feel like our character and morality are under attack, it’s a natural defense mechanism to fight back. To protect our good name, our honor, our reputation, our legacy… everything we stand for. None of us wants to think we’re “a bad person.”
In fact, I’d argue that most white people in America are good, decent people and are not overt cross-burning racists, or mob mentality white supremacists. Even still, white people do hold *implicit biases towards, or prejudice against black people (and other people of color). Many aren’t even aware of it, and many don’t know the extent that it affects their thinking and actions. But we should at least desire a better understanding, because leaving these things unchecked is not only divisive, but can be dangerous as well.
*To clarify, all people carry some degree of implicit bias towards, or prejudice against races that differ from their own. And though implicit bias and prejudice can play a role in racism, they aren’t the same thing as racism.
Part of the problem is that many white people in America still don’t have a solid understanding of what, exactly, is meant by racism. It does not simply mean that one racial group hates another racial group, or that one group thinks they’re better than another. When we have certain attitudes towards people, or associate stereotypes with them (without our conscious knowledge), that’s implicit bias. If we negatively prejudge a person or group, that’s prejudice.
If we then act on impulses of implicit bias or prejudice in a way that takes away from another person’s lived experience, especially when that person belongs to a protected, minority or marginalized group, that’s discrimination. If we have a very strong, stubborn case of prejudice that’s accompanied by discriminatory actions and behaviors, that’s bigotry.
Writer and racial justice educator Debby Irving states, “a person of any racial group can be prejudiced towards a person of any other racial group. There is no power dynamic involved.” She defines bigotry as “arrogant and mean-spirited,” but maintains that it “requires neither systems nor power to engage in.”
Systems and power are key. They make all the difference between prejudice and racism.
It’s an injustice, but black people in America have never had (and still do not have) any collective institutional power. Meaning, they do not control the government, courts, or law enforcement, nor do they control the finance, banking, housing, or employment sectors. They don’t occupy the majority of CEO positions in corporations, commerce or utilities; and they don’t even get much room at the table in academic or artistic pursuits, whether publishing, photography, or journalism, landing starring roles in films, or the media at large.
Just because we had that one black president for a few years does not mean everything is now equal for black and white people alike. White people still run the country and make the policies, and in fact, white people are the only racial group to have ever established and retained power in the United States.
In America, racism can be more accurately defined as the long-standing political, economic, and/or social system(s) in which a dominant race uses its collective power to control and oppress those of different races.
At no point in time has my entire race (of Caucasian/white people) been oppressed by black people, indigenous people, or other peoples of color. Similarly, black people may not like white people — for example — they may be prejudiced against, or even hateful or bigoted towards them, but they cannot technically be racist against white people in America, because they’ve never been a dominant racial group who collectively used their power to oppress and suppress white people as a whole.
In fact, racism has been so meticulously sculpted and embedded into every aspect of American life that we refer to it as ‘systemic racism’ (or ‘structural racism’).
What this means is that, in the United States of America, we have a historically-based system that’s already well-established in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity.
We can see systemic racism perpetuated still today through discriminatory practices in education, banking & finance, mortgages & home lending, employment and unemployment, and many other facets of life.
White people in America — even if among the poorest of the poor — still benefit (in ways largely unknown to us) from having been born white. This is what’s meant by having ‘white privilege.’ You might be dirt poor and homeless, but by virtue of your skin color alone, you are automatically judged by other white people as being less threatening and more innocent than black people.
In America, white is not only the dominant race, but is also largely accepted as the default race. This is reinforced every time we turn on the TV, pick up a book or magazine, or watch the news. Because, as a white person, I see people of my own race widely represented, and moreover, they’re usually speaking as authority figures or portrayed as heroes.
Like it or not, racism is unfortunately fundamental to who we are as a nation. The United States was founded and built on the enslavement of black people, and structural forms of racism still persist today within our laws, norms, and culture. If you were raised in a white family here, then you were socialized under that same system steeped in implicit bias and prejudice.
When you’re white in America, even if you’re not privileged or among the majority via class, socioeconomic status, religion, ability, gender, or sexual orientation (as just a few examples), you still benefit off the system that, by default, caters to white people.
Let’s say you need to buy something, so you make a trip to your local big box retail store. If you’re white, you can rest assured that you’ll be able to easily locate items that represent people of your own skin color (like, through the images on greeting cards, books, magazines, etc.). You’re also likely to find a wide array of options available to choose from. Likewise, you can feel confident that the actual product itself (like dolls, makeup, bras and underwear, hair products, pantyhose, Band-Aids, etc.) will match (or closely match) your own skin color — if you want them to. Hell, even the money we spend on these things is plastered with images of old white guys.
White people are completely conditioned to take subtle implications like this for granted, yet they serve to reinforce our present hierarchy and privilege as the dominant race in America.
When a “racism” accusation is made, us white folks tend to pull out a veritable checklist of all our non-racist credentials as proof to the contrary. We look to our history of being “a good person,” and we look outward to friends and family who can validate and bear witness to our good morality.
By distancing ourselves from the overt actions of, say, white women who confront black women in restaurants and call them the n — word, on camera no less, we sort of absolve ourselves from all of it, including the smaller microaggressions we engage in that we may not even realize are inherently racist. And sometimes, even white people who consider themselves allies can be complicit in perpetuating racial biases and microaggressions, again, usually without realizing.
Like, saying “I don’t see color,” something well-meaning white people often say to imply they don’t judge people based on skin color.
But, as numerous black writers have spelled out over the years, “I don’t see color” is indeed a microaggression because what you’re really saying — regardless of intention — is, “I don’t care about your racial/cultural identity,” something that is hurtful to black people who are proud of their heritage and want to be seen for their blackness.
Many white people hold deep-seated questions that may or may not ever be acknowledged, like, “how in the world can anyone perceive that I’m complicit in any kind of racism, and furthermore, why am I being held accountable for something I’m not even guilty of?”
Questions like these represent a cognitive dissonance that insulates many white people, regardless of character.
When we get called out for possibly harboring some racist thoughts or beliefs, why do we get immediately defensive instead of pausing and considering what’s being communicated to us by the very people affected? And furthermore, why do we always somehow defer back to our non-racist history checklist?
A 2014 study by social psychologist Daniel Effron (London Business School) found a correlation. In his study, Effron sought to learn why the “black friend” defense was so popular among white people. And he concluded that threats to one’s moral identity increases the degree to which they believe past actions have proven their morality. In other words, the threat of appearing racist leads people to overestimate how much their past non-racist actions — like making friends with somebody of another race — are indicative of their non-racist attitudes.
So what should we do if we called out for racism — especially when we know we aren’t racist?
First, we need to stay in the moment rather than calling up our past history of good deeds. In that moment, all that matters is the racist thing was just said (or done). Stay calm instead of getting defensive. Know that you, as a white person, don’t get to decide what is and is not “racist” for a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, or Person of Color).
Then, apologize and be willing to admit that you genuinely didn’t realize what you just said or did was racist. Avoid the temptation to justify yourself. If appropriate, ask for clarification — but understand that it’s always better to go find the answer for yourself (read a book on racism and racial microaggressions if you really want to learn), because it’s never the job of the oppressed to enlighten their oppressor.
Then, use the discomfort you might feel to your advantage. Being called out for racism is not fun. It’s a check in humility and grace, but it’s also a huge favor. Think of it as a growing pain on the way to being a self-actualized, more evolved human with an endless capacity for empathy. And finally, take what you’ve learned, and go teach it to other white people.
As white people, we can listen, and we can empathize with and have an understanding that racism is painful, but we can’t ever really know what it feels like, because we haven’t lived it. Even if I’m the mother of black children and I see them facing discrimination, I still don’t personally know what it feels like, because I’m seeing it through the lens of a white person.
Just because some black girl called me “a cracker” that one time does not mean that I myself have experienced racism. Prejudice? Yes. Hatred? Absolutely. But there is no historically enduring power dynamic at play here that puts the black girl at any kind of systemic advantage over me. My feelings might be hurt, but I’m not a victim of racism in this scenario.
If we truly want to be allies, we need to know when to speak up, and when to shut up. In general, we need to shut up and listen every time a black voice is speaking (or writing, or commenting on social media). And we need to actively listen — without inserting any “buts” or “whatabouts” into the conversation, because those questions are, and always will be outside of our lane.
To be an even better ally, seek out black writers, hear their stories, and learn from them. And when you see racism being perpetuated in your community (or online), this is when you speak up. Call it out — which you can do without being a jerk. Understand that, no matter what, there are those white folks who will call you a “pretentious, virtue-signalling, politically correct SJW.” You can’t do anything about them — they live in willful ignorance, so just let that go.
And perhaps most importantly, to be the best ally, we have to stop imagining that being racist is something that only other white people do.