Beyond Denial: Effectively Tackling Racism as a White Person
By Rachel Elgy
Racism is an uncomfortable topic for White people to discuss, often eliciting feelings of guilt, defensiveness or denial (Kivel, 2011). This essay will discuss some of the key obstacles preventing White people from tackling racism effectively, and explore possible actions to overcome these obstacles, motivating White people to become successful allies in the anti-racism cause. It will begin by looking at how racism may be perceived versus the reality, before analysing the role of White privilege and intersectionality, colour-blindness and finally ignorance in preventing the effective challenge of racism in society.
The discomfort felt by White people in this discussion can be paralysing, (Lane, 2008) but it is important that this is addressed and overcome, without shifting blame or avoiding the topic. As Diane Flinn (undated) states in an interview with Teaching Tolerance, when a White person expresses feelings of guilt in a discussion on race, it places the Black conversant in a role of comforting them; they are silenced, having to adjust their position or risk being perceived as insensitive and aggressive. This could be seen to invalidate experiences of racism, and shift the focus away from the issue at hand. The common response of defensiveness, anger or bewilderment from White people can shut down conversations, (Eddo-Lodge, 2014) and this White fragility serves to reinstate the power imbalance in favour of White people (Di Angelo, 2011).
Perceptions of Racism
Before looking at perceptions of racism itself, it is necessary to consider what is meant by the term ‘race.’ Biologically speaking, the Human Genome Project has found that all humans share 99.9% of the same genes and has confirmed there are no human “races” (Koenig cited in Kivel, 2011). Omi and Winant (cited in Longhofer & Winchester, 2012) discuss race as a social concept that has cultural ramifications and enforces a definite social order; building upon this, they describe racial formation as the process by which racial designations are made, recognising that racial groups may change or develop over time as society changes and restructures.
Racism can therefore also be considered more conceptually as an ideological or moral issue (Miles & Brown, 2003); but perhaps a more concrete definition to work from is “that it is all practices and procedures that disadvantage and discriminate against people because of their skin colour, ethnicity, culture, religion, nationality or language” (Lane, 2008:31). The Parekh report (2000) described it as a subtle and complex phenomenon that is deeply divisive and can have no place in a decent society.
However, it is common for White people to be unaware of the structural and cultural forms, considering racism an individual issue (Helmes, 1997). Kivel, (2011) notes that within the White community there is a culture of denial and minimisation about the existence of racism, and when it is addressed it is often thought of as acts of violence, abuse, protests and attacks, rather than the hidden and subtle practices that are prejudiced against people from Black and other minority ethnic groups (Lane, 2008).
As Sarah Pearce states: “if racism is only a personal matter, then racism only exists where individuals hold racist beliefs, and people can only be said to act in a racist manner if they intended to do so” (Pearce, 2005:35). This distracts from the pervasive structural and institutional racism present in society, and prevents White people from accepting responsibility in tackling racism. Therefore, it is imperative that White people are able to comprehend oppression in both an active form which is visible, and a deep-rooted system which dominant groups may be taught not to notice (McIntosh, 1988), as each form serves to feed the other.
To bring some context to how racism plays out in the UK today, we see the extent of blatant acts of racism in the 42,930 racially motivated hate crimes recorded by the police in 2014/15 (Home Office, 2015). Looking at racism on an institutional level, Black British or Asian British people made up 59% of people stopped by London’s Metropolitan Police Service in 2013/14, under an act that does not require the officers to have suspicion of the person having been involved in a crime (Institute of Race Relations (IRR), 2016).
It is clear to see that gaining a thorough understanding of racism, and becoming aware of the true extent of its prevalence, can help societies to move forward together and make progress in an effective anti-racist movement.
 Section 60 of Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994
Understanding White Privilege and Intersectionality
The nature of privilege means that people are often unaware of the barriers that exist for others, and being asking to check one’s privilege can therefore be met with reluctance or even anger (Soyei, 2014). Understanding how White privilege serves to maintain the imbalance of power in favour of White people can be considered to be vital in challenging this status quo.
Peggy McIntosh (1988, pp1) famously described White privilege as an ‘invisible package of unearned assets’; she went on to document some of the ways in which she enjoyed unearned privileges that her African American co-workers, friends and acquaintances did not. These included:
- I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely and positively represented.
- I could be sure that my children would be given curricular materials that testified to the existence of their race.
- I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
These examples are still relevant in today’s society, but consciously recognising White privilege requires continuous effort. As McIntosh noted, the “pressure to avoid it is great”, and she “repeatedly forgot each of the realisations on the list until [she] wrote it down” (McIntosh, 1988:4). It may be beneficial therefore for White people to consider checking privilege as a continual process of reflection and awareness, rather than an isolated act of acknowledgement.
An individual’s gender or class will also impact on one’s opportunities and limitations, and these characteristics will interact differently in different situations; ignoring interconnecting circumstances when discussing privilege can serve as a major barrier; for example a White person struggling financially may find it difficult to relate to the idea of being privileged (Soyei, 2014). It is therefore important to recognise the intersectionality of privilege, appreciating that other factors also affect a person’s ability to live free from societal barriers.
Considering the multiple burdens of prejudice some people face may enable a greater understanding of the complexity of racism and other forms of oppression. An example often used to highlight the importance of recognising the interconnection of differences is the case of Degraffenreid vs General Motors (1977 cited in Smith, 2013). In this case, five Black women suing General Motors on the grounds of race and sex discrimination were unsuccessful due to the courts not accepting a claim using both race and sex together as a single category of discrimination; as not all women (including White women) and likewise not all Black people (including Black men) were facing discrimination, these women were not afforded the relevant protection themselves (Smith, 2013). More recently, Miriam O’Reilly when sueing the BBC for dual-discrimination on grounds of sex and age was only successful for her claims of ageism, and not for her claims of sexism (Cochrane, 2011). This could be seen to present a flaw in The Equality Act (2010) as it lists protected characteristics separately and therefore doesn’t successfully protect those facing combined discrimination. To begin challenging this gap in the legal system, and to support a greater understanding of the interaction of differences in discrimination, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term ‘intersectionality’ (Crenshaw, 1989).
Acknowledging the effects of intersectional discrimination, and confronting and accepting the reality of White privilege, will support White people to become successful allies in tackling racism.
The dangers of ‘colour-blindness’ and the invisibility of ‘Whiteness’
Research has shown that a common approach to race among many White people is colour-blindness (Frankenberg, 1993). This is a standpoint in which differences are ‘unseen’ and therefore not fully considered, or deliberately ignored to avoid causing offence; it suggests that people in society today enjoy equal treatment without regard to differences in skin colour, nationality or ethnicity (Zamudio et al., 2011). This could be seen to overlook and conceal the continued effects of racism; invalidating people’s lived experiences of discrimination, and making it much harder to remove the barriers they face. Soyei, (2014:34) gives an example of a White delegate in a training session becoming frustrated, shouting ‘I don’t CARE about colour! I just treat people as I see them. What a load of rubbish.’ This was countered with an anecdote from a Black delegate about their experience of racist discrimination. This example serves to demonstrate how an attitude of colour-blindness, with a failure to acknowledge privilege, can obscure perceptions of racism, and allow White people to detach themselves from the issue, denying any responsibility in tackling it.
Pearce (2005) suggests that it is impossible to be both colour-blind and antiracist, as you can’t identify and address discrimination faced by some ethnic groups if discrimination and ethnicity can’t be discussed. Maintaining an attitude that doesn’t recognise differences in skin colour, nationality or ethnicity shuts down the opportunity for discussing these differences and how they affect people’s lives. Lane & Lawrence (2007) suggest that ignoring these issues will only nurture prejudice; when working with children, it is important to have open conversations, as making a subject taboo means that questions can’t be addressed and therefore any negativity cannot be countered.
In a society where ‘White’ is often perceived to be the norm, an idea with a long history tied to colonialism amongst other factors, (Said, 1978) it could be suggested that it is dangerous to make ‘race’ a taboo topic, as it can broaden the divide between communities and lead to an idea that Black or other minority ethnic people are themselves the taboo, and are therefore somehow ‘wrong’ or ‘unusual’. As Elizabeth Minnich noted, “Whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow “them” to be more like “us”” (Minnich, undated, cited in McIntosh, 1988:1).
In workshops delivered by EqualiTeach on breaking down stereotypes and tackling racism, children have often reacted with shock and discomfort at a person in one of the activities being described as ‘Black’. Many children express the belief that it is racist to refer to someone as being Black, whilst they are often less certain about whether it would be offensive to describe someone as White. Pearce shares a similar experience of students reacting to the description of ‘the Black boy’ in a story as ‘nasty’ and ‘racist’ (Pearce, 2005:56).
These examples demonstrate another common problem with how race is addressed; talking about someone being Black is considered a discussion about race, which is then sometimes seen as taboo or uncomfortable, but talking about someone being White doesn’t elicit the same response. Garner states: “Whiteness for the majority of ‘White’ people is so unmarked that in their eyes, it does not actually function as a racial or ethnic identity…” (Garner, 2007:34); therefore Whiteness is accepted as the norm, and anything else as a deviant.
Evidence has shown that infants as young as six months are able to categorise by ‘race’ (Katz & Kofkin, 1997). Gotanda (2000) challenges the credibility of colour-blindness in antiracism as he suggets that visible characteristics of ‘race’ are noticed within a pre-existing understanding of ‘race’, before being ignored, making it impossible for someone to be genuinely ‘colour-blind’ to ethnic differences.
Consequently, developing a comprehension of ‘White’ as a racial identity would counter the tendency towards a colour-blind attitude, and encourage open discussion, where emphasis can be placed on valuing differences and tackling racial discrimination.
Ignorance as a fuel for racism
Historical factors including colonialism and the slave trade can give explanations for the development of the more structural and ingrained forms of racism. Further to this there are certainly current external factors we can identify to explain the maintained racist attitudes and intolerance held by members of society today. Kivel, (2011) notes that openly racist individuals are in a state of fear, and are lacking the knowledge and ability to be more open-minded. It can be agreed that the media have a significant influence over attitudes and opinions, and irresponsible reporting can lead to misinformation and the spread of stereotypes and prejudice (Jiwani, 2016).
A recent example of fear and ignorance, propagated by mainstream media, and resulting in racist abuse is the so-called ‘Post Brexit Racism’; following the UK’s recent vote to leave the EU, and indeed in the run-up to the referendum, several sources reported dramatic increases in reports of racially motivated attacks (Khaleeli, 2016). While prejudicial attitudes were already in existence, it has been argued that the xenophobic and racist rhetoric used by many politicians and media outlets around the referendum have legitimised these attitudes, allowing an outburst in blatant and public attacks (Versi, 2016).
Peller (1995:129) describes the central aspect of racism as a “distortion of reason through a prism of myth and ignorance”; he goes on to note that “the opposite of the ignorance that appears as racism is knowledge- knowledge gleaned from actual interracial experience rather than mythologies of stereotype.” Miles and Brown (2003) also identify racism with ignorance. It is clear therefore that developing a critical response to information, and pursuing a greater understanding of differences would serve to tackle the pervasive racism in society today.
Adults are in a position to support the next generation to learn tolerance and tackle prejudice. As discussed earlier avoiding conversations about differences serves only to sustain divisions. Lane (2008) makes the argument that it is more effective for young people to know about negative attitudes, and be supported to reject them; this gives them ownership of their opinions and a strong awareness of prejudice in society.
Conclusively, it is imperative to work towards further understanding by responding critically to information, rejecting stereotypes, and basing judgements on facts and experience rather than myths.
This essay has considered some of the barriers preventing white people from tackling racism effectively. Exploring common perceptions of racism presented the disparity between the ideas of racism as an individual prejudice versus the reality of racism as an intrinsic imbalance of power throughout society, expressed through structural norms as well as individual acts of discrimination.
A more in-depth knowledge of the injustice in society, an appreciation and acceptance of White privilege, and comprehending how avoidance of the topic makes one complicit in the maintenance of racism will encourage White people to develop the motivation, skills and understanding to become effective allies in tackling racism (Kivel, 2011).
The concept of White privilege has been in discussion for a long time, with McIntosh’s (1988) analogy of the invisible backpack making it more widely accessible as an idea. However, it is still a topic of contention, eliciting negative and defensive responses as described by many who deliver training or have conducted research in this area (Soyei, 2014). Until White people can retain an awareness of their privilege it can be concluded that they will remain ineffectual in anti-racist efforts. Intersectionality must also be taken into consideration in this discussion to ensure a well-rounded view of the various inequalities faced, and especially the double or triple-burdens of discrimination for those with a combination of characteristics.
Responding to racism with an attitude of colour-blindness serves only to shut down conversations, invalidate people’s lived experiences and maintain the status quo in favour of White people; this avoidance of the topic can be especially damaging for young people as they try to understand their identities and the world around them. Upholding Whiteness as a normative and neutral identity is complicit in maintaining colour-blind and racist attitudes. It is imperative therefore to confront the invisibility of Whiteness and encourage an understanding of White as a racial identity. This will allow open and rational discussions about differences in ethnicity, culture and nationality that will be more cohesive and inclusive, encouraging mutual respect.
Ignorance and in turn fear also play key roles in perpetuating racism and validating prejudicial attitudes. White people must individually and collectively work towards greater knowledge and understanding, recognising the dangers of misinformation and rejecting stereotypes. Adults should then disseminate this knowledge and model this behaviour to the next generation, to work progressively towards a fairer, more inclusive and open-minded society that can access the true and many benefits of multiculturalism.
It is important and useful to remember another example of White privilege as stated by McIntosh (1988:4):
I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking
With that in mind, White people should accept their privilege, challenge it and fight against the White fragility that encourages reactions of anger, defensiveness or guilt. In response to guilt, it can be remembered that one cannot take responsibility for the actions of those before them, and for the existence of something historically developed. However, everyone is able to take on responsibility to tackle inequalities in society today. Tatum (Tatum in Halley et al., 2011:66) denotes that doing nothing supports racism, and so presents White people with a choice:
“They can fight against racism, or they can be racist.”
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