The reality of whiteness: How white speech can lead to support for racial justice

White people have a hard time admitting that American society is tilted in their favor. As a psychologist, my observation is this: When black people speak up about inequality, the reality of whiteness manifests as a combination of disgust and fear, as if white people had been personally assaulted, or they had been accused of something. Often, when white people push back against the airing of grievances by the black community, there is the threat of violence lurking in the background, as demonstrated in these few of many recent examples:

  • The rise of Black Lives Matter and the reactive response called All Lives Matter
  • The neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, the counter-protests against those neo-Nazis, and the administration’s declaration that there were “bad people on both sides;”
  • The taking of a knee, not about, but during the national anthem to protest systemic evil, and the change of narrative to declare those protests as disrespectful to the flag and the military

In fact, the narrative about affirmative action – which is really a narrative of code words about race – often contains claims of something called “reverse racism”: It isn’t black people who are disadvantaged anymore. Those days of slavery, segregation, and lynchings are over. The real problem, some white people would argue, is that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Now, it is white people who experience discrimination, as the government’s overreach has attempted to right past wrongs, at the expense of unqualified (black) people gaining unearned advantages.

In this article, I do not wish to spend a lot of time listing statistics to bolster the claim that racism against African-Americans is alive and well. I find the denial of racism, and its effects on African-Americans to be self-protective at best, and supportive of racism at worst. Instead, I’d like to move forward, accepting racism as a fact.

Getting on the same page

The reality of whiteness
Gordon Allport’s book

I’d like to offer some operational definitions for the purpose of this discussion, so that we can all be working from the same framework. According to the psychologist Gordon Allport, prejudice is “an antipathy based upon a faulty and inflexible generalization.” [1] Prejudice is a belief on the part of an individual (or group of individuals) which is not founded on reason or experience. It is a preconception. It is an attitude. It seems that explicitly prejudicial expressions have declined over the past several decades, although the use of code words among whites to refer to black people (for example, “urban,” welfare,” “inner city,” and “law and order”) are still used prevalently. [2]

However, even though prejudicial attitudes have become less societally acceptable, the actions and societal structures which reflect those attitudes have not changed. According to Hurwitz and Peffley, “While there has been a dramatic increase in support for the principles of equality and integration, this positive trend has clearly not been extended to support for policies designed to implement these goals.” [3]

Many people use the terms racism and prejudice interchangeably. However, prejudice and racism are quite different. Social scientists have defined racism as a systemic form of oppression, “involving cultural messages and institutional policies and practices.” [4] Activists who struggle against racism define racism as “prejudice plus power.” Prejudices are cognitions and beliefs, while racism is a reflection of societal prejudices as they are manifested in real life outcomes.

Racism is not just a preconception; it is a collection of practices which punishes and blocks one race in favor of another. Using these definitions, racism requires a group to be disadvantaged, and also a group who get the advantages. This is a zero-sum game.

Privilege is hard to see

One more clarification: Those who have the privileges are usually blind to those privileges. Men have the luxury not to think about gender, while women must be worried about the disadvantages which are tied up with their gender with more frequency. Straight people have the luxury not to think about their sexual orientation, but gay and lesbian people know that their identities are “other” in comparison to the norm. I have very rarely thought about how I was going to get into a building, or whether someone would assume that I was feeble-minded just because of how I look, but someone who is disabled may need to navigate such anxieties on a daily basis.

The reality of whiteness
Essential readings on priviiege

When you are “the default,” you don’t have to think too much about it. As a consequence, you may be blind to how your accidentally acquired characteristics work to your advantage. How could you possibly know what it’s like to not be able to get into a building, or to be worried about being beat up for who you love, or to be verbally assaulted by men as you walk down the street? You can only know this firsthand if you have experienced it with such frequency that it is a part of reality, OR if you have enough contact with people who can share their experiences, and you have an open mind to how they see their surroundings.

That said, it is hard to argue with the fact that, even if white people delude themselves into thinking that they are not racist, many white people consistently CHOOSE to live around other White people. Many white people consistently CHOOSE to hire only White people. Many white people CHOOSE to send their kids to mostly White schools. On an individual level, these choices may have other reasons than race behind them, but when these choices are viewed in the aggregate, the patterns must be acknowledged.

My own white privilege

I am a white, straight, able-bodied male. I have every advantage you can name in this society. It has been a long process of exposure, study and struggle to try to understand what it would be like to live my life worrying about being judged, treated unfairly, or treated with disrespect. My wife is still teaching me about life as a woman – men’s unwanted eyes scanning her body, and their unwanted advances carrying unspoken threats of “what I could do to you if I wanted to.” The recent stories about Harvey Weinstein show how men can use their power – or the threat of that power – for pernicious ends.

The reality of whiteness
A book about our country’s legacy

When I was 29 years old, I was a United Methodist minister. I participated in a weekend that was billed as “anti-racism training.” The first part of the training focused on the evils of slavery and segregation. I didn’t have any problem with any of that. Those terrible people who owned slaves, kept black people out of white schools, and insisted on white water fountains were all in the past. Certainly, if I lived back then, I wouldn’t have gone along with it.

But then, when they started talking about white privilege, I felt myself tense up. I remember how angry it made me when the facilitators suggested that my life was jam-packed with advantages that I never even realized I was being given, and that those advantages were offered to me at the expense of other people.

It took me some time to get over my offense. Once I calmed down, I became something my students call “woke.” This training was the experience which opened my eyes to how much easier my country is for white people. It was also a wake-up call for me, about how the policies and practices of our nation – from mass incarceration, to housing segregation, to economic and health disparities – are set up to benefit me and my white friends and family, and there’s really very little I could do to avoid exercising that privilege.

Talking about white privilege

A recent article demonstrates that discussions of white privilege are an effective way to open white minds to the need for policies which can redress racial inequality. [5] According to the authors, most people can recognize their own disadvantages, but simultaneously remain blind to their own advantages. A man who is economically poor can agree that rich people have advantages over poor folks, but not notice that his status as a man offers him advantages. A white woman will likely find it easier to notice the disadvantages she experiences as a woman than the advantages she gains as a white person. In general, disadvantages are more salient and noticeable than advantages.

At the training I attended, the facilitators encouraged us to scan our minds for experiences that may have been influenced by our privilege. When I was in high school, I was a real troublemaker. For a time, I used drugs on a daily basis, right out in the open in a car with my friends in the parking lot of my school, without any fear that I’d be rounded up and given felony charges. I also engaged in a lot of shoplifting. I’d steal cigarettes, candy, soda, cassette tapes, and once, I even walked out of a store with a boom box.

No one was watching most of the time. However, I did get caught on five separate occasions. Red handed. In every case, I was walking out of a store with merchandise that I was clearly in the act of stealing. I was let go with a stern warning each and every time. When I was older, I’d walk on the street with a lighted joint, and I didn’t give a second thought to the harsh drug penalties that the Clinton administration had enacted. I was never arrested.

I am convinced that, if I was black, I’d have served some time, and I’d be struggling through life, trying to find a job in spite of the felony(ies) on my record. Instead, I am a highly respected professor, with a column on Psychology Today. I have a nice house and a good salary. I drive a BMW, and have two children in the AP sections of their schools. All this, in spite of the fact that I grew up poor. Did I work hard to get where I am? I sure did. Did I have any help along the way, that might not have been available if I was black, or a woman, or gay, or disabled? I don’t doubt it.

the reality of whiteness
A bestselling book about our prison system

Once I became somewhat “woke,” I was able to notice when my white privilege was in play. A few years ago, I was at a party at a house I had never been to before. I went outside to get something from my car. When I turned around, I noticed that all the houses were identical, and I didn’t know which one was the right one. I felt pretty sure it was one of them in particular, so I went up to the door and walked in. There was a man in the living room, and no party. I apologized and walked out. There was no trouble. The man assumed that I had made an innocent mistake. No confrontations. No fear. Almost immediately after I found my way back to the party, I realized that if I was African-American, my odds of walking out of there with just an apology would be greatly reduced. The assumptions that many people would make if a black man walked into their house would not be as kind or gracious as what I experienced.

Another time, I was pulled over in Philadelphia for running a red light. The police officer asked me if I knew why he pulled me over. I said, “Yep. I ran that red light back there.” He talked to me about slowing down. My white privilege awareness activated. I recognized that the police officer was about to let me go. I asked him, “Are you sure you’re not going to give me a ticket?” He reiterated his advice to slow down. I said, “I did run that red light. You’re not going to give me a ticket at all?” He let me go.

I’ve had other occasions where a police officer pulled me over, and I got out of the car to argue with him. I didn’t get slammed against the car, handcuffed, arrested, or have a gun pulled on me. No one searched my car. I did get tickets those times, but I was sent on my way. Are these experiences because I was white? There’s no way to know for sure. The cops didn’t say, “You can go. You’re white.” But the black students in my university mention something that puts my experiences in context.

Having “the talk”

Invariably, black students in my class tell me that, at several points in their lives, a parent sat them down to have “the talk.” Their parent felt the need to explicitly teach them how to survive interactions with police officers. If you’re in a car, keep your hands on the steering wheel and DON’T REACH FOR ANYTHING! If you are on the street, be polite. Don’t be confrontational. Comply with any demand, and hope for the best.

The reality of whiteness
You do see color, actually

In a wonderfully comprehensive handout, Peggy McIntosh [6] has identified 50 concrete examples of white privilege that any open-minded “woke” white person will recognize as true. One of them is, “I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.” This is the same with me. No one ever had this talk with me. And I have never worried about my safety when I was interacting with the police. The police are almost like my friends. They nod to me when I make eye contact with them. Police officers who choke out black people, slam them against car hoods, and handcuff them while they search their cars at routine traffic stops are not just “bad apples.” They are manifestations of our racist society, which makes assumptions about people based on their skin color, and then passes literal judgments which have literal effects on literal lives, with a consistency that cannot be ignored.

Bringing up race

This is blatantly unfair, and this is why I am determined to be a race traitor. White people, for the most part, deep down, know that they have advantages. We may not be conscious of them, but when those advantages are described to us, we know that we are the lucky ones.

Resistance to the idea is just not honest. This is all the more reason that we are more comfortable not discussing race. Bringing up race often necessitates bringing up privilege, which can be coupled with guilt. The self-serving narrative that has been created is that yes, there used to be bad people who did bad things. Luckily for all of us, those times are all in the past, and we’re all equal! USA! USA! The ideal is a color-blind society, where race doesn’t ever need to be discussed. In fact, we’ve learned, to even bring up the topic of race is itself racist!

The reality of whiteness
Talk about it

Regardless of this pact that white people have made with one another, I am bringing up race. I figure that, if someone who is black brings up racial equality, some people can dismiss her ideas because she has a vested interest in the topic. If a white man brings it up, this can be puzzling. It’s almost like other white people are thinking, “Shhh. Why are you bringing that up? We have a good thing going here…”

I bring it up because, as a psychologist, I believe strongly in the power of words to reveal and illuminate the hidden forces which can lead us astray. When we think intentionally about our own childhood, and the parenting we receive, we give ourselves more power to make parenting decisions that can improve upon the foundation we were given as we grew up. When we think about our role in the marital discord that we are enduring, we make it more likely that the sources of that discord can be acknowledged and repaired. Conversely, when we do not have the courage to think about our childhood, or our own flaws as a partner, those secret demons that are floating around in our minds can keep possessing us. There is no progress without the courage to face the obstacles in the way.

The same holds true for racism, and its partner, white privilege. If we ignore it, pretend it doesn’t exist, and change the subject, our problems as a nation, feeding on the oppression in our past, which built bridges and roads, and accumulated so much wealth and power, can easily continue to control us. We can’t Make America Great Again without thinking about how our past has informed our present, and how our present will bleed into the future.

Parents, talk about race and racism with your children. Principals and teachers, bring the topic up, and let the conversations happen. A recent study about how leaders in education are beginning to use critical race theory to structure communication about race, and create room for more understanding and empathy [7], has demonstrated promising results. In this country, race is rarely not “in the room.” Racism surrounds us like a smog that we all breathe in.

These are hard conversations that our country must have. These are legacies of pain and injustice which white people have set into motion. These are problems which white people especially are responsible to fix. Who will have the courage?


[1] Allport, G. (1954). 1979. The nature of prejudice. Reading: Addison-Wesley.


[3] Hurwitz, J., & Peffley, M. (1992). Traditional versus social values as antecedents of racial stereotyping and policy conservatism. Political Behavior, 14(4), 395-421.

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