28 common racist attitudes and behaviors pt.1

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Updated: March 6, 2013
you're a racist

 By Debra Leigh, Organizer, Community Anti-Racism Education Initiative 

Below is a list of 14 common racist attitudes and behaviors that indicate a detour or wrong turn into white guilt, denial or defensiveness. Each is followed by a statement that is a reality check and consequence for harboring such attitudes.

1. I’m Colorblind.

“People are just people; I don’t see color; we’re all just human.” Or “I don’t think of you as Chinese.” Or “We all bleed red when we’re cut.” Or “Character, not color, is what counts with me.”

REALITY CHECK + CONSEQUENCE:

Statements like these assume that people of color are just like you, white; that they have the same dreams, standards, problems, and peeves that you do. “Colorblindness” negates the cultural values, norms, expectations and life experiences of people of color. Even if an individual white person could ignore a person’s color, society does not. By saying we are not different, that you don’t see the color, you are also saying you don’t see your whiteness. This denies the people of colors’ experience of racism and your experience of privilege.

“I’m colorblind” can also be a defense when afraid to discuss racism, especially if one assumes all conversation about race or color is racist. Speaking of another person’s color or culture is not necessarily racist or offensive. As my friend Rudy says, I don’t mind that you notice that I’m black.” Color consciousness does not equal racism.

2. The Rugged Individual, the Level Playing Field and the Bootstrap Theory.

“America is the land of opportunity, built by rugged individuals, where anyone with grit can succeed if they just pull up hard enough on their bootstraps.”

REALITY CHECK + CONSEQUENCE:

These are three of the crown jewels of U.S. social propaganda. They have allowed generation after generation to say, “If you succeed, you did it, but if you fail, or if you’re poor, that’s your fault.” Belief in this propaganda is founded on a total denial of the impact of either oppression or privilege on any person’s chance for success.

Attacks on programs like affirmative action find rationalization in the belief that the playing field is now level, i.e., that every individual, regardless of color or gender, or disability, etc., has the same access to the rights, benefits and responsibilities of the society. The rationalization continues: since slavery is ended and people of color have civil rights, the playing field has now been leveled. It follows, then, that there is no reason for a person of color to “fail” (whether manifested in low SAT scores or small numbers in management positions) EXCEPT individual character flaws or cultural inadequacies. These “failures” could have no roots in racism and internalized racism.

3. Reverse Racism.

A. “People of color are just as racist as white people.”

B. “Affirmative action had a role years ago, but today it’s just reverse racism; now it’s discriminating against white men.”

C. “The civil rights movement, when it began, was appropriate, valuable, needed. But it’s gone to the extreme. The playing field is now level. Now the civil rights movement is no longer working for equality but for revenge.” Or

D. “Black pride, black power is dangerous. They just want power over white people.” (Include here any reference to pride and empowerment of any people of color.)

REALITY CHECK + CONSEQUENCE:

A. Let’s first define racism with this formula: Racism =racial prejudice + systemic, institutional power. To say people of color can be racist, denies the power imbalance inherent in racism. Certainly, people of color can be and are prejudiced against white people. That was a part of their societal conditioning. A person of color can act on prejudices to insult or hurt a white person. But there is a difference between being hurt and being oppressed. People of color, as a social group, do not have the societal, institutional power to oppress white people as a group. An individual person of color abusing a white person – while clearly wrong, (no person should be insulted, hurt, etc.) is acting out a personal racial prejudice, not racism.

B. This form of denial is based on the false notion that the playing field is now level. When the people with privilege, historical access and advantage are expected to suddenly (in societal evolution time) share some of that power, it is often perceived as discrimination.

C+D. C is a statement by Rush Limbaugh. Though, clearly he is no anti-racist, both c+d follow closely on the heels of “reverse racism” and are loaded with white people’s fear of people of color and what would happen if they gained “control.” Embedded here is also the assumption that to be “pro-black” (or any other color) is to be anti- white. (A similar illogical accusation is directed at women who work for an end to violence against women and girls. Women who work to better the lives of women are regularly accused of being “anti-male.”)

4. Blame the Victim.

“It’s their fault they can’t get a job, or be manager.”

Or “We have advertised everywhere, there just aren’t any qualified people of color for this job.”

Or “If he only worked harder, applied himself more, or had a stronger work ethic.” Or “If she just felt better about herself – internalized racism is the real problem here.”

OR “She uses racism as an excuse, to divert us from her incompetence.” “If he didn’t go looking for racism everywhere…” (As if racism is so hidden or difficult to uncover that people of color would have to search for it.)

REALITY CHECK + CONSEQUENCE:

All “blame the victim” behaviors have two things in common.

First, they avoid the real problem: racism.

Second, they take away from the picture the agents of racism, white people and institutions, who either intentionally perpetuate or unintentionally collude with racism. This is similar to agent deletion in discussions of rape. Statements referring to a woman being raped, many by focusing on her clothing or behavior at the time of the rape and delete the male rapist from the picture.) As long as the focus remains on people of color, white people can minimize or dismiss their reactions, and never have to look directly at racism and the whites’ own responsibility or collusion.

5.The White Knight or White Missionary.

“We (white people) know just where to build your new community center.”

Or “Your young people (read youth of color) would be better served by traveling to our suburban training center.”

Or “We (white people) organized a used clothing drive for you; where do you want us to put the clothes?”

REALITY CHECK + CONSEQUENCE:

It is a racist, paternalistic assumption that well meaning white people know what’s best for people of color.

Decision, by white people, are made on behalf of people of color, as though they were incapable of making their own.

This is another version of “blame the victim” and white is right. It places the problems at the feet of people of color and the only “appropriate” solutions with white people. Once more the power of self-determination is taken away from people of color. Regardless of motive, it is still about white control.

6. Lighten up. (Lighten? Whiten?)

“Black people are just too sensitive and thin-skinned.” Or Indians should get a sense of humor. We’re just kidding around.” Or “I didn’t mean anything racist; it’s just a joke.

REALITY CHECK + CONSEQUENCE:

Here are racism and agent deletion in partnership again. The problem and perpetrators are exonerated, because the rationale declares that humor isn’t hurtful. This form of denial serves most to trivialize the pain and reality of daily racism.

7. Don’t Blame Me.

“I never owned slaves.” Or “I didn’t vote for David Duke.”

Or “None of my family joined the Klan.” Or “I taught my children that racism is wrong.”

REALITY CHECK + CONSEQUENCE:

Often white people hear blame whenever the issue of racism is brought up, whether or not blame has been placed on whites.

As beneficiaries of racism and white privilege, you sometimes take a defensive posture even when you are not being individually blamed. You may personalize the remarks, not directed personally at you. It is the arrogance of your privilege that drags the focus back to whites.

When whites are being blamed or personally accused of racist behavior, this defensiveness and denial further alienate you and may preclude you from examining your possible racist behavior.

8.BWAME.

“But What About Me. Look how I’ve been hurt, oppressed, exploited…?

REALITY CHECK + CONSEQUENCE:

This diminishes the experience of people of color by telling our own story of hardship. We lose an opportunity to learn more about the experience of racism from a person of color, while we minimize their experience by trying to make it comparable or less painful than ours.

9. We Have Overcome.

“We dealt with racism in the 60s with all the marches, sit-ins and speeches by Dr. King. Laws have been changed. Segregation and lynching are ended. We have some details to work out but real racism is pretty much a thing of the past.”

REALITY CHECK + CONSEQUENCE:

The absence of legalized, enforced segregation does not equal the end of racism. This denial of contemporary racism, based on inaccurate assessment of both history and current society, romanticizes the past and diminishes today’s reality.

10. The End Run, Escapism.

“Of course, racism is terrible, but what about sexism? Or classism or heterosexism?” or “Racism is a result of classism (or any other oppression), so if we just work on that, racism will end, too.”

REALITY CHECK + CONSEQUENCE:

I agree with Audre Lorde’s statement, “There is no hierarchy of oppression.” I would not establish a rank order for oppressions.At the same time, we cannot attempt to evade recognition andresponsibility for any form of oppression. Statements like the ones above divert attention from racial injustice to focus on some other form of oppression. They are usually said by white people, (women, working class people, lesbians, gay men or others) who experience both white privilege and oppression in some form. Whites are more willing and more comfortable decrying our oppression than scrutinizing our privilege. Oppressions are so inextricably linked that if whites allow their fear, guilt and denial to constantly divert them from confronting racism, even while we work to dismantle other forms, no oppression will ever be dismantled.

 

11. Due Process.

“Lady Justice is color blind.” White parents who tell their children, “The police are here to protect you. If they ever stop you, just be polite and tell the truth.” Then when a black teen is beaten or killed by police, those same parents say, “He must have been doing something wrong, to provoke that kind of police response.”

REALITY CHECK + CONSEQUENCE:

White people’s belief that the police, courts, the legal system and social services work without bias; that due process, fair trials, juries, judges, police officers and case workers have everyone’s, including people of color, best interest at heart. Or at least, no less than they do for white people. This belief clouds reality. Whites tend to look at isolated incidents rather than the patterns of institutionalized oppression.

12. The Innocent by Association.

“I’m not racist, because… I have Vietnamese friends, or my lover is black or I marched with Dr. King.”

REALITY CHECK + CONSEQUENCE:

(Perhaps, if all white people who say they marched with Dr. King actually had, the current situation would look different!) This detour into denial wrongly equates personal interactions with people of color, no matter how intimate they may be, with anti-racism. There is an assumption that our personal associations free us magically from our racist conditioning.

13.The Penitent.

“I am so sorry for the way whites have treated your people.” Or “I am sorry for the terrible things that white man just said to you.”

 

REALITY CHECK + CONSEQUENCE:

While there is probably no harm in the “sorry,” if it is not attached to some action taken against racism, it is most often just another expression of white guilt. Being an ally to people of color is not limited to an apology for other white people’s behavior, it must include anti-racist action.

14.The Whitewash.

He’s really a very nice guy, he’s just had some bad experiences with Koreans.” Or “That’s just the way Uncle Adolf jokes. He’s very polite to the black janitor in his building. 

 

REALITY CHECK + CONSEQUENCE:

We’re trapped by another version of white guilt response. Whites attempt to excuse, defend or cover up racist actions of other white people. White people are particularly prone to this if the other person is close, family or friend, and if we feel their actions reflect on us.

Community Anti-Racism Education Initiative (CARE)

Prof. Leigh will be happy to answer any questions DLLeigh@stcloudstate.edu

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