Updated: July 24, 2013

Due to the recent controversy involving former Food Network Paula Deen and the tragic death of Trayvon Martin, we, at, felt we should print this excellent piece in order to provide a little clarity as the country begins to discuss racism in America.

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.

15. Not Here in Lake Wobegon.

“We don’t have a racism problem here at this (school, organization, community).” or “We didn’t have a racism problem in this town until that Mexican family moved here.”


As white people, we do not have to think about racism when our school, organization or community is all white. Racism does not usually become apparent TO WHITES until there are people of color in their frame of reference.

16. I Was An Indian In a Former Life.

“After that sweat lodge I really know what it feels like to be an Indian. I have found my true spiritual path.”


This is spiritual or cultural appropriation and poses a serious threat to the integrity and survival of native cultures.

To fill a void in their own spiritual core, some white people are drawn into the New Age garden to pick from a variety of native spiritual practices usually offered for sale.

(White writers, such as Lynn Andrews and others, garner high profits from fictitious “Indian” writing and teaching, while many native writers can’t find publishers.)

Since native spiritual practice is inseparable from history and current community, it cannot be disconnected from that context to service white people searching for life’s meaning.

Appropriating selected parts of native cultures romanticizes the lives of native peoples while denying their struggles. Their land and livelihoods stolen, indigenous peoples now see white people trying to steal their spirituality. Rather than escape one’s white racism by finding a spiritual path, whites instead collude in one more way with the genocidal attacks on native cultures.

17.Straightening Up or Boys Will be Boys.

The white heterosexual who says, “We can’t talk about AIDS or homophobia because we’re trying to work in coalition with a Latino group.”

White organizations in which women are unheard, disrespected or prevented from assuming leadership.

“We’ll deal with any gender inequities or sexism after we solidify this coalition with the NAACP.”


When white people with privilege in some other aspect of their life (gender, sexual orientation, lack of disability, class, etc.) use their focus on racism as an excuse to not challenge and therefore perpetuate other forms of oppression, the consequence is a disingenuous and unsustainable commitment to justice.

18.The Isolationist

“I thought we resolved this issue (racism) when it came up on the board last year.” Or “We need to deal with this specific incident. Let’s not complicate it by bringing other irrelevant issues into it.” Or “This only happened today because the TV news last night showed police beating that black kid.”


Attempts are made to isolate a particular incident of racism from the larger context. We blame a publicized incident of racism outside our organization to rationalize an internal incident and to avoid facing the reality of racism within.

When trying to resolve an accusation of racism within an institution, whites often see the incident in a vacuum, or as an aberration, in isolation from an historic pattern of racism in this institution and nation.

Racism has been institutionalized so that every “incident” is another symptom of the pattern. When whites continue to react incident to incident, crisis to crisis, as though they are unconnected, we will find genuine resolution only further from our reach.

19.Bending Over Backwards.

“Of course, I agree with you.” (Said to a person of color even when I disagree) or “I have to side with Jerome on this.” (Even when Jerome, a man of color, represents opinions counter to mine.)


Your white guilt shows up here as you defer to people of color.

The person of color is always right, or you never criticize or challenge a person of color. You try not to notice that you notice they are black or native American or Latina or Asian.

You don’t disagree, challenge or question a person of color the way we would a white person. And if you do disagree, you don’t do it with the same conviction or passion that you would display with a white person. Your racism plays out as a different standard for people of color than for white people. If this is your pattern, you can never have a genuine relationship with a person of color. People of color know when you are doing this. Your sincerity, commitment and courage will be rightly questioned. You cannot grow to a deeper level of trust and intimacy with people of color you treat this way.

20.Teach Me or Help Me; I’m Stuck.

I want to stop acting like a racist, so please tell me when I do something you think is racist.


While it is vitally important for white anti-racists to work with other white people, this detour again results in white people controlling the direction and focus of anti-racist work. White people will get stuck. They will get frustrated and impatient with themselves and other white people in this struggle. You’ll stay stuck if you don’t seek help from other white anti-racists.

Your inclination in the past has been to ask people of color to help you. You should seek out other white people BEFORE you go to people of color. Perhaps, as you become more trustworthy as allies, you will build genuine relationships with a few people of color who offer their reflections when you get stuck. But this is at their discretion, not yours. You can’t assume or act as though people of color should be so grateful for your attempts at anti-racism, that they will be willing to guide you whenever you are ready to be guided.

21.White on White, and Righteously So.

“What is wrong with those white people? Can’t they see how racist they’re being?” or “I just can’t stand to be around white people who act so racist anymore.” “You’re preaching to the choir” “You’re wasting your time with us; we’re not the people who need this training.”


You distance yourself from “other” white people. You see only unapologetic bigots, card-carrying white supremacists and white people outside your own circle as “real racists.” You put other white people down, trash their work or behavior, or otherwise dismiss them. You righteously consider yourselves white people who have evolved beyond our racist conditioning. This is another level of denial. There are no “exceptional white people.” You may have attended many anti-racism workshops; you may not be shouting racist epithets or actively discriminating against people of color, but you still experience privilege based on your white skin color. You benefit from this system of oppression and advantage no matter what your intentions are. This distancing serves only to divide you from potential allies and limit your own learning.

22. Smoke and Mirrors.

You use the current PC language; you listen to the right music; we state the liberal line; you’re seen at the right meetings with the right people. You even interrupt racist remarks when the right people are watching and when there is no risk to us. You look like an anti-racist.


This is the “Avon Ally,” the cosmetic approach. People of color and other white anti-racists see through this pretense quickly. This pseudo-anti-racist posturing only serves to collude with racism and weakens the credibility of sincere white anti-racists.

23. I Have To Do My Personal Work.

“I have to do my personal work first.” Or “Ending racism is only about changing personal attitudes.”


If you assume that personal reflection and interpersonal work are the end of your job as an anti-racist, you would stay out of the public, institutional arenas. You would ignore cultural racist practices that don’t include whites personally. Whites wouldn’t take action, until they have finished ridding themselves of all racist conditioning. And since that complete “cure” will never happen, you would never take any institutional or cultural anti-racist action.

24.Whites Only.

I have no connection with or accountability to people of color. I do all my anti-racism with whites only. I am accountable only to other white people.”


While it is vitally important for white anti-racists to work with other white people, this detour results in white people again controlling the direction and focus of anti-racism work.

25.The Accountant.

We keep a tally sheet. If we perform some “feat of anti- racism we expect reciprocity from an individual or group of color, usually with some prestige or power that can serve our interests.


“I scratch your back, you scratch mine” is NOT justice seeking nor ally behavior. It serves only to reduce justice work to some kind of power brokering currency.


We stay silent.


Your silence may be a product of your guilt or fear of making people of color or white people angry with you or disappointed in you. You may be silent because your guilt stops you from disagreeing with people of color. You may be afraid that speaking out could result in losing some of your privilege. You may be silenced by fear of violence. The reasons for our silence are many, but each time we are silent we miss an opportunity to interrupt racism, or to act as an ally or to interact genuinely with people of color or other white people. And no anti-racist action is taken as long as we are silent. (A note about silence: Silence is a complicated matter. There are times when faced with a potential intervention situation that you may choose not to interrupt – for reasons of good sense or strategy. Anti-racists need courage, but taking foolish risks makes little sense. When the choice is between intervening in this moment, alone, or gathering allies to speak out later in a more strategic way, the latter may prove more effective.)

27.The “Certificate of Innocence”

 Sometimes you seek or expect from people of color some public or private recognition and appreciation for your anti-racism. Other times you are looking for a “certificate of innocence” telling you, that you are one of the good white people.


If your ally commitment depends on positive reinforcement from people of color, you set yourself up for sure failure.

The first time a person of color is displeased with your actions, you could respond, “Well, if the very people I’m doing all this for don’t want my help, then why bother?” Clearly, you’re challenging racism for “them,” not for whites. You have not identified your self-interest, as a white person, for fighting racism. Until you do, you will not be able to sustain this lifelong journey.

28.Exhaustion and Despair – Sound and Retreat.

“I’m exhausted. I’m only one person. I can stop and rest for a while.” Or “Racism is so pervasive and entrenched, there just isn’t any hope.”


Despair is a real enemy of anti-racists. If your commitment is a lifelong one, we must find ways to mitigate the effects.

Burn-out or desertion is of no use to the struggle.

We can remember men who jumped on a “Take Back the Night” bandwagon, challenging violence against women – for a while, until the attention on them as good men waned … until the “glamour” of the issue faded.

One of the historical, repeated failures of “liberals” in the social justice movement has been their short-term and inconsistent commitment to the “issue du jour.”

If you quit, for any reason, you are engaging your “default option.”

As white people, you can rest, back off, or take a break from the frustration and despair of anti-racism work.

There will be no significant consequence to you for this retreat. White people will not think less of you. But racism doesn’t allow such a respite for people of color. One of the elemental privileges of being white is your freedom to retreat from the issue of racism. “If things get too tough, I can always take a break.” And your work against racism doesn’t get done.

Each anti-racist action we take brings new racist action and challenges.

People of color will continue to demand their rights, opportunities and full personhood. But racism in the United States won’t end because people of color demand it. Racism will only end when a significant number of white people of conscience, the people who can wield systemic privilege and power with integrity, find the will and take the action to dismantle it.

This won’t happen until white people find racism in their daily consciousness as often as people of color do. For now you have to drag racism into your consciousness intentionally, for, unlike your sisters and brothers of color, the most present daily manifestation of your white privilege is the possibility of forgetting about racism. We cannot.

Part of this essay are printed from Jona Olsson’s article, “Spotting, for Cultural Bridges.” Used with permission of the author

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