For most Whites, racism’s an individual thing. For most Whites, Racism must be obvious. For most Whites, racial bias can only be a deliberate choice. For most Whites, racism’s not infused in the fabric of American culture, or baked into America’s institutions, or infused in its very political and economic structure. Of course, these “most Whites” are just plain wrong. What scares them on this issue — maybe even more than actually using the words “race” or “racism” — is the possibility that though racism is learned, that it also isn’t a decision. It’s an assumption, or really, many layers of assumptions. Of “rights.” Of entitlement. Of privilege. Of being special. Of being colorblind. Of folks knowing their place, and they as Whites knowing where to place these folks.
As I wrote in another social media context last week, part of the insidious nature of Whiteness — aside from its ability to morph over time — are the issues of symbolism and context. Racism for most is obvious and relies heavily on the most obvious of symbols, like in the case of hooded KKK members burning crosses, or in Donald Sterling‘s case, an elderly rich White guy whose Archie Bunker paternalism can be seen from space.
These incidents are the tip of the proverbial iceberg of race and racism in the US because most people of color exist outside the context that comes with Whiteness. For walking in Whiteness without any acknowledgement of one’s privilege — but with tons of assumptions of privilege — is the psychological and social equivalent of breathing and walking at the same time — one only thinks about it when forced to. If those Black and Brown are on TV in orange jump suits, it fits the narrative and context of Whiteness. If someone like me is a college professor in a predominantly White classroom, however, the context doesn’t fit the Whiteness playbook, and with that systems error, many of my White students manifest so many racial assumptions.
These out-of-context scenarios occur on individual and institutional scales. Like having White co-workers only recognize me in the context of being at work and at a desk, but being scared upon seeing me board an elevator with them five minutes after the end of a work day. Or in spotting me searching for something at a store, only to ask me to help them find something for them, assuming that I work there. Or in assuming that in the context of sports and entertainment, anyone Black or Brown with an IQ higher than 100 with verbal skills is “angry,” or is “too cerebral” to be successful, or has “an attitude problem.”
Then there’s the assumption that no matter one’s grades, test scores or degrees, that wee folk of color achieved all we have because of affirmative action, the symbol of so-called reverse racism in the US (talk about the narcissism and master-race assumptions of intelligence embedded in this line of reasoning!). For most of the history of Whiteness and racism in American history, this was an infrequent prospect. These days, these microaggressions and racist behaviors occur almost every moment of every day. Precisely because there are so many successful Black and Brown folks, at least in the semi-conscious mind of Whites in the midst of their own Whiteness. This despite the reality that these successful Black and Brown folks are only symbols of the very success that has eluded a broad majority of those of color.
But the context here will rarely be obvious to those awash in Whiteness. Structural inequality and racism, institutional racism, even internalized racism — all confirm the world that most operating in Whiteness can see, precisely because this world is the one in which they are comfortable and virtually unchallenged. Challenging the very structures and institutions upon which Whiteness has been built is like trying to metaphorically deconstruct The Matrix. Most living in Whiteness don’t want to wake up, For waking up would obliterate their world, their very understanding of their existence. And that’s too high a price for recognizing racism and inequality, and their own inadvertent hand in both.