White Privilege: Aversive Racism And The Nature of Denial

“I am not a racist…I am a church going guy.”

My Dear Readers,

There are times when we take actions that may be harmful or traumatic to others, even though it is beneficial to ourselves. Racial matters often fall into this category.

Aversive racism—a form of racism where an individual denies racist intent, but still acts in ways that are racist—is especially insidious and harmful to the individuals who are impacted. Because of the overt denial of racist intent, the target person who appraises the behavior as racist may then be labeled as over-reactive or paranoid in the shared interpersonal environment, leading to further marginalization.

In recent writings, I have explored the concept and impact of male privilege, but in this writing, I want to explore the concept of white privilege and its impact on the privileged person as well as the victims of that privilege.

White privilege can be defined as a special right, advantage or immunity granted or available only to individuals as a race due to the perception of institutional power in relation to individuals of a different race or ethnic group. Similar to male privilege, where every man, by virtue of being male, benefits from male privilege, the same can be said about white privilege.  Every person who is white experiences privilege differently due to his/her own individual position in the social hierarchy, but every person by virtue of being white benefits from white privilege in some way, shape, or form.

The common theme in aversive racism is the denial of racist intent.  In the psychological realm of interpersonal relationships, however, we must not only consider the intent, but we must also remain mindful of its impact on society.

Below is such a story…..

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Dear Visible Man,

A friend of mine who reads your blog  suggested that I write to you regarding something that happened to me recently, so here I am.  A few days ago, while talking with my friends, I asked the new guy, who is black, a few questions about race.  I was surprised that he got upset and filed a complaint against me.

This resulted in a hearing where I was labeled as a racist.  That’s not fair—I was only asking questions.  He is light skinned, nearly white, and I asked him how he got along with the dark-skinned blacks.

Although I say the N word from time to time, I did not call him a nigger.  I merely asked him why he and his people could use the N word, yet if whites use it, they are called racist.

Instead of answering my question, he got quiet, got up, and left the room.  He didn’t say anything, but the other guys in the room and I could tell he was angry.

Next thing I know, he has snitched on me to human resources, and I had to attend a hearing with him.

I do not understand why he was so angry or even if he was, why he didn’t speak to me directly.  Like I said, I was only asking questions.  I don’t come in contact with any black people regularly, and he is the only black guy at work.

He seemed to be an okay person, so I felt it was okay to ask him racial questions. If he didn’t want to answer, then he should have just let it go instead of being a snitch.

As a result, I have to take a racial sensitivity class and there is a stigma being placed on me.  I hope he is happy now.  Because of him, the atmosphere at work is really cold and not as relaxed as it was before.  People don’t talk to him out of fear he is going to file a complaint.

I only want to find out more about him and his race.  I feel that if it is okay for blacks to use the word nigger, then it should be okay for us white people to do the same.  I feel that our freedom of speech is being taken away from us while black people are being treated special.

He’s cooked his own goose, if you ask me.  He gets all the jobs that we don’t want to do.  I hope he gets the message that what he did to me was not cool.  We let him in and accepted him as one of us and in return, he acted like a bitch by snitching.

I am angry that I have to attend a race sensitivity class. I don’t understand why black people get so angry and over small issues like race.  I am hoping that he will read this and realize he isn’t wanted here and quit.

I am not a racist.  I am a church going guy.  I should not be penalized for asking questions. Hell, I bet you don’t even have the balls to post this.

Really Pissed Off, Grays Harbor County, WA

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Dear Privileged,

I begin my writing by addressing you as privileged due to your callous attitude towards this issue, which is a sensitive and uncomfortable subject to many people, not just African-Americans, given the nature of the historic interactions (including, but not limited to, slavery and segregation) between races in the United States.

In your letter, you state that you were merely asking questions to enhance your understanding of African-Americans, but the tone of your letter implies that you have another agenda.

It feels like you are using sexually offensive language (“he’s acting like a bitch”) and challenging me as to whether I “have the balls to print this” in an attempt to gain an reaction.  So, I will provide a response that I hope will be educational.  As I stated earlier, race is a sensitive subject and uncomfortable subject for many.  In my practice, I seek to create a secure and safe venue to engage in such discussion, and this is no different.  In doing this, I hope to educate you and others whom may face the same issues.

You may be a “church-going guy,” but neither that, nor your intentions exclude you from expressing inappropriate comments, which can reveal your racist tendencies.

Consider this:

  • Having no prior personal relationship or rapport with the “new guy,” why would you ask him questions that are personal in nature?
  • What was your purpose in asking him questions about “getting along with dark skinned black people”?
  • Why would you ask these questions during a group discussion and not during a one to one interaction?

Your questions may, on their face, be harmless, but in that work environment, in a group situation, and without taking the time to develop a personal relationship with that man, asking such questions may not only have created a very uncomfortable environment for him, but may also have been humiliating for him.  After all, when did he become the spokesperson for all black people?

It is clear that you were upset that he filed a formal complaint about the incident instead of speaking to you.  You said:

“If he was angry, he should have acted like a man and spoken to me directly.”

You pointed out yourself that he became silent and left the room.  There is no “if” about how this interaction made him feel; you and the other men knew he was angry.  Consider the following:

  • None of you followed up with him or checked on him after the incident.
  • He was the new guy in the organization. What was he supposed to do?

His choices were clear and simple; either he accept the insulting behavior and humiliation, which would leave him open to more incidents, or he could file a complaint, which would create a boundary indicating the limits of what is or is not acceptable behavior.  In doing so, the offending behavior has been duly noted and has ceased.

You said that prior to him filing the complaint, you thought he was an “okay guy.”  Now, he’s a “bitch” for “snitching” on you.  Understanding that the term bitch and snitch have negative meanings, consider the following:

  • His coworkers now view him negatively because he advocated for himself.
  • If he didn’t advocate for himself, he may view himself negatively.

Given the choice of viewing himself negatively or worrying about how you view him, he chose to advocate for himself and risk the displeasure of his coworkers.  Given the outcome, he chose the path that was most beneficial for himself.

There are always consequences for our actions.  Consequences are merely responses to the actions taken.  However, in this situation, you feel that he has “cooked his own goose”. So now, the person who was victimized by your actions is now being:

  • Given the silent treatment by his coworkers,
  • Blamed for creating an uncomfortable work environment,
  • Forced to handle the tasks and assignments that the other coworkers don’t want, and,
  • Is being subjected to passive-aggressive behaviors by your coworkers to force him to resign from his job.

In essence, the black worker is now being blamed for your actions. You and the coworkers who are acting in support of you are victimizing him once again.

Your initial actions created trauma for this man whose only action was to come to work.  Now, he is at risk at being traumatized again.  This form of trauma is known as “insidious trauma”.

Insidious trauma arises when there is an accumulation of negative experiences affecting members of a stigmatized group.  Racism is considered to be a form of insidious trauma because it constantly denigrates the value of the intelligence, skills and capabilities, and the very lives of the people who suffer from its effects.

Concluding Words

Why are black people angry? We are reminded every day that due to the color of our skin that we will always have to engage in emotional and psychological warfare.

When will this insidious trauma end?  Never.  It will not end because you and people like you are unwilling to accept responsibility for your actions and behaviors.  As a result, your unwillingness to do so reinforces resentment and racial hatred towards the person you have targeted.

The claim of innocence and desire of protection for freedom of speech so that whites can be allowed to use the word nigger is preposterous.

It is a reality that the N word is an imprint of pain and sorrow, even for those who utilize the word in order to be “cool”.  To do so in ignorance or without concern only serves to add to the invisibility of the history and suffering that African-Americans and other races have endured.

It is a tragedy that anyone who understands what African-Americans have gone through would want to stand under the Constitution and defend the right to use this very heinous and destructive word.  No good can ever be made of it or come from it.

African-Americans share a common experience.  We understand the pain and suffering of slavery and segregation.  We also engage in destructive behaviors such as using the N word.  The use of word is traumatic regardless of who uses it and the purpose they use it.

We can agree on one issue, however: forcing you to attend a racial sensitivity class is unreasonable. Knowledge can only benefit those who seek such information.  It cannot be forced upon the ignorant.  It is clear that you choose not to advance.  It is regrettable that you will no doubt continue to allow your racial hatred to consume you.

A wise person learns from his/her mistakes, makes corrections and finds the right path; the foolish one will continue without direction, never finding the road even when it is in front of his/her face.

-Ten Flashes of Light for the Journey of Life

The Visible Man

 

 

 

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