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How to handle widespread delusion?

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, May 26, 2011 13:44 EDT
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Joan Walsh has an interesting article at Salon, where she grapples with the surge in white resentment that was recorded in a recent study as white people believing they experience "racism".  In fact, they seem to think white people experience more racism than black people. Joan says it's hard to guess at what's compelling this demonstrably false belief, but starts a thought experiment where maybe there's some rationale for this thinking outside of just being delusional.

Is it possible that some whites might experience more anti-white "racism" now than they did 30 years ago? Well, not if you're trapped in the boundaries of discourse mostly defined in academia, where people of all races can be bigots or prejudiced, but they can only be "racist" if they are a member of the socially, politically and economically dominant group.  But in our kaleidoscopic multiracial society, "racism" is a term that, like it or not, has come to be used by every group, to cover slights ranging from a peer in one group not liking your group, someone consistently disrespecting your group, to actual discrimination in education and employment. The idea that whites can't face racism seems silly: In the San Francisco Bay Area, where we have leaders of every race, whites disproportionately hold political and economic power, although political power is more diffused. But your chances of having a non-white teacher, boss, co-worker, firefighter, beat cop, prosecutor or judge are pretty high. Grievances can be misunderstood as racial; they may in fact be racial.

To start with, I don't think it's really true to say that distinguishing between "prejudice" and "racism" is beyond the scope of people who aren't familiar with academic theorizing on race. I'll use my own white self as an example.  People have made prejudiced—i.e., snap judgments—based on me because of my race, and their prejudices were disconcerting because they aren't true.  But the key here is that those snap judgments are largely positive.  For instance, people tend to assume, in part because I'm white, that I come from a more educated background than I do, instead of the public-high-school-in-West-Texas-born-to-parents-without-college-degrees reality.  This can be irritating, but it's usually to my favor. Everyone experiences prejudice, since snap judgments are basically a cognitive trick the brain uses to sort through the world and it's honestly never going to happen that we get to know every person's soul before we interact with them.  But it's the content of the prejudice that determines if it's racist.  I think most people can get this. In fact, most of us put a lot of effort into managing our image so that people's snap judgments of us align with what we think of ourselves.  In fact, if you read sites like Microaggressions, you'll see that one of the most common forms of everyday racism is for people to overlook all the work you've put into crafting a certain image of yourself and replace that with some gross assumptions. 

So I'm genuinely skeptical that most white people have really experienced the sort of racism that we're talking about here. 

Joan suggests that cultural emphasis on multiculturalism and diversity might be making white people feel left out, and I think some of her thoughts on this are interesting.  It tends to be more true of people who are emotionally demanding, which I think is a trait that's probably more common in this instance amongst white people, as they're accustomed to never being left out.  (For instance, consider how obsessed some white people are with the who and who doesn't get to say the N-word, as it were.)  I think she makes some valid points about some easy fixes to quell this resentment if you're, say, putting together a corporate policy on diversity.  But I'm unclear on how any of these fixes (such as making sure to include white people explicitly in the definition of "diversity" instead of just assuming that everyone gets that) could be applied to the larger body politic, where control is basically not going to happen.

I think part of the problem is that Joan is overly sympathetic to the fear of being left out that some white people are experiencing.  I would argue it's complete paranoia, and I base that in a lifetime of both being white and having grown up in areas where blatant racism is a lot more acceptable than it is in my current social circles. For instance, she writes:

That makes sense to me. As long as I've been writing about the changing demography of California, I've wondered about rhetoric that seems to leave whites out of the future. I've never been a huge fan of the "people of color" umbrella when wielded politically. It can be useful descriptively; it can also provide (false) confidence that "minority" issues can gain "majority" support without whites, as long as African-American lawyers, Cuban teachers, Laotian refugees, Caribbean entrepreneurs, Salvadoran doctors, fourth-generation Chinese real estate moguls, refugees from Mexican drug wars, and third-generation welfare recipients of any non-white race can all stick together in a grand coalition. Good luck with that.

She lives in San Francisco and I do not, so maybe she's experiencing something completely different.  But my feeling isn't that the term "people of color" has ever insinuated this kind of extreme band-together-ness she's talking about, especially when she sympathetically portrays people who've convinced themselves that "diversity" is leaving them out because they're white. The ugly truth of the matter is that white people are still more likely to band together to the exclusion of others.  For instance, look at the statistics on interracial dating, both the instances of and the approval of. Black people and Hispanic people are more likely to approve of interracial dating and to have engaged in interracial dating than white people.  Not by like huge margins, but still significant differences.  

The truth of the matter is that white people crying about "racism" are most likely to be people who believe that their privileges over people of color are deserved and they don't want to share.  It is true that they often go off in to La La Land to rationalize their selfishness by convincing themselves that it's a zero sum game.  It's the same thing as straight people claiming that marriage means less if gay people get to get married.  They're just plain bigoted.  

Roy Edroso recently posted an illuminating set of examples of white people whining about how much "racism" they experience.  It's a good reminder of how completely ridiculous they're being. One example, from a site called Urban Grounds:

That’s because in Black Run America, there are no rules of civility or decency. Only a “gonna get mine” attitude born from generation-after-generation of blacks in America being given handouts after handouts.

There's layers of assholery to unpack there, but what sticks out to me is that he's convinced himself that we're living in "Black Run America".  He's convinced himself that any amount of power held by black people, even if white people still have the majority of it, is too much and signals the end of days or something.  This is what I think this research is picking up when white people claim they're victims of "racism". They have the objectively racist belief that white people deserve all the cookies, and when someone who isn't white gets a cookie, they feel like something that belongs to them has been taken from them.  They are, in other words, deluding themselves.  And I don't know if there's a quick fix for that. 

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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