I recently read the article on FiveThirtyEight by Hakeem Jefferson and Koji Takahashi titled How The Politics Of White Liberals And White Conservatives Are Shaped By Whiteness. According to the article, and everything else in recent years on the topic of racism and ‘whiteness’, what I have to say will be motivated only by my racism, but hey, I thought I’d take a wack at it, anyway.
I am of the deeply unpopular opinion that there is a place between the two extreme views of the right and left as concerns racism and so-called ‘whiteness.’ That middle ground, which I believe to be correct, is that racism and privilege exist, but that they are not the only factors involved in the empirically verified racial disparities in U.S. society. In our day-to-day lives, the assumptions people hold about different races flavor our interactions with people based on their race, and some of those assumptions will, on average, benefit some races while being detrimental to others.
The Martin Luther King Jr. styled color blindness (judging not by the color of a person’s skin, but by the content of their character) was an attempt to overcome these assumptions. A world where, if you meet someone you have never met before, you do not bring assumptions (i.e. prejudices) about them, based on their race, to the interaction. You bring a respect that all humans are deserving of while first taking a measure of their character before deciding whether or not the person is deserving of continued respect.
I am of the opinion that, due to human nature itself, such a colorblind society will forever remain unachievable by humanity. However, I still think that this, or something like this, is a laudable goal and still worthy of our efforts. There is a problem on the modern political left that anything less than perfection is unacceptable, which is why the old-school liberal version of colorblindness has been jettisoned in favor of grievance politics. Perfection has become the enemy of progress.
The FiveThirtyEight article notes:
And when white Americans feel that their whiteness is negatively associated with privilege, research demonstrates that how they react is particularly complex. As psychologist Eric Knowles and colleagues write, there are at least three possible ways that white Americans react to associations between whiteness and privilege: 1) They can deny inequality exists; 2) they can distance themselves from their whiteness; or 3) they can work to dismantle the systems that sustain white privilege in the first place (although this strategy, the authors note, is likely the least preferred strategy for most white Americans).
In other words, you either choose #3 and get on board with the current critical race theory ideology or you are serving to perpetuate (or, at the very least, failing to do your part to dismantle) systemic racism. I am not denying that choices 1 & 2 aren’t defense mechanisms employed by white people (an people in general, since we all do mental gymnastics to attempt to think of ourselves as good people).
I think that right wing belief in #1 is as delusional as the left wing denial that so-called ‘cancel culture’ exists (though to what extent can be debated). However, #2, while undoubtedly a defense mechanism, cannot be discounted out of hand. At least insofar as we can attempt to separate individuals from their abstractions (i.e. their race, gender, etc.) and view them through the lens of their own circumstance. In other words, judge them on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.
This is not to say that race (and other abstractions) play no part in a person’s character. But is it the most important part? Do we want to make it into the most important aspect of who people are? Interestingly – and this was the passage in the article that actually prompted this post – the paragraph directly preceding the one I quoted above had this to day:
In fact, studies found that concerns about being seen as racist lead many white people to avoid situations where they may say or do anything that could be construed as racist, including having conversations with Black people. Psychologists Samuel Gaertner and John Dovidio call this “aversive racism,” or a form of racial discrimination rooted in avoidance. They find this practice more common among white liberals, who tend to be more motivated to protect their self-image as egalitarian.
I can’t help but wonder if the increasing emphasis on people’s race is the culprit behind this so-called ‘aversive racism.’ Humans, as I said, go through great pains to paint themselves as good people. I might even go so far as to say that, in order to even fully function as a person, then we must bias in favor of ourselves in at least small ways. The opposite of biasing in favor of ourselves, in order to think of ourselves as mostly good, is depression, something I am intimately familiar with.
The problem, then, is that when a person is told that they are bad, they will use defense mechanisms (i.e. like 1 & 2 from the previous quote) to continue viewing themselves in a good light. If a person is told they’re bad because of how they treat others based on race, what better defense mechanism than to avoid interacting with people of that race altogether? If they avoid certain interactions, then their self-image as being a good person never has to be called into question.
It reminds me of something I read (I think it might have been in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink”, but feel free to correct me if I am wrong) about how, if black students are told that black people are not good at math, they will do worse on a math test than the black students who are not told this. Likewise, if a person is told that they are destined to behave in a racist manner when interacting with people of other races, will that not become a self-fulfilling prophecy? And in order to avoid fulfilling that prophecy, and to continue thinking of oneself as a good person, will someone not be inclined to avoid the interaction?
My question, then, is how much the overwhelming emphasis on race is helping or hurting the cause of reducing racism within society. For instance, does the focus on certain aspects of racism detract from bigger issues (e.g. is the focus on insensitive Twitter posts and whether corporations hire enough black people detract from bigger issues that affect everything else, like the war on drugs?)
I do think there is definite good to be gained from examining the attitudes of white people and interrogating race as a component in societal trends and disparities. But what good comes from critical race theory, where, due only to a person’s race, some people are irredeemably bad while others are blameless for any of their actions (because their actions are always to be interpreted as the result of systemic racism working against them)? Can there be some middle ground, where a person’s race as a component of their overall character is weighted proportionate to how much it ought to matter in an optimally functioning society? Is there a needle we can thread where such issues are openly and honestly discussed without seeking refuge in defense mechanisms and grievance politics?
I’m a pessimist in the broadest sense of the term, and so I don’t predict that good faith rational discourse will win the day. It is almost ironic that the thing that links all of humanity together – our human nature – is the impetus of our disintegration.