I’ve often pondered the question, why are white people so touchy about being called out for racism?
I know some of you will say that racism is much more than the hurtful prejudice of a marginal few. Agreed. Racism is also inherited structural and political inequity by race resulting in persistent poverty, health disparities, and deficits of opportunity in communities of color. And as with all kinds of oppression, racism is ultimately kept in place by violence and the threat of violence (think in terms of lynchings, cross-burnings, KKK raids, etc. throughout our history). Simple prejudice seems pretty minor by comparison.
However, the powerful effect of white people’s touchiness on this subject should not to be underestimated. In fact, I think it goes hand in hand with the threat of violence in perpetuating racism.
For instance, racial inequality nowadays relies more heavily on the intimidation and violence of the war on drugs and immigration enforcement than on the terrorism of vigilante groups. But, racist immigration and drug enforcement policies are founded on the widespread popularity of racial stereotypes that falsely criminalize black men as the source of the illegal drug problem in the U.S., and immigrants of color as drains on our economy. In other words, ordinary prejudice is as much a part of the oppressive equation for communities of color as violence and intimidation, and the fact that these ordinary forms of prejudice are expressed through major public institutions is possible because we deny that these stereotypes are grounded in prejudice at all.
We need to marginalize ordinary racist stereotypes and behavior, and this starts with calling racism out, even when those guilty of it get touchy because they are unable to recognize their acts as racist.
But, why so touchy?
At the risk of sparking a sh*t storm, here are a couple of proposals.
First, I think white people get bent out of shape by the label racist because being able to wield it means that, at least culturally speaking, people of color have power we haven’t traditionally had, specifically because of racism.
For generations even looking at a white person in the wrong way could get a person of color fired, harassed, terrorized or even lynched. Going as far as lodging an accusation of any kind against a white person could spark a race riot.
But socially conscious people of all races fought and even died in order to end the white cultural, economic, and political supremacy that led to this kind of intimidation and violence. Today, the degree to which we are empowered to speak out against racism is a measure of the erosion of unjust white power and privilege that was achieved through these historic efforts. When white people react defensively to people of color involved in the audacious act of calling them out for racism, they are, albeit usually unconsciously, struggling to reconcile themselves with lost white privilege.
That’s my first theory. Here’s the second.
Before the fall of Jim Crow, ordinary interpersonal racism was so commonplace that in order to organize against it, racial justice advocates needed another foil. Racism’s terrorist wing: people threatening students integrating Little Rock Central High School, segregationist governors wielding state troopers like clubs, and men like Bull Connor became that foil.
I mention Bull Conner by name because the way civil rights activists used his outrageous racism exemplifies this strategy. As the Commissioner of Public Safety for the city of Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, Connor turned attack dogs and fire hoses on children peacefully protesting for civil rights, inadvertently making himself into an international symbol of American racism. This display of naked hatred polarized white people, with many taking the side of civil rights activists in spite of harboring the kind of ordinary racial prejudices that create the climate in which vigilante racists derive their power.
Today, when we call out racism, powerful symbols of opposition to racial equality like Bull Connor are invoked. Ordinary racists contrast the everyday prejudice that was, out of necessity, let off the hook in the black struggle for civil rights, against horrific, Bull Connor-style racism. Then, for lack of a better term, they freak out.
That’s why I think white people are so touchy. It’s why begging to be understood as “good” and exaggerating the harm done to them by the accusation are so often part of the ritual of denial. They’re, more often than not, genuinely good people stuck in the belief that racists are exotic monsters, who are nonetheless resentful of conceding the privilege of being able to control the public consensus on race to begin with.