The Sensitivity of White People and the Problem of Race in America

A recent post on this site, Why Are White People So Touchy about Being Called Racist?, touched off a debate that basically served to support my general thesis that white people are, in fact, pretty damn touchy about being accused of racism. Among the responses was this one: “come on Nakagawa, you know Japanese people are just as touchy.”

I’m not going to say that this is not a potentially true point. However, I never said Japanese people or any other people aren’t touchy about being called racist. I just said white people are touchy, a point that the cognitive leap it took to throw Japanese people at me actually punctuates quite nicely.

And there were those who listed off atrocious examples of intolerance of Asian countries, basically making a two-wrongs-make-whites-right argument. That one gets thrown at me all the time, especially references to the horrible behavior of the Japanese in the Pacific War. Rarely am I asked to consider the atrocities committed by the English against the Indians, or of the Spanish against the Mayans, or even of the Hutu against the Tutsi of Rwanda. Nope. Just Asian atrocities like my phenotype dictates that I must relate to nations entirely foreign to me.

For instance, I don’t speak Japanese and have never been to Japan. Neither are my parents from Japan, though they identify very strongly as Japanese American. My racial story, however, is more complicated. I dealt with those complications by identifying as “local,” which in Hawai’i means a locally born person of color, rather than by the ethnicity of my mother. In other words, rather than assuming a specifically racial identity, I grew up in an identity rooted in how I was positioned politically and geographically.

But, I get that lots of people think of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners, somehow attached to countries we have often never visited and owe nothing to in the way of loyalty. It’s the kind of thinking that led to the mass incarceration of over two-hundred thousand innocent Japanese Americans during WWII, not to mention to the Islamophobia being directed against South Asians in the U.S. today.

But, there’s more. Japanese fascism and hyper-nationalism aren’t the same as American white supremacy. I’m not saying Japan wasn’t or isn’t just as brutal or immoral. I’m saying the brutality of the Japanese was/is supported by a different ideology and set of institutions. Mixing up Japanese hyper-nationalism (or Hutu ethnic hatred or Spanish colonialism for that matter) and American racism mashes wrongs together in a way that makes it next to impossible to address their divergent political, economic, and social bases, and their different legacies of suffering and inequality. We don’t need criticism for the sake of criticizing. What’s required is criticism for the sake of finding solutions.

In this country, my country, Asian Americans have been given certain racial privileges conditioned on our playing along with the model minority myth. The pay off to racists for conferring this privilege is that they get to cite the myth, which says that Asians rose to success without benefit of government assistance, as evidence that there are black and brown “problem minorities” who deserve their poverty and political disadvantages, a point I’ve made through this blog before.

That’s why I focus on American racism. I suffer and benefit from the racist history of this country, and it is in this country that I can do something to make a difference. It is here that I have a debt to repay to those who suffer for my benefit, and here that I have a compelling personal interest in ending racism because my American nationality means I have a stake in American democracy.

But, the most frequent defensive response by white people is one we all know. It’s the idea that everybody is equally racist and equally to blame for racism. But that’s just not true.

Even racist name calling is affected by history and current day inequalities. Terms like “chink,” “gook,” “nip,” and the n-word are meant to humiliate people by reminding them of their status as inferiors in a white dominated racial hierarchy. On the other hand, “cracker” refers to the sound of the whip of white bosses. “Honky” comes from a time when white men drove into the red light districts of black neighborhoods to solicit prostitutes by honking their horns. These words are expressions of resentment toward the extraordinary power whites once had over people of color.

Anyway, I refuse to accept that middle class white people who’ve inherited wealth their families accumulated with the help of racially exclusive government programs like the GI Bill deserve that privilege if it means accepting that people of color who inherit the poverty of parents who were excluded from those programs deserve to be impoverished. But that’s what this suggestion that everyone is equally to blame for racism suggests. All racial intolerance may be wrong, but they don’t all result in the same degree of damage.

And that brings me to why I wrote about white people’s touchiness about racism in the first place. The reason I singled out white people is not because I believe they’re alone in their touchiness or that being touchy makes them more morally deficient than anyone else. I wrote about it because white people’s touchiness is a political problem. It blocks the kind of dialogue that is necessary to address structural racial inequity.

Of course, to buy that, you have to accept that racial inequity still exists. If you do, the first step toward being part of the solution is to let go of all that touchiness. If you don’t believe that or don’t care, you’re reading the wrong blog.






Avatar photo

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

9 replies on “The Sensitivity of White People and the Problem of Race in America”

My primary issue with discussions of racism in the US is that the vast majority do little to undermine the racialism that exists in the US. Campaigns for “racial equality” and against “racial inequity” reaffirm the false race ideology that is at the root of US racism and racialism. The absolute fallacy of the US race construct seems taboo for racists and egalitarian activists alike. We’ll never be rid of racism and all the other nasty consequences of US race ideology until we abandon race ideology entirely.

“Terms like “chink,” “gook,” “nip,” and the n-word are meant to humiliate”

So, why is nigger, so much worse than chink, gook or nip? What has you so afraid of using it but not of the other obviously racist words you were perfectly okay with typing out?

@Riannon True that discussing and understanding racial conceptions will help in reducing the xenophobia that is rampant in the U.S.

However, we can believe that people are different and respect their differences instead of dehumanizing them.

The book “The Nature of Race” by Ann Morning researches race as a social construct vs race as biological. There is also a great video on YouTube of her being interviewed which I highly recommend. The video is “The Nature of Race: How Scientists Think and Teach About Being Different”

For ongoing discussions on racial concepts check “Critical Mixed Race Studies” on Facebook.
For academic info check the blog MixedRaceStudies . org

@wes I think he said those one and not the n-word because these are derogatory terms that refer to Asian culture. They are all bad he’s just showing respect to not use a word commonly used to describe a culture that is not his own.

@Wes I too noticed the curious use “n-word” as opposed to using “nigger” in the essay. I have always found “n-word” to be unnecessarily polite. In context “nigger” is the appropriate word.

I will say that the terms “racist” and “racism” have been all but divorced from the asymmetries of power they are meant to connote. All of us are prejudicial and can be discriminatory, but to be racist means to have attitudes that are supported by institutions, laws, and practices that disempower groups of people.

Scott: Much of what you have written is unarguable and, having an adopted son of Asian descent, I know from personal experience the truth of your contentions regarding “the model minority,” etc. Son, (who is also gay and so has had all that sort of prejudice to contend with as well) though only in his mid-20s, is already brilliantly successful in his chosen profession, and is exceptionally good looking as well and possessed of a truly charming personality (I know, I’m biased but really – he is all that!). None the less he has often encountered a sort of unthinking prejudice even within the LGBT community (“You’re cute and all but I don’t usually date Asian guys”) which is really sad – to find prejudice within a community that has itself suffered so much from the prejudice of others (Don’t worry about him though – he has a really great BF now. I totally approve!)
However, I must again take issue with your habit of generalizing about all white people, as if every single one of us has the same set of prejudices and beliefs. I don’t deny I inherited many advantages along with the family china and silver. While of course down through many generations there has been an underlying, basic advantage in just being white, none of these stem from a specific racial entitlement. No one in my family fought in WWII so the GI Bill doesn’t come into play. No one in my family ever owned slaves or did business with anyone who did. My family has always believed in racial equality and acted upon that belief and conducted themselves accordingly – and when I say “always,” I’m going back a long, long way. Of course it is a basic human imperative to get the best advantages for one’s children that one can. “Legacy” policies helped me get into the college of my choice, for example and I do not deny that was an inherited advantage. I pulled much the same card in helping the above mentioned son get into the university of his choice for graduate work, in that we used his membership in both the gay and Asian minorities to advantage. It wasn’t the deciding factor but certainly, it helped. When it comes to one’s own kids, a person of any ethnicity is always going to take any possible advantage for them and further, I would say being a parent obligates one to do so. Inevitably this will perpetuate some racial advantages and unfairness but that doesn’t mean the motivation is in and of itself racist. To say that a parent should forgo possible advantages for a child is unrealistic and possibly immoral, considering the responsibilities of parenthood. Among the signal advantages I personally inherited was a tradition of learning and scholarship going back many generations – one that I have, to the best of my ability, passed on to the young people in my life. This tradition gave me a great advantage over those raised in a condition of poverty and ignorance. Would it have been more moral for my parents to have said “this is an unfair advantage, therefore, no books for the child. Punish him if he reads.”? Leveling the playing field to the lowest common denominator is not necessarily either a moral or a possible solution.
Finally, I would take issue with your lumping of the behavior of the British Raj in India with other examples of atrocities. Within the framework of the imperialist philosophy of the 19th Century, British rule in India was, overall, a model of responsible government and positive accomplishment. Yes, there were exceptions – notably the infamous Amritsar massacre. However, it should be kept in mind that Amritsar was NOT a result of official policy/philosophy, as were the atrocities you otherwise mentioned. It was the consequence of one truly wretched and evil officer – General Dyer – who was subsequently relieved of his command and ordered to resign fro[m the army (he should, of course, have been hung for murder. That aspect of it was very much a “Zimmerman” sort of thing) Further, the incident caused huge outrage in India and at home in England as well as significant support for Dyer, thus demonstrating that sort of behavior was far from universally sanctioned. The support, at least as far as the written record has come down to us, was based on political considerations (save the Empire, etc) rather than on some notion that Indians could be killed with impunity. It is however true that British rule in India was based on a fundamental belief in racial superiority. That can not be denied. I’m just saying let’s keep it accurate.

Do you notice how the white commentator attempted to qualify himself by mentioning that he has an “adopted son of Asian descent” then goes on the lecture Scott? This is so typical of most whites and simply proves that they will never understand that racism is an institutional form of oppression against Asians, blacks, non-white Hispanics and Native Americans.

i disagree with the profiling that all white people are racist to everyone personally i am a white person living in a mostly Hispanic town where i have had to deal with the racist act of people spray painting Nazi on my car because i have blond hair and blue eyes and also sending tons of hate mail and the derogatory terms about white people i cant walk down the streets of my town without being called a cracker or a Nazi

Comments are closed.