My teacher-education students also engaged in race talkâreinforcing the boundaries between “us” and “them” while positioning us as superior. They engaged in race talk when they expressed fear about being placed in “dangerous” neighborhoods while describing their hometowns as “sheltered.” These depictions are relentlessly strengthened by news stories that position violent crime committed in primarily white suburban communities as shocking, yet claiming that one has grown up in a sheltered environment raises a question that begs to be answered: “Sheltered from what and in contrast to whom?” If we grow up in environments with few if any people of color, are we not in fact less sheltered from racist conditioning because we have to rely on narrow and repetitive media representations, jokes, omissions, and warnings for our understanding of people of color?
Conversely, positioning white spaces as sheltered and those who are raised in them as racially innocent taps into classic narratives of people of color as
innocent. Racist images and resultant white fears can be found at all levels of society, and myriad studies demonstrate that whites believe that people of color (and blacks in particular) are dangerous.
Whites rarely consider how sheltered and safe their spaces may be from the perspective of people of color (e.g., Trayvon Martin's experience
in a gated white community). Because it reverses the actual direction of racial danger, this narrative may be one of the most pernicious.
When you consider the moral judgment we make about people we deem as racist in our society, the need to deny our own racismâeven to ourselvesâmakes sense. We believe we are superior at a deeply internalized level and act on this belief in the practice of our lives, but we must deny this belief to fit into society and maintain our self-identity as good, moral people. Unfortunately, aversive racism only protects racism, because we can't challenge our racial filters if we can't consider the possibility that we have them. Of course, some whites explicitly avow racism. We might consider these whites actually more aware of, and honest about, their biases than those of us who consider ourselves open-minded yet who have rarely thought critically about the biases we inevitably hold or how we may be expressing them.
The body of research about children and race demonstrates that white children develop a sense of white superiority as early as preschool.
This early start shouldn't be surprising, as society sends constant messages that to be white is better than to be a person of color.
Despite the claims of many white young adults that racism is in the past and that they were taught to see everyone as equal, research shows otherwise. For example, polls sponsored by MTV in 2014 show that millennials profess more tolerance and a deeper commitment to equality and fairness than previous generations did.
At the same time, millennials are committed to an ideal of color blindness that leaves them uncomfortable with, and confused about, race and opposed to measures to reduce racial inequality. Perhaps most significantly, 41 percent of white millennials believe that government pays too much attention to minorities, and 48 percent believe that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against people of color. Many in this generation claim that the election of Barack Obama as president
shows that we are postracial. These polls were conducted before the presidency of Donald Trump, but as his election has made clear, we are far from being postracial.
Another significant study that was based on the practices of millennials rather than their claims was conducted by sociologists Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin.
They asked 626 white college students at twenty-eight colleges across the United States to keep journals and record every instance of racial issues, racial images, and racial understanding that they observed or were part of for six to eight weeks. The students recorded more than seventy-five hundred accounts of blatantly racist comments and actions by the white people in their lives (friends, families, acquaintances, strangers). These accounts come from the generation most likely to claim they were taught to see everyone as equalâthose who grew up in the age of color-blind ideology after the civil rights movement. Picca and Feagin's study provides empirical evidence that racism continues to be explicitly expressed by whites, even those who are young and profess to be progressive. Consider these examples from their study:
“As I sit in a room with a bunch of frat guys, Phil walks in chanting ârotchie, rotchie, rotchie!!' I ask .Â .Â . what that term means and I am answered with a giggle and a quick âit's slang for nigger, like niggerotchie.' .Â .Â . ” [Eileen]
“Robby was there telling a joke. .Â .Â . He glanced to see if anyone was around. He starts, âA black man, a Latin man, and a white guy find a magical lamp on the beach [racist joke ensues].' I thought it was pretty funny and I wasn't the only one. But, I'm glad he waited till no one was around to tell it. If you didn't know Robby you might misunderstand.” [Ashley]
Several common dynamics are illustrated in the thousands of examples Picca and Feagin collected. The first is how much explicit racism young people are exposed to and participate in. The second is the idea that if someone is a good person, he or she cannot be racist, as
demonstrated in the student's note that if someone overheard, the person might “misunderstand” Robby. This sort of racism makes for a very challenging dynamic in which whites are operating under the false assumption that we can't simultaneously be good people and participate in racism, at the same time that we are dishonest about what we really think and do regarding people of color.
The study also reveals a consistent pattern in how these comments and actions were expressed. The majority of incidents occurred in what the researchers describe as the
âin all-white company. Further, they found that whites involved in these incidents most often played predictable roles. Typically, there was a protagonist who initiated the racist act, a cheerleader who encouraged it through laughter or agreement, the spectators who stood in silence, and (very rarely) a dissenter who objected. Virtually all dissenters were subjected to a form of peer pressure in which they were told that it was only a joke and that they should lighten up.
The researchers document that in front-stage settings (those in which people of color were present), the white students displayed a range of racially conscious behaviors, including the following:
â¢ Acting overly nice
â¢ Avoiding contact (e.g., crossing a street or not going to a particular bar or club)
â¢ Mimicking “black mannerisms and speech”
â¢ Being careful not to use racial terms or labels
â¢ Using code words to talk negatively about people of color
â¢ Occasional violence directed at people of color
In backstage settings, where people of color were not present, white students often used humor to reinforce racial stereotypes about people of color, particularly blacks. Picca and Feagin argue that the purpose of these backstage performances is to create white solidarity and to reinforce the ideology of white and male supremacy. This behavior keeps racism circulating, albeit in less formal but perhaps more powerful
ways than in the past. Today we have a cultural norm that insists we hide our racism from people of color and deny it among ourselves, but not that we actually challenge it. In fact, we are socially penalized for challenging racism.
I am often asked if I think the younger generation is less racist. No, I don't. In some ways, racism's adaptations over time are more sinister than concrete rules such as Jim Crow. The adaptations produce the same outcome (people of color are blocked from moving forward) but have been put in place by a dominant white society that won't or can't admit to its beliefs. This intransigence results in another pillar of white fragility: the refusal to know.