To make progress on true racial equality, white people must own the problems of Whiteness … but not the solutions. (More)
Whiteness, Part III: Seeking Progress Together (Non-Cynical Saturday)
This week Morning Feature explores Robin DiAngelo’s article “White Fragility” in light of current legal and political events. Thursday we began with how the Twitter hashtag #AllLivesMatter works to soothe Whiteness by excising race from #BlackLivesMatter. Yesterday we compared the Twitter hashtags #WhiteGuilt and #CrimingWhileWhite. Today we’ll conclude with why race is a problem of Whiteness and why whites must become color-aware – not color-blind – if we are to make progress against racism.
Robin DiAngelo is an associate professor of Multicultural Education at Westfield State University in Massachusetts. She earned her Ph.D from the University of Washington in 2004, has been a workplace diversity trainer for 15 years, and was recently appointed to co-design, develop and deliver the Mayor’s Race and Social Justice Initiative Anti-Racism training for the City of Seattle. She says “I grew up poor and white” to emphasize that her experience of poverty would have been different had she not been white, and writes: “I don’t call myself an ‘anti-racist white’ because I believe that it is for people of color to decide if, in any given moment, I am behaving in anti-racist ways.”
“That’s a heck of a lot of white folks!”
In case you missed it, The New Republic ‘imploded’ this week. Management changes and the decision to move the magazine’s headquarters from D.C. to New York prompted several writers and editors – and former staffers were titled “contributing editors” – to resign or post their public support for those who quit. Here’s a collage of them, put together by The Frisky’s Rebecca Vipond Brink:
As Brink wrote, “WOW! That’s a heck of a lot of white folks! (And two people of color.)”
They’re also mostly men, which prompted Gawker’s Leah Finnegan to write “White Men Upset Wrong White Man Placed in Charge of White-Man Magazine,” about which Slate’s Seth Stevenson was aghast:
And then we come to Gawker’s take[.] It ridiculed reactions like those of Chait and Lizza, and other white male journalists, because – well, it wasn’t totally clear. Because they were white men, I guess? Whatever its addled argument, the story is simply incorrect, to the extent that it claims only dudes care what happens at TNR. The piece’s evidence is a series of tweets written by men. Yet one might just as easily post tweets from female journalists expressing fondness for the bygone TNR regime. Here, let’s do it now:
Stevenson then offers tweets from four white women … and one black woman.
“Washington’s elite political publications are often not by, for, or about people of color”
The New Republic was in theory a ‘liberal’ magazine, but you often wouldn’t have guessed. The magazine published excerpts from Charles Murray’s racist treatise The Bell Curve in 1995 and echoed the drumbeat for war in Iraq. And as Vox’s Max Fisher explains, those weren’t isolated examples:
But [TNR owner Chris] Hughes’ predecessor, Marty Peretz, did much worse. In the years of Peretz’s ownership, from 1974 to 2007 and then partially until 2012, he gave himself the title of editor-in-chief and regular space in the magazine and on its website, which he frequently used to issue rants that were breathtaking in their overt racism. The columns typically came during periods of turmoil for the minorities he targeted: often blacks and Latinos, later focusing especially on Muslims and Arabs.
he overwhelmingly white writers and editors who worked for Peretz knew his work was monstrous, and often struggled over the morality of accepting his money (as did I, during my brief internship there). But none ever resigned en masse as they did over the firing of two white male editors today. That fact is just a particularly egregious example of a much larger problem among the elite Beltway publications: a lack of diversity and a begrudging tolerance of racism that go hand-in-hand.
The fact that there are two parallel conversations among journalists about this magazine, almost totally separated by race, further demonstrates the degree to which Washington’s elite political publications are often not by, for, or about people of color. That doesn’t mean their editors agree with Peretz’s racism – they don’t – but it’s why it was easy for them to shrug it off in a way that Hughes’ closer-to-home mistakes are not. A publication that buoyed anti-black, anti-Latino, anti-Arab, Islamophobic racism was tolerable. A publication that fired two beloved white men was not.
Using the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau, white men were hosted at more than double their proportion of the U.S. population on the broadcast [Sunday morning news] shows – 64 percent on broadcast compared to 31 percent in the population. White men were also overrepresented on CNN at 54 percent. Women of color were significantly underrepresented on broadcast – only 5 percent of guests were women of color compared to 19 percent in the population. Only MSNBC – due primarily to Melissa Harris-Perry – hosted its guests closer to their representation in the population. White women were underrepresented on all shows.
“One side makes its decisions on the basis of race”
As the collage above shows, the Beltway media umbrage over changes at The New Republic is overwhelmingly white. Yet spotlighting that demographic fact, as Gawker did, fact drew derision from Slate’s Seth Stevenson, who called it an “addled argument.” Change the specific event, and that’s not much different the case Robert Tracinski made at The Federalist after citing differences in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner:
That’s why so many on the right have come down on a different side in this case than they did in Ferguson.
So one side makes its decisions on the basis of race, the other makes its decisions on the basis of evidence. No points for guessing which side has been calling the other “racist” for the last week.
Pointing out Whiteness is an “addled argument,” because whites “[make] decisions on the basis of evidence.” When 94% of black voters chose President Obama, that’s racist, despite the fact that John Kerry and Al Gore drew similar percentages. But when southern whites chose Mitt Romney by similar numbers, that’s not racism. It’s just “political competition.” Hrmm.
“It’s about white rage”
In August, Emory University professor Carol Anderson made a case that the white media narrative about Ferguson was “precisely backward:”
When we look back on what happened in Ferguson, Mo., during the summer of 2014, it will be easy to think of it as yet one more episode of black rage ignited by yet another police killing of an unarmed African American male. But that has it precisely backward. What we’ve actually seen is the latest outbreak of white rage. Sure, it is cloaked in the niceties of law and order, but it is rage nonetheless.
Protests and looting naturally capture attention. But the real rage smolders in meetings where officials redraw precincts to dilute African American voting strength or seek to slash the government payrolls that have long served as sources of black employment. It goes virtually unnoticed, however, because white rage doesn’t have to take to the streets and face rubber bullets to be heard. Instead, white rage carries an aura of respectability and has access to the courts, police, legislatures and governors, who cast its efforts as noble, though they are actually driven by the most ignoble motivations.
She offers a litany of recent policy changes that benefit whites at the expense of people of color, from the GOP’s voter suppression efforts to blocking relief as the Great Recession stripped half of African-Americans’ collective wealth to slashing state and local government jobs. Then she moves to crime and police responses, adding:
And think of a recent study by Stanford University psychology researchers concluding that, when white people were told that black Americans are incarcerated in numbers far beyond their proportion of the population, “they reported being more afraid of crime and more likely to support the kinds of punitive policies that exacerbate the racial disparities,” such as three-strikes or stop-and-frisk laws.
Only then does Ferguson make sense. It’s about white rage.
“We can reorient how we see the world and interpret people”
In our culture, merely pointing out Whiteness out draws scorn even from white liberal journalists. To make progress on racial equality, we whites must first acknowledge our Whiteness. Most of us surround ourselves with white friends and neighbors, get almost all of our news from white reporters, read books books by white authors and watch TV shows and movies with mostly white casts and directors. Most whites inhabit a subset of our nation. Call it the USWA: the United States of White America.
We must acknowledge that, and take personal responsibility for choosing to live in the entire USA. And neuroscience shows that will reduce racism:
But recent research from neuroscientists suggests there is indeed hope for change, and it may not be as impossible as we imagine. According to the science, being a part of a diverse group – connected by a bond that isn’t race – may help our brains perceive everyone in that group as part of “your people,” regardless of racial makeup. If we know an individual is part of our group, our brains seem to react to the individual as being part of our group first and foremost – not an “other.”
In a 2008 study, participants watched photos of other participants’ faces flash across a screen for two seconds apiece. They first had to categorize the faces based on team membership and again based on race, and then rate their like and dislike of other participants on a scale of 1-6. While participants performed the identification tasks, researchers used neuroimaging tools to measure their response rates and observe activity changes in different areas of their brains.
Images showed that the amygdala, a key part of the brain for emotion, flared up in the brains of white participants when they viewed photos of their team members, regardless of race. In this context, researchers believe that amygdala activity reacted to what was most important and worthy of participants’ attention: their team members. When race isn’t relevant to group formation, Van Bavel explained, the brain seems to ignore racial differences to focus on what matters: whoever is in your group.
In a follow-up 2011 study, Van Bavel saw something surprising happen in a region of the brain called the Fusiform Face Area (FFA), which is critical for facial recognition. Shortly after getting their team assignments, participants performed a similar face-identification task and exhibited markedly heightened activity in FFA in response to members of their own team. Basically, people quickly identified their team members as people they should remember and disregarded non-team members as faceless outsiders to lump together.
“Responses to race that we think of as burned pretty deeply into the brain may be hard to override or regulate,” Van Bavel said. “But it seems that if we can see a member of another race as part of our in-group, then we can reorient how we see the world and interpret people, which may help overcome biases.”
Join your local NAACP unit and other diverse groups. Listen, and be willing to earn trust. Don’t assume you know the solutions. Instead, offer to help with projects and events offered and led by people of color.
To seek progress together, whites must experience and participate in life outside the bubble of Whiteness. That won’t always be comfortable … but whites’ comfort is not the solution. It’s the problem, and we need to change it.