The cost of racism

Another way that racism harms white people is by denying them the ability to develop their critical thinking. This is due in part to the constant, regular reinforcement that white is right. White people are raised in an environment in which they are regularly assured of their superiority. Their experts are white, like them. And they often live in segregation, thus denying them the opportunity to be exposed to other viewpoints.

What happens in a culture of white supremacy? White people assume that they are the experts. Even in the absence of any history, education or knowledge.

The most blatant example of this is when a white person (typically a white man) is pontificating about a subject and is challenged when a person of color expresses an opinion.  The white person will assume that the person of color knows nothing about the subject and will strive to “correct” him or her.  I’ve had this happen when a white person who was not in my field was speaking with authority about something in my field.  They never assume that you might actually be knowledgeable on the subject, nor do they assume that you might have professional credentials.  (I’d also note that this is a very common experience on the part of people of color.  And I recently heard an anecdote about this happening to a writer of color with a white man who was discussing her book.  Only he didn’t know she had written it.)

It does not cross their minds.  This is racism.

Instead, the assumption is just that you’re wrong.  They aren’t listening to what is actually said.  They are making an assessment based on their racist assumptions about the speaker.  These assumptions prevent them from learning.

We learn early on who is “right” and who is “wrong.”  We don’t necessarily learn to judge for ourselves.

Often the response on the part of the know-nothing is one of disdain or contempt for the speaker.  I once saw a man attempting to unscrew a radiator cap off his overheating car.  I ran over and yelled, “Stop!  Don’t do that!  You’ll be seriously burned!”  He looked at me and said, “Right.  Like you know anything about cars.”  (For some reason, I’ve had multiple incidents of this nature.  Guess I must look like somebody who knows nothing about cars.)

I wonder if being scalded taught him anything.

In a white supremacist culture, racism becomes a habitual behavior.  As commenters to the other thread noted, there is often a knee-jerk response that is learned behavior.  These types of responses often lack any kind of critical thinking at all.

In response to Miley Cyrus’ “slant-eye” gesture, many white people were quick to deny its racism.  However, their responses were grounded in “I don’t think it’s racism, that’s why,” rather than any critical thought.  The racism behind the “slant-eye” gesture is obvious and blatant:  It is racist because it is used to mock people for their physical attributes.  And yet defenders are not only incapable of grasping that rather simple concept, they additionally offer ludicrous responses in defense of their original position.  (Post on dictionary defense to come.)

In addition, white people often use ad hominem defenses to avoid addressing the issue at hand.  There are several common ways in which these defenses present.  The first is when others are accused of being “oversensitive” or “having chips on their shoulders” or being “overly PC.”  These characterizations do nothing to address the issue.  Rather, they are used to delegitimize the other party.

The second, more subtle ad hominem defense is use of statements such as, “Well, I guess I’m just the sort of person who gives people the benefit of the doubt,” or “I guess I’m just not as quick to label other people racist.”

This method allows the white person to position him or herself as the person of reason, the unemotional, unjudgmental thinker and all-around wonderful human being.  It additionally is a slam at the other person.  You can see what type of individual they are:  Unable to give others the benefit of the doubt!  Quick to label others racist!

Both of these forms of ad hominem defense are intellectually lazy.  They are not addressing why we might take care in our speech and actions, nor do they present a good argument for being less thoughtful.  But often these sorts of empty slams are used to end the conversation.  They are based on the faulty assumption that discrediting a speaker discredits his or her argument.  To use one of these defenses is an understood code among white people.  It is the final word.  Why?  Because a white person said so.

If you ever want to confound and upset somebody, ask them to explain the reasoning behind the argument.  And don’t let go.

I’ve used some examples here that have to do with discussions of racism.  But white supremacy runs deep throughout our lives.

When people are not regularly exposed to alternative viewpoints, and when other viewpoints are not carefully considered but instead immediately discounted, the end result is a people who lack the ability to think critically.  Because they never learned to consider all the evidence.  They learned only who they need to listen to.

21 thoughts on “The cost of racism

  1. Ugh, I hate it when this happens! There is also a gender one, where a man of colour never considers that possibility that I am more knowledgeable than him about a particular subject.

  2. You’re right. I have to consciously work at it, it’s so easy to slip into learned patterns of being lazy with my assumptions – I still mess up or miss a lot.

    I heard somewhere that “white people don’t see their experience as a ‘perspective’, they see it as just the truth, just reality” or something to that effect. (Gary Howard, maybe?)

    This reminded me of that, and made me think, I’ve heard white folks say that often, “Well, that’s your perspective …”, as if it’s just 2 people having an equal difference of opinion, but obviously the unspoken conclusion is that your ‘perspective’ is wrong, because it’s just an opinion on what they believe to be ‘reality’ for everyone.

  3. @Restructure–
    Completely feel you on this! The corollary to that is the white person doesn’t like the PoC’s “tone” in order to dismiss the rightness of the person’s argument. Talk about intellectually laziness and a lack of empathy!

  4. I’ve got a background in Indian history, I’m also a white guy. I have problems with a lot of the (now slowly, slowly fading) largely British built versions of Indian history that are still taught in colleges. (Indian history is, of course, not taught elsewhere. Who cares about India?)

    As a result of this, I’ve had the following conversation about 1 million times in my life.

    Speaker: “So then the Aryan invasion….”

    Me: “Wait, are we just going to take that as assumed? A lot of work shows that its a very problematic area.”

    Speaker: “Oh really, work such as?”

    Me: “Well work by (insert Indian professors here, which one depending on the exact topic) says…”

    Speaker: “Oh, you mean work by natives. I was sticking to the (Oxford/Harvard/Historically White and English Speaking) work. You know, the real authorities from proper institutions.”

    Me: Did you just say that the University of Mumbai isn’t a proper school? WTF?

    I can barely imagine how bad this would be to deal with if I wasn’t white and male myself.

    Its a bit maddening. There are real ways in which the field has been held back for years and years and years by this crap.

    (Of course, I also assume that they’re just wrong and I’m just right. I’ve got my own problems with arrogance, and I’m not claiming I don’t.)

  5. In addition to “White people are raised in an environment in which they are regularly assured of their superiority. Their experts are white, like them. And they often live in segregation, thus denying them the opportunity to be exposed to other viewpoints”, white Christians view God, Jesus, Noah, Moses, etc., as white, so of course they truly believe in their own superiority.

  6. Well, I don’t think this is something I do, but I’ll try and keep a more careful eye for it in future…

    “white Christians view God, Jesus, Noah, Moses, etc., as white, so of course they truly believe in their own superiority.”

    That always cracks me up.

    I saw my parents recently and dear mum had finished off a cross-stitch nativity scene for the wall, and happened to mention that the original pattern featured a blonde baby Jesus. (Which was rubbish, so she kept the pattern and just got more appropriate thread colours.)

    But how far gone do you have to be to envision a white Jesus, Noah or Moses?

  7. @ EVD I think your point about segregation is particularly apt. One of the things I continually point out is that whiteness by choice can interactions with POC whereas POC do not have the same option. They will then follow this up by making one friend of colour and making that person representative of all POC.

  8. Halfway through reading, I realized I was thinking, “but I argue with everyone”.

    I’ll keep reading.

  9. I think this applies really well to men in conversation with women as well, because I’m a white woman, and I run into this shit all the time. Reading through there are a few guys in particular who I interact with often who this description just nails.

    I definitely recognize an inclination towards intellectual laziness in myself as well though, a propensity for skimming posts and not always wanting to engage my critical thinking skills. I’ve been working on resisting that urge for a while now, but this gives my resistance a much better framework in my own head.

    Great post.

  10. WOW. Great post! It really speaks to me–I’m a young white woman, and in discussions men ALWAYS assume they know more than I do. EVERY TIME. Hell, we could be discussing nachos–somehow, I am wrong and I need to be ‘educated’.

    It is really, REALLY, fucking annoying. Why can’t white/menz just accept that other people know stuff too?

  11. I spent the last semester working in a tutoring center on a campus that loudly flaunts its diversity. All the tutors where white educaters-to-be. All of them. Most of the students were PoC/ESL/exchange students. Nearly every day I would over hear a session in which the tutor was insisting that what the student WROTE was not what the student MEANT. Like a Korean student could not mean that shopping in the pre-dawn streets of Seoul is safe. Or one tutor arguing with a Filipino student about what FOB means.
    It was maddening. And these people are our next generation of educators. Maddening.

  12. Pingback: Racism: The Impact on Health |

  13. Pingback: White people dismiss non-white knowledge before they can question it. « Restructure!

  14. Just wanted to mention that dealing with male privilege is different than dealing with white privilege, in that the white women who commented about dealing with ‘this type of stuff all the time’ still have white privilege and possess an advantage over me as a person of color. That white privilege tramples male privilege when the male is a person of color.

    I’m just saying.

  15. Pingback: On Being Feminism’s “Ms. Nigga” | Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture

  16. I am very comfortable in my black skin. A week ago I received offensive racial comments on evaluation forms after lecturing a class on black culture in the U.S. leading up to the time of the play ‘A Raisin in the Sun’. My comfortablity appeared to be the problem. I am direct, southern, warm and nurturing with a hint of ‘mess with me or mine and it is on’ but always helping students to develop their racial and cultural identity. The professor and I think that because I am all of those things some of the majority white class of 200 students could not hear me, they could only see me and reject everything I was saying. I mean, how dare I be Black, a descendent of slave Blacks and Free Blacks, Southern, big with nappy hair and have the nerve to talk about Black people and feel good about my heritage with no apology asked for nor needed! Go figure…

  17. Quote: Post on dictionary defense to come.

    Did it ever come, I must’ve missed it. Link please?

    Cheers, hope you have a good weekend.

    – Chimaobi

  18. A really superb piece that clearly describes the day-to-day experiences of PoC – I find veilled or direct ad-hominem attacks to be much more prevalent from white people to PoC than between white people; indeed, in many fora it’s impossible to have a straightforward interaction without some kind of racial bias being expressed. I’ve found that in pretty much every area of work my expertise has been treated with great skepticism and suspicion. Clearly this is also a very familiar gender issue too – and on a much bigger scale. As a mixed-race middle-aged man I have been often quite envious of the solidarity that women have found in each other through feminism and have often ached for support of a similar nature.

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