"You know who talks about race? Racists."
That was an actual line delivered in August by Jonathan Hoenig, a wealthy, white hedge fund founder, as he and other members of a Fox News panel tried to dismiss the significance of race and racial inequality in the protests then rocking Ferguson, Missouri.
This shallow reductionism is a symptom of what we'll call the "I know you are, but what am I" school of racial thought. Followers of this model typically respond to such conversations by jamming their fingers in their ears and yelling "nananana." If the debate gets too loud to drown out, they might unplug their ears and lash out at anyone who challenges them to confront the nation's painful legacy of racism and to consider that is it not fully behind us. The fixation on race, they claim, can only be the product of individuals who themselves harbor racial prejudice.
This is a defensive reflex to a difficult topic of discussion -- and in few circles is it exhibited more regularly than among white conservatives. Race is a particularly thorny issue for those who subscribe to a political ideology that insists racism has largely been eliminated from modern society. After all, to concede that racism is still a deep-seated, systemic problem would likely complicate the long-held conservative position that policies designed to rectify inequities in criminal justice, economics, education, housing, voting and other areas are both unnecessary and unfair (to white people).
There is also a broader emotional aspect to this discomfort and denial. In a blog for The Good Men Project, Robin DiAngelo, a white professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University, unpacks the role "white fragility" plays in keeping large segments of the population across the political spectrum from taking the first step toward dismantling institutional racism: admitting that it exists.
This hypersensitivity stems from the belief that "if we are well-intended and do not consciously dislike people of color, we cannot be racist," DiAngelo writes. Being called a racist is now among the worst possible insults, she notes.
Systemic racism isn't just about the individual. But white people are often resistant to have a conversation calling the system that benefits them into question. So they may instead shut the whole thing down and suggest that anyone who forces them into this prickly position is a racist.
If asking people to think about race is a racist thing to do -- here are some signs you might be one of these "real racists:"
1. You talk about race.
2. You talk about your own experience with racism.
3. You tweet about race -- perhaps "incessantly."
4. You believe racism is still a systemic problem in the United States.
5. You suggest that the broad denial of this problem may in fact be proof of its existence.
6. You insist that the most extreme manifestations of this race problem can end in acute tragedy...
7. But point out that institutional racism causes much more than just physical harm.
8. You encourage black activism, or activism of any kind on the issue of race.
9. You support activism of any kind on the issue of race.
10. You organize, protest and demonstrate, perhaps so enthusiastically that it's become a full-time job.
11. You push for police reform and accountability, but may not have attended the funeral of an officer slain in the line of duty.
12. You call out the racial double standards that are applied across society.
13. You ask white people to consider their privilege.
14. You refuse to temper your rhetoric so that white people still feel "comfortable."
15. You challenge the institution of whiteness in any way at all.
16. You're a politician who puts civil rights on your campaign platform.
17. You're the first black president and you say the n-word in a nuanced effort to explain that just because this word is no longer viewed as acceptable doesn't mean racism is a relic of the past.
18. You say "black lives matter" and believe this point bears repeating because it's apparent that some people and institutions don't agree.
19. You don't give equal attention to "anti-white racism" -- or "reverse racism" -- because while bias certainly can appear in this form, it isn't indicative of the overwhelming trend of racial prejudice in American society.
20. You don't think "black-on-black crime" is the real problem, because the people who claim it is only seem to care about it when they want to deflect other conversations about racism.