White Denial and a Culture of Stereotypes

Racism, racial inequality, and persistent segregation are as American as apple pie. Despite social movements, multiculturalism, and countless other initiatives of change, change remains illusive.
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In the last installments I have tried to focus readers' attention on both white denial and the propensity to deploy the experiences of the black middle-class as evidence of a post-racial America. Despite focusing on persistent wealth gaps, examples of institutional racism, and the ongoing consequences of systemic racism, some readers still responded with the clichéd level of defensiveness. The move to criticize me for blaming white people for inequality, or accusing me of labeling all white people as racists, is not a unique move; rather, it represents a typical effort to turn every conversation about race into a statement about white victimhood. This effort, in fact, defines contemporary racial discourse. How else might we explain the fact that more than fifty percent of whites identify the lack of motivation from blacks as the reason for limited racial progress; sixty-five percent believe that racial inequalities would "disappear if only Blacks would 'try harder'" ( Liptsitz 2011, p. 250). According to a recent study white denial is commonplace even amongst America's youngest generation: "A solid majority of white Millennials, 56 percent, say that government has paid too much attention to the problems of blacks and other minorities. In fact, "58 percent say that 'discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.'" Denial is not simply an outward projection about laws, economic institutions, the political structure or the criminal justice; white denial is about "not seeing race," despite the fact that the racial prejudices and stereotypes are rampant. White denial isn't simply outward disavowal but a defense of self.

Such denial is neither simply reflective of a lack of knowledge about the ongoing history of racism, nor do these predicable responses simply reflect an absence of the necessary language to actually talk about racism (the difference between prejudice and racism; what constitutes institutional racism; what is a micro aggression). While the limited knowledge about history of racism and the absence of the requisite literary to engage in these important conversations are important, so too is white privilege. White privilege not only allows whites to be blind to racial profiling, stop and frisk, redlining, housing discrimination, and the myriad of examples of institutional racism, but it incentivizes protecting the status quo. This helps us understand the myriad of studies that show that whites think the scale of race relations is tilted in the favor of communities of color.

Yet, even the privileges that sequester whites away from the consequences and realities of white supremacy do not explain the extent of denial, an almost pathological refusal to look at racism within our legal, political, and cultural institutions--but that are visible in everyday life.

Evident in the ubiquity of racial epithets and racist jokes, along with findings that whites are indifferent to those slurs and jokes, demonstrates how racism is alive and well. Irrespective of class or geography, everyday racism is a fact of life present across a myriad of communities. The facts of micro aggressions in the face of white denial illustrate a very different understanding of the world in which we live: one based on facts and experiences and the other based on fantasy, privilege, and segregation. Micro aggressions refer to "brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned White people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated" (Sue). They can manifest with verbal expression/statements, nonverbal actions, or through the symbols within a community. Derald Wing Sue identifies the following as common micro aggressions, linking them to racial stereotypes.

When a White couple (man and woman) passes a Black man on the sidewalk, the woman automatically clutches her purse more tightly, while the White man checks for his wallet in the back pocket. (Hidden Message: Blacks are prone to crime and up to no good.)

A third generation Asian American is complimented by a taxi cab driver for speaking such good English. (Hidden Message: Asian Americans are perceived as perpetual aliens in their own country and not "real Americans.")

Police stop a Latino male driver for no apparent reason but to subtly check his driver's license to determine immigration status. (Hidden message: Latinas/os are illegal aliens.)

American Indian students at the University of Illinois see Native American symbols and mascots - exemplified by Chief Illiniwek dancing and whooping fiercely during football games. (Hidden Message: American Indians are savages, blood-thirsty and their culture and traditions are demeaned.)

Stereotypes are neither benign nor are they natural, inevitable, or something everyone is subjected to with equal zeal and consequences. Stereotypes hurt; stereotypes kill. "Once the beliefs of racial differences are naturalized people see their world. Given that racial stereotypes are most frequently used to represent people of color, the reified racial beliefs help maintain the racial hierarchy and White privileges," write Ji Hoon Park, Nadine G. Gabbadon & Ariel R. Chernin. "These beliefs also lead to social consequences, including the negative judgments of racial minorities and social injustice."

The prevalence of racial stereotypes, whether examining popular culture, political advertisements, educational materials, or everyday conversations are striking. Over the last twenty years, we have seen the intransigent nature of racial stereotypes. A 1990s study found that over 55% of whites viewed blacks as lazier and more prone to engage in violent behavior. In 1993, the Anti-Defamation league concluded that 75% of whites believed a negative stereotype about African Americans as it related to "laziness, propensity to criminality and violence, intelligence, or work ethic." A 2001 study found that 60% of whites were in support of "at least one negative and racist stereotype of blacks: for example, that they are generally lazy, generally aggressive or violent, or prefer to live on welfare rather than work for a living."

Before you question the statistics and note how much has changed in the last 11 years, let me ask you to do an exercise. Close your eyes: "Picture a hard working American, a criminal, a person buying groceries with food stamps, a drug dealer, drug addict, a pregnant teenager, a student-athlete, a science student, an undocumented worker, a math professor, a professor, someone in line at an unemployment office, an all-American boy or girl, a cowboy or a CEO. I would gather race played a role in what people will imagine

The impact of racism and racial stereotypes is quite evident here. In one study, when asked to imagine a drug user 95% of whites picture a black person. Despite the fact that whites represents 72% of monthly drug users, and that African Americans use drugs at rates proportional to population (in some instances with less frequency), the stereotype is persistent. A myriad of studies have illustrated the ways that implicit biases (gauged from people's immediate reaction to image of a person of color) about race are a reality and have dire consequences.

According to Joe Feagin, "Racist attitudes are not, as some whites today like to argue, of little consequence. Studies have also found that those who show substantial implicit bias are more likely to engage in racial performance and other racial discrimination." He references a 2007 study from Rutgers University professors Laurie A. Rudman and Richard D. Ashmore who "found that white people who exhibited greater implicit bias toward black people also reported a stronger tendency to engage in a variety of discriminatory acts in their everyday lives. These included avoiding or excluding blacks socially, uttering racial slurs and jokes, and insulting, threatening or physically harming black people." The adherence to racist stereotypes and implicit bias operate at an individual level and impact policy decisions.

Racism, racial inequality, and persistent segregation are as American as apple pie. Despite social movements, multiculturalism, and countless other initiatives of change, change remains illusive. However, challenging housing or job discrimination, addressing voter disenfranchisement or inequality within America's criminal justice system, etc. is difficult because it requires not just will but institutional change. The same cannot be said regarding everyday racism, racial stereotypes, racist jokes, and micro aggressions, all of which not only naturalize racial differences but also explain away racial inequality. These instances of violence cause pain, anxiety, and anger, so next time you hear a racist joke or bear witness to everyday racism, be that change.

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