The Privileged Huff

Nubian‘s thinking about why white liberals freak out at the word “racist”:

i think that white people fear the r-word because it “others” them, just as how race, others people of color. once their invisible markers of identity become visible, their fragile “normative” status of superiority is threatened and problematized.

Being as I am a white liberal who can be a touch pouty and defensive when accused of racism, I have to say, this didn’t initially ring true to me. Then I thought about my profound lack of knowledge about how racial othering operates in this country – as opposed to gender-based othering – and shit: if that’s how it feels I’ve got some analogies to unmake.

But also but, I really like a point brought up in the comments to the original white-liberal-knicker-twisting entry:

[I]deological whiteness signifies irreducibility to type, it signifies individuality and a presumption of innocence exclusive to that individuality. … Thus the forceful rejection of even the possibility of entertaining the notion that as a group ‘whites’ are anything at all, especially anything unattractive, especially especially in a particular fashion responsible for racism (because it is an obvious point that whites are as a group responsible for it, and for fairly obvious reasons attached to it).

Even the hint of a consideration of ‘whites’ as anything other but the innocent norm against which all people of color fall short, is greeted with the same sense of affront and insult – I am an individual! – as all the generalizations racism allows this group to presumptuously fling about (whether they are the ‘benevolent liberal’ sort or out and out malicious), but additionally with the unmatched confidence of (white, ruling class) individuality which dismisses any such pattern-identification as insolent.

(Emphasis in the original, but I swapped out the asterisks for bold formatting ’cause I like it that way.) And dude! Without being made to feel a member of one’s race/gender/etc. first, and an individual second, one never quite learns how to respond appropriately when all of a sudden that group identity is thrust out front. That, wanting props for one’s superficially anti-racist attitudes, whatever other mechanism(s) you care to advance (they’re mostly mutually reinforcing, not mutually exclusive), and some liberal guilt for that extra kick of over-vehement denial… yep, that’ll do it.

As for getting over one’s initial defensiveness, let me take a moment to say mushy gooey things about my roommate. Every so often I let fly some silly transphobic or whitebreadocentric shit, and with great tact and sensitivity, he smacks me upside the head for it. I still usually splutter at this, but slowly I am learning to accept that I can be a conflict-creating insensitive jerk on occasion without ruining my standing as a decent person and ally in the fight for justice – and the fact that people call me on my shit doesn’t mean they’ll hate me forever. So hoorah for you, Kerrick! You’re helping me be a better person.

So you see, all we white liberals need is our very own personal black person who follows us around and gently corrects our errors and is never impatient or unkind (so as to preserve our fragile white egos). Tee hee hee, har har, snark.


  1. Rew wrote:

    WE get defensive because it’s an accusation…pretty simple if you ask me. Racism is generally despised and seen as not a good thing to be, so we react to it the same way we react to being called “rapist” or “criminal”

  2. yami wrote:

    Well, sure. But the level of defensiveness displayed by someone who responds to “Gah! Racist white liberals!” with “if white liberals are racist why don’t I just go be a neo-nazi then!!1!” is not on par with the defensiveness I’d expect from someone who was accused of a crime (by a random internet person, natch, not a cop), or even of just being an obnoxious jerk.
    Some of what makes it weird is that, as “good” liberals, we’re supposed to recognize our own privilege and honor the possibility that it makes us blind to the ways in which we’ve been trained to maintain it. In other words, we’re not supposed to equate racism with the Klan. We’re supposed to accept that we are vulnerable to being made an unwitting pawn of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (etc), and be grateful to those who help us not be such a patsy. I think many (most?) of us recognize this on an intellectual level, but it doesn’t always register emotionally.

  3. ester wrote:

    My dad and I come from different generations on this issue: I can understand, at least intellectually, that I am part-and-parcel of an oppressive power structure that values my worth over that of people whose skin is darker than mine. Does it do this explicitly, anymore? No — but. Etc.
    Whereas my father, when he hears the word “racist,” conjures up memories of growing up in Virginia in the 50s. To him, that’s racism, and it’s insulting to compare it to the everyday biases of our pretty well-developed society.
    Either way, I do agree it’s a very strong word, one that it’s hard to strip of its power. Do we even want that? If we acknowledge everyone’s racist, what does it then mean, and how do you distinguish wannabe-allies from the Kluxers?

  4. yami wrote:

    The flip side of potentially stripping “racism” of its power is that you’re lending some of that power to criticism of structural issues. Which could maybe use a little oomph. I don’t think it’s fair for structural racism or the innocent racism of wannabe-allies to get some flabby, crapped-out word that no one cares about enough to listen to.

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