Ursula Moffitt, PhD
Source: Photo from Ursula Moffitt
This is a guest post written by Ursula Moffitt, PhD.
Dr. Moffitt is an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow working with Professor Rogers in the Department of Psychology at Northwestern University. Her research focuses on contextualized racial, gender, and national identity development through a social justice lens.
Among the throngs of predominantly White Trump supporters storming the Capitol last week were members of the Proud Boys, a group founded on an “anti-White guilt” agenda. The Proud Boys have become increasingly visible in past months, including for tearing Black Lives Matter banners from two historically Black churches during a December rally in Washington, D.C., setting fire to one and tearing the other apart.
Despite having become a symbol of White supremacy, the Proud Boys have repeatedly disavowed claims of racism.
Why would members of this violent group claim not to be racist? Relatedly, what does White supremacy mean, and how is it linked to racism?
As an ideology, White supremacy is the belief that White people are inherently superior to People of Color. As old as the concept of race itself, European and U.S. scientists and politicians relied on White supremacy to construct racial hierarchies justifying the dehumanization, enslavement, and genocide of African-descent and Indigenous people. Since the abolition of slavery, White supremacy has shaped society in official (legal racial segregation, redlining, forced assimilation of Native Americans) and unofficial ways (ongoing racial segregation, overrepresentation of White people in politics, corporate leadership, media). Racial inequality today is directly related to the White supremacist hierarchies created centuries ago.
Phrase Racism Is Pandemic on signboard
Source: Brett Sayles/Pexels
Racism is therefore best defined as a system of advantage based on race. White people do not need to believe in White supremacy to benefit from a system founded on it.
Yet, in both mainstream use and academic research, racism is often framed only as prejudiced beliefs and behaviors. This obscures the structural foundations and systemic nature of racism, and has turned “racist” into an insult. When President Trump is called out for racist remarks, many supporters are outraged. In an Atlantic interview, one woman said she was “sick to death” of the accusation of racism. It makes sense that the Proud Boys would distance themselves from the word – even if their actions tell a different story.
Understanding Whiteness as Part of the System of Racism
Research has shown that White people, including left-leaning activists, often respond more vehemently to being called racist than to racism itself. The reasons for and consequences of this cannot be understood solely by studying racist beliefs and behaviors. Instead, there is a growing push to examine Whiteness (as a key element in the ongoing system of racial stratification) and White identity (as an important factor in how this system is upheld).
The terms “Whiteness” and “White identity” often call to mind groups like the Proud Boys. But because racial hierarchy shapes U.S. society, race impacts everyone, whether they are explicitly aware of it or not. Race is a powerful social construct, and racial identity includes the ways that people understand themselves in terms of race and its impact.
Why Whiteness is Often Invisible – And Why That Matters
Group of People Crossing Pedestrian Lane in Greyscale
Source: Paweł L./Pexels
In general, White people easily self identify as White. But when asked about Whiteness and racial identity, they often have trouble answering. Sometimes even talking about race is considered racist. This reflects a tendency to think of Whiteness as normal, neutral, and invisible, and race as something “other” people have.
Psychologists have found that White people may be motivated to maintain this perspective. When White people are confronted with the reality of racial privilege, a common response is to recount non-race related struggles. White people are more likely than Black people to be taught and believe that hard work is all that is needed for success. If this meritocracy belief is shaken, it may push White people in one of two directions – towards denying the existence of privilege and distancing themselves from Whiteness, or working to dismantle racial privilege. Which direction people take is affected by personal and societal factors, and this is the crux of racial identity development.
Isn’t It Better to Just Focus on Our Similarities?
In a current study with White children and adolescents, my colleagues and I found that older youth were more likely to be reflective about their racial identities and recognize racial inequality. One girl said in 6th grade that race “doesn’t really matter”, but by 8th grade she noted that being White can give people unearned privileges, which she described as “not good” but “worth knowing”.
Not all youth in our study showed change in their racial identity, and a few went the other direction, more firmly defending colorblindness, or the notion that race is inconsequential. Although seemingly neutral, colorblind beliefs are linked to increased racial bias and decreased recognition of overt racism. Because racism exists, pretending that race does not is harmful, not helpful.
Psychologists find that colorblindness is learned. White youth learn from parents and teachers not to talk about race. At the same time, they learn that Whiteness is normal, for instance from textbooks that focus on White perspectives, even though Children of Color make up nearly half of American youth.
So What Should I Do to Be An Anti-Racist White Person?
Unrecognizable person with poster of protect people
Source: Mathias P.R. Reding/Pexels
The privileges associated with Whiteness mean that not questioning systemic racism or one’s role in it has advantages for White people. Only a minority of White people supports the violence of the Proud Boys, but all White people are enmeshed in the systemic racism shaping society. As Ibram Kendi has argued, “the opposite of ‘racist’ isn’t ‘not racist’.”
So, if you are a White person who was appalled by the violent storming of the Capitol on January 6th, but you feel uncomfortable thinking about your own racial identity, a first place to start is to ask yourself why that may be. If you want to go further, take a look at this website. Organized around the stages of psychologist Janet Helms’s White Racial Identity Development model, this list offers tools for sparking critical reflection, discussion, and engagement.
In U.S. society, racism permeates all aspects of our lives. Research indicates that it matters if and how White people choose to engage with their own racial identities in relation to this reality.