This is us: Why White distancing from undesired Whites won’t help

In the aftermath of Charlottesville and other public displays of hate, many people are crying out that the hate must stop. This is not us! This is not the U.S. I love! People are crying and tweeting, most notably Lady Gaga.

I’m not picking on Lady Gaga, specifically, but she sure represents the archetypal well-intentioned white person, even following up that tweet with a question posed to people of color asking how white people can be better and more supportive (a full explanation of why this is misguided and burdensome are for another post), but I digress.

Mostly, this is shouted by well-intentioned white people. I appreciate the sentiment. Most don’t want this to be us. But the truth is that this hate and violence ARE us and have been from our country’s very beginnings, and they take many many forms (this article has some great examples of more subtle forms like redlining). This hate and violence and, of course, racism are regularly reinvented in new forms: school to prison pipeline, police shootings of black men, voter ID laws, etc. I could go on. Some of these are less explicitly violent than others, but the general sentiment is there with the same result—holding up white people while oppressing people of color.

You see, this is us. And I’m not the first white person to talk about it—see here or here, just for starters. I don’t want to be the last one to talk about it, either. This is America. But many (most, I’d argue) of us white people don’t have to think or even learn about this version of America or haven’t had to in recent history. We preach “colorblindness” (detrimental in its own right because of its implied color = bad—check out what I mean here) and brush under the rug all those nasty “outliers” of inequity, hatred, prejudice, and white supremacy. Or we shift the blame to the victim (see numerous examples about Emmett Till, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin here). We hold up Obama as a shield of progress, blocking out all other evidence that indicates the contrary.

Million March NYC

From Google Image

And finally, we distance ourselves from the “bad white people:” the KKK, Nazis, other white nationalists. White people are especially good at this one, this distancing not-me-I’m a good-white-person. I wouldn’t do/say/express that, etc. I’m guilty of doing this myself. This distancing is a well-documented phenomenon with research suggesting that members of an in-group (for example, white people) do this most often when they don’t want to be associated with bad outcomes or behavior of someone else in the in-group (1) (2). In other words, “good” white people are quick to point out or condemn the actions of “bad” white people. We becomes they.

This is understandable. Who wants to be associated with explicitly racist people? It’s also tricky. As white people, we all should be explicitly and LOUDLY condemning white supremacy in all its forms, even though we benefit from its more covert forms every single day. The difference is that we must publicly condemn and then take action. That means many things and offers many options for action. Some of the more subtle ways of standing against white supremacy include not saying “yes, but…” when hearing accounts of racism by people of color or “there was fault on many sides” in reference to Charlottesville or “I’m shocked that this could happen.” This last example is a punch in the gut to many people of color who are not shocked because they have not had the luxury of being protected from such hatred until now, like most white people.

Furthermore, we must not condemn merely for the purpose of making ourselves look better or more woke. The consequences of doing so are not acceptable. Because those “bad white people” are left unaccountable. And according to former neo-nazis, ignoring people with hateful ideologies like the KKK does not effectively reduce their power or discourage them. And also, because we are like those bad white people in many ways, and they are like us.

From Google Image

Take away the torches (and the MAGA hat), and these are preppy “regular” white guys you’d see around town

White people, we gotta grab our people. They’re ours whether we want them or not. People of color have been saying this for decades and decades—I’m not proposing an original idea, nor am I the first white person to proclaim this, but maybe my white skin will convince someone else with white skin to listen.

I’m not suggesting you face an armed Nazi at a protest (though if that’s your thing, rock on), but do speak up against coded language that’s racist and hateful. Here are some tools specific to combating harmful narratives of Charlottesville I’ve found to be helpful. Reading Kate Schatz’s essay “What I Mean” in Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times is another great step in learning about white people’s complicity in perpetuating systemic racism even when you’re not “actively” racist. And also, listen listen listen to people of color. Trust them. Believe them. They’ve been telling us what America is, but we’re not listening. The ability to not listen is a privilege in itself.

This is us. Only by owning it, by owning our fellow white people and holding them accountable can we be and do better.


(1) Cialdini, R. B., et al. (1976). Basking in reflected glory: Three (football) field studies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34, 366-375.

(2) Boen, F., et al. (2002). Politics and basking-in-reflected-glory: A field study in Flanders. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 24, 205-214.

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Racism and the Charleston Church Shooting: Strategies to Confront Prejudice

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Image from CNN

As details have surfaced about the Charleston church shooting, we now know that 21-year-old Dylann Roof opened fire during a prayer circle and killed 9 people in what can almost certainly be called a hate crime. Roof’s racist beliefs are well-established based on reports from his roommate and acquaintances, as well as the patches on his jacket and reports of what he said at the time of the shooting. Even though Roof told multiple people that he planned some sort of massacre, no one appears to have alerted the authorities, or his family.

I have seen a lot of debate today about whether or not these people had a legal obligation to report this hate speech, and I can’t speak to that. But as a human being, I believe we all have an ethical obligation to speak up if we hear someone planning violence toward another person or group of people. In addition, I believe we have a social obligation to attempt to address any kind of expressed prejudice with that person directly. Social influence is powerful, and we can harness findings from the psychology literature to help us confront prejudice in our everyday lives. Here are some strategies:

1. Express that you don’t share the person’s views– Consensus is a persuasive thing. It’s been demonstrated time and again that people are swayed by the opinions of others. Solomon Asch’s famous experiments on conformity showed that people will agree with an incorrect answer to a simple judgment if the group is unanimous, and Stanley Milgram’s experiments about obedience were conducted in part to address how German soldiers were convinced to commit unspeakable atrocities during World War II.1,2

Part of the reason Asch’s participants purposefully chose the wrong answer, and German soldiers went along with    Hitler’s evil plans, is because of established social norms and social pressures. Muzafer Sherif contended that social norms become internalized through life experience, and this can work to either challenge or enforce prejudice depending on one’s social environment.3 But, it’s important to voice your disagreement, whether or not cultural norms in your area allow for this prejudice. There’s something called the false consensus effect, which shows that people tend to believe that others agree with them.4,5 Don’t let this person think their words are acceptable by staying silent.

2. Make that prejudice more immediate for them– Milgram found that participants were more likely to defy the experimenter when told to continue to administer increasing levels of electric shocks to another person when the immediacy of the victim increased.6 Only 34% of people defied the experimenter when the victim was in another room, while 60% of people defied the experimenter when the victim was in the same room.6 Find a way to make that prejudice more salient for the person as a way of confronting it, whether it be pointing out that one of their favorite musicians is a member of the group they’re marginalizing, or challenging them to think about how they would feel if someone expressed similar views about a group they identify with.

3. Confront the prejudice-Many effective ways of decreasing prejudice have to do with exposure to members of the marginalized group. Findings on mere exposure suggest that just being exposed to something can increase liking of it.7 Indeed, researchers have found that merely being exposed to people of other races can increase liking of that racial group.8 The large body of research on the contact hypothesis supports this as well, with people having increasingly less bias toward marginalized groups as contact with group members increased.9 An added benefit of this approach is that familiarly can help to interrupt automatic attitudes toward a marginalized group, like stereotyping.10

Confronting prejudice should be done with care to the marginalized group, especially if you believe the person may pose a threat to that group. If you believe that may be the case, you will want to start by confronting their prejudice from afar. For instance, you could do something as small as highlight people from the marginalized group that defy stereotypes the person has, or share some information about the history of the person’s bias and its deleterious effects. Someone who has already expressed violent desires toward the group is automatically someone who poses a threat to the group.

Join us at SocialPsyQ by confronting prejudice in your community by educating yourselves and others. We can only succeed in bringing about real change if we establish new social norms, and challenge one another to grow. We have the power to show others that their beliefs are not universal or objectively superior by confronting them one-on-one. We also have the power to help potential victims of hate crimes. When you see something, say something. Helping to change a mind could help to save a life.

  1. Asch, S. E. (1956). Studies of independence and conformity: I. A minority of one against a unanimous majority. Psychological monographs: General and applied, 70(9), 1.
  2. Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371.
  3. Sherif, M. (1936). The psychology of social norms.
  4. Mullen, B., Atkins, J. L., Champion, D. S., Edwards, C., Hardy, D., Story, J. E., & Vanderklok, M. (1985). The false consensus effect: A meta-analysis of 115 hypothesis tests. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 21(3), 262-283.
  5. Ross, L., Greene, D., & House, P. (1977). The “false consensus effect”: An egocentric bias in social perception and attribution processes. Journal of experimental social psychology, 13(3), 279-301.
  6. Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human relations, 18(1), 57-76.
  7. Zajonc, R. B. (1968). Attitudinal effects of mere exposure. Journal of personality and social psychology, 9(2p2), 1.
  8. Zebrowitz, L. A., White, B., & Wieneke, K. (2008). Mere exposure and racial prejudice: Exposure to other-race faces increases liking for strangers of that race. Social cognition, 26(3), 259.
  9. Sigelman, L., & Welch, S. (1993). The contact hypothesis revisited: Black-white interaction and positive racial attitudes. Social forces, 781-795.
  10. Quinn, K. A., Mason, M. F., & Macrae, C. N. (2009). Familiarity and person construal: Individuating knowledge moderates the automaticity of category activation. European Journal of Social Psychology, 39(5), 852-861