Naive Political Commentaries and White Racist Performances

Numerous observers of the current political scene, liberal and conservative, seem to think that white racial views are much more liberal than they were a decade or two back and that a political candidate like Senator Barack Obama will not face serious racism if he is the Democratic party nominee. Indeed, many argue white racism is now dead or nearly dead.

However, much social science research suggests clearly this not correct.
Indeed, it is in my view rather naïve and far too influenced by the colorblind rhetoric now dominant across this society. Let us consider just two research studies. Research by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Tyrone Forman (“‘I Am Not A Racist But’; Mapping White College Students’ Racial Ideology in the U.S.A.,” Discourse and Society, 2000; see also here) on white students at three major university campuses in the West, South, and Midwest indicates that racial attitudes expressed by whites on short-answer survey items are often quite different from those expressed to similar questions requiring more detailed commentary. For example, on a brief survey item 80 percent of 451 responding college students said that they approved of marriages between blacks and whites. However, when a smaller group of comparable students were interviewed in depth this figure dropped to about one-third. (Ninety percent of this smaller group had shown approval on the survey question.) When given more time to explain their views, the majority of white students expressed significant reservations about marriage across the color line. A similar pattern was found for a question about affirmative action. These whites frequently used a variety of hedging phrases (for example, “I agree and disagree”) to disguise or play down their negative views on various racial issue. Thus, the in-depth interviews strongly indicated that a majority of well-educated whites still hold significantly negative attitudes on issues like racial intermarriage.

Moreover, in a recent research book Leslie Picca and I have examined how whites think and act in regard to overtly racist language, ideas, joking, and other behaviors as they move from public arenas to private networks of friends and relatives. We gathered 626 journals from white college students at more than two dozen colleges and universities in several regions, journals in which they recorded for a few weeks (6-8 weeks on average) various events and incidents taking place around them that entailed some racial issue, image, performance, or understanding. Unmistakable in these relatively brief journals from well-educated white Americans is the harsh and enduring reality of blatantly racist stereotyping and action, much of it accented or performed within their important friendship and kinship networks in what we term backstage settings. In one typical and recent account, for example, one white college student provides details on certain discussions and performances that occur when he gets together with his network of five white male friends:

When any two of us are together, no racial comments or jokes are ever made. However, with the full group membership present, anti-Semitic jokes abound, as do racial slurs and vastly derogatory statements. Jewish people are simply known as “Hebes”, short for Hebrews. . . . Various jokes concerning stereotypes that Jewish people hold were also swapped around the gaming table. . . . These jokes degraded into a rendition of the song “Yellow,” which was re-done [in our group] to represent the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. It contained lines about the shadows of the people being flash burned into the walls. . . . A member of the group also decided that he has the perfect idea for a Hallmark card. On the cover it would have a few kittens in a basket with ribbons and lace. On the inside it would simply say, “You’re a nigger.” I found that incredibly offensive. Supposedly, when questioned about it, the idea of the card was to make it as offensive as humanly possible in order to make the maximal juxtaposition between warm- and ice- hearted. . . . no group is particularly safe from the group’s scathing wit, and the people of Mexico were next to bear the brunt of the jokes.

As children and as adults, whites typically learn a strong white racial frame for viewing the world within personal networks such as these. We expected only a few hundred such accounts such as these from our 626 well-educated white college students. We got 9,000 such accounts of racial events, some 7,500 or so full of blatantly racist performances and commentaries. These white students average about 12 such blatantly accounts in these relatively brief 6-8 week diaries, and almost certainly did not record all they did or saw their white friends and relatives (or sometimes white strangers) do. Multiply that 12 or so events by the millions of white college students, or by the number of all whites over 16 (some 100 million plus) and we can speculate conservatively that tens of millions of such racist events occur in the United States every few weeks or so. “Houston,” as the astronauts say, “we have a problem.”

Seen from the perspective of these research studies, the apparent decrease in antiblack prejudices and stereotypes shown in opinion surveys of whites from the 1930s to the present day is very misleading and probably reflects to a significant degree an increased white concern for outward appearance and social acceptability, especially in public frontstage places, including phone calls with pollsters (strangers). Today, it is less socially acceptable for whites to publicly avow strong old-fashioned racist attitudes in diverse public spaces, so many whites may reserve most of their blatantly racist comments for the private spheres of home, locker room, and bar—usually with friends and relatives. This does not mean, however, that these old racist views and the white racial frame of which they are part have died out or have no effect on much white thought and action in more diverse public places. They are still of great consequence for black Americans and the larger society, as we saw in the Dr. Jeremiah Wright case.

Among others things, we need to actively teach whites (and others) how to “out” backstage racist ideas and performances, those which generate discrimination frontstage. Whites (and others) can counter racist performances by using humor (“Did you learn that joke from the Klan?”), feigning ignorance (“Can you please explain that comment?”), and assertively reframing (to justice, fair play, stewardship, responsibility). Teaching to disrupt racist performances is one key, as is creating support groups for such interveners in everyday racist actions.

These social science research studies strongly suggest that all Americans concerned with significant racial change must get out and intervene in racist performances. They, and we, must work actively for that change. Such change will not likely come from rather short political campaigns, but only from years of hard action disrupting racist performances — and from hard organizing for racial change, as in the 1930s-1960s civil rights movement.

Recall Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s. famous words: “Justice for black people will not flow into this society merely from court decisions nor from fountains of political oratory. . . .White America must realize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society.” And in another place, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”


  1. Dear Joe,

    Racism originates from psychological fragmentation and an identification that sees them as different from us.

    Identity is always about power – who is in and who is out. Of course who is in is directly related to and interdependent with who is out.

    The we who want to actively change whites who are racists are the same we who are ourselves. Racism is caused through division and we can’t solve it by creating new divisions.


  2. Joe

    Actually, “racism” was coined in its modern sense by Magnus Hirschfeld (in Germany in the 1930s) as a term for institutional racism, for a system of racial oppression. Thus, it is much more than about psychology. It is about systems of racial oppression. We change racism by changing systems of oppression.

  3. Laura

    I really appreciate the suggestions on how to “out” the performances as I often just keep quiet having no idea what to do. Once I just said flat out “I don’t find these jokes funny” and left the room. Of course I got a lot of shit for it but since then this group of people has lessened those types of jokes around me. I’m certain I didn’t change their overall behavior at all but at least there is one less person in the world they won’t act that way around.

  4. adia

    Isabel, you seem determined to stress psychological explanations for racism when in truth racism is also buttressed and perpetuated by economic and sociological causes. Well meaning whites can hold no ill will towards minorities but still benefit from (and act in collusion with) institutional structures that reproduce racial inequalities. A psychological perspective alone is simply insufficient to address the entrenched, systemic nature of racism. While it is important to change racist minds, this alone doesn’t undermine the institutionalized systems that perpetuate racist inequalities. Hence the focus in these posts on various aspects of the social structure.

  5. Seattle in Texas

    All the ideas above are very thought provoking and important. My appreciation for psychology (cognitive and gestalt in particular) values Isabel’s thoughts, while my appreciation for sociology appreciates the others—and my appreciation for a particular type of social psychology, is able to see how they all actually compliment one another and need not be mutually exclusive and separate. Throw philosophy in there (Toni Morrison and Luscious T. Outlaw, and others speak of the importance of metaphysical issues for example)…hmmm, wow! And, if we have love for C. Wright Mills, we would be able to see why all the comments above are important and useful for discussions on racism. (nothing wrong with interdisciplinary discussions and work in my opinion) 🙂

    But I just wanted to touch on the psychological perspective and the notion of identity, as it’s one I have been pondering on for a while, I think it’s great Isabel brought it up and from a metaphysical perspective think I see where she is coming from—I think she is trying to address the chicken/egg question. But in terms of identity, I like the idea of it being associated with power dynamics and dialectical processes. But I think maybe it is also an ongoing process that and is also composed of elements of resistance and/or discovery, and/or perhaps maturation. For example, years ago some of my friends were of the Aleut tribe (culturally, ethnically), but two of them I mention here because in the “white” language, they are full blooded, yet have blue eyes, blonde hair, and fair skin. Those who do not know them would assume them to be white, though when they talk their communication and speech patterns were certainly different from the white whites (this is cultural, by the way—NOT from “lower intelligence”—they definitely were not “White” Indians—they were proudly in touch). A different example to contrast is with a student at a former university I went to—his father is Black and mother White. His brother has a darker skin tone, while his is very light and he has blue/green eyes. He keeps his hair cut very short so he can pass in the white environment. He hides his family from the university environment (imagine the impact that has on his family). Examples could go on forever. But many also have fairly immediate ancestry that goes back to both slavery and/or genocide (national and/or international), plus slave ownership, etc.—both sides of the coin (Michelle Obama for example). So I see how the cognitive processes related to perceptions and identity are important too.

  6. Adia,

    Institutions are made up of individual people and if one changes their mind about race then this will bring about change in others. Take Rosa Parks for instance, she didn’t get up for a white person and she made history. She just changed her mind. It was only a small idea and not a big one.

    Last night I was watching a short youtube video about Johnathen Kozol. He was saying that black children in one particular area received half as much for their schooling as a white children in a nearby area. Now all it would take to remedy this inequality would be for one person to change their mind and make a flick of a pen.

    Why black kids could get more money – the same as white kids and unversity teachers could get half ! They wouldn’t mind either because they had changed their minds.

    best Isabel.

  7. adia

    Isabel–I don’t mean to suggest that individuals are powerless when it comes to change; but that inasmuch as racism is entrenched and systemic it takes much more than one (or even two or three) individuals changing their mind to offset racism. This is what I mean when I say that racism is not only psychological but also economic, political, and sociological. Data on social institutions does not support your claim that one person with an antiracist mindset leads to a change in others, much less a change in extant social systems (see Moore 2008; Shapiro 2004 for just a few excellent discussions of how racism is reinforced in social systems, and Trepaniger 2007 for discussion of how well-meaning whites who have “changed their mind about race” still perpetuate racism). Nonracist individuals exist within institutions that, through their practices, policies, and norms perpetuate racial inequality, so stressing the power of the individual without also emphasizing the structure of the institution doesn’t lead to change. It leads to frustrated individuals. Rosa Parks “changed her mind,” but the impact this had one some whites who chose to join the Civil Rights movement and work for equality DIDN’T lead to changes in the fundamental aspects of the legal, political, educational, and economic systems that are premised on Black inequality (see Feagin 2006). Don’t misunderstand–I’m not saying that the Civil Rights movement made no changes, obviously it did, but that the basic structural aspects of these system that are founded on advantaging whites at the expense of minorities hasn’t changed at all. My point is that changing minds is not an end unto itself. It is only the first step, because the institutions that perpetuate inequality have to change as well.

  8. For Seattle,

    I am not talking about a body of knowledge in terms of psychology. I am talking about being aware of ourselves from moment to moment, looking to our own racism, oppression and conflict. When we see how divided we are we will see the divisions of society are the same thing.



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