The White Racial Frame: What is It?

In the book Systemic Racism I develop the concept of a white racial frame holistically and comprehensively. Since its development in the 17th century, this racial frame has been a “master frame,” a dominant framing that provides a generic meaning system for the racialized society that became the United States. The white racial frame provides the vantage point from which European American oppressors have long viewed North American society. In this racial framing, whites have combined racial stereotypes (the cognitive aspect), metaphors and interpretive concepts (the deeper cognitive aspect), images (the visual aspect), emotions (feelings), and inclinations to discriminatory action. This frame buttresses, and grows out of the material reality of racial oppression. The complex of racial hierarchy, material oppression, and the rationalizing white racial frame constitute what I term systemic racism. This white racial frame includes much more than the usual concepts we use in the study of racial matters, such as stereotyping and prejudice or discrimination.

In our book, Two Faced Racism Leslie Picca and I give many examples of the white racial frame. We collected journals from 626 white students at 28 colleges and universities in various regions. They were asked to record (for, on average, about 6-9 weeks) observations of everyday events in their lives that revealed racial issues, images, and understandings. In these relatively brief diaries these white students gave us got more than 7,500 accounts of blatantly or obviously racist commentary and actions by white friends, acquaintances, relatives, and strangers, much of it in backstage areas. In addition, about 300 students of color at these same colleges gave us another 4000 accounts of clearly racist events that happened to them and their friends or relatives.

Their everyday accounts offer many insights into how the white racial frame works today. Here, for example, is one of thousands of extended racial events from the diaries, this one about an evening party of six white students at a midwestern college. Trevor, a white student, reports on a typical evening gathering: 

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. . . . Various jokes concerning stereotypes . . . were also swapped around the gaming table, everything from “How many Hebes fit in a VW beetle?” to “Why did the Jews wander the desert for forty years?” In each case, the punch lines were offensive, even though I’m not Jewish. The answers were “One million (in the ashtray) and four (in the seats)” and “because someone dropped a quarter,” respectively. These jokes degraded into a rendition of the song “Yellow,” which was re-done to represent the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. It contained lines about the shadows of the people being flash burned into the walls (“and it was all yellow” as the chorus goes in the song).

There is nothing subtle about these racist performances. Trevor continues with yet more performances:

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. After a brief conversation about the cards which dealt with just how wrong they were, a small kitten was drawn on a piece of paper and handed to me with a simple, three-word message on the back. . . . Of course, 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. A comment was made about Mexicans driving low-riding cars so they can drive and pick lettuce at the same time. Comments were made about the influx of illegal aliens from Mexico and how fast they produce offspring.

All white male participants here are well educated. Notice the great “fun” these educated whites are having as part of this recurring social gathering. Note too the different roles played by whites in this one racialized evening. There are the protagonists performing assertively for an all-white audience. Some appear also as cheerleading assistants, with the recording student apparently acting as a passive bystander or perhaps a mild dissenter. No one, however, openly remonstrates with the active protagonists.

The contemporary white racial frame as revealed in such everyday performances has great implications. For example, these are the same educated, affluent whites that Senator Obama’s presidential campaign is counting on to win the election in November, assuming he is the candidate for the Democratic Party. Clearly, only in a fake “colorblind world” can the majority of them be actually counted on to listen to their “better angels.”

I welcome your thoughts and comments on this concept, which I am still developing for a new book called The White Racial Frame — and its social and political implications for today.