The White Racial Frame: A Reprise

Since several folks have asked lately about the systemic racism and white racial frame concepts, let me repeat a revised version of what I have posted a year or more ago. The North American system of racial oppression grew out of extensive European and European American exploitation of indigenous peoples and African Americans. It has long encompassed these dimensions: (1) a white racial framing of society with its racist ideology and other key elements; (2) whites’ discriminatory actions and an enduring racial hierarchy grounded in material exploitation; and (3) pervasively racist institutions maintained by discriminatory whites over centuries. White-generated oppression is far more than individual bigotry, for it has from the beginning been a material, social, and ideological reality. For four centuries North American racism has been systemic–that is, it has been manifested in all major societal institutions.

In the books Systemic Racism and The White Racial Frame 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 51uxaL5kE2L._SL160_AA115_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 verbal-cognitive aspect), metaphors and interpretive concepts (the deeper cognitive aspect), images (the strong visual aspect), emotions (feelings), and narratives (historical myths like “manifest destiny of whites to spread across the country”), and routine 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 somewhat weak concepts most scholars and popular analysts use in the study of US racial matters, such as stereotyping, prejudice, and bigoted discrimination.

The white racial frame has long been propagated and held by most white Americans–and even, in part, accepted by many people of color. For most whites, the racial frame is deeply held, with many stored “bits,” including stereotyped knowledge, racial images and understandings, racial emotions, and racial interpretations. Not all whites use the dominant frame to the same extent, and in everyday practice there are multiple variations. By constantly using selected bits of the dominant racial frame to interpret society, by integrating new items into it, and by applying its stereotypes, images, and interpretations in many discriminatory actions, whites imbed their racialized frame deeply in their minds.

Take this key example from the early development of the dominant white racial frame. Among the self-named “whites,” who also named “black” and “Indian” Americans, were US founders Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington. They had conceptions of black Americans as very inferior to white Americans, who were seen as greatly superior in civilization. In Jefferson’s only major book, Notes on the State of Virginia, the white framing of African Americans is fiercely racist: enslaved black Americans smell funny, are natural slaves, are less intelligent, are uglier in skin color, are lazy, are oversexed, not as sophisticated in serious music, cannot learn advanced knowledge, and can never be well-integrated into white America.

This dominant racial frame was, and still is, designed by whites to rationalize an extensive system of racial oppression, with its central racial hierarchy, one with whites on top. The old racial hierarchy is rooted in coercive exploitation and resource inequality and is rationalized by the deeply held white racial frame. First centered on African Americans, and to some extent Native Americans, the white racial framing placed later groups of color–such as Chinese Americans after the 1850s and Mexican Americans after the 1840s–well down the already dominant racial hierarchy. Whites were central from the beginning to creating the North American system of racial oppression and its dominant racist frame, including all key words (“white,” “black,” and almost all racist epithets) and interpretations in that frame. Today, as in the past, the white racial frame is not just in the United States, but is fundamentally constitutive of it.

In our book, Two Faced Racism Leslie Picca and I give many examples of the contemporary white racial frame in daily operation. 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 many aspects of the white racial frame, with its subframes negatively targeting an array of groups of color, as well as Jewish Americans (apparently seen as not quite “white”). 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. Four types of white actions in one room.

The contemporary white racial frame as revealed in such everyday performances has great implications for most nooks and crannies of society.

Another key idea I suggest in the WRF book is that of resistance and counter-framing. Counter-frames are grounded in counter-system thinking and have been important for groups of color to survive and resist oppression over many generations. Certain leaders and thinkers in racially oppressed groups, such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Frantz Fanon, have developed articulated counter-frames, but so do ordinary people, the “organic intellectuals” in these oppressed groups. In these resistance/anti-racism counter-frames whites are defined as problematical, and ideas and strategies on how to deal with whites and white institutions are developed. Among other things, a developed counter-frame includes understandings of how discrimination and racial hostility work, examples of dealing with discriminatory whites from family and friends, and teachings about safety and various passive and active strategies of resistance to a variety of white discriminators.