White Reaction to Being Called Out on Racism: Jane Hill’s Research

The reaction of Tea Party defenders, including Sarah Palin, to the NAACP’s calling out some Tea Party members and leaders for their racism calls to mind a fine book by Jane Hill, The Everyday Language of White Racism. She has many insights in the book – which I highly recommend to you – but one that fits this calling out of racism by Black Americans at the NAACP is this one on how whites often react to being called out with a line of reasoning about white innocence like this:

I am a good and normal mainstream sort of White person. I am not a racist, because racists are bad and marginal people. Therefore, if you understood my words to be racist, you must be mistaken. I may have used language that would be racist in the mouth of a racist person, but if I did so, I was joking. If you understood my meaning to be racist, not only do you insult me, but you lack a sense of humor, and you are oversensitive.

Hill adds that this “chain of reasoning makes the speaker the sole authority” over what her or his racist commentaries actually mean. Not surprisingly, many whites are today unwilling to listen to the views of those Americans who are regularly targeted by white racism–even to views about the reality and pain of that everyday racism. I also deal with these important listening and empathy issues in the newsecond edition of my Racist America book.

Is White the New Black?

Kelefa Sanneh has an interesting article in the New Yorker titled “Beyond the Pale: Is white the new black?” He first notes some of the famous racist commentaries like that of Glenn Beck, who said this about President Obama:

“This President, I think, has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture. I don’t know what it is.” … Beck sat for an interview with Katie Couric, and she asked him a deceptively simple question . . . posed by a Twitter user named adrianinflorida: “what did u mean white culture?” Whatever adventurous thoughts this query inspired, Beck did not seem eager to share them. “Um, I, I don’t know,” he said. Finally, [he said] “What is the white culture? I don’t know how to answer that that’s not a trap, you know what I mean?”

After discussing this extremist commentary, Sanneh then discusses the odd blog/website, “Stuff White People Like,” which was set up by the white Canadian, Christian Lander. Sanneh makes the insightful point that

… Lander isn’t really talking about white people, or, at any rate, not most of them. In fact, he sometimes defines “white people” in opposition to “the wrong kind of white people,” because his true target is a small subset of white people, a white cultural élite. Most white people don’t “hate” Republicans—they have voted Republican in every Presidential election since 1968.

Then he discusses the interesting and informative new book by Rich Benjamin “Searching for Whitopia, which we have discussed here before. Benjamin highlights the movement of whites into certain types of residential enclaves, an important study whose deeper implications Sanneh does not puruse. After pointing out how few black voters went for Republicans in 2008 (but omitting a discussion of how few other voters of color also did not vote Republican, a revealing omission? See Yes We Canour full book length discussion of this here), he then ends on a somewhat puzzling, punch-pulling note:

But what of it? Why is it that, from Christian Lander to Jon Stewart, a diagnosis of whiteness is often delivered, and received, as a kind of accusation? The answer is that the diagnosis is often accompanied by an implicit or explicit charge of racism. It’s become customary to suppose that a measure of discrimination is built into whiteness itself, a racial category that has often functioned as a purely negative designation: to be white in America is to be not nonwhite….

After noting that labor historian David Roediger

published an incendiary volume, “Towards the Abolition of Whiteness.” … “It is not merely that whiteness is oppressive and false; it is that whiteness is nothing but oppressive and false,” he wrote. In his view, fighting racism wasn’t enough; white people who wanted to oppose oppression would have to do battle with whiteness itself. Nearly two decades later, amid a rancorous debate over our first black President, the idea of abolishing whiteness seems no less tantalizing—and no less remote.

Actually, Roediger’s book is accurate and well-documented, and only “incendiary” to whites and others who do not like to hear the truth about US society. Sanneh waffles throughout this piece, and it is confusing. He does not dig deeply enough into the foundational reality underlying these matters, or else does not understand that self-defined “whites” invented most of the racial and racist terminology that we have used in North America, and often across the globe. Whites invented “whites” and “blacks” as racialized terms and as key parts of the white racial frame, just as they did most aspects of that racial framing of society, and its other language (including almost all major racist epithets.) In his phrases like measure of “discrimination is built into whiteness itself, a racial category that has often functioned as a purely negative designation,” he fails to see that the historical data demonstrate quite clearly that whites invented the whiteness reality as past of a centuries-old white racial frame that rationalized whites’ extensive racial oppression, so of course racial discrimination and other racial oppression is built into whiteness itself. In addition, the last part of this phrase seems to miss the point that for whites, whiteness is almost always a positive thing (his few examples to the contrary notwithstanding) and has “often functioned” in negative way only for those who have been oppressed by white domination and racial oppression.

And the last line, about abolishing whiteness, also seems to miss the critical point. The only way to abolish whiteness is to abolish the system of racial oppression, with its still-dominant racial hierarchy, and thus the dominant white racial frame. There is much more here than abolishing the term whiteness or some notion of whiteness. This is about a system and foundation of racial oppression, not just about terms and dialogue–or some notion that whites are now fully problematized, and thus that “white is the new black.” What a strange notion!

Racist Mocking of First Lady Michelle Obama: Ape Imagery Yet Again

The Nashville Scene has a long account of the racist email sent out by Walt Baker, influential head of the powerful Tennessee Hospitality Association (motels, hotels, etc.). He sent out this email with a photo of the chimp Cheeta Chimp_email(see here too, Cheeta the chimpanzee) next to one of First Lady Michelle Obama:

From: Walt Baker Date: March 4, 2010 9:18:29 PM CST

Quoting Larry the Cable Guy…I don’t care who you are, this is funny…I was at the store yesterday, and I ran into Tarzan! I asked him how it was going and if he was into anymore movies. He told me that he could no longer make any more movies as he had severe arthritis in both shoulders and could no longer swing from vine to tree.

I asked how Jane was doing, he told me she was in bad shape, in a nursing home, has Alzheimer’s and no longer recognizes anyone, how sad. I asked about Boy, and he told me that Boy had gone to the big city, got hooked up with bad women, drugs, alcohol, and the only time he heard from him was if he was in trouble or needed something.
I asked about Cheeta, he beamed and said she was doing good, had married a Lawyer and now lived in the White House!!!

You can see both photos at this link.

Baker says he forwarded this email, which had been sent to him, to 12 prominent Nashvillians, including an aide to the mayor. Once outed, Baker indicated he was not racist, meant no offense, and had only sent it to “a select group of friends.” That is, he apparently meant for it to stay private and expected none of his friends to protest it. There was apparently little initial protest from most whites who first received it. This is yet another example of backstage racism where a white person felt safe doing this racist stuff with his friends. Baker commented later:

“It was done in the spirit of having some fun with some close friends. It was something that was forwarded to me, and I forwarded it to a couple of people that, quite honestly, I thought might find some humor in it like I did.”

He said that he thought it was good “political humor.” Not only did few whites openly protest and condemn this email as long as it was in the backstage, but according to Baker doing racist stuff is often about having “fun with some close friends.” There is a lot of evidence, like in the Two Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and Frontstage book Leslie Picca and I did that whites not only do racist stuff in the backstage but really seem to “Have fun” doing such racist action.

Several days after it came out Baker sent a one word email to the recipients (“sorry”) and was fired by the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, which apologized much more openly for Baker’s actions and seemed to catch the irony of the head of a “hospitality” organization acting in such an inhospitable way. Baker’s company also lost at least one marketing contract.

Wikipedia has an article laying out the anti-Michelle-Obama “humor,” yet has no such article on anti-Laura Bush humor. The intensity and level of attacks on the Obamas in such a short period to time seem to be about the most extreme in recent political memory.

We might note once again that this racist framing of African Americans as ape-like is very old in the dominant white racial frame, and Thomas Jefferson was an open advocate of such vicious stereotyping and imagery–as he makes clear in the first major book by a secular American intellectual, his Notes on the State of Virginia (Section 14).

As we see here the still dominant white racial frame (see my new book here) includes not only the ape-like stereotyping (verbal-cognitive) but also coverpagevisual racist imagery and mocking emotions set in a “humor” framework. Note too just how white-centered such activity is, with its assumption of white superiority and virtue. None of the whites involved, so far as I can tell yet, has used this example of racist humor as a public way of calling out the white racial frame and calling for group instruction in extensive Racism 101 workshops in the city. Instead, like whites elsewhere, most there seem to see it as an isolated incident. Indeed, the white actors who do this sort of stuff usually do claim they are still white-virtuous, that is they did not “mean it” and are “not racist.”

Is Insistence on English and Punishing Spanish about Maintaining Racial Power?

Too many white Americans get upset about simple matters like adapting modestly to other languages and related cultures, sort of normal stuff in many other countries. I know Europeans who know numerous languages and associated cultures–not to mention some of my Asian-Indian students and colleagues who know even more languages and cultures. Why cannot U.S. whites adapt?

We saw recently this story about Dallas police officers and the Spanish language. And then there is the Associated Press story (at KTAR.com) on a hotel owner in Taos, New Mexico. Veteran hotel entrepreneur Larry Whitten came to town, an ex-marine, and took over a dying hotel. He had some rather authoritarian rules:

he forbade the Hispanic workers at the . . . hotel from speaking Spanish in his presence (he thought they’d be talking about him), and ordered some to Anglicize their names. No more Martin (Mahr-TEEN). It was plain-old Martin. No more Marcos. Now it would be Mark.

Well, the Latino employees and some other folks there did not take kindly to his new rules and his firing of those who did resisted them:

His rules and his firing of several Hispanic employees angered his employees and many in this liberal enclave. . . where Spanish language, culture and traditions have a long and revered history. . . . Former workers, their relatives and some town residents picketed across the street from the hotel.

This is a beautiful city, with ancient history. It is also Native American land as well, with the Taos Pueblo, home of the Zuni people for some 1,000 years there in town. After he fired employees for what he says was insubordination and hostility, Whitten says he was worried they would talk about him and his rules in Spanish, and he could not understand Spanish. In our field interviews with middle-class Latinos across the country, José Cobas and I got several accounts of white employers insisting employees not speak Spanish at work, with a similar rationale. (We are writing them up for a book now; See also here)

Why is it that U.S. whites so often insist that smart people who speak more than English only speak English around them? One thing that baffles me about the restrictions on Spanish here and elsewhere, and the broader English-Only nativism we are seeing everywhere, is why whites cannot learn a little Spanish. It is by not difficult to learn (I learned it in a few short courses in high school), and it would be a sign of whites losing some arrogance and ethnocentrism if they would bend a little and learn another language or two. Especially since many/most expect others, especially when they are traveling across the globe, to learn English. The AP account continues:

Then Whitten told some employees he was changing their Spanish first names. . . . “It has nothing to do with racism. I’m not doing it for any reason other than for the satisfaction of my guests, because people calling from all over America don’t know the Spanish accents or the Spanish culture or Spanish anything,” Whitten says. Martin Gutierrez, another fired employee, says he felt disrespected when he was told to use the unaccented Martin as his name. He says he told Whitten that Spanish was spoken in New Mexico before English. . . . After the firings, the New Mexico chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens, a national civil rights group, sent Whitten a letter, raising concerns about treatment of Hispanic workers. . . . The messages and comments he made in interviews with local media, including referring to townsfolk as “mountain people” and “potheads who escaped society,” further enflamed tensions.

The mayor, Darren Cordova, said the Whitten should have familiarized himself with the area and its Latino culture before buying the hotel and taking such drastic action.

There is much that is important in all this stuff about English-only or English-centrality. The commonplace white insistence on a dominant English is often about insisting on a white framing of things and about white control. As a matter of everyday reality, Latinos, whether very longterm, multigenerational residents as here or recent immigrants, are forced to adapt to much in the white racial frame and to the dominant racial hierarchy. The mostly white-controlled major institutions across this society aggressively press them to conform constantly over lifetimes. They learn that they must more or less conform to white-normed or white-framed realities, so that they can survive in this racially oppressive society. Indeed, they adapt much more cooperatively to many of these societal pressures, such as in quickly learning and using the English language, than most whites are willing to give them credit for. Such stories about restricting Spanish and ethnocentrically accenting English are not too surprising when whites are unused to adjusting substantially to new folks and subcultures in an increasingly multiracial society where they are a minority, or soon will be. Tis learning time in the white world.

912 Protesters Fueled by Racism, Hatred of Obama

On Saturday (9/12), thousands of protesters gathered in Washington to express their disdain for President Obama and his policies – particularly health care reform.   The crowd was populated by white political conservatives — – organized by a loose-knit coalition of anti-tax, small-government proponents, and widely promoted by sympathetic voices in the blogosphere and on TV and talk radio.  The protest was scheduled for 9/12 – the day after the anniversary of the terrorist attacks – as way to mark a point in time when Democrats and Republicans supposedly “shared a sense of purpose and unity and all Americans were patriotic.”

What few, if any, of the mainstream reports included in their coverage of the event was any discussion of the racial composition of the 912 crowd which was overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, white.   According to The Washington Independent (the only news source I could find that was talking about this issue), the crowd was “99 percent white.” The reporter noted, “in my four-plus hours at the event, I’d only seen three African-American demonstrators.”   When the reporter asked Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), one of the organizers of the event, about the lack of racial diversity in the crowd, DeMint blamed the event’s timing and the media coverage.

“If anyone does a fair analysis of the crowd, it’s a cross-section of the population. It’s probably just the time and organization and the media that promoted it,” DeMint said.

Now, just because it’s an exclusively white-folks event doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s fueled by racism, but it does give one pause.   I certainly think it’s possible to oppose the policies of the Obama administration and not have those views fueled by racism.   Yet, you can tell a good deal about a protest from the images and iconography that protesters choose to convey their message.  And the signs people created and carried provide another kind of other evidence that the rhetorical and visual strategies of the protesters drew on a deeply embedded white racial frame.

While at least one news report (CNN) characterized the signs carried at the rally as “particularly distasteful” (e.g., “Bury Obamacare with Kennedy”), none in the mainstream media have called out the protesters for the overtly racist signs many of them carried.   Here’s just one example (via Alternet):


The crudely drawn ‘monkey’ image in the middle of this sign suggests the deeply racist imagery of Obama that appeared during the campaign and has continued throughout his presidency.  There are some more of these racist signs posted here.   This is the same kind of racist hatred that is fueling the 400 percent increase in death threats to Obama that I mentioned here yesterday.

Although it’s possible that mainstream news outlets are not reporting on the racism at these protests out of some sort of concern for stoking the flames of racism, it seems more likely to me that those deciding on what is – and is not – newsworthy are steeped in a white racial frame that hinders them from accurately perceiving the many ways that the 912 protest is rooted in racism and white supremacy.   The combination of this racism and the intense hatred of Obama makes for a dangerous combination.

Should We Regulate Extreme Racist Speech Like Other Democracies?

Candidates Have a Legal Right to Lie to Voters
Creative Commons License photo credit: Caveman 92223

The New York Times blog site (HT, Zulema) has an editorial on the white supremacist and “free speech” issues arising out of recent killings. After their opening they have comments from a variety of criminological and legal experts (Phyllis B. Gerstenfeld, criminal justice professor; Chip Berlet, Political Research Associates; Eric Hickey, criminology professor; Edward J. Eberle, comparative law professor; Eugene O’Donnell, John Jay College of Criminal Justice; and Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Simon Wiesenthal Center.)

Here is what the Times editors open with under the general theme of “room for debate”:

The killing of George Tiller, the abortion doctor in Wichita, Kan., and the attack on the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington yesterday have raised questions yet again about the role that extremist propaganda sites play in inciting violence among some militant believers. In both cases, the suspect arrested was well-known among fringe “communities” on the Web. Most legal scholars and many experts on extremist violence in the U.S. oppose reining in of such sites, or restrictions on extremist speech generally. Should the United States consider tighter restrictions on hate speech?

Notice the language here and in later parts of the analysts’ commentaries. They talk about “militant believers” from “fringe communities,” and sometimes call them “extremist.” One has to ask why they do not call these terrorists by the term “white terrorists”? Indeed, “white” rarely appears at all in the editorial or commentaries. If these white men had been “Middle Eastern extremists,” they likely would be called by that term. Do white men get a pass when it comes go this group-linked terrorism? And not one of the scholars even raises this question and the related one about the very long U.S. history of white terrorism (e.g., thousands killed by Klan-type groups) against people of color, as well as others like Jewish Americans.

The main debate in the Times blog here is over “free speech,” and how we cannot restrict white supremacist and other hate speech because of first amendment protections. One of the Times blog commentators, Edward J. Eberle, law professor at the Roger Williams University School of Law provides what I see as very interesting comments:

The United States is perhaps the only country in the world that allows for protection of hate speech. Much of this has to do with the idea that a free exchange of ideas is important and that allowing speech — even hate-filled speech — can be a safety valve that helps prevent outbreaks of violence. Under this view, speech needs to be regulated only when it will present a clear and present danger, as when it is a direct incitement to violence.

OK, why is this point not central in our media and political discussions: We are the only country that protects aggressive white supremacist and other aggressive hate speech. Why is that? Is it only because of our first amendment and conventional ideas of “free speech” in the United States? Is it because we really do cherish freedom more than other countries? Is our past and present history one of much greater freedom and liberty than other countries? Or is it because we (especially elite whites who run the country) do not see aggressive racist or other extremist hate speech as threatening to them and the values they care about?

Yet, the United States does NOT have unlimited “freedom of speech.” This notion is in fact a myth. As Eberle points out, things like obscene speech are not protected speech, “even when there is no concrete demonstration of harm.” Indeed, numerous types of speech are not protected, including obscene words, “fighting words,” some deceptive commercial ads, etc, as this comment from the Electronic Privacy Information Center (epic.org) indicates:

Obscenity. Speech defined as obscenity is outside the boundaries of First Amendment protection. As defined by Miller v. California, obscenity is speech that (1) the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find, taken as a whole, to appeal to the prurient interest; (2) depicts or describes in a patently offensive manner specifically defined sexual conduct; and (3) lacks as a whole serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value. The definition of obscenity, developed in 1973, focuses on a local “community standard,” and has proven to be the crux of litigation surrounding internet censorship cases, which by their nature cannot depend upon local community standards.

So, let me get this straight, we do legally ban obscene words, sexual words, obscene speech in many contexts even when these words have not been, or cannot be, proven to create significant harm. We still ban them in numerous settings regardless of the first amendment. But it is OK to spout much racist hate speech all over the place, including on the Internet, when one can show it causes some or much harm–including inciting people like white terrorists to commit violence against people of color and others? (Some “communities’ standards” and views of what is harmful clearly count more than others.)

Eberle notes how isolated the “free” United States is from other free countries, including those we consider our closet allies and kindred countries. Most do not protect serious hate speech, but prosecute it:

This is the case in all the European countries, like Germany, France, Britain, etc., and also Canada.

Notice that these are countries with high levels of free speech, in many ways countries where speech is more diverse and/or free than in the United States (as many newsstands in these countries reveal). Their legal systems recognize a conflict in human freedoms. The right of freedom of speech is not so absolute and does not always trump the right freedom from extremist hate speech and related hate crimes. Eberle notes what he calls the U.S.

individualist model of a right to self-determination and expression. For the Europeans and others, there is also a right to speak your mind, but there are some bounds based on respect of others.

So, how did we get to this backward place of protecting extreme racist speech over the right to be free from such vicious, often violence-generating hate speech attacks? Not one of these criminologists and law professors speaks to how we as a country might reasonably regulate the most extreme forms of racist hate speech, the kind designed to incite people to discriminate and commit hate crimes. These analysts do not consider what other “advanced” democratic countries do in this regard as legal or political strategies we might just consider in dealing with aggressive and virulent hate speech. Why are we so ethnocentric and provincial in not even knowing about or considering other, often more democratic, legal and political systems–and what they do to free their citizens from such virulent racist attacks?

Addendum: Paul Krassner reviews some of the array of speech censored and banned under the “obscenity” regulations of various places in the country. But no hate speech.

Everyday Language of White Racism

The former president of the American Anthropological Association, Jane Hill, has a fascinating new book, The Everyday Language of White Racism. She analyzes how whites’ racial oppression, white power and privilege, are daily created and reinforced in routine English. Central here is analysis of hundreds of cases of mock Spanish phrasing (“hasta la vista, baby; no problemo; knock back some cervazas, etc) and how widespread that is–and how it assumes racial stereotyping from the white racial frame about Mexicans, Mexican Americans, or other Latinos.

Hill reports, significantly, that almost no whites she has presented the material to are willing to see how such mock Spanish embeds racist stereotyping and framing.

She offers a probing and provocative analysis of whites’ use of other racist language, such as the insistence in Arizona on preserving the name of a mountain as “squaw peak,” “squaw” being a derogatory and racist term used by whites for Native American women some time now. There is also much language mocking by whites of so-called “black English” and of the speech of Asian Americans.

Hill offers excellent discussions of how and why whites come to define racist outbursts, such as those of Senator Trent Lott, comedian Michael Richards, and talk show host Don Imus, as only “gaffes” that do not reveal racist framing by whites who engage in such behavior. This research makes clear the central role of the English language in embedding and perpetuating the white framing and the system of racism that it defends.

Hill makes great points about how everyday racist language and “gaffes” contradict the arguments not only of white defenders of this still-racist society, but also of some critical race analysts who want to describe contemporary reality only as a “new racism.” In her view the widespread character of these examples of everyday racism, and the way they also get discussed obsessively and circulated extensively around the society, indicate that the old-fashioned racism of the past has not disappeared and been replaced by a new racism, not at all. At most, what is new is only a thin veneer of denial–as in white denial that mock Spanish and other language mocking is racist.

Research here takes notice too of the absences and omissions in what many whites do “say” in many cases. Much racist commentary now uses codewords that (wink wink) communicate racist ideas or inclinations without actually using the old racist words (for example, “lack of sense of humor” or “oversensitive”–or, even more concretely, “public housing, “inner city,” or “gangbangers”).

Hill is savvy about how much white defensive behavior operates when challenged, as in the cases of mock Spanish or the Arizona debate over the mountain peak. Whites have constantly denied that their perspective was racist and harmful, even as many people of color pointed out the harm and damage the mocking language caused. A key factor in how the white racial frame and systemic racism operate today is what Hernan Vera and I have called “social alexithymia,” the inability of whites to understand where people of color are coming from, the lack of cross-racial empathy. As Hill puts it, this lack of empathy

Involves a chain of reasoning that goes something like this: “I am a good and normal mainstream sort of White person. I am not a racist, because racists are bad and marginal people. Therefore, if you understood my words to be racist, you must be mistaken. I may have used language that would be racist in the mouth of a racist person, but if I did so, I was joking. If you understood my meaning to be racist, not only do you insult me, but you lack a sense of humor, and you are oversensitive.” Notice that this entire chain of reasoning makes the speaker the sole authority over what her worlds shall mean.

One central question today is: Why are whites so unwilling to listen to the views of those who are targeted daily by racism, even about the reality, character, harm, and pain of that everyday racism? The intensiveness and emotional scale of that denial seem to signal substantial proof of the continuing reality of everyday racism.

Mocking Black Names in Covina: How “Liberal” are Our Youth?

There seems to be no end to mocking of the language and speech of people of color by whites. A Los Angeles Times article recounts some mocking of the names of black high school students, likely from a white high school student:

Administrators at Charter Oak High School in Covina are investigating how a student on the yearbook staff was able to get fake names for Black Student Union members, including “Tay Tay Shaniqua,” “Crisphy Nanos” and “Laquan White,” into the published yearbook.

Beyond this hateful racist mocking there are deeper issues. Whites and some others do not seem to understand that many working-class and middle-class black parents provide their children with nontraditional first names to provide them with something special and distinctive–and not with the “white” first names that are commonplace in society. (Adia has made this point to me in discussion.) Such naming is often a type of resistance to whiteness and white folkways. Historically, whites have done a lot of mocking of the language and speech of all Americans of color–African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, and others—and name mocking in the Covina case seems in this tradition of negative racial framing of Americans of color. Mock Spanish and mock Black English seem to be esp. popular these days, including on the Internet. There are many websites mocking the speech of other Americans of color. Whites often say such mocking is “just joking,” but as we have known since Freud, racist joking is often far more than joking.

In movies, on television, in newspaper and magazine columns, and on the Internet whites, including well-educated whites, are among those who mock or ridicule black language and behavior. In Hollywood films the “good guys” often speak prestige versions of the English language, while those portrayed as “bad guys,” including black Americans and other Americans of color, often speak some negatively stigmatized version of English

Anthropologist Jane Hill has studied mock Spanish, which is common in the US. Otherwise monolingual whites use made-up terms such as “no problemo,” “el cheapo,” and “hasty banana,” and phrases like “hasta la vista, baby.” Mock Spanish is on billboards and in movies, gift shops, and boardrooms. Racialized ridicule of language, speech, and naming reveals an underlying stereotyping of people of color among many whites who might reject more openly racist practices.

The Covina school officials have not yet comprehended fully the damage done to the Black students and have weakly responded in regard to remedies, so far at least:

Calling the incident a “regrettable mistake,” Clint Harwick, superintendent of the Charter Oak Unified School District, said Friday that school officials had spoken to the student believed to be responsible…. The school has made stickers with the correct names available for students wishing to cover over the false names. [Principal] Wiard said the school was also considering replacing the entire page because so many names, not just those of BSU members, were incorrect.

However, black parents see this as far too little too late:

[Toi] Jackson, who said the school was insensitive to her daughter and the other club members, said she expected the school to take “significant” measures to correct the yearbooks and discipline any responsible student. But more than anything, she said, she hoped everyone in the community could learn from this incident. “No one wants their character to be attached to something negative for nothing, for being African American,” she said. “All I know is, at the end of the day, it’s all wrong. It affects us, and it affects my child.”

Ridicule of African American and Latino (or other Americans of color) names and language or accent is usually racist because it has meaning only if one knows the underlying racist stereotypes and images. While it may appear to some relatively harmless, social science research shows that such mocking enables whites to support traditional hierarchies of racial privilege without seeming to be racist in the old-fashioned, blatant sense. Researcher Rosina Lippi-Green has noted, such mocking shows a “general unwillingness to accept the speakers of that language and the social choices they have made as viable and functional…. We are ashamed of them, and because they are part of us, we are ashamed of ourselves.” Language mocking and subordination are not about standards for speaking as much as about determining that some people are not worth listening to and treating as equals.

Texas college student blogger LeftofCollegeStation, who called my attention to this now national story (thanks!), has a good comment on local action that should be taken:

This becomes an example to white students of race relations, and the way in which the school administrators handle the situation will give the students a perception of what is acceptable. This is absolutely giving white students the wrong impression. It is giving the message that if something offensive is done to a person of another race that pacification and appeasement are acceptable. That the only yearbooks that will be changed are the yearbooks of the students that are members of the BSU sends this message. Charter Oak High School like many institutions in America is going to ignore an opportunity to talk about race in a constructive way. This incident will be brushed aside, and called an “isolated incident.” However, as many of the people in the community and in the country know, this was not an isolated incident. Racism happens every day in the hallways of our schools, in the offices where we work, and on television that we watch.

Well said. Dear readers, what do you make of this incident? Have you heard of similar mocking?

White Students and White Privilege

Social psychologists Nyla Branscombe, Michael Schmitt, and Kristin Schiffhauer have reported on a very interesting study on how whites’ racist views are heightened when they are pressed to think about their white racial privilege. (“Racial Attitudes in Response to Thoughts of White Privilege,” European Journal of Social Psychology, 37, 2007: 203-215).

In their experimental studies, white undergraduates who highly identified with being white and who were pressed to think about white privilege (compared to controls and those who were asked to think about white disadvantages) responded with enhanced racist attitudes as measured by a modern-racism scale. The white students did this, apparently, to further legitimatize in their minds their white privilege and society’s racial inequality. Thus, those who strongly identified as white justified their privileged status by increased denial of the existence of discrimination and related racial views. In addition, this effect was found to be independent of conservative-liberal political orientation, indicating that their denials of discrimination did not reflect a sense of some violation of conservative political principles (photo credit).

These data not only show critical aspect of the contemporary white racial frame we often discuss here but also fit well with social science interpretations stressing that racial ideas and prejudices are not individualistic but connected to a sense of white-group position—an idea accented by sociologist Herbert Blumer. There are interesting societal implications to speculate on here. The researchers suggest from their data that whites may be most likely to assert or display openly their blatantly racist attitudes during times of social change, especially when there is significant likelihood of upward mobility for people of color that threatens their white identity or their white privileges.

Their data also point up the continuing, overtly racist ideas, about a range of racial issues, among many young college-educated white Americans—the ones who, according to numerous media and scholarly pundits, are supposed to be very nonracist and the hope for a nonracist future for this country. Such data are not encouraging, but few public commentators seem willing to confront or discuss the large amount of social science data on continuing white racism in the US.