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.


  1. lou

    Joe, this is so similar to the research that I conduct at both historically white colleges and historically black colleges. Students of color often clearly observe the white racial frame in action. Although the majority of the people perpetuating racism are extremely young, the sad fact is that they too hide behind the rhetoric or “colorblindness.”

  2. I was an academic in Illinois, now retired and a writer. Your post asserts the concept I tried to make with students, mainly white, but increasing numbers of students of color during my final teaching years. The ingrained–perhaps bio-chemical– fear of difference sustains these attitudes and behaviors. I have no assurance that any tactic “worked” during a thirty year career. Few Euro-Americans are able to be non-racist in the positive aspect of the term. Many would like to be so; many assume they are. Most do not have the experience to fully grasp the depth of the problem.

    Presuming that racism no longer exists is the fallacy among younger people. Older ones think, “Haven’t things improved?”, thus assuaging their conscience.

    I would, often, personalize racist views by reminding students of their own emtions when embarased, etc. and asking that they grant others the same biological (emotional) pain. I do not know if this had an effect? It is trite to suggest, but I find fear and ignorance the bases of
    the stupidity. Many, in all groups, are unaware of “racism,” the fear of difference of those who are racially the same, e.g. Africans (Hutu-Tutsi and Europeans (German-Polish)etc. On my worst days I wish to find an island or a cave into which to escape.

  3. Joe Author

    Gwendoline and Lou make excellent points. Notice the deep emotions of the white racist framing and the impact of the frame on those who are targeted. Most conventional “racial and ethnic relations” research and courses tend to ignore the huge impact of this framing on those it targets—– and the emotions of both those oppressed (pain, anger) and those who are the oppressors (fear, greed, power desire).

  4. Joe Author

    Ryon, excellent question. For most whites, operating out of the white racial frame is like being the proverbial fish in water. It is so normal they do not “see” it in their daily lives, and when it is called to their to their attention, as by dissenters, they use various “I am not a racist” defenses that interfere with seeing it for what it really is. Most can “see” and know that some of it is wrong when it is called out, but not its full racist impact and meaning. This is complex , but the white sense of the racial frame as normal is the key. They assume they as “decent people” (that is, “decent whites”) are virtuous and thus can not be evil when operating out of the old racial frame (such as in racist joking),–that is, they as “good people” cannot thus be “racist” by definition…. JF

  5. Ryon

    Thank you Dr. Feagin….

    Is there a Latino racial framework, and if so, how does it differ from the white and black racial framework? And if we control for age, are there differences in each racial framework?

  6. Joe

    Ryon, Yes, there are both white racist subframes that target Latino and Asian Americans, constructed on the older anti-black and anti-Indian racial framing. As new groups were brought into the society as labor for creating white wealth, they too got “framed” by powerful whites.

    Many Americans of color operate, to a significant degree, out of some version of the white racial frame.

    The white racial frame does vary some over time , and by white group, but the core “bits” have been pretty much the same for hundreds of years, sadly.

    There are also counter frames, anti-racist frames, created esp. by those who are targeted by the white racial frame.

  7. I’ll be honest. My original comment was going to be something about avoiding sacred cows, the possibility for ugly but ultimately harmless jokes, and a (weak) defense of the jokers on the grounds that they are merely uncreative in their humor.

    But the more I thought, I just couldn’t. Ugly racist humor isn’t a sacred cow, and if our dear jokers were uncreative or even just using ‘safe’ humor – well, that doesn’t bode well for their default FRAME, now does it.

    The idea of an ugly but harmless joke gets me the furthest until I imagine telling any joke with its ‘butt’ present. Oops.

    I wonder if anyone has actionable advice in dealing with the white racial frame? Will this appear in your book? It is extraordinarily difficult to interrupt the group in this way and usually results in an exclusion (a quiet, modern, not-expressed-in-polite-company exclusion.). It’s like arguing about evolution – how do you concisely and effectively respond to “Oh, lighten up dude” or “Chill out nobody really means it” ??

  8. Doc,

    I am a white seventh-day adventist minister and I have my own website dedicated to educating people on race and culture. I battle back and forth on facebook as well posting essays on racism, whiteness and white privilege.

    I am getting so frustrated the cloud of self-righteousness and denial is so thick it is sickening. I even have a childhood friend who is half native american and white who is constantly defending this country and his individual effort and that other minorities can make it if they just work hard. When I share with him the historical past of this country to his people it just seems it goes through one ear and out the other. He also doesn’t recognize that benefits that he gets from the govt that other especially blacks do not get yet has the nerve to tell them to pull themselves by their bootstraps. I believe he lives in whiteness.

    Which book of your dealing mainly with individualism, work hard and you can make it arguments? I have Racist America and been strumming through it but haven’t found anything in depth on those arguments.

    Thx, Pastor Tony Andrews

  9. Joe

    Tony, glad you are working hard on all this. Keep it up. I develop these WRF ideas in books, Systemic Racism (Routledge 2006) and Two Faced Racism (routledge 2007), especially the first chapters in both. I also have one, The White Racial Frame (routledge) that will be out in about a month. It is very easy to be brainwashed in this country. Critical thinking is is in short supply, but it can be honed and taught.


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