In other words, “good white people are not racist”
As Peggy McIntosh has reminded us in her writing and in her keynotes and workshops, one of the main myths she encounters as a barrier to white ally action is the notion that if I believe I am a good person, then I cannot be racist or contributing to systemic racism. This could not be further from the truth. Good white people are perhaps the most influential group currently upholding systemic white supremacy. But good white people could also be a major influence in tearing it all down. Good white people can be part of the revolution to build a truly healthy and just society. But we cannot do so if we continue to believe this myth. Good white people, we are implicated in this system.
Why the obsession with goodness?
My thinking on this is that the psychology of whiteness contains sub-conscious awareness that connects our white selves to systemic racism. On some deeper level, we know we are implicated in systemic white supremacy, benefit unfairly from privilege, and hold responsibility for taking action to change things. And when we know we have not taken action AND that we are implicated, the cognitive dissonance that results must be rectified and diminished. Being confronted with race or racism as a topic of discussion, especially when being challenged to alter our words or change our behavior, results in phrases like:
“But I am a good person. I am not racist.”
This common verbalization represents the defense mechanism kicking in to protect the white ego. The implied belief is that a white person cannot be nice and of sound moral character while carrying racism (e.g., stereotypes, prejudices, biases). Another implied belief of the good not racist white person is that racism is simply an individual problem. We will tackle that in our next post of this 4-week series.
False dichotomy of good/bad
Humans socialized in the U.S. context tend to consistently over-simplify human-ness. I say U.S. context because some cultures of the world are quite equipped to hold complexity, accept multi-faceted truths within one person, and embrace the beauty of such layered hearts and minds. Not here. Dare I say U.S. cultural norms promote an obsession with simplicity. Dichotomous thinking is king. Anyone who teaches has encountered the deeply rooted barriers created by dichotomous thinking. Examples: You are either good at math or not. Are you a girl or a boy? You are either with us or against us. Am I smart or dumb? Black or white. Right or left. Gay or straight. Science or religion. And the one that comes up here: People are either good or bad.
In reality, most individuals are infinitely complex with a myriad of what we might label positive, pro-social characteristics and at least some less than pro-social qualities. For some, the negative (not so pro-social) qualities will outweigh the positive. For hopefully many of us, the positive will outweigh the negative. But no one gets away with 100% pro-social characteristics we would label as “good.” No one. We are all works in progress.
We are quite uncomfortable with anything that hints at a paradox. A partner/spouse can be extremely caring AND yell at their partner in an argument. My female friend identifies as heterosexual AND is attracted to women. And white individuals will need to work toward accepting this truth:
I can be a nice, loving person AND contribute to maintaining systemic racism.
Myth #4: racism = individual bias
The good = anti-racism myth also rests on the assumption that racism is an individual problem. We will tackle that myth in the final post of this series.
Learn more about the White Anti-Racism and Action course I created for (aspiring) white allies and my group coaching program for social justice academics called Choose Your Own Adventure.
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