Myth of whiteness #4: Racism = individual bias

“Kim, we already know this.” You are boring us!

Yes, I realize most readers are aware of systemic racism. Why are we diving into these myths of whiteness? Perhaps most of you already understand the 4 myths I have covered in this series. I fully acknowledge this may feel pretty basic. So why cover these topics?

We need to get back to some basics if we want to expand the base of white allies and accomplices. You may understand these myths and the harm they do, but many MANY white people in your lives do not. They have not had this exposure. They are operating with a lot of psychology of whiteness below the surface that needs help being brought out into the conscious sphere for interrogation. Whether you are learning about these myths for the first or 50th time, the more we dig into the intricacies, the more effective we can be in conversations to shatter some of these myths that serve to mainstem white supremacy.

Myth = racism is about individual prejudice

Have I mentioned that racism is a system yet? White people tend to believe that racism is an individual problem. We find comfort in knowing those white people over there need to work on their racism as individuals, but we do not have that disease. Connecting ourselves to that system of injustice brings back that old friend cognitive dissonance. So best to just shove that unconscious thought way way down and focus on “racists” (meaning not us). Backn in 2005, I started calling this psychological trend “white distancing.” We want to get our inner selves as far away from being implicated in racism as possible. To do so, we implement “white distancing strategies” as very effective means to protect the ego. If you want more details about these strategies, I published this qualitative study of how white women distance themselves.

The more we can practice thinking about the systems in place to maintain white privilege and power, the more we can move away from thinking of white supremacy as ONLY relevant to extremist hate groups. And that matters because if racism is only about extremists, then there is nothing to be done. If we accept that hate groups are the only racists left, then we simply reject them as ignorant. No major system of oppression to address or dismantle. Our hands are clean.

Systemic and structural racism

When we say “systemic,” this refers to the societal level trends and patterns we can track across group experiences. And those group differences in how the trends and patterns play out, for the most part, are divergent. Essentially, systemic draws our attention to the systems level that includes how society functions, shared beliefs about who is superior, who is less than, who is likely a criminal, who can be trusted, who we should call the cops on if they are waiting in a coffee shop, who is worthy of a leadership position or access to a quality education. Our belief systems about racial groups translate into behaviors which translate into social norms and practices (and vice versa as a cycle).

Whether we say systemic racism, structural racism, or white supremacy, all of this is truly about lifting our gaze from the individual level to take a view from 20,000 feet. We tend to be overly obsessed with individual prejudice. And while individual prejudice is definitely worthy of attention, this obsession keeps our focus away from being able to even consider that there is an invisible, sneaky, infinitely complex system at play.

One of the most important learning goals for any white ally is to become an exceptional systems-level critical thinker. The more you flex your critical analysis muscles to recognize patterns of systemic and structural racism, the better prepared you will be to take action to dismantle unjust systems.

How can you dismantle a system you cannot recognize?


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
Drop your email to get social justice updates (resources, tips, and truth-telling).