Racism: Negative Effects on Whites

Over the years I have often heard talk about how racism has impacted white people. Usually that discussion comes in the context of an assumption that, if whites can see that racism has negative effects on them as a group, that realization will motivate action to eliminate racism.

I do not share that assumption; racism is a far more powerful and recalcitrant force than this assumption acknowledges, clinging stubbornly wherever it is lodged.

In addition the loss of benefits, privilege, and power which accrue to whites from racism may simply be a price which not many whites are willing to pay to bring an end to racism. While few whites would admit, and may not even recognize this dynamic, it is one which I believe functions to keep some whites from active anti-racism. To measure the benefits, privilege and power which make life better for us than for people of color could, in some subliminal process of thought and feeling outweigh the negatives. Peggy McIntosh has written about those privileges with insight and persuasiveness*. Those of us who are white can balance the negative effects of racism with those privileges; there are no balancing positives to racism to tempt people of color.

While I am not sanguine that identifying the negative effects will motivate many whites to act against racism, it may still be helpful to probe thought about the subject. So here are some convictions to which I have come about how racism hurts those of us who are white. The generalizations here do not necessarily apply to all whites, they are not in any particular order, they are not expanded or explained, and I am sure that they do not represent all that I will want to include immediately after the list is finished.

Some of the negative effects of racism on whites:

– Racism has distorted reality for many whites. Teachings about history, the world, the pursuits of thought, expressions of culture, and personal relationships have for most whites been both limited and false.

– Racism has taught whites that we are members of a race which is superior, and that assumption creates false expectations and warped illusions.

– Racism, particularly during the period when Africans were enslaved, taught white men that it is all right to rape black women, and also exacerbated the devaluation of white women.

– Racism has taught whites that we are entitled to privilege as a right of birth, undercutting the assumption of achieved merit which is one of the cornerstones of democracy.

– Racism, present at the foundation of our nation, left a country built on a fundamental and terrible contradiction between a belief in equality and a belief in white superiority. That contradiction remains unresolved.

– Racism has produced in white society a mental health problem: characteristic responses among many whites are dominated by unfounded fear of blacks, hatred, suspicion, guilt, shame, and jealousy. These words are the language of disease.

– The cost for whites who want to move beyond racism has been a high one, measured in time, emotion, psychic energy, and sometimes money.

– Racism, as one of the root causes of poverty, costs our nation huge amounts of money, measured in crime, unemployment and related social ills.

– Racism has set whites who are made poor in our society in competition with people of color, and has also increased the separation between classes among whites.

– Racism, infecting the minds and hearts of whites who have built the institutions of our society, has led us to create systems which do not produce goods, services, nor allow access to resources for people of color as they do for whites, resulting in injustices which plague our systemic health.

– Racism has blinded many whites who do not see nor understand when they are offensive to people of other races in thought, word, and act.

– Racism, practiced as discrimination, frequently denies to white institutions and businesses the talents and experience of people of color.

– Racism, practiced as housing discrimination, has too often created white ghettos, where white children and adults are isolated from the rich interactions which can come from living with people whose life experience by race has been different.

– Racism has created a justice system which does not deliver equal justice to whites and people of color, a system which reflects dishonor on white society. (You can expand this into most areas of our systems, i.e., health care, employment, and others.)

– Racism has taught us to incorporate into our thinking and speaking negative stereotypes that perpetuate racist ideas.

– In our relations with other nations racism has led us to actions which prejudice large segments of the world population against us, and complicate our role in the world.

– Racism has led us to ignore the teachings of native peoples about how to relate to the natural world, contributing to our environmental problems.

Here is where you can start adding your own thoughts to the beginnings above … keep it going! Above all, find some places where you can redouble your efforts to bring about anti-racist changes.

* See White Privilege and Male Privilege, by Peggy McIntosh, 1988. Available from the Center for Research on Women, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA 02181. For a more thorough analysis, see Impacts of Racism on White Americans, edited by Bowser and Hunt, Sage Publications, 1981.