Confronting White Responses to Racism: De-centering Whiteness and White Fragility

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s with daily contact with what Ta-Nehisi Coates labels as “oafish” racists. These white men of my childhood and teen years were brazen and arrogant in their racial slurs and embarrassingly ignorant philosophies about race.

One oafish racist calmly explained to me that Black people were the result of Cain mating with apes after being cast out of the Garden of Eden. His “it’s in the Bible” racism was common in my South Carolina life.

But this is not about some racism in the past. Oafish racists remain throughout the U.S., not some vestige of the Old South. Social media and the Trump presidency have allowed and even welcomed overt racists into the American “both sides” approach to the free press and free speech.

However, the specter of oafish racists allows white people to keep whiteness and white fragility centered while refusing to acknowledge the greater danger posed by whiteness throughout the twentieth century and in 2020; as Martin Luther King Jr. confronted:

A leading voice in the chorus of social transition belongs to the white liberal…. Over the last few years many Negroes have felt that their most troublesome adversary was not the obvious bigot of the Ku Klux Klan or the John Birch Society, but the white liberal who is more devoted to “order” than to justice, who prefers tranquility to equality….

The White liberal must see that the Negro needs not only love, but justice. It is not enough to say, “We love Negroes, we have many Negro friends.” They must demand justice for Negroes. Love that does not satisfy justice is no love at all. It is merely a sentimental affection, little more than what one would love for a pet. Love at its best is justice concretized. Love is unconditional. It is not conditional upon one’s staying in his place or watering down his demands in order to be considered respectable….

The white liberal must rid himself of the notion that there can be a tensionless transition from the old order of injustice to the new order of justice…. The Negro has not gained a single right in America without persistent pressure and agitation….

As the U.S. experiences a revitalization of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the wake of repeated police violence toward Black citizens, the killing of George Floyd as a notable flash point, white Americans are daily confronted with the recognition of racism, white privilege, and racial inequity.

White nationalists and racists have been especially emboldened for years now under Trump, but white people who claim to be invested in eradicating racism must also be invested in eradicating white privilege while working to resist the language of white fragility and centering whiteness.

A policeman’s knee on the neck of George Floyd, a state-endorsed execution lasting 8:46, demands a response from white people.

Consider these white responses to racism:

  • “Not me.”
  • “Not all white people.”
  • “Not all police.”
  • “I don’t see race.”
  • “I have Black friends.”
  • “What about Black-on-Black crime?”
  • “If they would just do what the police said, they would not have been shot/killed.”
  • “I am not a racist, but …”
  • “What about reverse racism?”
  • “I don’t have white privilege because I was born poor.”
  • “I didn’t own slaves, and slavery ended in the 1800s.”
  • “Heritage, not hate.”
  • “Taking down monuments and renaming buildings and schools is erasing history.”
  • “The Civil War was fought over states’ rights, not slavery.”
  • “There is only one race, the human race.”
  • “All lives matter.”
  • “What about affirmative action? What about Miss Black America? What about Black colleges?”

These white responses are grounded in two racist sources: white fragility and centering whiteness.

Racism is not just anti-Black; racism is whiteness.

Any white person responding to racism with an “I” statement is requesting that they and their whiteness (and delicate sensibilities) remain centered when the focus should remain on racism and its consequences for Black citizens.

To understand the centering of whiteness we need only to confront monuments and building/schools named after historical leaders with racists ideologies and practices.

De-centering whiteness looks like the statues of the Little Rock Nine, the young Black people who suffered the consequences of racism:

White fragility (“Not me!” and “Not all white people”) responses are ironic in that they unconsciously admit that centering whiteness has been the norm of their lives and their defensiveness is a fear of losing that centering. No white person can be allowed to continue to cling to their whiteness if racism is to be eradicated.

Racism and white privilege are inseparable, and that means by simply being white, all white people are moment by moment benefitting from white privilege and racism even as they did not create them, even as they ideologically denounce them.

Being white means being complicit in racism, which means to be white is to be racist.

Anti-racism language and practices, then, are not when a white person says “not me” or “not all white people.” There can be no “but” response to confronting racism.

As with all equity work, good intentions are not enough.

Policing shooting in the back and killing Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta rests most recently in the wake of civil unrest after the killing of George Floyd.

The site of the killing of Brooks, a Wendy’s, has been razed, and the centering of whiteness seeks to keep the public gaze on the outcomes of the racist killing—property as a marker for whiteness and rioting as code for racist stereotypes—and not the racism that precipitated these events.

Less dramatic is the response of white fragility in language that makes how white people feel and respond more important than the racism.

A different dramatic is pop culture where Blackness is elevated only in relationship to centering whiteness—The Help, Green Book, The Matrix trilogy, To Kill a Mockingbird.

To be white and anti-racism is to acknowledge whiteness is always complicit in racism. To be white and anti-racism is to work to de-center whiteness, to resist the language of white fragility and respectability politics, and to eradicate white privilege.

There is no room in anti-racism for “not me” or “not all white people.”

Here are resources for understanding white privilege, centering whiteness, white fragility, and respectability politics:

Racism scale copy
rigid refusal