“White Delusion” & Racial Debates

In his New York Times article* today, Nicholas Kristof examines the ways whites constantly underestimate the prevelance of racial bias in our society.  Kristof labels this “white delusion.” In other words, white attitudes on race in America constantly deny a vast array of facts and statistics. Here is an excerpt from Kristof’s piece:

“In 1962, 85 percent of white Americans told Gallup that black children had as good a chance as white kids of getting a good education. The next year, in another Gallup survey, almost half of whites said that blacks had just as good a chance as whites of getting a job.”

“In retrospect, we can see that these white beliefs were delusional, and in other survey questions whites blithely acknowledged racist attitudes. In 1963, 45 percent said that they would object if a family member invited a black person home to dinner….”

“Half of white Americans today say that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks. Really? That contradicts overwhelming research showing that blacks are more likely to be suspended from preschool, to be prosecuted for drug use, to receive longer sentences, to be discriminated against in housing, to be denied job interviews, to be rejected by doctors’ offices, to suffer bias in almost every measurable sector of daily life.”

In certain cases, this “white delusion” results from an ignorance of the facts and statistics. But even when presented with facts and statistics which contradict their stated beliefs, many whites continue to believe either that racism is relatively over or less prevalant than POC maintain or that whites are now the ones discriminated against. This delusion is built into the ways white identity is constructed, and the rules of that identity concerning the nature of knowledge. Some of the rules of white identity are: Ignore our racial history and assume that there is no connection between the past and the present (if the white person cannot see the connection); assume that blacks and people of color are not credible witnesses to their own existence and lives; assume that only the white perspective and epistemology matters and gets to determine what is objective and what is the nature of reality.

Thus, “white delusion” not only denies facts and statistics. It also assumes white superiority in perceiving the nature of reality; it denies that people of color may possess knowledge, experience, and an epistemology that exists outside of or beyond white understanding. Most people of color can adequately describe how whites perceive the world and constitute their identity. Whites cannot do the same for people of color. On the one hand, this is just an example of DuBois’s double consciousness. But because POC see through “white delusion” we actually see and know a reality whites do not see and are in denial of. And yet, when we describe that reality to whites, whites automatically dismiss our description as delusional, reverse racism, race baiting, playing the race card, etc.

This echoes Baldwin’s assertion that the anger of whites over race is intrinsically different from that of blacks and other POC. Whites are angry because their delusions are being threatened, because they want to keep their denial of reality; more importantly, that denial rests upon the assumption that they alone get to arbitrate what knowledge is legitimate and what knowledge is not. Thus, their denial rests upon an assumption of their supremacy–not just that they have superior knowledge but that they are the ultimate arbiters of what is legitimate and what is illegitimate knowledge. In contrast, POC are angry because a racist system denies them equal opportunity, equal power and equal rights. POC are angry because they dealing with people who refuse to see the reality they have created and which POC suffer under. POC are angry because what they see and experience every day in their lives is being denied by white definitions of reality and because whites possess the power to over and over deny the reality of POC. Unlike whites, POC understand not only that the white perception of reality exists –we could not survive in this society without knowing that–but also why it exists and the history which created that perception of reality (which goes all the way back to slavery for blacks).

Ultimately, whites are angry because the power and privileges they receive from a racially biased system are being challenged; those powers and privileges include the power to deny even the existence of a separate knowledge which blacks and other POC possess and whites do not.

“White delusion” has constantly been maintained this week in public conversations where white anger and black anger are posited as equally justified or the same. This is simply not true. Not only are the realities whites experience vastly different from that experienced by blacks and other POC, but the ways we construct our identities and process our knowledge of the world is also vastly different. In this way, as much as I admire Obama, he’s wrong: We are not closer than we think; we are farther apart than most whites and, as Obama demonstrates, some POC understand.*

* http://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/14/opinion/a-history-of-white-delusion.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-left-region&region=opinion-c-col-left-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-left-region&_r=0

* Caveat: I suspect that much of what Obama says in public about race is an example of signifying–speaking to whites in a way that will convey one message, while hiding or signifying another message for blacks who will read his message differently than whites (c.f., Keye & Peele’s Luther, Obama’s anger translator; or Gates, The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism)


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