Social Justice Usage
Source: DiAngelo, Robin J. White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018, pp. 43–44.
Countless studies show empirically that people of color are discriminated against in the workplace. Imagine you had empirical evidence that your coworker was unintentionally discriminating against people of color during the hiring process. Given your belief in equality, you would probably think that it was imperative to inform the person so that he or she could stop. You pointed this discrimination out in the most diplomatic way possible. Still, what do you think your colleague’s response would be? Would you hear gratitude that you had brought that fact to the person’s attention? Probably not. More likely, your coworker would respond with hurt, anger, and defensiveness, insisting that he or she had not racially discriminated but had chosen the most qualified candidates. And the individual would sincerely believe that this was true, even though you had empirical evidence that it was not. This defensiveness is rooted in the false but widespread belief that racial discrimination can only be intentional. Our lack of understanding about implicit bias leads to aversive racism.
Aversive racism is a manifestation of racism that well-intentioned people who see themselves as educated and progressive are more likely to exhibit. It exists under the surface of consciousness because it conflicts with consciously held beliefs of racial equality and justice. Aversive racism is a subtle but insidious form, as aversive racists enact racism in ways that allow them to maintain a positive self-image (e.g., “I have lots of friends of color”; “I judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin”).
Whites enact racism while maintaining a positive self-image in many ways:
- Rationalizing racial segregation as unfortunate but necessary to access “good schools”
- Rationalizing that our workplaces are virtually all white because people of color just don’t apply
- Avoiding direct racial language and using racially coded terms such as urban, underprivileged, diverse, sketchy, and good neighborhoods
- Denying that we have few cross-racial relationships by proclaiming how diverse our community or workplace is
- Attributing inequality between whites and people of color to causes other than racism
New Discourses Commentary
In Critical Social Justice, “aversive racism” is a term that is used to describe ways in which racism is expressed through coded language because the white people (or relatively more racially privileged people, in general) involved are racists but know it’s not acceptable to participate in racism, even though they cannot help themselves (see also, complicity). It is one of the behaviors of white people who are trying to be, or at least to position themselves as, “good whites,” but whose racism leaks through the cracks because, from the position of Theory, of course it does. It specifically refers to the application of euphemisms and politically correct language around race, putatively as a means of hiding their real racist intentions (see also, mask), or changing the subject away from accusations of having racist motivations.
Aversive racism is often attached to the idea of implicit bias and is assumed to be the set of behaviors of people who know better than to be racist, but who are racist at the “unconscious” level. In practice, then, while it would have some legitimate applications, it’s often a term used to problematize good-intentioned people who are trying to be polite and to speak in culturally sensitive ways about race and racism, or who aren’t making race an issue in situations when, statistically, it can be construed to be one (as in the example below about the low-income neighborhood that is demographically mostly black). That is, it is a way a Critical Social Justice advocate can force an issue to be about race even when one is studiously trying to leave race out of it.
Source: DiAngelo, Robin J. White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018, pp. 44–45.
Notice that when I simply ask what city the house is in, she repeats the story about the neighborhood being so bad that her friends need guns. When I ask if the neighborhood is black, she is comfortable confirming that it is. But when I tell her that I am interested in how whites talk about race without talking about race, she switches the narrative. Now her concern is about not wanting me to live so far away. This is a classic example of aversive racism: holding deep racial disdain that surfaces in daily discourse but not being able to admit it because the disdain conflicts with our self-image and professed beliefs.
Readers may be asking themselves, “But if the neighborhood is really dangerous, why is acknowledging this danger a sign of racism?” Research in implicit bias has shown that perceptions of criminal activity are influenced by race. White people will perceive danger simply by the presence of black people; we cannot trust our perceptions when it comes to race and crime. But regardless of whether the neighborhood is actually more or less dangerous than other neighborhoods, what is salient about this exchange is how it functions racially and what that means for the white people engaged in it. For my friend and me, this conversation did not increase our awareness of the danger of some specific neighborhood. Rather, the exchange reinforced our fundamental beliefs about black people. Toni Morrison uses the term race talk to capture “the explicit insertion into everyday life of racial signs and symbols that have no meaning other than positioning African Americans into the lowest level of the racial hierarchy.” Casual race talk is a key component of white racial framing because it accomplishes the interconnected goals of elevating whites while demeaning people of color; race talk always implies a racial “us” and “them.”
Revision date: 6/25/20