Whites are Not All “Racist,” and Insisting that We Are is Counterproductive.

Do those of us in the United States live in a country plagued with the continuing legacy of slavery? Yes, we do. Is systematic racial bias in education, in opportunity, in health care, and in most walks of life an on-going struggle for persons who live here but do not look to be of European descent? Yes, it absolutely is. But is every American who looks or claims to be “White” really a racist? Before we answer with a resounding yes to that question too, could we please stop for a moment and ask what that word communicates.

I have worked hard to be aware of the barriers placed in the way of my friends, colleagues, neighbors, and strangers who have a skin tone that is different from mine. I try very hard to avoid allowing bias to taint my decision-making process. My best friend where I work is Black. One of my favorite all-time “bosses” (although she hates that word, and she was more a leader than just a boss) is Native American. I have Black and Native American friends (although to be honest, mostly I think about them simply as my friends rather than identifying them by race). I adopted, raised, and dearly loved two Black children, now adults whom I continue to love. And I absolutely hate, detest, deplore being called racist.

Why do I have such a strong and visceral reaction to being called racist when I fully acknowledge that I am White, I have benefited from White privilege all my life, and I live in a country where there are countless institutional reminders of the legacy of slavery (as well as the systemic mistreatment of Native Americans, and periodic systemic oppression of many others)? The answer turns a lot on what the word “racist” conveys.

To me racism means something more than an unintended bias. To me (and I suspect to many others) it implies a decree of intention, an affirmative believe that I and those like me are innately superior, and others are inferior, deserving of less. Racist, to me, implies a harmful intent. I am not alone in understanding racism in this way.[1]

When I think of racists, I think of the Ku Klux Klan and Nazis. I think of murderers and people who hate others based solely on the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes or the texture of their hair. I picture cowardly vigilantes who hide their faces in order to perpetuate their nasty little view that only Whites are deserving of respect, dignity, and basic human rights. I think of people who would gladly harm others who they perceive as different from themselves on the basis of what I see as a socio-political construct. I am far from perfect, but I do not deserve to be compared to those kinds of people. And yet, when I read that “all White people are racist,”[2] it is that thought which is communicated to me.

I understand that there are words and phrases that are triggers for other folks. Certainly the N word is one such, and it is hard to see that one as anything but a degrading slur when uttered by anyone who is White.[3] But what about “Redskins”? Sports fans and the owner of the Washington Redskins franchise called that a proud tribute to Native Americans.[4] At least some Native Americans disagreed, finding the term to be derogatory and one that was often synonymous with “savages.”[5] No wonder that they found the word to be incredibly offensive, while others had no such association.

In much the same way, being called a racist offends me, even if the person using it did not subjectively intend to claim that I act intentionally to disparage and mistreat members of other races. Moreover, I do not think that makes me “fragile.”[6] No one suggests that being offended by racial slurs makes members of racial minorities “fragile,” so why do my feelings not count?[7] I am a victim of the legacy of slavery too, albeit to an extent far different from persons of color. But I too have children who face prejudice and the risk of death at the hands of scared police officers trained with the false narrative that all traffic stops are inherently dangerous.[8] I hate the injustice in this society, in my society. I hate that there are adults and children who live in poverty and have so many barriers to success placed in their path. I hate the legacy of slavery, and I hate that we have so much difficulty in moving forward. We are all victims of the evil legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and policies that I too would label as racist.

I know there are true racists in this country, more than I had suspected until recently. And I am not offended when people are called out for being racist, when they act to oppress those with a different skin color, or actively treat persons of color with anything less than respect and fairness. And yes, as I said at the outset of this reflection, I am aware that I have benefited from White privilege. I am aware that there are countless institutional barriers to equality built into our society. I am aware that it is, in a myriad of ways, harder to be Black (or Asian, or Hispanic, or Native American) in this country than it is to be White. I am aware that this country has a racist legacy. I am also aware of inherent bias and am working at understanding the ways in which this can manifest. None of this makes me racist as I understand that word or prevents me from having the right to be offended when people label me as such. And none of this means my feelings don’t count.

Why is the word “racist,” that particular label, which carries with it baggage that does not fairly apply to all White people, so important? It allows people who do not acknowledge the many failings of our current nation to proclaim loudly that they are not racist, hiding behind the inherent ambiguity of the term. And for those of us who do acknowledge these failings, it seems an unfair accusation. “Loaded” language, words that carry connotations and different meanings than may be intended, is actually a barrier to communication and the kind of open and honest dialogue that most experts on inclusion and equality suggest is imperative.[9] This would suggest that we should find different words or phrases to communicate what we really mean.

Are White people biased? Yes, everyone is. Does that bias tend to operate to disadvantage Blacks and other persons of color? Unfortunately, yes. So could we talk about inherent bias or even racial bias? Could we brainstorm about how to remedy structural and institutional racial bias? Could we focus on eliminating or offering redress for the legacies of overt and active racism? Could we look at the distressingly large segment of the population that actually believe the malignant and immoral narrative of white supremacy and consider how to deal with the problems that they pose? None of that requires that we label all White people racist, and I for one, would be much happier if I was not belittled as a fragile little snowflake because I don’t like being called something that does not fit, and that I believe I do not deserve.

I also find it hard to work constructively with persons who engage in the practice of using slurs when referring to people with whom they disagree. If you won’t talk to me because I won’t agree to being labeled a racist, we are going to have a hard time coming together to work at solutions to the problems surrounding race in this country. And that is a crying shame and completely counterproductive if the goal is to get us to work together for positive change.

[1] As far as I can tell, the word “racism” was not used regularly until the 1930s, and at that time it was definitely associated with Nazi Germany and its hate-filled ideology of racial purity. George M. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History at p. 5 (Princeton University Press. 2002). Dictionary definitions also suggest that “racism” describes acts of oppression, stemming from prejudice and discrimination. “Meaning of racism in English,” Oxford University Press (archived https://perma.cc/AW3K-FPWM); “Definition of racism,” Merriam-Webster (archived at https://perma.cc/DN2T-GM72).

[2] Henrika McCoy, Black Lives Matter, and Yes, You are Racist: The Parallelism of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, 37 Child and Adolescent Social Work J. 463 (2020) (available online at https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s10560-020-00690-4.pdf); Marley K., Yes My Dear, All White People Are Racists, Medium (June 6, 2020) (archived at https://perma.cc/YS97-JZND); Dustin Dwyer, Why all white people are racist, but can’t handle being called racist: the theory of white fragility, Michigan Radio (Mar. 25, 2015) (archived at https://perma.cc/E7WG-QL8V).

[3] I have head Blacks use that terminology when speaking to one another, and in that context the word appears to have an entirely different meaning, one hinting at a shared experience and comraderie.

[4] Michelle Boorstein (October 9, 2013). “Letter from Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder to fans”. The Washington Post. Retrieved November 16, 2017.

[5] Angelina Newsome, Dear white people, stop telling Native Americans like me whether we’re offended by the Washington Redskins, Independent UK (July 3, 2020) (available online at https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/washington-redskins-name-controversy-native-americans-racism-white-people-a9058881.html). Coined by Dr. Robin DiAngelo in 2011 and

[6] The phrase “white fragility” was developed by Robin DiAngelo in 2011 in Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, 3 The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 54 (2011) (archived at https://web.archive.org/web/20170428030347/http://libjournal.uncg.edu/ijcp/article/view/249/116), and further expanded upon in her 2018 book, Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility — Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Penguin Random House 2018).

[7] The phrase “white fragility” has been explained as including people of color “choosing not to protect the racial feelings of white people in regards to race.” Anna Kegler, The Sugarcoated Language of White Fragility, The Verna Myers Company (July 17, 2017) (archived at https://perma.cc/4TBQ-L3A5).

[8] For this point, I would direct you to this excellent article: Jordan Woods, Policing, Danger Narratives, and Routine Traffic Stops, 117 Mich. L. Rev. 635 (2019) (archived at https://perma.cc/6QQD-4Z72).

[9] Promoting Diversity: Why Inclusive Communication and Involvement Matter, Business News Daily (Mar. 9, 2020) (archived at https://perma.cc/G8T6-GCSZ); Communications’ Role in Diversity & Inclusion and Why It’s More Important Than Ever, 44 Degrees North Partners Blog (Sept. 4, 2018) (archived at https://perma.cc/9RZ6-86HX).

I am a University Professor & Clayton N. Little Professor of Law at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. I write about regulation of crypto in the U.S.