Tim Wise
Tim Wise
Nov 5, 2018 · 8 min read

Holding up a Mirror to White Pathology (and Fragility)

Source: Shutterstock/ChemistryWorld.com

For a bunch of folks who are quick to accuse people of color of wallowing in “victimization,” and being “snowflakes,” unable to countenance views different from their own, an awful lot of white folks sure are fragile.

And our fragility and sense of victimhood shows up in a variety of ways.

First, there are the people who think there’s something racist about Black History Month, because they can conveniently ignore the way every other month has been white history month, even if we didn’t call them that.

They’re the kind of people who make snide comments about the racism of BET and Ebony Magazine, because they don’t see the whiteness of Fox or Breitbart. Or they’ll scream about the NAACP, and ask “Where’s the National Association for the Advancement of White People?” overlooking that we already have several. They just so happen to go by these tricky names we’ve given them, like, the Fortune 500, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Republican Party.

These are the kind of folks who insisted that a small tax on tanning bed visits, imposed during the Obama administration, which was intended to discourage the activity given its link to skin cancer, was just a racist tax on white people. Because we’re the ones mostly going to tan.

Some like to demonstrate their fragility and sense of grievance on video, just in case we’d like to document and archive their horribleness for all eternity. Ya know, like the woman who decided she was the victim of “reverse discrimination” and had a complete come-apart at a Chicago-area Michael’s because a black clerk encouraged her to buy a $1 recyclable bag to carry out her purchased items.

Or the white woman who recently called police on two black women whose car had broken down because she couldn’t believe they might have a legitimate reason to be in her “better part of town.”

Or the white woman in New York who decided she had been sexually assaulted by a 9-year old black child, when his backpack brushed up against her.

Or for that matter, any of the literally dozens of white folks who’ve gone viral lately for calling police on black folks over some utter bullshit. Or melting down on camera, in Walmart, Target, on the sides of interstates, in traffic, at coffee shops, in classrooms, pretty much anywhere white people are found. Seriously, you can just search You Tube under “racist white woman” or “racist white guy” or “racist meltdown,” and spend hours imbibing only the greatest hits of white fragility and faux victimhood.

So yeah, apparently the whiteness of snowflakes is literal in more ways than one.

Anyway, perhaps the best example of how fragile white folks can be — and especially more conservative types — is how we react when someone simply points out evidence that indicates disproportionately bad behavior on the part of other white people.

While white folks, and especially those on the right, are all too happy to talk about dysfunctional behavior among people of color (from crime, to out-of-wedlock birth rates to supposed welfare dependence), they are nothing if not apoplectic if you point out dysfunction and pathology in white communities.

Hell, Breitbart used to have an entire section of their website dedicated to tracking “black crime” (something also done by overt white nationalist and neo-Nazi websites, by the way), but God forbid someone point out that whites as a group may do some pretty awful things from time to time.

Recently, when CNN host Don Lemon merely pointed out the documented fact that most of the domestic terrorism in the United States is carried out by white men, and that white right-wingers pose the greatest threat to America when it comes to politically-motivated violence — indeed at least as big if not bigger than ISIS — he was attacked as a racist. For merely pointing out facts, acknowledged by literally every expert who has studied the matter.

Such right-wing terrorism committed by white folks (mostly men) is at least twice as prevalent as its Muslim counterpart, and far eclipses political violence from the left, but simply stating this truth brands one a bigot in the eyes of the right.

Earlier this year on a CNN panel of youth discussing school safety and guns, one young man said that in addition to arming teachers, we should close the border so as to limit “foreign criminals” from entering the U.S. When a young woman pointed out that the school shootings they were discussing have almost all been carried out by young white men, he accused her of racism. For simply stating a fact that he couldn’t handle, and even after he had specifically conjured the image of brown-skinned criminals. So suggesting, incorrectly, that the criminals at issue are brown isn’t racism, in his mind, but pointing out, accurately, that they’re mostly white is.

Because fragility.

Apparently, white conservatives think that if you mention white people at all, in any way that doesn’t throw flowers at our feet for “creating the modern world,” (as the neo-misogynistic, culturally bigoted and terroristic Proud Boys put it) you’re being racist.

If you argue that there’s a certain amount of privilege and advantage to being white in America (from the labor market to education to the justice system as just a few examples) you’ll be accused not merely of being wrong, but of being anti-white. Rather than simply looking at the evidence for or against the claim of privilege — and decent people can disagree about the subject, even though I think the evidence is blindingly clear — white folks (mostly but not only on the far-right) will fly into a fit and accuse the person making the claim of hating white people, or even trying to “genocide” them.

Which is interesting, because even most conservatives would readily admit that historically, whiteness conferred advantage. No one in their right mind would deny, for instance, that whites were privileged during the period of slavery or Jim Crow segregation. Even though there were dirt poor white folks in those days (and Appalachia — our favorite rebuttal to the claim of white privilege — was a thing then too), most everyone would agree that yes, general white privilege was real, at least once upon a time.

But if that’s so, then would it have been racist to say it in those days? Of course not, right? Which means saying it now can’t be racist either. It can either be correct or incorrect, but it can’t be racist simply to make a sociological claim.

Ultimately, white defensiveness at having the whiteness of wrongdoers pointed out stems from two things, both of which are revealing.

First, is the general invisibility of whiteness to white people.

Although people of color have long had to think about whiteness and how it operates, for most of us who are white, we’ve had the luxury of being oblivious to our own identity. We’ve been able to view our murderers and terrorists and screw-ups as individuals, rather than as representatives of our group.

As such, when white folks do awful things disproportionately, from terrorism to school shootings to binge drinking and adolescent drug use, the racial face of the pathology is ignored in ways it never is when the dysfunctional behavior in question is manifested by the black or brown. Thus, when someone points it out, shining a light on whiteness in a way that we’re not used to, we feel attacked.

Secondly, our defensiveness stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what racism is.

It isn’t racist to point out the racial identity of people, or groups of people, even to make a point about that group disproportionately doing x, y or z thing. So, for instance, the following two statements about whites are not racist:

Whites commit a disproportionate amount of politically-motivated violence in the United States.

Whites have committed about three-fourths of all mass school shootings in the U.S. in recent years.

Likewise, the following two statements about blacks are also not racist:

Blacks commit a disproportionate amount of overall violent crime in the United States.

Black students score significantly lower than whites and Asians on standardized tests like the SAT and ACT.

None of these statements are racist, for two reasons.

First, because they are simply statements of fact, and facts themselves cannot be racist (though they can be used in racist ways, as we’ll see below).

And then second, because in my recitation of these facts, I’m not suggesting that the facts are true because of some group-based characteristic specific to whites or blacks. In other words, nothing in the facts themselves necessarily portends a belief that whites or blacks have some particular trait, either biologcally or culturally, which explains why the above statements are true.

However, if we were to state these facts and then explain their veracity by saying that whites commit a disproportionate amount of terrorist violence or mass school shootings because of an inherent or cultural tendency to mass murder, or that blacks score lower on standardized tests or have a higher crime rate due to some biological, genetic or cultural inferiority specific to their groups, that would be racist. But the statements of fact alone are just sociological truths.

The problem is, often when white folks point out facts about dysfunctional behavior on the part of people of color, we do suggest that there is something about blackness, either culturally or biologically, which explains it. So books like The Bell Curve argue that there are biologically-rooted racial differences in intelligence — an idea eviscerated by scholars since its publication — while others argue that the black community is wracked by cultural defects unique to it, which explain everything from crime rate differences to differences in educational outcomes to differences in earnings.

Others use data regarding black crime or test scores so as to justify or even encourage racially-biased treatment of African Americans. So when white supremacist groups post stories about black criminal behavior, they do so in the hopes that it will lead to more racial profiling, more stop-and-frisk, and more white fear of the black and brown.

But when others of us point out white dysfunction, we aren’t calling for profiling of white people. If anything, we’re hoping that a greater understanding of the heterogeneity of misconduct will lead to less profiling, less race-based mistreatment, and a clearer recognition that there are good and bad, smart and not-so-smart, hard-working and not-so-hard working in every group.

That means the pointing out of white misdeeds, pathology and awfulness is fundamentally an antiracist project — the goal is to challenge longstanding stereotypes about people of color, which mark them as the ones to fear, or avoid, or presume inferior — while the ubiquity of right-wing fear-mongering about the black and brown is the opposite. It is a racist endeavor, not because some of the facts they deploy aren’t factual — sometimes they’re true — but because the reasons for which they offer them, or the way in which they interpret them leads ineluctably to racist conclusions, and the furtherance of white supremacy.

Those are real differences, and they matter. And only the most fragile of snowflakes would fail to see them.

Tim Wise

Written by

Tim Wise

I’m an antiracism educator/author. I Facebook & tweet @timjacobwise, podcast at Speak Out With Tim Wise & post bonus content at patreon.com/speakoutwithtimwise

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