By Alex Mikulich, Ph.D.
The inability of whites to acknowledge, much less understand, the wisdom of people of color and the tendency of many whites to lack cross-racial empathy has been widely reported by people of color throughout U.S. history and demonstrated in diverse studies in multiple disciplines over the past sixty years. The body of academic work that has contributed most to understanding how white racism operates in society is called critical race studies. Jane H. Hill, professor emerita of anthropology and linguistics at the University of Arizona, contributes to this expanding body of critical race studies in her latest book, The Everyday Language of White Racism. She reveals how historical racism persists in the everyday language of white Americans, even among those who may lay claim to anti-racist credentials.
Many white Americans admit white racism exists, but only in isolated pockets of the nation, unrelated to their daily living. Yet, when confronted with widespread racial inequality, including major social, economic, and health disparities that disproportionately benefit white Americans to the severe detriment of African-American and Latino Americans, these inequities cannot be attributed to Ku Klux Klanners or bigots in isolated parts of the nation. Even in the face of these disparities, many whites continue to believe that people of color do not face significant disadvantage, and place blame on people of color for these inequalities.
Hill’s analysis explains how racism persists in white “folk theory,” or “common sense” knowledge that takes things for granted as the way things are. Hill uncovers how white common sense or folk theory of race erases what is really important, attends to the irrelevant, and creates traps and pitfalls in the face of intellectual contradiction.
Three key premises or assumptions are held by white common sense thinking on race. First, folk theory holds races to be biologically valid. This assumption persists, even though biological anthropologists and geneticists long ago demonstrated that there is only one race, the human race. An example of how this nonscientific, white, common sense assumption persists is found in the argument that racial intermarriage will erase racial difference and conflict. In other words, the common sense assumption advances a genetic solution to a non-genetic, social construction.
Hill also cites numerous articles in news media that treat the scientific consensus as an “astonishing novelty,” as if the common sense assumption held scientific validity. Another way the erroneous biological view persists is in the “one drop rule,” enforced during Jim Crow that held that any trace of African ancestry made a person African-American. This “one drop” assumption can be seen in the way that Barack Obama was described as the “only black in the U.S. Senate” and the “first African-American” president even though he describes himself as a son of a white, Kansas mother and Kenyan father.
A second assumption of white folk theory holds that racism is entirely a matter of individual belief and that the ignorance of this individual view can be corrected by education. This view is commonly communicated in opinion pieces that rightfully desire an end to racism and decry the use of racial epithets. While Hill agrees the anti-racist intention is good, the proposed solution of educating individuals who are ignorant is completely inadequate to the task of addressing institutional and systemic racist practices.
A November 20, 2009, op-ed piece by a Louisiana State University senior in the New Orleans Times-Picayune is an example of Hill’s point. The op-ed, entitled “Tackling Bigotry at Ole Miss, LSU and Other SEC Schools,” rightly criticizes common racist talk and practices at SEC football games. However, like folk theory, the major assumption of the op-ed is that “it’s unfortunate for the individuals ignorant enough to believe such behavior is ok.” After all, “hopefully,” white racism is not “in the majority. ” Although the behavior widely persists in the institutional and societal context of SEC football games, the proposed solution is to educate individuals to overcome “intolerance,” ignoring the systemic breadth of the problem.
Critical race theorists do not deny that individual attitudes and beliefs figure in racism; rather, critical race theorists, like Hill, demonstrate how collective human interaction, including everyday language, produces and reproduces racial inequality. Hill’s analysis details the ways that well-intentioned whites still talk and behave in ways that advance systemic white advantage and disadvantage for people of color.
A third key assumption of white common sense or folk theory is that prejudice is part of the human condition, a view that is commonly described in the statement that “all people prefer to be with their own kind.” Critical race theorists demonstrate how whites use the premises of common sense knowledge to deny or distort the fact that societal resources, and benefits and burdens, are allocated so unequally. Hill points out that the distinctiveness of white social and political racism is “the magnitude of White power, and the enormity of [its] distortion.” Hill advances this point most eloquently, and critically, in her analysis of the way that this third assumption has been utilized by whites to shore up legitimacy for housing and school segregation since the Civil Rights movement.
Instead of listening to the wisdom of people of color, or interrogating the magnitude of white power, whites utilize this third premise to focus not upon our own responsibility but to shift the onus to the practices of their victims. For example, whites commonly point out that non-whites prefer to be with each other. A stereotypical example of this point is the way self-segregating seating patterns occur in school cafeterias. White folk theory blames segregation on students of color and treats white self-segregation on the same moral plane as that of students of color without analysis of the issues of power at stake.
As the great 20th-century philosopher-theologian and Jesuit Bernard Lonergan understood, the inability of common sense knowledge to explain reality offers the opportunity to think critically and question how societal human relationships create de-humanizing conditions. Lonergan argued that the key to intellectual and moral conversion away from the bias of folk or common sense thinking is that “one has to listen to criticism and protest. One has to remain ready to learn from others. ”1 Jane Hill’s The Everyday Language of White Racism pursues this critical insight with a vengeance in detailing how the history of white racism cannot be reduced to a few bigots; rather, white racism is embedded in American English and a constitutive feature of a society that reproduces material, social, political, and economic racial disparities. Real change demands that a critical mass of white Americans critically interrogate and address our collective responsibility for systemic racial inequality, and attend to the wisdom of our brothers and sisters of color.
1. Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology. Minneapolis: The Seabury Press, 1972, p.240.