The psychology of confronting your own racism, privilege and fragility

If you’ve been watching the TV or consuming literally any media over the last few weeks, it won’t have escaped your notice that there’s a lot of hurt out there right now. Black Lives Matter protests across the UK and America have sparked a national conversation about race. White people who were previously quietly confident in their ‘totally not racist’ views have again been confronted by the ideas of white fragility and white privilege and it’s not been pretty to watch the fall out.

Saying nothing about the movement is being complicit in oppression – it is clearly not enough to not be a racist; that should be a given. Being a white ally means standing up and speaking out; setting out your stand as a defiant anti-racist is crucial.

White fragility by @seerutkchalwa

Yet for many, it’s been really very tough. I’ve seen white friends all over the net really struggling to get to grips with the concepts. Being uncomfortable is.. uncomfortable. Recognising how you have benefited from structural, ingrained and endemic white supremacy isn’t a nice place to be. Identifying your place and role within a society that has always lifted your place higher than your black counterparts doesn’t feel good – it’s healthy to recognise that. 

This piece isn’t to help you with your self-flagellation; nor to lecture you on why you’re so uneasy with the concepts of white fragility or white privilege. It’s about understanding why you’re struggling with it, to help you keep fighting without burning out entirely. After all, a tokenistic attitude towards fighting racism, that fades after the media cycle turns its attention to another story, is simply performative virtue signalling. It doesn’t help anyone and just serves to fetishise black stories in pursuit of likes and social standing. 

Performative allyship

Performative Allyship
Performative allyship – by @seerutkchalwa

So many have talked openly about how exhausted they are by the focus on the atrocities against black lives; they talk about how it’s affecting their mental health. Thank goodness that whites can simply put down the issue when it all gets too much and go on with our lives like nothing has happened. That we aren’t confronted with micro-aggressions, systematic racism and a lack of representation everywhere we look on a daily basis. 

Instead of taking to social media to discuss how tired you are of tackling friends and family for their views, why not examine why confronting your own racism, fragility and privilege is quite so tough?


Why are we racist?

Several theories abound regarding the origins of racism. Many often assert that “children aren’t racist” and that racism is learned; others believe it has an evolutionary basis – that we are obsessed with tribal behaviour from our early days of hunting and gathering. Psychologists who have examined the phenomena of judging others by the level of melanin in their skin have come to a different conclusion.

Writing in Psychology Today, Steve Taylor, senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, suggests instead that racism is “primarily a psychological trait — more specifically, a psychological defense [sic] mechanism generated by feelings of insecurity and anxiety.” With Coronavirus prevention measures curtailing our freedoms and taking our loved ones from us, there couldn’t be many more serious modern precursors to anxiety and insecurity right now. This, argues Taylor, means a racist is “more likely to conform to culturally accepted attitudes and to identify with their national or ethnic groups.”

So what about if you’re pretty sure you’re not a racist: that you have no reason to shore up your own feelings of inadequacy by discriminating against those who are different to you? Why are you so enervated by the current focus on examining your prejudices?

Cognitive Dissonance

Weaponised white fragility by @seerutkchalwa

“I’m not a racist but…” is a phrase often uttered by people convinced that they aren’t prejudiced. The “but” usually confounds what they think, however: that’s what causes a discord between what we really think and what we think we think. That’s the crux of the issue when it comes to cognitive dissonance – an uncomfortable dichotomy between two opposing viewpoints. For example, we may assume we are not racist, yet when confronted with viewpoints we hold that others contend are indeed racist, we have to exert some serious mental gymnastics to square the two opposing viewpoints. Something has to give. 

Originally proposed as a concept in 1957 by Leon Festinger, Cognitive Dissonance is a struggle we face regularly: it’s necessary for personal growth and development. In fact, the introduction to his book references racism itself as the first example – using a racial epithet that was common in the 1950s – within the first few sentences. 

“[T]he individual strives toward consistency within himself. His opinions and attitudes, for example, tend to exist in clusters that are internally consistent. Certainly one may find exceptions. A person may think [black people {here he uses a racist term which I will not repeat
}] are just as good as whites but would not want any living in his neighbourhood”.

Festinger talks about those other examples that are inconsistent – health and lifestyle choices that we know are bad for us – like smoking, binge drinking or committing a crime when you’re aware of the punishment that could result. 

Resolving cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable and difficult – it can mean we’re far more likely to ‘double down’ on our belief systems, entrenching them yet further and becoming defensive and less open to changing our view. Being aware of it is just part of the journey towards accepting and moving forward with challenging theories and ideas.

The Just-World Hypothesis

Another concept that trips us up as humans, more than we might think, is the guilt-reducing and discomfort-alleviating idea that we live in a ‘just world’. That we ultimately reap what we sow and that punishments and rewards are meted out to us fairly and justly: we ultimately get what we deserve. The old adage that “there is no smoke without fire” is an example of this idea; that there is a moral balance present within the world as a natural phenomenon. Phrases such as “you got what was coming to you”; “what goes around comes around” and “everything happens for a reason” are such common parlance, we hardly even notice them. 

Since the early 1970s, social psychologists have built a body of work showing that humans fundamentally and unequivocally blame and derogate victims of violence, illness, poverty and bullying. We tend to believe that people ultimately deserve what happens to them, even if we are not aware of it. Belief in a just world, however, is less prevalent within black and African American populations (see references). Not surprising, given that most people probably blame BAME communities for the difficulties they face. Even if they don’t think they do.

Confirmation bias

Something truly striking jumped out at me recently and I was astounded by how simple a truth it was. When a white person behaves in a certain way, their act is rarely seen as characteristic of their race. When a black person does something, it is usually seen as related to their skin colour and behaviour characteristic of everyone else who shares that skin colour. 

White privilege doesn’t mean you have not struggled. It does not mean that you have had an easy life. It simply means that your skin colour is not something that you have been judged on – it does not mean that your transgressions represent everyone who looks like you. It means your skin colour has never been an issue in the society in which you live. 

Confirmation bias is a tricky little problem – we tend to only believe and agree with the things that line up with our existing beliefs. The just world hypothesis above is just one type. 

Watching footage of protests, riots and devastation on businesses because of looting, when one witnesses an ‘out-group’ participating in behaviour that one deems unacceptable, one is likely to note and feel that they are behaving according to who they are as a person, rather than considering the circumstances  and context of the act. That their looting is somehow related to their race. That they are not “doing their cause” any favours. 

Those attending Black Lives Matters protests are referred to as ‘rioters’, yet the white, far-right racists who clashed with police across the UK on the weekend are usually called ‘protestors’. Few have related their behaviour to their skin colour.

The man who murdered MP Jo Cox was not called a terrorist for the slaughtering he committed.

Almost one year ago exactly, President Trump failed to condemn the Charlottesville White Supremacist rally, stating that there were “very fine people on both sides”. 

White Americans protesting lockdown measures were emboldened and endorsed by Trump, whereas activists for Black Lives Matter were condemned as thugs and threatened with being shot. 

Authentic Allyship by @seerutkchalwa
Authentic Allyship by @seerutkchalwa

Addressing systematic, cultural and ingrained racism is not something that can be done easily, nor is it something that happens overnight. It’s a long process and it must happen through each individual taking responsibility for that personal and professional challenge. 

Confronting our own prejudices, sitting with our discomfort and addressing what we could do better is fundamentally an arduous process that many are unwilling to face. It is however something that we simply must do – becoming a white ally is more than being “not racist”, it is a commitment to taking real action, taking risk and holding ourselves – and others – to account. Once we have worked to examine our prejudice, educated ourselves and realised that this is not about our fragility, it is a moral imperative to brandish that white privilege and wield it to help, instead of hinder.


References and bibliography

Calhoun, Lawrence G.; Cann, Arnie (1994). “Differences in Assumptions about a Just World: Ethnicity and Point of View”. The Journal of Social Psychology. 134 (6): 765–770. doi:10.1080/00224545.1994.9923011

Furnham, Adrian; Procter, Eddie (1992). “Sphere-Specific Just World Beliefs and Attitudes to AIDS”. Human Relations. 45 (3): 265–280. doi:10.1177/001872679204500303.

Hunt, Matthew O. (2000). “Status, Religion, and the “Belief in a Just World”: Comparing African Americans, Latinos, and Whites”. Social Science Quarterly. 81 (1): 325–343. JSTOR 42864385.

Lerner, Melvin J. (1980). The Belief in a Just World: A Fundamental Delusion. Perspectives in Social Psychology. New York: Plenum Press. doi:10.1007/978-1-4899-0448-5. ISBN 978-0-306-40495-5.

Summers, Gertrude; Feldman, Nina S. (1984). “Blaming the Victim Versus Blaming the Perpetrator: An Attributional Analysis of Spouse Abuse”. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. 2 (4): 339–347. doi:10.1521/jscp.1984.2.4.339.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Bloomsbury Publishing.

All image credit to @seerutkchalwa

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