By Arturo R. García
Another week, another head-scratching study result. Or so you’d think, right?
The study, conducted by researchers at Tufts and Harvard Universities, concluded that white people think the prejudices blacks faced during the Civil Rights era are literally in the past. But it’s not all rosy, apparently, for the majority of the 209 white people (alongside 208 blacks) surveyed. From the abstract:
We show that this emerging belief reflects Whites’ view of racism as a zero-sum game, such that decreases in perceived bias against Blacks over the past six decades are associated with increases in perceived bias against Whites—a relationship not observed in Blacks’ perceptions. Moreover, these changes in Whites’ conceptions of racism are extreme enough that Whites have now come to view anti-White bias as a bigger societal problem than anti-Black bias.
But, setting aside questions regarding the size of the survey group and the focus on white/black relations in an increasingly diverse country, one has to wonder: is this really a surprise?
Researchers Michael I. Norton and Samuel R. Sommers say as much in a column for the New York Times:
One outcome of granting rights to traditionally marginalized groups has been to leave many whites feeling marginalized themselves. What are the consequences of this sense of marginalization? For one, the very same developments that some would point to as evidence of progress toward equality (an African-American president, a Latina Supreme Court justice) are seen by others as further evidence of the threats aligned against them.
Consider the rhetoric associated with some members of the Tea Party, whose emphasis on the perceived values of the founding fathers implicitly centers on the notion that the founders were white heterosexual Christians. Or the oft-voiced concern that political correctness has stifled traditional American values, as with the idea of a “war on Christmas.”
As a result, there’s a “jockeying for stigma” among groups in America today. This competition is surprising because being marginalized often equates to being powerless, yet many whites now use their sense of marginalization as a rallying cry toward action. Already, this sentiment is affecting political discourse, as shown by the rise of the Tea Party and the growing number of lawsuits alleging “reverse racism.”
Besides the larger political and historical examples, though, haven’t we seen some of these fears play out on a smaller scale? Consider:
- People who makes it a point to tell you they “like all types of music, except rap,” and radio stations who use that statement to advertise themselves.
- Privilege-Denying Dudes.
- Basketball fans who call, say, Jimmer Fredette “a gamer” while decrying Allen Iverson as “a ballhog” and “a thug,” or lament that the game is “all about who jumps highest.”
But potentially even more disturbing is a Cal-Berkeley study highlighted by Joan Walsh at Salon:
In an experiment known as “Me/Not Me,” respondents were asked to quickly rate whether a series of terms having to do with race, ethnicity and diversity had anything to do with them personally. It found that the white students related more favorably to the terms associated with “colorblindness” — equality, unity, sameness, similarity, color blind, and color blindness – than to words associated with “multiculturalism”: diversity, variety, culture, multicultural, multiracial, difference and multiculturalism.
What does this tell us? The study authors (as do I) take for granted that it matters — it would be a good thing — if whites embrace diversity and multicultural initiatives, whether in schools, workplaces and community groups, and they therefore suggest that people designing such programs consider that “whites’ reactions to multiculturalism … are rooted in the basic social psychological need for inclusion and belonging.” Stressing that multiculturalism encompasses the wide variety of white ethnic and class experiences might help. Emphasizing words with positive resonance like “equality” and “unity” might too.
But when does inclusiveness become self-erasure? Did the white people in these studies ever learn to accept that there’s some experiences they probably just won’t get to totally understand because of their privilege? And what happens – for everybody – if they don’t?