Why Are White People So Touchy About Being Called Racist?

By Guest Contributor Scot Nakagawa; originally published at ChangeLab

Image via sciencedaily.com
Image via sciencedaily.com

I’ve often pondered the question, why are white people so touchy about being called out for racism?

I know some of you will say that racism is much more than the hurtful prejudice of a marginal few. Agreed. Racism is also inherited structural and political inequity by race resulting in persistent poverty, health disparities, and deficits of opportunity in communities of color. And as with all kinds of oppression, racism is ultimately kept in place by violence and the threat of violence (think in terms of lynchings, cross-burnings, KKK raids, etc. throughout our history). Simple prejudice seems pretty minor by comparison.

However, the powerful effect of white people’s touchiness on this subject should not to be underestimated. In fact, I think it goes hand in hand with the threat of violence in perpetuating racism.

For instance, racial inequality nowadays relies more heavily on the intimidation and violence of the war on drugs and immigration enforcement than on the terrorism of vigilante groups. But, racist immigration and drug enforcement policies are founded on the widespread popularity of racial stereotypes that falsely criminalize black men as the source of the illegal drug problem in the U.S., and immigrants of color as drains on our economy. In other words, ordinary prejudice is as much a part of the oppressive equation for communities of color as violence and intimidation, and the fact that these ordinary forms of prejudice are expressed through major public institutions is possible because we deny that these stereotypes are grounded in prejudice at all.

We need to marginalize ordinary racist stereotypes and behavior, and this starts with calling racism out, even when those guilty of it get touchy because they are unable to recognize their acts as racist.

But, why so touchy?

At the risk of sparking a sh*t storm, here are a couple of proposals.

First, I think white people get bent out of shape by the label racist because being able to wield it means that, at least culturally speaking, people of color have power we haven’t traditionally had, specifically because of racism.

For generations even looking at a white person in the wrong way could get a person of color fired, harassed, terrorized or even lynched. Going as far as lodging an accusation of any kind against a white person could spark a race riot.

But socially conscious people of all races fought and even died in order to end the white cultural, economic, and political supremacy that led to this kind of intimidation and violence. Today, the degree to which we are empowered to speak out against racism is a measure of the erosion of unjust white power and privilege that was achieved through these historic efforts. When white people react defensively to people of color involved in the audacious act of calling them out for racism, they are, albeit usually unconsciously, struggling to reconcile themselves with lost white privilege.

That’s my first theory. Here’s the second.

Before the fall of Jim Crow, ordinary interpersonal racism was so commonplace that in order to organize against it, racial justice advocates needed another foil. Racism’s terrorist wing: people threatening students integrating Little Rock Central High School, segregationist governors wielding state troopers like clubs, and men like Bull Connor became that foil.

I mention Bull Conner by name because the way civil rights activists used his outrageous racism exemplifies this strategy. As the  Commissioner of Public Safety for the city of Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, Connor turned attack dogs and fire hoses on children peacefully protesting for civil rights, inadvertently making himself into an international symbol of American racism. This display of naked hatred polarized white people, with many taking the side of civil rights activists in spite of harboring the kind of ordinary racial prejudices that create the climate in which vigilante racists derive their power.

Today, when we call out racism, powerful symbols of opposition to racial equality like Bull Connor are invoked. Ordinary racists contrast the everyday prejudice that was, out of necessity, let off the hook in the black struggle for civil rights, against horrific, Bull Connor-style racism. Then, for lack of a better term, they freak out.

That’s why I think white people are so touchy. It’s why begging to be understood as “good” and exaggerating the harm done to them by the accusation are so often part of the ritual of denial. They’re, more often than not, genuinely good people stuck in the belief that racists are exotic monsters, who are nonetheless resentful of conceding the privilege of being able to control the public consensus on race to begin with.

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  • Harriss B

    That’s a good point. If someone tells me something I said is racist, (and of course, it’s happened). Then I don’t get angry, I usually wonder what I did wrong, or what they misunderstood. But I don’t get angry.

  • http://chrisliveskorea.blogspot.com/ Baakus

    Not to mention as a shield to continue perpetuating their own privilege.

  • http://chrisliveskorea.blogspot.com/ Baakus

    It’s because racial progress has mainly taught Americans that “racism” and “racist” are bad things to be associated with. The actual ideas themselves may be okay, perhaps even true (nudge nudge), but the R-words are definitely no-nos.

    It’s like being offended at being called a Nazi whilst believing that Jews are plaguing the Aryan race. They’re so concerned about the labels when they should be more disgusted at their ideas.

  • Martin355

    For many people, the word “racist” simply means someone who explicitly believes and advocates that people from certain ethnic backgrounds are inferior. So naturally they think that whatever unexamined or subconscious prejudices they may have, they’re at least not _racist_.

  • Kae Oz

    I wondered at this myself many times in my life. I have come up with a couple of theories.
    One is that no one likes to be told that they are wrong. What they did, what they said, what they believe. And a person confronting something they do or say is racist is confronting that something they have thought or did their whole is wrong. People get angry when they are wrong about something. And many people in this world just back down about things when someone gets angry, wanting to avoid confrontation. The conversation goes from why the person was wrong to “Whatever man”.
    People also get angry when they feel guilty. The guilt they don’t want to deal with gets mashed up and turned into anger then turned outward on the person who made them feel guilty. When you ask someone who feels guilty why they are so angry, they inevitably come out with “I just hate being accused of something I didn’t do.”
    But mostly I have settled on the idea that most people who get angry when told they did or said something racist are racist as fuck. The angrier they get, the more racist they are. And while they claim they are angry because they are being accused of something, they are really angry that they are not allowed to publicly wallow in their privilege and to publicly denounce whole groups of people to make themselves feel better about the world anymore. And this is why these are the same people who long for “simpler days”.

    • Wong Chia Chi

      ‘And this is why these are the same people who long for “simpler days”.’

      Like the simple days when black people were friendly non threatening servants. Always there to help, with a smile and a dance, and never expecting anything except gratitude in return.

      Didn’t Paula Deen even want black servants at some get together she was having?

  • Kim Voeks

    I have a question as well – Why are white people so clueless at using the word “racist?” I see them trying to use the word against people of color in the strangest contexts. And they’ll almost always wrong. They’re like a toddler with a hammer. They think everything is a nail. And they don’t get that hurling that word at people of color does not have the same impact on them as it does on white people. It’s usually pretty laughable.

    • Tusconian

      Agreed. Not that I really buy into the “power + prejudice” model, because it’s so simplistic and lacking nuance, usually painting the world in “black and white,” or somewhat less often, “Asian and white,” but it has to be acknowledged that they’re different. Being called rude names, or even fearing for your personal safety in isolated situations, is not the same as institutional racism.

    • Viktor


      I constantly see the notion, especially in any racially charged crime, that Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson are huge racists because they keep perpetuating that racism exists in all issues, primarily because that somehow makes them money.

      The same people, in many cases, that accuse Al and Jesse as racist or race-baiters will side with an accused racist, no matter what that accused racist has done. Take good ol Don Omus and the ‘NHH’ comment. That’s not racist, but Al and Jesse are racists because they injected race into the matter so they could profit.


  • http://www.literateperversions.com Chris H

    I’ve long thought that there is a very clear class element to white peoples’ reaction to accusations of racism, and it has much to do with icons like Bull Conner being used as the primary representations of white supremacy. In popular culture, racism is associated with uneducated, poor whites from the South. Although intellectually we know that there’s racism among upper-class, college-educated whites from metropolitan areas, that’s not what anyone thinks of when you say “racist.” It brings forth imagery of populations that are seen as “other”: racism is supposed to be part of the culture of people dismissed as “trailer trash,” and so being accused of it also makes you one of “them.” There’s a strong implication that you’re part of the underclass yourself, or came from those roots. Learning how to not be overtly racist is as much a part of class ascension as Eliza Doolittle losing her cockney accent for a posh upper-class one. If you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be allowed into the good parties.

    This is one of the reason that I hate the whole fracas around Paula Deen. She fits far too perfectly into the popular image of a racist: she’s Southern, and identifies strongly with culture from lower economic classes. It’s not too much of a stretch for white people to see her as keeping a robe and hood in her closet. I think that the feeding frenzy around her is stifling genuine dialogues around race by providing whites with a scapegoat. The rest of us are able to let ourselves off the hook because she’s so clearly one of “them.”

    • ctmany

      That was great. And I got chills when I read this sociologically astute masterpiece: “Learning how to not be overtly racist is as much a part of class
      ascension as Eliza Doolittle losing her cockney accent for a posh
      upper-class one.”