Why are white people so touchy about being called "racist"?
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.
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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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