The White Defense Mechanism

I have recently been researching online for some resources to put together a White Privilege workshop, possibly next year. During my research, I have found some interesting pieces of advice + forecast in talking about issues of privilege with white people. Here is me relaying my new-found wisdom to you, in hopes of making the privilege talks more effective.

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The White Defense Mechanism
In discussions of privilege with whites (or people with other aspects of privilege), you will get push back. I had been learning, reading, and talking to other people of color about issues surrounding racism and racial consciousness since the beginning of my college career. I felt that I was now ready to take that first step out of our “safe space,” into the rest of the world, and continue the discussions of race + privilege.

What I did not realize was that the level of discussion I had been having with my friends of color was not representative of the talks I would be having with my white friends. In the community of color, certain ideas or thoughts had been taken for granted — we all saw that racism existed, we all knew that racism hindered social mobility, we all knew that racism was not something that could be blamed on one single individual but rather a society’s ideas or its structure. In my talks with whites, I found that the foundation had to be laid. But when my friend began to argue, “No, race isn’t an issue anymore. Only socioeconomic status is.” I didn’t know how to counter that argument. I hadn’t been taught how to tell someone that racism existed. I had always just known.

Here are some other responses that I have heard in my encounters with white friends + possible ways to turn them around into productive discussion stepping stones:

Barak Obama-United States-Politics1. Counterexamples
This was the first response I got from my white friend that threw me for a loop: “Racism doesn’t exist.” When I argued otherwise, he started to give “counterexamples” about why race was no longer a deciding factor in our society: Martin Luther King’s Day, “look how far black people have come,” a black president (a favorite fallback of many).

Advice: Do not waver in your statement. For some, they need concrete numbers, mind-jarring statistics logically laid down arguments, or personal narratives to wrench their hearts. Have all of them ready, and do what you can to present your argument in multiple different ways. Also remind that sometimes one has to believe it in order to see it.

2. Invalidating POC’s experiencesAnother obstacle that one may encounter in the discussion is the denial or rejection of the POC personal narrative. In trying to convince one of my friends that racism did indeed exist, I told him the story of how people would always ask where I was “really” from, throw random words of Chinese to me (I am not Chinese), or tell me that I speak English well for an Asian. He argued that I cannot draw broad generalizations from my personal experiences, that I was being oversensitive, or flat out that my experiences didn’t mean anything.

Advice: His invalidation cut in deep for me, especially having grown up continuously being silenced as an Asian American woman. Try not to take these responses personally. For most, the white friends response reflects more on them (and their levels of racial consciousness) than your own persuasive abilities. If it feels safe, point out that their denial and invalidation is another display of privilege. These initial barriers need to be overcome in order to even enter the actual conversation on race.

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3. Good Intentions, Bad Actions
Modern racism and microaggressions often arise from good intentions. Having grown up in the lily-white rural/suburban areas of Minnesota, I can assure you that white folk have the best intentions. When they want me to say cool things in Korean or ask me why Korean people eat dogs (insinuating that Korea is both exotic and barbaric), I try to understand that they’re just curious. But it doesn’t mean that I just take it. In your arguments, you may receive the response that something isn’t racism because “they meant well.” Sigh.

Advice: From the beginning, make a distinction between intentions + actions. Many of our Minority Peer Counselor workshops have ground rules, one of which is “Trust Intent, but Name Impact.” Because in racism, intentions of an individual does not matter because racism isn’t a prejudiced actions of an individual — it’s a structural system. Acknowledge that intentions are important, but also make sure to let them know that there may be impacts of those actions that they may not have been previously aware of. Even when they don’t mean it, their words and actions can have meaning. Remind them of that.

Once you’ve reached the next level of discussion (“post-acceptance of racism”), there may be some other defense mechanisms that may kick in. Check out The White Defense Mechanism pt. 2. (coming soon!)

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