Critical White Studies Part IV ~ Aversive Racism by the Well-Intentioned

We, as American citizens of the 21st Century, should acknowledge that our society has taken significant steps forward in respect to confronting social-cultural -isms and phobias. Citizens have moved towards awareness of the history, language and tenets of racism with cautious and tentative confidence. But there is still much work to do in order to address the lingering legacy of racism in all of its forms.

Overt and covert racism are the two most recognizable forms.

Overt racism or explicit racism is the intentional and/or obvious harmful attitudes or behaviors towards another minority individual or group because of the color of his/her skin (Elias, 2015).

  • Includes any speech or behaviors that demonstrate a conscious acknowledgement of racist attitudes and beliefs.
  • Rooted in white supremacy ideology, which it seeks to reinforce and maintain
  • Distinguished by blatant use of negative attitudes, ideas, actions directed at nonwhite racial groups
  • Can be practiced by individuals, groups, institutions, and across societies
  • With the rise of the civil rights movement and passage of civil rights protections, overt racism has become largely taboo in American society (Devine & Elliot, 1995); however recently there has been a rise of overtly racist incidents, such as hate crimes corresponding to the election of President Trump (Williamson & Gelfand, 2019)

Covert racism is racial discrimination that is concealed or subtle rather than obvious or public (Coates & Morrison, 2011)

  • Acts to subvert, distort, restrict, and deny racial minorities access to societal privileges and benefits 
  • A key feature of covert racism is that its disguised nature allows perpetrators to claim “plausible deniability” and to essentially gaslight their victims, that is to deny that the act was racist and undermine any claim of harm 
  • May be implicit as a result of unconscious bias that exists within an individual, regardless of ill-will or any self-aware prejudices

Covert racism discriminates by seemingly passive and rationalized methods. Covert racism works subliminally and often the discrimination is done subconsciously but emerges as microaggresssions by way of language, assumptions and stereotyping. At times the overt racist language or act is not considered to be racist because of a lack of awareness or simply because of ignorance. Overt and covert racism, even though different, lean towards explicit forms of racism. They tend to be conscious acknowledgments of racist attitudes and beliefs.

It is difficult and most challenging to begin a conversation about aversive racism when overt and covert racism is thought to be the only two forms.

The meaning of aversive racism remains somewhat clouded by most citizens and referred to as ‘aversive racism by the well intentioned’. I would also add, ‘well intended citizens who consider themselves to be not only well-intended but well-educated.’ As described by psychologists John Francis Dovidio (Yale) and Samuel L. Gaertner (University of Delaware) who have done extensive research on the subject;

Aversive racism is an implicit form. By contrast, aversive racism includes unconscious biases expectation or tendencies that exist within an individual, regardless of ill-will or any self-aware prejudices. People who behave in an aversively racist way may profess egalitarian beliefs, and will often deny their racially motivated behavior; nevertheless they may change their behavior when dealing with a member of a minority group. The motivation or the change is thought to be implicit or subconscious.”

“In turn, the subtle aversive racist sympathizes with the victims of past injustice; supports public policies that, in principle, promote racial equality and ameliorate the consequences of racism; identifies more generally with a liberal political agenda; regard themselves as not prejudiced and nondiscriminatory; but, almost unavoidably, possess negative feelings about beliefs about blacks. The aversiveness can also apply to immigrants, difference and otherness.”

“Because of the importance of the egalitarian value system to aversive racists’ self-concept, negative feelings and associate beliefs are typically excluded from awareness. Such can be described as a form of apathy towards advocacy. One can articulate open disgust for racist language and behavior and at the same time remain at a comfortable distance from discussions on White Privilege, Dominance and forms of institutional Racism.

So how can we address aversive racism from the “I” perspective? The following provides possible awareness and options.

  • Begin by clarifying the language being used to identify and define overt, covert and aversive racism. Know the differences.
  • Do not immediately identify with the tenets of aversive racism and view it as a personal attack but rather learn its complicated tenets. Awareness precedes introspection.
  • Come to terms with terms such as explicit, implicit, conscious and unconscious biases.
  • Scrutinize personal feelings about affinity groups that differ from your own socially, culturally and politically.
  • While deploring racist language and behavior, do you feel comfortable conversing about White Privilege and Entitlement?
  • Do you feel comfortable taking a stand against White Supremacy, Master Race, Domestic Terrorists, Hate Groups, Neo-Nazis, Authoritarianism, anti-Semitism and Facism?
  • Do you feel that while among all white people you would object or challenge overt, covert racist language and conduct? Would it depend on personal relationships, people present, event and/or setting?
  • Do you feel that while among all people of color you would object to or challenge overt, covert racist language and conduct? Would it depend on personal relationships, the people present, event and/or setting?
  • Do you feel that you are an entitled white person? Explain reasons why or why not.
  • Have you been in a situation where you felt uncertain, vulnerable and unprepared to discuss diversity, inclusivity, equity and forms of racism? How did you handle the situation?
  • Review a time(s) when you felt you should have challenged another’s racist language and/or behavior but felt silenced or hesitated because of the relationship or circumstances.
  • What are the most challenging social-cultural constructs that you feel require your constant personal attention and deconstruction? These would include biases and prejudices?
  • Do you feel that white people who remain silent regarding racism play a role in perpetuating racial injustices?

Continued introspection is a significant process to address all forms of racism. Through such self-examination, the “well intendedness” becomes a matter of pro-active advocacy given the power of influence that one recognizes and possesses among family, friends, colleagues, community, workplace and group associations.

What can be enlightening is the awareness of the complexities of diversity and its dimensions and layers. That revelation can become liberating and empowering.

Critical White Studies I: White Privilege
Critical White Studies II: White Knapsack
Critical White Studies III: White Capital
Critical White Studies IV: Aversive Racism by the Well Intentioned
Critical White Studies V: White Loss

¹Gartner. S.L. & Dovidio, J.F. (1981) “Racism among the Well-intentioned.” In E.G. Clausen & B.J. Bermingham (Eds.). Pluralism Racism, and Public Policy: The Search for Equality, (pp. 208-222) Boston: G.K. Hall.

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