White Aversive Racism – Part V of VI

Cloaked in Well-Intended Egalitarianism

By Jorge D. H. Prósperi

Critical Race Theorists would acknowledge that many citizens have moved towards tolerance. At the same time, they would also caution that aversive racism, from a psycho-social perspective, lingers and remains unexamined. It may be the next painful introspective psychological challenge by well-intended egalitarians.¹

The simple story about race is learned during Middle School. Simply that President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” Many believe that the proclamation was the end of the disturbing uncomfortable chapter in our history books and nation.

Unfortunately, segments of the country did not abide – some did not step up – some did not care, others fought it with guns, lynchings, and fire-bombs. When all else failed, the Supreme Court struck down laws that Congress had passed that would have allowed black people to vote and provided protections. For example the Ku Klux Klan Act which allowed federal prosecutors to keep black people from being lynched was reversed. Jim Crow laws enforced racial segregation in the South between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. Ever wonder why it took that long? This was yet another chapter of racism digging in its heels – pushing back. Eventually, racism hid behind State Rights, that became the new rebel cry.

But, as I am reminded at times by some of my egalitarian well-intended colleagues, “Hey, this all happened long, long ago!” “I was not there!” “I did not and do not own slaves!” “I did not lynch anyone!” “Some of buds are black.” “No need to get your liberal knickers in a knot. Chill out amigo – I’m not a racist! Right?!

¡Sorry amigas/os! . . . ¡No! ¡Not right! ¡Not then – not now!

So, what does all of this have to do with contemporary, highly educated, well-intended, egalitarian suburban Millennials? Suburbanites tend to think of themselves more sophisticated – high minded – above those yahooshen fools screaming -isms and phobias at rallies of “Send them back!” They quickly point out that some of their best friends are African-American. Some even speak Spanglish with their nannies and domestics. Some share office space with highly trained Asian and subcontinent Indian coworkers. To call these suburbanites racists is to insult and wound them deeply – even infuriate them.

Their discussions on race and racism often take place, if at all, by happenstance, and at a safe distance. Such discussions occur in comfortable neutral sites – like family vacation get- togethers, play dates for the children while moms and dads enjoy a late, tail gate alumni gathering before the big game, at restaurants enjoying an array of hors d’oeuvres accompanied by 3 neat fingers of Balvenie. The chit-chats go smoothly but quickly head into a roundabout upon someone in the friendship circle mentioning White Privilege. Oh my, oh no… here we go! Quickly, please pass the Sushi!

It’s at this unforeseen intersection that yellow and red lights begin to flash with sirens going off. The conversation, even when white on white, becomes uncomfortable and defensive, grappling to find the right words, reaching for denials, deflecting guilt, not even agreeing to disagree. Suddenly, all those years spent at universities did not prepare for such discourse. Help! Is there a critical race theorist in the house?!

It’s the lack of knowledge on Diversity Literacy that creates the lack of confidence for genuine discourse. If only citizens had been prepared to deal with such difficult subjects during those impressionable developmental years. It’s on such occasions that an excellent opportunity is lost to discuss the nuances of racism. Unfortunately, attention is directed to the obvious dominative racist, who exhibits the more “red-necked” forms of discrimination where overt racism is more likely to be identified.

“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.

Therefore, are silence, avoidance, distancing, apathy, defensive postures, and denial forms of aversive racism? To what degree are we our brother’s and sister’s advocate? Do we by choice initiate the topic by asking the first question? To what degree is aversive racism subconscious – buried and rooted in our personal psyche? All these questions deserve a healthy airing out by well-intended citizens.

Germany in the 1930s faced similar circumstances as racism and nazism began to creep into its socio-cultural-political ideology. Not all Germans felt comfortable with what was on the horizon. One German citizen, who at first had mixed feelings about Hitler, was Martin Niemöller (1892–1984). He was a prominent Lutheran pastor. In time, he became aware of the ideology of oppression, but it was too late. He emerged as an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler and spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps. He is perhaps best remembered for his postwar words that suburbanites most likely have already heard, but perhaps don’t believe or worse… ignore.

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”


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.

Gaertner, S.L. & Dovidio, J.F. (1986) “There Aversive Form of Racism.”  In J.F. Dovido & S.L. Gaertner (Eds.), Prejudice, Discrimination and Racism, (pp.61-89) Orlando, FL: Academic Press. Inc.