Note to my white self…

You know white code.

You grew up in white America. You spent your life around white people.  You attended predominantly white schools.  You watched and listened to white media.  In these communities, schools and media, though you were taught to avoid blatantly racist language, you also learned the code.  White code is the language white people use to say racist things without sounding racist.

For example, when white people ask whether a neighborhood or school is “good,” you know what they are really asking. They are asking if that neighborhood or school has any people of color.  You know it and they know it.  Using the code allows white people to ask or say racist things without censure.  Indeed, if a person of color accuses them of racist intent, they can act shocked and indignant. They can identify their accuser as a “reverse racist,” which is white code for an uppity person of color.

You not only know white code. You use it.  It trips off your tongue so naturally you hardly notice it.  It is so deeply embedded in you that you may never completely abandon it.  But you must try.  As long as you and other white people participate in the charade, the code will not be exposed for what it is – a means of perpetuating systemic racism.  White code allows you and others to reinforce inaccurate and harmful stereotypes.

For example, when white people say our cities aren’t safe, that we need more law and order or less government handouts, you know what they are really saying. They are implying that people of color are criminal, that police should arrest more of them and the government should give them less assistance.  You know it and they know it.  They may not wink when they say it, but you know they’re denigrating people of color.

This pretense is at the core of systemic racism. As long as white people, politicians, judges, prosecutors, police officers, business leaders and voters speak in white code, they are immune from censure or consequence.  You can be as racially bias as you like as long as you continue to use the code.  As long as you don’t actually use a racially derogatory term, you are considered color blind.  Even the Supreme Court has affirmed the code, pretending that jury selection, gerrymandering and voter suppression are not influenced by race.  The code allows us to defend inequality.

For example, when white people say that “some people (expect, want, demand, etc. ) special rights and privileges,” you know what they are really saying. They are implying that people of color should not expect the same privileges as white people.  You know it and they know it.  “Some people” and “those people” have always been code for people of color.  Sadly, most white people are content with a society with vast disparities between the rights and privileges of whites and those of people of color.

I’m glad you’re not one of them. You are not content.  You believe in equality and justice.  You sincerely want to end systemic racism.  That’s all well and good, but it won’t happen until you stop tolerating white code.  Tolerating white code is the same as laughing at a racist joke.  Sure, you didn’t say it, but you know what they were really saying.  When you pretend not to hear the racism, you encourage it.

You need to break the code. When you expose its racist underpinnings, the code becomes less effective.  Its ugliness becomes more obvious.  It fools less and less people.  This is why you must point out white code whenever you hear it.   When someone asks if a neighborhood is good, tell them you don’t judge your neighbors by the color of their skin.  When someone calls for law and order, tell them you don’t support racial profiling.  When someone talks about “some people,” tell them you don’t share their racist opinions.

This won’t be easy. Challenging white code is frowned upon by other white people.  It is seen as an act of racial disloyalty.  Other white people will accuse you of being racist.  When they do so, don’t argue with them.  Admit that you – like them – can be racist.  Tell them that being color blind is white code for someone who refuses to see the racism in themselves or others.


6 thoughts on “I Know White Code

  1. If you were to come looking for a home in my neighborhood and asked, “How are the schools?”, I’d say the elementary school down the street, John Strange is excellent, in fact it just received an A rating.
    The school just happens to be over 50% minorities and has and even larger percentage on free lunch. Maybe you should re-think at least part of the code-word argument and take some questions on their face value.


    1. I think asking a question like “What is the academic standing of that school?” is a fair question. In truth, asking about the diversity of a school is fair, especially if you value diversity. At least, if you ask about the diversity, you’re acknowledging race as a component in your thinking. There is no code involved. It is the use of the term “good” that – in my opinion – is almost always suspect. I suppose I could follow up their question by asking what they mean by good, but this allows the person using the code to pretend they weren’t asking about race.


  2. While I agree the code needs to be broken, I would probably take a different approach. I would ask the person inquiring about a good neighborhood, “What do you mean by ‘good’?” Make that person explain himself, then point out any racism that shows up in the explanation. Just a thought.


    1. I have tried that tact in the past without much success. When you ask someone what they mean by “good” they never say, “You know, how many blacks and Hispanics are in the neighborhood?” That would be racist and the whole point of the code is to avoid that. They usually say they were asking about crime rates, housing quality and schools. If I ask if their question had any racial overtones, they get angry and defensive. I’ve decided it is easier to simply assume the racism.


  3. One more point. When I used to ask white people what they meant by “good,” I never once had a white person reply, “You know, a neighborhood with lots a racial diversity” or “You know, a school with lots of racial diversity.” Never happened.


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