Last week, I heard Rick Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review, say, “Progressives have called so many people and things racist that the word has almost become meaningless.”  I also heard a reporter ask a Republican Senator if Trump’s latest tweets were racist.  When he said they were not, she asked, “What would you consider racist?”  After an uncomfortably long pause, the Senator replied, “I don’t know.”

These two responses epitomize our present situation.  Lowry’s critique is sadly accurate. For progressives, racism permeates our society, afflicting all of us in one way or another.  We see it lurking in nearly every human institution or encounter.  Since we label both those who burn crosses and those who critique black culture as racist, the accusation has lost some of its power.  There are different types and severities of white supremacy and racism, which the term “racist” fails to differentiate.

For conservatives, racism is limited to the most blatant and heinous of individual acts against a person of another skin color and relatively rare in today’s society.  A recent study found only 33% of Trump voters thought the use of the “N” word by a white person was a racist act.  More disturbing, only 18% of Trump voters thought the use of the “N” word by a white person identified them as “a racist.”  Over 80% of Trump voters didn’t identify the use of the “N” word as indicative of a deeper racial animosity.  Is it any wonder the Republican Senator wasn’t sure what would qualify as racist?

All of this suggests, if we hope to have productive conversations about race, we need an expanded set of descriptors to better capture the wide spectrum of attitudes and behaviors concerning race in the United States today.  While we may continue to disagree about which of these descriptors are morally abhorrent, at least we will better understand our differences.  With this in mind, I would suggest the following five questions as essential to determining how we understand racial dynamics in the United States.

  1. Are you a white person raised or living in the United States?

If you answered “yes,” I would hope we could agree that you live in a country where whiteness has been normative.  This is a not a moral judgment, but a societal observation.  Until very recently, US politics, business and media have been dominated by white people.  In our language, white is considered “pure and good” while black is considered “negative and evil.”  Those of us who are white are therefore predisposed to think blackness abnormal and inferior.  Our individual upbringings may have been less racially charged than others, but we have all been immersed in a white culture.  Proceed to Question 2.

If you answered “no,” you are a person of color.  Unfortunately, you too have been raised or are living in a country where whiteness is normative.  However, for you, this has produced mental, emotional, economic and physical damage.  You have been the victim of instances where white people or systems treated you as inferior.  While you probably feel animosity toward white people and culture, you have seldom had the power to object.  While you may hold prejudices toward white people, you do not have the power to institutionalize or enforce these prejudices.  Calling your animosities and prejudices racist ignores the reality that much of this resentment and anger is justified.  You are the target of racism.  While you may want to read the other questions, you can proceed to Question 5.

  1. Do you believe white people and culture are superior to other people and cultures?

If you answered “yes,” you are a white supremacist.  Indeed, the belief above is the precise definition of white supremacy and one that about 12% of white Americans hold.  You probably define racism as any negative attack on another race and think people of color as capable of racism as whites.  You may also think your opinions about race morally defensible. For you, stating other people and their cultures are inferior is not an attack, but an observation.  You probably know your opinion is considered immoral by a vast number of ethicists, but you don’t care.   You need not answer any further questions.

If you answered “no,” proceed to Question 3.

  1. Do you believe people of color generally have the same resources, rights and advantages as white people in the United States today?

If you answered “yes,” you are a passive white supremacist.  Study after study demonstrates whites have more resources, more privileges and significant advantages in our society today.  There is no debating this.  In explaining these disparities, you have two choices.  You can assume our system is inherently racist and answer “no” to this question.  Or you can imply – whether you realize it or not – that, if people of color are doing poorly, it must be because of some inferiority in them or their culture.  While this is a more passive way to claim white superiority, it is still white supremacy.  Please rethink your answer.

If you answered “no,” proceed to Question 4.

  1. Do you believe racism is primarily an act of intentional discrimination or abuse?

If you answered “yes,” you are passive racist.  While you may be progressive and treat the people of color you encounter with respect, by limiting responsibility to individual words and acts you are giving your tacit approval to systemic racism and all the damage it does to people of color.  While you probably think of yourself as “non-racist,” by ignoring all the insidious ways in which our society disadvantages people of color, you are complicit in all of those racist aggressions.  As long as you remain a passive racist, you are helping sustain white supremacy, even if you oppose its tenets.  Please rethink your answer.

If you answered “no,” proceed to Question 5

  1. Do you believe white people have a responsibility to work with people of color to dismantle white supremacy and address historic inequities?

If you are reading Question 5,  you know the importance of answering “yes.”  You are an anti-racist.  This does not mean you are free from the influence of white supremacy.  Whether you are white or a person of color, much of this indoctrination is deeply embedded.  You will express racist attitudes and behaviors about and toward people of color or, if you are a person of color, about yourself.  When you do so, acknowledge this and move on.  Being anti-racist does not immediately make you free; it makes you aware.  Dismantling white supremacy is both an inward and outward task.  As you work to eliminate false, hateful and damaging racial tropes from within yourself, also begin challenging these assumptions in your family, workplace, places of worship and friendships.  Work with other anti-racists to change the cultures of religions, corporations and governments.  Challenge.  Protest.  Legislate.  Teach.  Heal.

When you talk with others, ask them these five questions.  In hearing their answers, you will better understand their understanding of racism.  Waste no time arguing with white supremacists and spend more time prodding passive white supremacists and racists. Encourage them to rethink their opinions.  Help more and more people answer Question Five with an enthusiastic “yes.”  Until more people do, white supremacy will reign.

21 thoughts on “Are You Anti-Racist?

  1. Jim, I don’t think the jump from 2 to 3 is right. You probably did this on purpose, but I would replace “passive white supremacist” with “ignorance of white privilege.” You basically identified every suburban white kid as a passive white supremacist, something which I do not think is going to be very agreeable with your readers. I was that definition, except for the supremacist part, but I am better off know with this knowledge to try and improve and impress upon my children true equality.


    1. Jason, I suspect most suburban white teens are passive white supremacists. I know I was. This is not a moral failing on their part, but a societal failing. In our present culture, if you are white, it is nearly impossible not be raised as at least a passive white supremacist. The question is how we answer this question as adults, who are the target of this post.


  2. On the surface I can answer your questions and say I’m anti-racist, but I don’t buy all your terms or conclusions.

    You blur the line between race and culture the same way the HuffPost did in the article you linked in the last thread. You refer to “white culture” as if it’s this obvious monolithic thing. Racial ancestry is somewhat cut and dry, but an individual’s relationship to the prevailing set of evolving beliefs, values, and practices that combine to form a culture is anything but cut and dry. On top of that, for a very long time, US culture has placed high value on individual freedom of thought and even though the herd instinct will always be in play, we have a considerable streak of nonconformity that prevents society-wide homogeny on much of anything. Slavery was banned in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Rhode Island before the US constitution was even ratified in 1789. New York banned it in 1799. The ⅗ compromise of 1787 is testament to the division. Plus tens of millions of white immigrants with no ancestral connection to owning slaves continued to pour in well after the civil war ended.

    As you are right to point out, that doesn’t exempt me from reaping significant benefit from the accumulated wealth and associative advantages of being more culture-ready upon my family’s arrival around 1885. However, the forces driving the marginalization of blacks today is nothing like the overt oppression and morally culpable actions of slave owners and those who directly profited in real time. There’s no longer a direct line of volitional responsibility to a society-wide white supremacy as much as you try to make the case for one.

    Of course US culture today is a blend of mostly European heritage—that’s the law of averages at play, not deep-rooted white supremacy. There are also distinct inclusions of African heritage in US culture (spirituals, blues, jazz, agricultural expertise, southern cuisine, sports icons, actors, comics, rap, pop, Oprah Winfry…). Jackie Robbinson is no less an indispensable piece of Americana than are hot dogs or apple pie. And the deliberate rejection of slavery and inequality is something I hold dear as part of my own heritage along with a very large majority of rest of the white US population. US opinion polls consistently rank Abraham Lincoln at or near the top of US Presidents. That’s why it’s difficult for so many of us to accept a lot of what you’re saying about passive white supremacy and passive racism.

    What we need are more ways to overcome the cross-racial, cross-cultural mistrust in the here and now. Your blog seems dedicated to the proposition that no white person in the US, including yourself, ought to be trusted by any black person. If that’s true, blacks are truly better off just isolating from us. And if I live my life assuming blacks in general have good cause to mistrust me, putting me on continual defense, always needing to earn trust, I might occasionally decide it’s too much work and go the easier route of dealing with people who don’t have cause to distrust me. Your approach seems to be striking exactly the wrong chord for building trust in either direction.


    1. Thoughtful as always. However, some of what you say in trying to deny “white culture” actually suggests you are so immersed in it that it is invisible to you. For example, hots dogs and apple pie not very white European culinary examples. Suggesting they are somehow normative is an example of the invisibility of white culture. In addition, I think more conversations with black and brown people might help you understand the present situation with people of color more clearly. They do not trust us. Nor is it presently safe to do so. I know many Latino people who have simply stopped interacting with white culture unless necessary. As to healing the divide, nothing can happen until we talk about the problem, something I find most white Americans very adverse to doing. However, I am most pleased to hear you are anti-racist. I suspect many white Americans won’t make it to Question 5.


  3. I guess in one sense I am owning up to there being something of white culture that is invisible to me. This is me asking you to describe precisely what it is I’m not seeing—in the simplest terms possible, because apparently we whites are cognitively challenged in this area. I’m not denying the existence of something people refer to as “white culture” as much as I’m trying to clarify what is meant when the phrase is used. By qualifying the term “culture” with “white” you assume a common understanding of what beliefs, values, and practices “white” references. I see a huge variety of beliefs, values and practices held by whites over the centuries and today across different localities and different associations.

    Setting aside the 12% or so of US white people who apparently believe their lighter skin is indicative of some kind of genetic superiority—of the remaining 88% of us, exactly what beliefs, values, or practices are similarly oppressive to nonwhites? In other words, in the absence of the false belief that defines white supremacy, what still tags you and me as co-supremacists?

    We’ve been told, correctly, that we can’t assume every Muslim participates in terrorism except for the ones actively denouning it repeatedly and publicly. Since only a small minority of Muslims genuinely support terrorism, we should grant Muslims in general the benefit of the doubt and expect they individually prefer peace to violence like most people. Does the same principle not apply to whites?


    1. I am sending a link to one of the better descriptions of white culture.

      Click to access Some%20Aspects%20and%20Assumptions%20of%20White%20Culture%20in%20the%20United%20States.pdf

      This is not to say there isn’t variation or individuals who do not fully represent this culture. However, this does a fairly good job of identifying the salient components of white culture. Also, I would note that not all of these dynamics of white culture as inherently oppressive of others. They are simply normative. Indeed, much of the problem, is when whites think of what is normative as morally superior. Again, as I try to articulate in this blog, I do not think all whites are co-supremacists. Parting of being anti-racist is choosing to be somewhat counter-culture.

      As to our question concerning Muslims, I think it is a good comparative. Islam certainly has a definitive culture. I think, while it is inappropriate to suggest all Muslims are terrorists, it is fair to ask if there are any generally accepted concepts that could produce terrorist, specifically suicide bombers. Is jihad a concept that lend itself to certain extremes? I know this is a conversation within Islamic communities, since they are the primary victims of these attacks. So what does that say about white culture? I do not argue that all whites are white supremacists, but I am willing to have long conversations with other whites about what in our culture might lend itself to that kind of thinking. As with Islam, the right people to debate this issues are those within those cultures.

      As always, thanks for thinking about this deeply.


  4. This is where my suspension about your real goal here is rekindled. Is this really about race or ideology? This is the second time you’ve linked to that list of “white culture” attributes that have nothing to do with being white, other than the idea that they can be said to be more prevalent worldwide among people of lighter complexion. The list is a mix of both ideals and known flaws that have evolved over centuries, if not millennia. Some would be claimed with pride, a lot would be admitted to only begrudgingly. It’s a pretty good representation, I think. Most of the things listed would be considered common, but incidental, rather than essential to US culture. A few are considered regrettable. None are inherently exclusive to whites (except for the “Barbie” one, which I’d argue is ultimately demeaning to whites and not particularly normative). None, in any way, can be construed as relying on the existence of a permanent subclass to exploit or denigrate. You said “not all” do. Please explain which ones do and how.

    Individualism is one item on the list that most would consider essential to US culture. If anything can be called a bedrock value here, that’s probably it. I call it sovereignty of the individual. It includes the unalienable (or primal) rights that our Declaration of Independence mentions as essential components of the human spirit—weather endowed by our creator or evolved by natural selection. The idea is that to be truly human is to be authentically volitional and captain of the small, but uniquely significant vessel of the self. Sci-fi often refers to it as sentience. If nonwhites see that as an exclusively white ideal, I can say with confidence that most whites don’t. We’re thrilled and viscerally drawn to anyone of any color who pursues such freedom.

    I would add further that individualism is inherently anti-racist and pro-diversity because it explicitly resists uniformity. It’s precisely why the ancient practice of slavery could not be allowed to continue indefinitely after the nation’s founding really took root.

    I understand other cultures have historically taken a more collective approach to humanity, where the individual is seen as necessarily subjugated to and rooted in the community. They tend to see our culture as narcissistic and fractured if not atomized. I respectfully think they’re mistaken. The vibrancy and distinctiveness of the individual fuels a rich diversity that builds an incredibly resilient and dynamic community life. We’re not a bunch of brutish hermits. Individualism enhances the community rather than detracts from it.

    Within the US, groups of individuals who genuinely prefer the more collectivized approach are always free form their own societies. There have been lots of commune-type settlements and there still are some 2000—now called “intentional communities.” I understand the appeal. Most whites probably don’t, but few, if any, would go out of their way to prevent them from forming.


    1. Keith, if you can’t see the irony in stating, “a list of “white culture” attributes that have nothing to do with being white, other than the idea that they can be said to be more prevalent worldwide among people of lighter complexion,” then I suspect you’ll never acknowledge “white culture.” “Attributes or ideas more prevalent worldwide among people of light complexion” is a pretty good definition of white culture. In addition, some of your other remarks smack of cultural racism, which suggests that while other races are not inherently inferior, that their cultural attributes are inferior to the very white culture you deny exists. Ironies abound.


    2. Hi Keith,
      I’m late to this thread but your exchanges with James are very interesting and I wanted to jump in if I could. I still struggle with the whole concept of “White culture” myself but, I’ve moved from a place of thinking we were culture-less to a place where I recognize that things I see and identify with other cultures often have parallels in White culture. When I hear people speak of embracing our differences, a lot of times they mean that there’s “normal” and then there’s “others” who’s differences they find interesting and feel add value to the fabric of society. In other words, they associate certain things with generic US culture and fail to realize that they’re normalizing White culture as generic US culture.

      I mention all that because in your reply, you stated, “Individualism is one item on the list that most would consider essential to US culture.” Then later you stated, “I understand other cultures have historically taken a more collective approach to humanity, where the individual is seen as necessarily subjugated to and rooted in the community. ” Associating selfishness, or narcissism as you put it, with White culture is actually a recurring theme in blog commentary I read and POC that I interact with. So, you comments just made me wonder if that’s actually more of a White cultural attribute that you’re interpreting as a generic US cultural attribute since Whites are the dominant culture in the US. Even when you mentioned the inalienable rights put forth by our declaration of independence, you were citing the ideology of White men that were not considering Black people as people much less taking their cultural perspectives into account.

      Lately, I’ve been deliberately interrupting my thought processes whenever I look at something as “different” and trying to identify what I consider “normal” and why. It has helped my think about what I prefer but also realize that what was formerly abnormal is really just someone else’s normal.


  5. Obviously you’re getting frustrated with me. I’ve been pretty deliberate in acknowledging there’s something I’m not seeing. You still haven’t answered my question other than to suggest the truth may be beyond my comprehension.

    Which of those “white” attributes inherently require a permanent subclass to exploit and demean, since you say “not all” on the list do?

    Another way: How is that list so qualitatively different from any other equivalent list that could be drawn up to describe Africans or Asians? What makes our list inherently oppressive?


    1. What makes “white culture” oppressive is the assumption that it is superior and normative. That we have a white culture is not inherently oppressive. That many – implicitly or explicitly – believe it superior is oppressive. Others must assimilate to be accepted or acknowledged.


  6. So, what I hear you saying is that nothing on the list is oppressive in itself (which is what I thought) except to the degree it’s somehow involuntarily imposed on nonwhite people (which I agree would be oppressive).

    My next question: How do you parse out how much cultural influence of the majority culture on the minority cultures is due to the natural interchange of customs and ideals and how much is due to the kind of coercive dominance you warn of?

    Also, since culture is neither genetic nor immutable, why is it immoral to adopt a distinct preference for a particular set of norms? How is it possible not to develop a distinct preference?


    1. Great questions. Ibram X. Kendi spends an entire chapter on this question in his book “How To Be An Antiracist” and I would recommend you read his book. Parsing out coercive cultural dominance isn’t all that hard, especially for people of color. For example, if society inhibits black people from having natural hair and suggests they must straighten their hair in order to be promoted or respected, this would be a coercive manifestation of the dominant culture. Think about that. If we can easily see how the dominant culture can be coercive with something as trivial as hair style, can we fairly assume the dominant culture is probably doing more pervasive and insidious damage? As to the immorality question, I do not think it is immoral to have a preference for a particular set of norms. That is merely human. The problem, as stated above, is that too often we begin to define what is normative for us as morally superior. This is especially pernicious when we are part of the dominant culture.

      All that being said, I disagree with Kendi’s final conclusions that all cultural differences are simply that – differences. I find this kind of relativism problematic precisely because I believe a culture built on slavery is inferior to a culture built on individual freedom. I say this aware that this opinion is influenced by white culture’s love of rugged individualism. This is our quandary. It is nearly impossible to be culturally objective when you belong to a culture, especially a dominant one.

      However, I think since all cultures are created, not all are created equally. I’ve been trying to develop a morally neutral standard for judgment. The closest I have come is that “cultures that increase the opportunities for all of their members” are superior to “cultures that limit the opportunities of some of their members.” For this reason, I do believe post-slavery white culture – even with all of its latent racism – is better than a white culture with slavery. Additionally, this is why I believe creating a less racist American society benefits white people as well.

      I also think cultures that diminish women are inferior to cultures that allow their women fuller engagement.


  7. I guess I’m surprised how much I agree with that response. Especially the last three paragraphs. Thanks for hanging with me for so long through these last two threads. I think it’s been valuable.

    There’s still more ground to cover, but this may be as good a place as any to wrap this one up.

    ….to be continued?


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