It must be alienating to feel like one is on probation in one’s own country, that one’s presence is subject to the approval of white people. And it must be a familiar feeling, especially these days, for everyone who is not white (and male).
It occurred to me that white people rarely if ever experience questions like this, about their very legitimacy. Do they belong? Is having more of them around good for America?
On his podcast, Vox’s Ezra Klein recently interviewed Yale psychologist Jennifer Richeson, noting she “has done pioneering work on the way perceptions of demographic threat and change affect people’s political opinions, voting behavior, and ideas about themselves.”
One of Richeson’s key insights is that reminders of coming demographic decline – the notion that America will soon become a “majority minority” country, with people of color outnumbering whites – not only cause increased hostility toward other racial groups (which might be expected) but also push white people in a conservative direction on seemingly unrelated policy questions like tax rates and oil drilling.
Indeed, as research on “priming” shows, simply discussing race at all kicks up those effects among the racially dominant group. Or to put it more bluntly, in the US context: White people really don’t like being called white people. They don’t like being reminded that they are white people, part of a group with discernible boundaries, shared interests, and shared responsibilities.
After all, one of the benefits of being in the dominant demographic and cultural group is that you are allowed to simply be a person, a blank slate upon which you can write your own individual story. You have no baggage but what you choose.
The power and privilege that come along with that – being the base model, a person with no asterisk – are invisible to many white men. Simply calling them “white people,” much less questioning the behavior or beliefs of white people, drags that power and privilege into the open.
White men bridle at the notion of being part of a tribe or engaging in identity politics. (Ahem.) Alone among social groups, they are allowed the illusion that they have only their own bespoke identity, that they are pure freethinkers, citizens, unburdened and uninfluenced by collective baggage (unique and precious “snowflakes,” if you will).
No one else is allowed to think that – at least not for long, before they are reminded again that they are, in the eyes of their country, little more than their identity, their asterisk. No one else gets to pretend their politics are free of identity.
White people do. But simply saying the words “white people” is a direct attack on that illusion. It identifies, i.e., creates (or rather, exposes) an identity, a group with shared characteristics and interests. It raises questions (and doubts) about the group’s standing and power relative to other groups. It illuminates all that hidden baggage. Lots of white people really hate that.