An Anti-Racism Primer For White Folks

Ready to stand up against racism, but you're not sure where to start? Feeling unsure or uneasy about what it means to be a white person? Here's a quick and short primer to get you started.

Last revised: November 2020

Table of Contents

What "white" and "race" really mean.

Most white people have been brought to believe that race is something that exists as an actual biological thing. It's not.

Race is a social construct, nothing more. The notion that you can divide people into separate and distinct groups based on morphological features isn't based in actual science; rather, it mostly came from people trying to find more reasons to believe Western Europeans were the best and smartest people in the world. Actual genetics do not support this concept at all.

The concept of race, as understood by most people considered white these days, was created by Western European racists trying to find scientific justification for their chauvinism. The study of genetics was in vogue, and the chauvinists of the day grabbed it with gusto. They were never able to find any actual evidence to back up this hypothesis, of course; ultimately, all of their data was distorted or made up. They basically used a whole lot of pseudoscience to make the case that some people evolved savage brawns instead of rational brains.

Now, it must be noted that some people considered to be genetically inferior were also Western European. The Irish are a good example. The less culturally British they were, the more they were regarded as primitive and bestial. It's essentially the same rhetoric applied to Black people today. Another group often considered to be genetically inferior are the poor. Allegedly, poor people just don't have the IQ to become successful and wealthy; that's not the fault of the wealthy and so wealthy don't owe them anything; if anything, the wealthy would be doing the world a favor by just letting them die.

Today, many white supremacists belong to one group or another that would be considered inferior in another time or place, often by the very institutions and groups they hold dear. Sorry, Scandinavians; the ancient Greeks would not have loved you. Sorry, Germans; the Roman Empire thought you were a bunch of vicious, filthy animals. White supremacist Benjamin Franklin didn't like you, either. Do you consider yourself Irish or Welsh? The British Empire would have really rather you just died.

Essentially, those who are considered genetically good versus those who are considered genetically bad ultimately has very little to do with actual genes and a whole lot more to do with politics. It's all about whether or not a given group fits the dominant culture's notions of what's safe and seemly. "White," therefore, is a fluid and mutable concept. It is a status granted to those deemed worthy by those in power; and presumably it can just as easily be revoked should it become convenient.

Many white people argue that the concept of a "white race" makes sense from a genetic standpoint because the indigenous population of any given area in the world will have a similar look due to similar genes.

Except... this isn't actually how it works.

The genes that control your outward appearance make up only a tiny fraction of your genes in total. People can look very similar to each other on the surface, but have extremely different genomes. Conversely, people can look very different from each other and yet still have many genetic similarities. Subsaharan Africa has more genetic diversity than the rest of the world, which means that two people from Africa can have far more genetic difference from each other than a Filipino man has from a woman of Swedish stock. So if race exists because of genetic similarity, then it would make more sense to regard the Swedish woman and the Filipino man as members of the same race than the two Africans.

Our concept of what makes a race is essentially based on the pseudoscientific assumption that Western Europeans can be considered a "race," and that any group of people who look significantly different from Western Europeans somehow can be considered a race of their own. Those whose phenotypes fall between designated racial categories are perceived as ambiguous or ephemeral, even though there are many distinct cultural groups whose members generally don't fit into any designated racial category.

This does not mean that you should start making with the "there's only one race, the human race!" rhetoric. It's extremely flippant and has connotations of assimilationism.

Nor does this mean that you should just stop calling yourself "white." The "white race" might be fake and made up, but the social institution of whiteness, which confers privilege and favor upon people who look and behave a certain way, is very real. By referring to yourself as white, you acknowledge that you have access to this privilege and favor.

It's okay to have pale skin and European ancestry. It's not okay to keep perpetuating the social institution of whiteness. You don't have to think of yourself of white as an individual person, but you do need to recognize that you are white in a very pervasive social institution.

The reality of systemic racism.

Most white people have been led to believe that racism is an individual problem, rather than a systemic one. They believe that being racist is being rude or hostile to a POC on the basis of them being a POC; IE, that racism is an individual action motivated by racial prejudice.

However, this is incorrect. Racism is not an individual problem, but rather a systemic one. An individual person's actions are racist insofar as they serve to maintain and defend this system. In a nutshell, mere race-based prejudice isn't racism in itself; rather, race-based prejudice can create and uphold a system of racism. (And this is why Black people can be prejudiced against white people, but cannot be racist against white people.)

So as it is, everything from social norms to laws are structured to put POC at a disadvantage.

An example of this is the War on Drugs, which has disproportionately affected Black and Latino people. White people are no less likely to use drugs, but they are far less likely to be arrested and convicted for it. Selling crack cocaine has a far harsher penalty than selling powder cocaine; naturally, Black people are more likely to be in possession of crack than powder.

Another example are dress codes that ban Black hairstyles. Thus, Black people are branded as disruptive and unprofessional for wearing traditional Black styles. The fact that white hairstyles are seen as professional, while Black hairstyles are not, is systemic racism.

To learn more, you can search the Internet for "examples of systemic racism" or "examples of institutional racism." Long story short, this is what Black folks are talking about when they speak up against racism, and this is the kind of thing we need to focus on dismantling.

White shame, white defensiveness.

Now we gotta talk about how white people get super defensive when you try to talk to them about racism - or Heaven forbid - tell them that something they're doing is racist. A lot of this comes down to how whiteness teaches people to think about right vs. wrong, guilt vs. innocence, and order vs. chaos. Three facts in particular are very important here:

1. Whiteness heavily relies on guilt and shame to control people's thoughts and behavior.
2. Whiteness believes that displaying genteel behavior is part and parcel to having good morals, and that failing to display genteel behavior is caused by having bad morals.
3. Whiteness believes that it champions freedom and democracy, but in practice it's actually very concerned with maintaining hierarchy.

These three factors make it very difficult for white people to recognize and deal with racism, both on a personal and systemic level. Here is how it works, and what we must do about it.

Whiteness strongly believes that people will not improve their behavior unless they are motivated by shame. Because of this, white people have learned to associate any sort of callout or correction as a call to feel ashamed of themselves. And because shame leads to toxic self-loathing, many white people have learned three main self-defense mechanisms. The first is blocking out anything that could potentially lead to feeling shame. The second is to overdramatically perform shame in the hopes of securing forgiveness and/or purge the sense of shame as soon as possible. The third is to make a sarcastic performance of shame to try and humiliate the other party.

Therefore, white people must work to deprogram themselves and others from shame mentality, and replace it with growth mentality. I wrote a bit on how to cultivate growth mentality over here.

Whiteness strongly believes that politeness and manners are paramount to maintaining a pleasant and orderly society. To be well-behaved is to behave well. But to effectively challenge bigotry and fight oppression, one must behave in ways that whiteness deems impolite. Even the mere act of pointing out that someone's words or behavior is racist can be seen as totally rude and uncalled for. The reason for this is that most white people do not believe they are practicing or perpetuating racism, and therefore this is an unwarranted assault on their moral characters. Additionally, white people will largely dismiss complaints from racial minorities until they make themselves impossible to ignore.

White people must learn that when racial minorities speak out against oppression and abuse, they must set aside their shock and defensiveness and simply listen with an open mind. I've written on how to be a good listener over here. Furthermore, they must understand that whiteness will always try to find a way to trivialize and delegitimize them. If anyone's familiar with Aesop's fable of The Wolf and the Lamb, it's exactly like that. Whiteness is the wolf that makes up absurd pretenses to do what it wanted to do all along anyway.

And finally, whiteness generally believes that true equality has already been reached in places it has made itself dominant, and because of this, nothing more needs done or addressed; the system merely needs to be maintained as-is. However, its inherent interest in maintaining dominance is not hard to observe. The presence of racial minority characters in media is often perceived as the result of a hostile political agenda rather than a reflection of the status quo. The justice system is harsher on Blacks and Latinos than it is on whites. White women call the police on Black men for merely being present and visible in public spaces, often with lethal results.

White people must understand where their perceptions that everything is fine already come from. First, they subconsciously assume that because everything is fine for them personally, it must be fine for everyone else. Secondly, their concept of what an ideal and fair society looks like is largely based on the status quo. Thirdly, we've basically been taught that while the past was fraught with struggle against oppression, it's all been sorted out and the only thing we need to worry about now is maintaining the status quo.

Additionally, white people are taught a very skewed version of history. White people's role in perpetuating racism is minimized; those who fought against it are made out to be soft and fluffy little angels.

They have a very skewed picture of the present. They are taught that racism is something perpetuated by a few bad individuals, not something that is so deeply ingrained into every level of our society that they can't help but practice and perpetuate racism themselves at times. (White people would do well to read Not That Kind of Racism: How Good People Can Be Racist Without Awareness or Intent.)

Don't feel shame. Feel anger. Get angry at every person who was responsible for misleading you. This anger is sacred. Let yourself have it.

Let yourself feel grief. Cry if you need to. Grief is sacred, too.

You were lied to. You were deceived. That is not your fault.

It is simply your responsibility to educate yourself and do what you can to dismantle white supremacy, because if you don't, you are complicit.

Your responsibilities and role.

To reiterate: You are not required to hate yourself for having European ancestry, or light skin, or whatever. In fact, wallowing in guilt and shame is one thing you shouldn't do. Teaching people to loathe themselves is one of whiteness's dirty tricks, and it helps nothing. If anything, it mostly just keeps you stuck where you are.

So let's establish some ground rules.

You are a human. And as a human, you are limited and fallible. You're not omnipotent. You're not omniscient. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you will make mistakes or be misled. You only have so much time and energy, and you will have to slow down and recharge at times. Your human limitations are not a personal failing; they just are. Don't think that being unable to tackle this like you're Superman makes you some kind of failure.

You are part of humanity. Being part of humanity means that you have a responsibility to work on your flaws and to try to fix injustice when you see it. It also means that you don't have to do it alone. You can and should try to form communities that act together and support each other.

You're not a hero, and this isn't the hero's journey. The last thing anyone needs is yet another white person who thinks they're going to lead the movement, slay the dragon, and win the love of the people. You are an ordinary citizen who must cooperate with other ordinary citizens. Do not expect to receive fame, glory, or even forgiveness. All you can do is try to be the best person you can moving forward.

You have a responsibility to educate yourself. Black people do not have the time or energy to personally tutor you in everything you need to know, and finding resources isn't difficult. If you're not sure where to go, try searching the Internet for "anti-racist reading list," "decolonize your bookshelf," and "ways to be anti-racist." Also, there will be links to resources later in this article.

You're not expected to completely fix yourself overnight. That's not humanly possible. You are expected to do the best you can right now, keep on learning, and to accept correction when it's given. Sometimes you'll find yourself falling back into old mindsets, but that's to be expected when you're trying to deprogram yourself from a lifetime of propaganda. The important thing is that you challenge and resist the ideas when they come.

You're allowed to have feelings. And you will have feelings. As you learn more you will experience anger, grief, horror, and despair. Whiteness has probably taught you that "negative" feelings are to be avoided whenever possible. However, this is propaganda designed to keep people quiet and complacent within unfair systems. Do not try to suppress or run from these feelings; allow yourself to work through them instead. If you need help, seek it from your friends and family, not from Black people. I also have an article with a few tips on handling negative feelings here.

You need to be practical, not performative. Don't be that person who comes into a Black person's twitter thread just to make a speech about how racism is bad and has no place in our America, or whatever. Don't make a big production out of how you plan to commit yourself to fighting racism. Don't just say you support Black people and do nothing else. Retweet the original tweet. Always prioritize boosting Black voices over making your own commentary. Donate to charities that support Black people. Buy books, art, and goods from Black people. Educate your white friends.

You need to commit yourself to this for the long haul. Being anti-racist isn't something you can just do for a few weeks and then just quit. It's a constant ongoing process. Because you're in this for the long haul, you'll need to set sustainable habits. You can alternate between learning about heinous atrocities and exposing yourself to positive examples of Blackness, such as engaging with media created by Black people containing Black characters; getting into twitters, podcasts, or YouTube channels focused on topics you're interested in that are maintained by Black people; or by appreciating their art.

The truth about "white culture."

Many people have said that white people don't have culture, and this is both true and false.

Folks who've been granted admission into the institution of whiteness have culture - lots of different cultures, in fact. However, whiteness itself isn't a true culture because it defines itself by what it isn't, rather than by what it is.

Whiteness is a kind of purity cult. It considers its own norms and values to be the plain, default state of humanity, and perceives everything else as deviant or extraneous. Because of this, it generally thinks of itself as having no culture, and tries to avoid anything that appears too "cultural" for the most part. There are a couple of notable exceptions. One of them is having an "exotic" adventure that's more or less supposed to be a break from "normality." The other is to signal how adventurous or cosmopolitan one is. In the latter case, the white person must not be subsumed or assimilated by the perceived exotic, but must instead tame or conquer it. This unspoken philosophy is reflected in the trope of white men taming or liberating foreign women, and in the practice of Americans going to Africa to hunt lions. Occasionally, a white person who has become disenchanted with whiteness in some way will attempt to "convert" to a supposedly exotic culture, believing that it will bring their lives meaning or absolve them of the wrongs committed by themselves or other white people.

Whiteness also tends to disapprove of emotional expression. It insists that proper decorum must be maintained or else society will crumble and chaos will reign. Thus most white people are generally emotionally repressed, and when they percieve POC as being less repressed than they are, they either feel threatened, or get the impression that POC are having a lot more fun than they are, or a little of both. The ones who feel threatened are likely to respond with hostility; the ones who think POC are having more fun are more likely to engage in cultural appropriation. (Disney's Pocahontas was essentially a wish fulfillment fantasy for a generation of repressed white folks.)

Whiteness can usually tolerate a little perceived deviance as long as it appears to know its place - IE, it never appears to be encroaching on what they perceive as their own personal territory. Thus white people who are fine with POC living in separate neighborhoods bristle at the idea of them moving into their own, with the possible exception of said POC showing themselves to be completely assimilated. A publishing house might be okay with publishing one Black princess story, but balk at publishing any more than that. "Ethnic" food is considered fine and good when it's made from ingredients familiar to white people; when it's not, it's seen as sinister and filthy. Whiteness even sanitizes white people's own myths and fairytales and relegates them to children's entertainment.

Whiteness doesn't teach people how to grow and find meaning in their own culture. It shames them for failing to conform and comply. Whiteness strips everything of uniqueness and meaning to make it tame, unchallenging, and easy to sell to the white masses. Most white people don't produce their own cultural icons and trappings; they purchase them from faceless corporations and from celebrity creators who might as well be distant gods to them.

About the only thing that whiteness recognizes as white culture is the culture of the elite. Whiteness romanticizes the rich and royal while often demeaning the common folk by acting as if their cultures and lifestyles are substandard and something they should aspire to escape from.

Thus white people are frequently left feeling like they have nothing, are nothing, and can't do much to change it. There are three common outcomes to this.

The first is that they continue on as they are, hating themselves and the world. These types tend to become misanthropic and/or try to bury their emotional pain with forced positivity.

The second is that they try to inject a sense of meaning and wholeness into their lives by appropriating the trappings and traditions of POC cultures.

The third is they fall prey to white supremacists who tell them that the reason things are this way is because of POC and Jews trying to destroy white culture. The racists usually offer them a sense of actual culture and community, and this is a large part of why they're so good at recruiting people.

As white people, we need to be aware there's a fourth option: to acknowledge that we are not culturally neutral, and that we are free to create meaning of our own within our cultures. We can research and take inspiration from our ancestors' traditions while remaining aware that our ancestors were flawed people who made mistakes. We can replace shame mentality with growth mentality, which will allow us to value the good in our history and traditions without feeling like we have to ignore, minimize, or justify the brutal and hateful. We can cherish what we have while recognizing that what others have is just as precious. We can understand that we are but one star in the sky, and the night sky would be so much less beautiful with only one star in it.

Many white supremacists behave as if culture is a zero-sum game, where allowing others to thrive will diminish from their own. They act as if there's some Platonic ideal of culture they should aspire to and refuse to accept that culture is something that naturally and inevitably evolves with time. They believe their own culture is self-evidently superior, and that it requires no critical examination and that no other perspectives need to be considered.

Many white people don't even realize they're white supremacists. They believe that a lot of people who just happen to be white just also happen to have the most objective and balanced opinions, and just so happen to have the best and nicest culture. They don't ask themselves why and how they came to believe that, whether their sources might be biased, and whether they might have been deliberately sheltered from other viewpoints.

We must work to build anti-racism into our cultures going forward. We must emphasize a commitment to kindness and compassion. We must learn and teach each other how to listen to the marginalized and oppressed without making the conversation about our opinions and feelings on the matter. We must build systems where bullies and authoritarians cannot thrive. We must understand that tolerating their intolerance does not protect free speech - it does just the opposite, because their goal is to silence everyone else.

We have to learn the difference between sharing culture, stealing culture, and forcing culture onto others. We must understand that we've done an awful lot of stealing and forcing, and told ourselves that it was sharing. We also need to understand that this whole notion that "white culture" evolved in a vacuum with no influence from POC, or that their influence was trivial or unimportant, is laughable.

Where to go from here.

All of this can look like a lot to take in and tackle, and it can feel pretty overwhelming. But you can manage. You don't have to do and cram everything in one week. You do need to make this a regular part of your life going forward. Know that while it might feel draining right now, you will build up resilience. Allow yourself to work through your feelings and do self-care as necessary, but do not allow yourself to quit.

The following links will give you some starting points.

Unpacking The Invisible Knapsack is a good place to start.

This thread talks a bit about the origins and function of whiteness.

This thread talks about white progressive backlash, which is something that all white allies must avoid at all costs.

This thread talks about how the character and history of Martin Luther King Jr. was whitewashed.

This thread contains links to resources on institutional racism. This thread contains resources for people trying to be anti-racist.

This Twitter thread explains the link between racism and transphobia. This article and this thread have lists of organizations you can donate to and support Black trans people.

This Twitter thread has a list of organizations to donate to, petitions, educational resources, and more.

This thread explains what racial gaslighting is.

This thread addresses authoritarianism and how it pertains to racism.

This thread links to educational podcasts.

This page recommends 62 books written by Black authors.

This thread links to romance books written by Black authors.

And finally, if you have any doubts that things can get better, I suggest reading this thread. A defeatest mentality is white supremacy.

More things to do (if you're not already doing them).

Kick all the racists out of your online communities. If you manage any kind of online community and have allowed people who voice racist beliefs or display racist attitudes to stay up until now, stop. Ban them all. Allowing racists creates a hostile environment for Black folks. And while you're at it, ban all transphobes (that includes anyone who calls themselves "gender critical"), as it's often been noted that most white transphobes are closet racists. (Though you should ban all transphobes anyway, on simple account of them being transphobes.)

Check out more media created by Black people. Support Black creators and give yourself the opportunity to see the world through their eyes by checking out their movies, books, games, comics, music, etc. Don't forget to recommend them to your friends, too!

Deprogram yourself from toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is essentially complacency and nihilism masquerading as hope and optimism - which allows racism to persist unchallenged. Research what toxic positivity is (this is a good place to start), and work on breaking yourself out of the habit.

Deprogram yourself from getting defensive when Black people talk about white people as an aggregate. If a statement like "white people need to stop defending racist authors" doesn't apply to you, then it wasn't about you. You don't need to step in and tell the person that you're not like that. If you still feel offended by aggregate statements about white people, then take a moment to try and empathize with Black people's trauma from the years of abuse and aggression they've endured.

Make a conscious effort to take Black people's words in good faith when they tell you something's wrong. Whiteness programs white people to assume that Black people are lying, exaggerating, or reading too much into things when they point something out as racist or say they've been racially harassed. Odds are, they're probably not. If your initial reaction is to assume they must be wrong or misinterpreting something, remind yourself that they're probably not.

Prioritize Black activist voices over white activist voices, and give white activists more skepticism than Black ones. Many white activists underestimate the amount of work that needs to be done, or prioritize the wrong work, or simply became activists because they like having a pretext to boss other people around. So, don't just believe white people who try to tell you what is or isn't racist; see whether or not Black people agree with them, too.

You might also take a look at:

How To Exercise & Strengthen Your Empathy
Apologizing - How & Why To Do It
Writing Fantastic People & Creatures Without Unfortunate Implications
Allyship does not mean seeing yourself as worthless (Offiste.)
Activism must not be derailed by behaviorism (Offsite.)

Go Back
Go to a random page!