Good Whites/Bad Whites: A False Dichotomy Prevents the Anti-Racism Progress of White People

By Love Isn’t Enough columnist Josie Amoury

I am a white, female physician, mother of two white boys. Over the last year, I have been working with a black, male anti-racist scholar and educator I met through my children’s school. We have developed a discussion series for parents on how to talk to children about social justice issues such as racial identity and privilege. Recently, a parent facilitator at another local private school emailed my colleague to ask if he would come to their school to facilitate a discussion on racism for a group of mostly white parents. She sent links to two videos they planned to use to stimulate the discussion. He sent the email on to me to see what I thought and if I would be interested in co-facilitating the discussion.

The videos were from a show called “What Would You Do?” which is described by its creator, ABC news, as “a hidden camera, ethical dilemma series [which] puts ordinary people on the spot.” The two sample episodes were 1. A bakery in which the counter person refuses to serve and is verbally abusive of a woman in a head scarf, and 2. A park where a group of white teenage boys and then a group of black teenage boys damages and sprays graffiti on an old car. The counter person, the woman with head scarf and the teenagers creating the scenarios are all actors. The “ordinary people” put “on the spot” are the people who happen to be in the bakery or the park, and it is their reactions to the event which are recorded and judged.

In these two episodes most of the ordinary people are white, and they do not behave well. No one comes to the defense of the woman in the head scarf, even as she is maligned for her attire, her assumed religion and is called a terrorist. The number of people calling 911 to report the black youth is 10x those who call when the white teenagers trash the car. In fact, two people even call 911 to report that the family members of one of the black actors, who are sleeping in a car in a separate section of the park, “look like they are getting ready for a robbery.”

After viewing these episodes, we decided we would not use them to frame a discussion of racial identity and racism with white parents. While they do provide examples for those white viewers who are completely naïve about the ongoing presence of discrimination, they paralyze the conversation in a good white/ bad white dichotomy and promote the idea that individual anti-racist action is about “acting nice.”

The goal of the series is to get the viewer to think through what she would do in a similar situation, with hope that the viewer will act in a socially just manner. To do this, the series implicitly criticizes the bystanders who do nothing in the face of injustice or act out of a racist framework, inviting the viewer to criticize them as well. Because these are contrived scenarios with paid actors, they reinforce that idea that racist behavior among whites is an unusual occurrence that is only brought out in extreme situations such as observing illegal acts of vandalism or dramatic verbal harrassment. This agrees with the perceptions of most white Americans who believe that they are neither racist nor capable of racist behavior, and that racism is no longer a significant factor in the lives of people of color.

Does observing the unintended racist behaviors of ordinary people provoke insight for white viewers? Discussing racial issues is an anxiety provoking experience for a majority of white people. We know from the work of psychologist Claude Steele regarding stereotype threat that, “the prospect of an inter-racial conversation on a racially sensitive topic [makes] white participants mindful of the whites-as-racists stereotype,” and fearful of confirming that stereotype,[1] enough to affect their behavior and thinking. White parents viewing these scenarios in the context of a discussion on racism, faced with the ever-present possibility of confirming a racist stereotype themselves by “saying or doing the wrong thing,” are less likely to think, “Wow, I could be cowardly or racist just like that.” More likely, they will distance themselves psychologically from the white bystanders of the videos. These ordinary people on TV are now “bad whites” who display racist behavior or fail to stop injustice, and the white viewer can lean back, congratulate herself on her lack of prejudice, and avoid any further discussions during which her “good (non-racist) white” self image might be challenged. In this way, racism is reinforced as the individual actions or beliefs of a few prejudiced, possibly poorly educated, white people, and the viewer can be assured she is non-racist as long as she behaves well with people of color.

What is lost in this exercise is any perspective on the institutional aspect of white racism, a system of advantage based on race. Most white people would agree that institutional racism existed in the past in the form of slavery and Jim Crow, but few would be able to identify examples of overt institutional racism active today, such as gerrymandering, housing discrimination, the resegregation of public schools, and differential sentencing along racial lines. Even fewer would be able to identify examples of passive institutional racism, in which racism is the outcome if not the intention of the system at hand. Examples of this passive institutional racism include IQ testing, mono-cultural and mono-racial textbooks and interpretations of history, and a health care system which allows racial health disparities to persist.

For many white Americans, acknowledging the presence and influence of institutional racism in our present day means re-examining and finding wanting many trusted beliefs.  These include equality and justice for all, meritocracy and the belief that discrimination is on the decline. It also leads to an introduction to white privilege, the unearned benefits of being perceived as white. This process is extremely distressing and can produce powerful emotions of denial, guilt and hostility in many whites. In fact, the distress of this realization causes many whites to retreat further into their white privilege and blame people of color for the effects of racism. However, if the participant can persevere, a crucial transformation shifts the terms of the conversation. No longer is racism the behavior of a few marginal whites, but a pervasive system in which all Americans have been raised and acculturated. Like smog in the air, we have breathed it in, it is lodged inside us, and we are breathing it out on each other. So there are no longer categories of “good non-racist” whites and “bad racist” whites- just whites who are more or less aware of their racism and of the need to actively resist it.

Beverly Daniel Tatum describes it best in her book, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

I sometimes visualize the ongoing cycle of racism as a moving walkway at the airport. Active racist behavior is equivalent to walking fast on the conveyor belt. The person engaged in active racist behavior has identified with white supremacy and is moving with it. Passive racist behavior is equivalent to standing still on the walkway. No overt effort is made, but the conveyor belt moves the bystanders along to the same destination as those who are actively walking. Some of the bystanders may feel the motion of the conveyor belt, see the active racists ahead of them, and choose to turn around, unwilling to go to the same destination as the white supremacists. But unless they are walking actively in the opposite direction at a speed faster than the conveyor belt -unless they are actively anti-racist- they will find themselves carried along with the others.[2]

When a white participant in a diversity discussion is willing and able to acknowledge the racism she has internalized by the very process of being acculturated in the Unites States, there is no longer a need to project the dreaded racist behavior on other “bad whites.” She can begin to be aware of and take responsibility for her unintended racist behavior such as micro aggressions, colorblindness, coded racial language, ignorance of the history of people of color and avoidance of difficult race related issues.  Identifying these passive forms of individual racism too early in the discussion often leads to defensiveness. However, when an understanding of institutional racism and the ubiquitous nature of white racism is present, the identification of individual passive racism can inspire a white participant to a journey towards becoming anti-racist.

While this hidden camera series is intended to improve race relations in America, and I assume is produced with good intentions in addition to the desire to make money, I contend that it promotes a false good white/bad white dichotomy which paralyses the development of anti-racism in white Americans.  At best it reinforces the ineffective status quo, and at worst it acts as a red herring to hide the overwhelming influence of institutional racism.


[1] Claude M. Steele, Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us. WW Norton & Co. 2010, p203.

[2] Beverly Daniel Tatum, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” Basic Books, 1997, pp. 11-12

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