“I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I cannot be free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.
Long Walk to Freedom, 1994
We know racism is harmful to people of color, but what about its impact on white people? David Wellman (1993) defined racism as system advantage based on race. While much attention is rightly paid to the inequitable treatment, historically and currently, of people of color and Indigenous people, there is also growing examination of the unearned privileges white people receive. Given that systemic racism benefits white people, why would white people want to dismantle it? As a white woman, that is a question that I am often asked and to which there are numerous and complicated responses. One aspect that I find useful for people to consider is the costs of racism to white people. Let me be clear. The ways white people are negatively impacted by racism is in no way comparable to the ways people of color are oppressed by racism—including the discrimination, violence, and cultural misrepresentation they endure. Yet, racism dehumanizes everyone and white people have reasons to work for its elimination.
Based on my own experiences and research (Goodman, 2011) and the work of others (e.g. Kivel, 2011; Spanierman, Todd and Anderson, 2009), I have identified five main areas in which white people experience the costs of racism: psychologically, socially, morally and spiritually, intellectually, and materially and physically. I will briefly describe each.
The psychological costs involve a loss of mental health and an authentic sense of self. We are socialized into a world of white supremacy that presumes that white people are superior to people of color and deserve the better positions in society. White people internalized these dominant cultural messages, consciously and unconsciously, and are expected to act in ways that support the current racist system. Due to this cultural conditioning, we may engage in patterns of behavior that reflect this false sense of internalized superiority (interrupting people of color, thinking we are smarter, engaging in “savior” behavior”). We are denied accurate self-knowledge and develop a distorted view of self. We often need to deny our emotions and empathy to exist in a racist society. Many white people experience a range of fears: of doing and saying the wrong thing, of retaliation from people of color, of revealing oneself for fear of judgment, and of different people and experiences. These factors all limit the development of a healthy sense of self.
Related to the psychological costs are social costs—the loss and the diminishment of relationships. Due to the structures of racism, a great deal of physical distance exists between whites and people of color, e.g., segregation in housing and schools, job stratification. There is often limited opportunity to organically develop meaningful relationships across race. Even cross-racial contact does not always eliminate the barriers to deeper and more authentic relationships; this is due to distrust, discomfort, biases, or cultural differences. Additionally, whites can experience disconnection from their own friends and families if they act outside accepted norms, such as dating or marrying a person of color, challenging racist stereotypes and jokes, or advocating for racial justice.
The moral and spiritual costs entail a loss of ethical and spiritual integrity. White people commonly feel some guilt or shame for being white, for being part of a legacy that has oppressed people of color and Indigenous people, for intentionally or unintentionally benefiting from and perpetuating racism, and for not doing enough to dismantle it. Whites sometimes face moral ambivalence of wanting to do “the right thing” but facing social pressures and realities (e.g. wanting to send one’s children to a racially integrated school but wanting them to receive the “best quality education” in the safest neighborhood.) Faced with these ethical challenges, the awareness of racial injustice, and disconnection from other human beings, white people may experience spiritual emptiness and pain.
Intellectually, whites lose the opportunity to develop a full range of knowledge about self, others, and the world. In schools and mainstream society, we generally receive distorted, biased, and limited views of the cultures, experiences, and histories of peoples of color and Indigenous people. Due to the pressure to assimilate into mainstream “American” culture and whiteness, many white people have also lost the knowledge of and connection to their particular European ethnic ancestry. Moreover, we are taught myths about meritocracy and equal opportunity that belie the realities of institutional and systemic racism and fuel ignorance.
The final issues are the material and physical costs in the form of a loss of safety, resources, and quality of life. Racial injustice results in greater social violence and unrest, and a waste of resources to deal with the effects of these inequities (social services, incarceration.) We pay higher costs for good and safe schools and homes. When institutions are not racially equitable and inclusive, they lose valuable employees, clients and customers, and the contributions from people of color to foster societal growth and well-being. It is harder to work together across racial lines for collective action for common concerns (e.g. environmental or workplace issues.)
These are just some of the ways white people are negatively impacted and dehumanized by racism. The long history of white people working in solidarity with people of color for racial justice illustrates that some white people have always recognized the harms of racism and the benefits of racial equity. Ultimately, justice frees us all.
Goodman (2011), Promoting Diversity and Social Justice: Educating People from Privileged Groups (2nd ed.), NY: Routledge.
For a fuller description of the costs of racism and benefits of racial justice for white people, please see Chapters 6 and 7 of this book.
Kivel, P. (2011). Uprooting Racism: How white people can work for racial justice. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Press.
Spanierman, L.B, Todd, N.R, & Anderson, C.J. (2009). The Psycho-social Costs of Racism to Whites: Understanding patterns among University students. Journal of Counseling Psychology. April, 56(2): 239-52.
Wellman, D. (1993). Portraits of White Racism. NY: Cambridge University Press.