vox | So how do we have a better conversation around these issues, one that can actually reduce people’s racial prejudices and anxieties?
The first thing to understand is how white Americans, especially in rural areas, hear accusations of racism. While terms like “racist,” “white privilege,” and “implicit bias” intend to point out systemic biases in America, for white Americans they’re often seen as coded slurs. These terms don’t signal to them that they’re doing something wrong, but that their supposedly racist attitudes (which they would deny having at all) are a justification for lawmakers and other elites to ignore their problems.
Imagine, for example, a white man who lost a factory job due to globalization and saw his sister die from a drug overdose due to the opioid painkiller and heroin epidemic — situations that aren’t uncommon today. He tries to complain about his circumstances. But his concerns are downplayed by a politician or racial justice activist, who instead points out that at least he’s doing better than black and brown folks if you look at broad socioeconomic measures.
Maybe he does have some level of white privilege. But that doesn’t take away from the serious problems he sees in his world today.
This is how many white Americans, particularly in working-class and rural areas, view the world today. So when they hear politicians and journalists call them racist or remind them about their privilege, they feel like elites are trying to distract from the serious problems in their lives and grant advantages to other groups of people. When Hillary Clinton called half of Trump voters “deplorable,” she made this message explicit.
“Telling people they’re racist, sexist, and xenophobic is going to get you exactly nowhere,” said Alana Conner, executive director of Stanford University’s Social Psychological Answers to Real-World Questions Center. “It’s such a threatening message. One of the things we know from social psychology is when people feel threatened, they can’t change, they can’t listen.”