Racial “Niceness” and White Denial by Hannah Bohn

BLM protest

While many people see themselves as not racist, we continue to lead racially segregated lives while perpetuating racial stereotypes. Racism is a fundamental factor in our society’s institutional makeup, but its presence in day to day life often goes unnoticed, ignored, or simply denied. 

How can this be? Aside from the infinite factors contributing to racial inequality in America, a key component of discrimination resides in the inability of white people to conceptualize the meaning of race in its everyday form. Suggesting that whiteness has no meaning is not “nice,” it certainly is not innocent, and it simply is not true. 

We must acknowledge race in order to understand race, and only then can we even begin to comprehend the impact racism has in society. Neglecting what it means to be white dismisses the experience of being nonwhite, and consequently we cannot bear witness to, much less affirm, any alternate racial experiences. 

Coupled with this denial is its negative effect on the experience of people of color living in predominantly white environments. The inability to grapple with racial dynamics produces an alienating, uncomfortable, and hostile climate for people of color. This creates a culture in which white people subscribe to niceness as a means of navigating racial tension.

The problem resides in the false belief that day to day racism only takes the form of isolated, intentional acts of outward meanness toward people of color. This definition of racism is comforting and convenient to white Americans, being that it exempts so many people from the system of white supremacy we live in and are shaped by. It fails to acknowledge the reality of racism, the undeniable inequality that festers beneath classic American “principles.”

This is the most popular type of white defensiveness. 

When associating meanness with racism, many white people combat racial inequality with racial niceness, a superficial means to somehow prove that they most definitely could not be categorized as racist. This can be seen through dishing out overdone smiles and speaking in high-pitched tones when approaching people of color. Boiled down, these are ultimately self-serving acts in attempt to clear a guilty conscience and wallow in a shallow sensation of relief and white privilege. 

This oversimplification of racism is a huge issue. It gives an out for white people, entertaining the idea that there is no way a friend or colleague could be racist since “he is such a good person” or “he’s a really nice guy.” If racists are intentionally and openly mean, then it follows that nice people cannot be racist. Through this way of thinking, unintentional racism or “accidental” racist instances are left blameless and ignored, as if they don’t even count, since they are “not on purpose.” Ignorance is no longer excusable. 

Proximity is also utilized as a measure of character when it comes to approaching racial dynamics— another kind of white defensiveness. People often assume that if they can declare their anti-racist mindset through statements like “my neighbors are people of color” or “I have so many black friends,” then they can evidently prove guiltless and unscathed. 

Close proximity is not a determinant factor of racial acceptance. Again, this notion is deceiving and excuses the very real presence of discrimination.  

Niceness is separate from care, consideration, or compassion; niceness is often fleeting, hollow, and staged. It does not lessen racism, and it does not prove anything about a person’s ability to think critically about race or empathize with those around them. 

The notion that niceness can be a solution to racism is juvenile and elementary. 

When eagerly jumping to telegraph niceness to people of color, even when it is intended to convey acceptance and approval, white people reveal their racial anxiety. This racial anxiety is rooted in a passive anti-blackness that lingers in America’s foundation, facilitating discomfort that white people combat with fleeting benevolence.

The deception of niceness adds an unclear layer for people of color when attempting to decipher who is actually trustworthy and desires a real relationship versus who is simply accounting for insincere white liberalism. 

Racial “niceness” sits on a platform of assumptions and misguided principles, similar to the glorified ideology of colorblindness; an inability to grapple with racial dynamics and complexities is a central characteristic in young white people today. This behavior comes off condescending and misinformed, but most importantly, it perpetuates a racially segregated environment of unequal treatment and biases.

To clarify, being nice is obviously a better tactic than being mean. The point is that being nice is not even close to the mark we should be hitting as a society struck by racial injustice— being “nice” is a defense mechanism parallel to white silence and neutrality. Being “nice” undermines racism as a crucial conversation we need to be having NOW. 

The default product of this current structure is the reproduction of racial disparity. As long as white people continue to carry on and disconnect from racial injustice, racism will continue to echo through our country’s daily construct. We should be engaging in conversations about race, accepting that we are all racial beings with perspectives on race limited to our own experiences, and attempting to understand the implications of race through means deeper than social media and inauthentic connections. As human beings, we are malleable and capable of learning more. Niceness without thoughtful anti-racist action is not brave; it is lazy and naive.

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