In the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision to desegregate schools, Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren wrote of black children,
To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone.
I've been thinking about that "feeling of inferiority" lately -- or rather, about its opposite. Surely, I've been thinking, there's something like the opposite of "internalized racism" going on inside of white people. If a de facto white supremacist society continues to instill an unwarranted sense of inferiority in non-white children, then doesn't it also instill an unwarranted sense of superiority in white children?
I think it does. As I consider various white people in this light, I repeatedly see in them an unjustified sense of self-confidence when it comes to racial matters. And if I'm being honest, I also see in them, and in myself, a sense of racial superiority.
Feeling "confident" is different from feeling "superior." The latter requires someone to feel superior towards. Someone that we at the same time consider "inferior."
On the one hand, if we're honest, we can quickly see that a general white suspicion of, for instance, black inferiority is rampant in mainstream society and culture. The more I think about this, the more I'm convinced that these racist suspicions and presumptions of black inferiority are deeply implanted into the psyches and emotions of individual white people as well. They make us question black knowledge and authority. They make us doubt black achievement. They make us quick to assume that when black people point out racism, they're being oversensitive. Or that they're reflexively "playing the race card" (instead of thoughtfully and carefully pointing out racism). Or that they're filing a racial discrimination lawsuit because they're paranoid or (again) oversensitive, or worse yet, because they're out for some quick financial gain (a common white suspicion that overlooks both how much more perceptive black people tend to be about what is and isn't racism, and how reluctant black people usually are to file formal charges of racial discrimination*).
So on the other hand, what also interests me is the common white sense of superiority that bolsters such views. People of color are repeatedly perceived as overly emotional, subjective, and uncontrolled; white people are in turn repeatedly assumed to be rational, objective, and in control of themselves. Or, in a word, superior.
I can't help but think that what is surely a common white sense of superiority begins in childhood.
One of the primary pieces of evidence cited in the Brown vs. Board of Education decision was the doll tests conducted in the 1940s by Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark. These African American psychologists found (in experiments that continue to yield similar results today) that most black children prefer white dolls to black dolls. Society teaches them a racial mathematics of sorts, a series of equations or formulas that basically go like this:
white = pretty
black = ugly
white = good
black = bad
white = superior
black = inferior
But then, as I've been saying here -- don't white children learn these equations too? Of course they do.
So, if the common and deeply damaging absorption of such identity-forming binaries by black and other non-white children has received so much attention (and to be clear, I'm glad that it has), why has the opposite received so little? Why has the common white development of an equally unwarranted sense of superiority received so little attention? Why is that so rarely even recognized in the first place for being what it is -- a problem?
I thought about this common white sense of superiority, and about a sort of relative and unwarranted self-confidence that white people often have, when I saw the following segment of "The View," which Jorge Rivas posted at RaceWire. Vanessa Williams is in this clip, and as Rivas points out, she begins by explaining to three nice white ladies what amounts to the White Knight (or Savior) Syndrome, as exemplified by The Blind Side.
Barbara Walters quickly takes offense at Williams' critique of the movie and cuts her off; then Walters launches into a defense of the film, and the other nice white ladies chime in loudly with their passionate opinions about what is and isn't right in terms of race. And for three minutes, Vanessa Williams -- who may well have better insights to offer on this topic -- for three whole minutes, the probable superior commentator on race here is left twisting in a mostly stale, white wind.
In other words, it is true that the content of what Walters, Behar, and Hasselbeck are saying here differs, and it's also true that Joy Behar actually goes on to elaborate fairly well on what Williams initially said. However, what I see all three of these women displaying, right in the face of a silenced black person who may well know more about these matters than they do, is an overbearing and unwarranted sense of self-confidence. I think they're enacting, probably without realizing it, not only a common center-staging tendency, but also a common white presumption of superiority.
These three nice white ladies seem to think they know what's what on the topic of racism (in this case, Hollywood racism). Like a lot of white people that I know, when they discuss racism, they apparently feel completely confident in what they're saying -- part of that behavior seems to be an understanding that they're supposed to act confident in what they're saying.
However, these nice white ladies don't seem to realize at all the opportunity that they've lost -- to encourage Vanessa Williams to elaborate on what she began to explain, and to listen to her respectfully. Their not doing so exposes them as typically foolish and arrogant white people.
Or so it seems to me. What do you think of the racial staging in this segment from "The View"?
* As some commenters pointed out, this post is too reliant on an insidious black/white racial binary -- it perpetuates that binary. I was led to that reliance by the whiteness-and-blackness of "The View" segment, and of the doll experiments, and I can now see that this post should have been more inclusive of experiences of people of color excluded by that binary. I've edited some parts of the post accordingly, but I think it still doesn't go far enough in addressing racism against other minorities. I apologize for that, and I appreciate reminders on this point from Commie Bastard and R.
** In a series of recent experiments, psychology professor Karen Ruggiero of the University of Texas at Austin and her colleagues demonstrated that stigmatized people attribute their failure to discrimination only when they are certain of that discrimination. People may often avoid making such charges because they fear they have no control over the outcomes, which can be negative and include high costs, financial and emotional.
African Americans may also be reluctant to file suits because they know it will be difficult to prove discrimination. (source)