Syed Muhammad Omar
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2023 SPSSI Conference:
Whiteness and the Denial of Systemic Racism
Syed Muhammad Omar, University of Kansas
Glenn Adams, University of Kansas
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd uttered his final words, “I can’t breathe,” as a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck and murdered him. In response, many people across major cities in the United States took to the streets to protest this latest incident of racialized police brutality and the broader system of racist injustice. Simultaneously, counter discussions emerged on White social media ecologies denying or minimizing the extent of racialized policing, police brutality, and even the murder of Floyd.
This divergent reaction to Floyd’s murder is representative of a general pattern. Although Americans generally perceive that the experience of race-based discrimination is greater for Black and Latinx targets than for White targets, White Americans tend to minimize this difference. Relative to others, White Americans perceive relatively equal race-based discrimination for White versus Black and Latinx targets—a pattern that we refer to as the White Race-evasive Attenuation (WREA) effect.
What might explain such differences in racism perception? Some research suggests that the source of the WREA effect is identity defensiveness: a motivation to maintain a positive group image. Other research suggests that the source of the WREA is informational affordances—for example, historical knowledge or beliefs about racism as an interpersonal or systemic phenomena—that make it more or less easy to perceive racism in present society.
We explored this issue in an empirical investigation in which we measured identity investment, conceptions of racism (i.e., as interpersonal or systemic), and perceptions of racial discrimination among 156 Black, 106 Latinx, and 176 White American participants. Replicating our previous work, White Americans perceived less discrimination toward Black and Latinx targets, but greater discrimination toward White targets, than did Black and Latinx participants. Together, these tendencies meant that differentiation in perception of discrimination as a function of target race was smaller among White than Black and Latinx participants—the WREA effect.
Two patterns provided evidence for the identity relevance of racism perception. First, the WREA effect was greater for perception of systemic manifestations of discrimination than for cases of interpersonal discrimination. Second, there was a positive relationship between the magnitude of the WREA effect and racial identity investment of White participants. In other words, investment in Whiteness was associated with a tendency for White participants to perceive more equal levels of discrimination for White versus Black and Latinx targets.
Extending our previous work, we observed similar patterns for conceptions of racism. Although endorsement of an interpersonal conception of racism did not vary as a function of participant’s race/ethnicity, endorsement of a systemic conception was significantly weaker among White than Black and Latinx participants. These group differences in endorsement of a systemic racism conception mediated observed variation in patterns of racism perception. In other words, the tendency for White Americans to express less endorsement of a systemic conception accounted for the tendency to attenuate differences in perception of racial discrimination as a function of target race/ethnicity. This pattern provides some evidence for the “informational affordances” account of variation in racism perception.
Again, though, results revealed evidence for identity relevance. Among White participants, endorsement of a systemic racism conception (but not an interpersonal conception) was negatively related to racial identity investment. Among Black and Latinx participants, there was a positive relationship between racial identity investment and endorsement of both interpersonal and systemic racism conceptions.
This work has important implications for psychological pedagogy. As we and others have noted, psychologists tend to approach the topic of racism via a “prejudice problematic” (Wetherell & Potter, 1992) that reduces systemic oppression to a question of individual bias. The current work suggests that this disciplinary practice may inhibit perception of racist injustice—an outcome at odds with the intention or sensibility of many psychology researchers and instructors. At the same time, the current work suggests that the dominance of the prejudice problematic in Whitestream psychology is not a neutral or innocent coincidence. Instead, it is a direct consequence of the exercise of racial power that shapes the field to suit the sensibilities and interests of the White knowledge producers who disproportionately constitute it. By amplifying the prejudice problematic, psychologists may inadvertently reproduce a Whitestream conception that reflects and promotes interests of white supremacy.
Wetherell, M., & Potter, J. (1992). Mapping the language of racism: Discourse and the legitimation of exploitation. Columbia University Press.
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