When “good” white people feel threatened

As a young child one of the lessons I, as a Brown child of Brown immigrants, received explicitly was that I had to work much harder than my white friends because, without even trying, they would have access to all kinds of privileges that I would only have access to, maybe, if I worked extra, extra, extra hard. I took that lesson to heart and today have a PhD in psychology.

As a young adult, the explicit lesson I received on whiteness was to be cautious about who, among my white friends, I should trust because white people were jealous of us and would use our trust against us when they feel threatened by our strength. That lesson I didn’t quite understand and, in my rebellion, assumed it was just my parents trying to hold me back. But how I was wrong, and, wow, how they were right. I write this post today to share that lesson with you, BIPOC folx, because I hold that lesson close to my heart, after having seen this very warning play out again, and again, and again in my life.

What does this lesson mean, exactly? At first glance it appears to be about white people who are explicitly racist. You know, the “they’re taking our jobs” type? That’s jealousy, afterall. But when you dig deeper, and you experience more, you realize it’s much more nefarious than that.

Whiteness is used to being on top. White supremacy has convinced white people (and many BIPOC peoples as well, to be honest) that white people are smarter, more knowledgeable, more beautiful, more industrious and productive, more innovative, more giving, more caring, and just better than racialized people. In addition, white supremacy has convinced white women that they are the ideal of womanhood by being more feminine, more attractive, sweeter, kinder, gentler, more moral, and more fragile than BIPOC women. This is all white supremacy.

One may think that only those who are explicitly racist would hold these beliefs, but I can tell you, as a social psychologist who has now spent 15 years in the field thinking, reading, writing about, and researching social behaviour the vast majority of white people, including the “good white people – socially conscious, working toward social and racial justice – hold these beliefs as well. It is rare to find white people who recognize these beliefs in themselves because they are as ubiquitous as the oxygen we breathe. However, this makes these “good white people” especially dangerous to us, as BIPOC USHR recently discussed in our recent BIPOC-only discussion, White Tears/Brown Scars….The Conversation. In this conversation, which was sparked by Ruby Hamad’s book White Tears/Brown Scars, we discussed how white women used their white womanhood via tears (in other words, their fragile femininity protected by white men) to oppress BIPOC peoples. (See my recommended readings below for more information.)

This is why we have the white saviour complex and why it’s so harmful. This phenomenon is when white people, often white women (because in a patriarchal world caring is gendered), fall over themselves to try to help BIPOC peoples better their lives in some way. Whether it be by fundraising for international students, helping racialized students in their classrooms, hiring racialized people as their employees, promoting gender and racial justice initiatives, marching in BLM marches, hosting anti-racism workshops, or voluntourism, these are the white people who believe they want to do good and do right by BIPOC folx. However, when these same people are met with BIPOC folx who do not need their help, and instead “dare” to stand shoulder to shoulder with them, they feel threatened, and, yes, jealous.

Here’s what happens:

  • The white woman who raises money for international students tries to cause rifts between strong, independent racialized women who are close friends with each other. She is jealous not only of their friendship, but of the fact that they too help international students, thereby stealing her thunder.
  • The white professor who helps promote their racialized students’ work becomes competitive because they feel threatened once one of those students becomes a colleague who knows more about their area of expertise than them.
  • The queer white woman who fights for gender and racial justice comes to the defense of her white woman friend who she knows is a sexual predator who sexually harasses, coerces, and assaults racialized men. Her patriarchal victimhood is threatened by the reality that her whiteness, despite her queerness, oppresses all BIPOC men. (Side note: White supremacy means that white people, regardless of what marginalized identity (e.g., being a woman, queer, with a disability, etc) they may hold, are still the most privileged in a white supremacist society.)
  • The white employer who purposely hires a racialized employee refuses to address the racism that employee experiences from their colleagues, because he feels threatened by the fact that the employee’s job performance is better than his.
  • The white girlfriend of a Brown man, who fights for racial justice to support the man she loves, willingly and actively agrees with her partner as he berates Brown women out of fear that if she defends those Brown women her partner may leave her for a Brown woman.

You see, BIPOC people are not supposed to be equal to white people let alone “better” at anything. So my advice to BIPOC folx is to be cautious in who you trust and how. Recognize that there may come a point that you will be hurt when your white friend, colleague, boss, etc., feels threatened by what you have to offer.

And to white people, recognize all the white supremacist beliefs you hold. All of them. And challenge them. Recognize the ways in which your own jealousy gets ignited. Recognize when you feel threatened by BIPOC peoples and learn to challenge that feeling.

For further reading please see:

How white women use strategic tears to silence women of colour

About the Weary Weaponizing of White Women Tears