Columns, Opinion

Let Your Hair Down: White people believe niceness counteracts systematic racial inequality

While many of us consider ourselves not as racists, people continue to lead lives full of racial tension and inequality while continuing to perpetuate racial stereotypes. Racism still clearly exists in our institutions, but its presence in daily life often goes unnoticed or even denied. 

How can this be? Although many factors contribute to racial inequality in the United States, a key component of discrimination is white people’s inability to conceptualize the meaning of race, or how the different colors of our skin shape our lives. Claiming that whiteness has no meaning is not strong evidence of a post-racial society — that belief certainly is not innocent and is simply not true. 

We must acknowledge race in order to understand racism. Only then can we comprehend their mutually enforcing impacts. Dismissing the privileges associated with whiteness undermines people of color’s experiences, and consequently, we cannot validate any alternate racial experiences. 

This denial negatively affects people of color living in predominantly white environments because it produces a hostile climate. White “niceness” is therefore a means of circumventing racial tension.

The underlying problem is the false belief that racism only takes on the form of isolated and explicit acts of malice toward people of color. White people often find comfort in this version of racism because it lets them off the hook for being the beneficiaries of white supremacy, even if they themselves do not believe in it. 

This belief bolsters the most popular type of white defensiveness. 

When associating meanness with racism, many white people “combat” racial inequality with niceness. This can be seen through dishing out overdone smiles and speaking in high-pitched tones when approaching people of color. However, that is a superficial means to prove that they are not racist.

This oversimplification 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.” Because of this way of thinking, unintentional racism or subtle racist instances are left blameless and ignored as if they don’t even count. 

Additionally, people often use proximity as a measure of character when it comes to approaching racial dynamics, another kind of white defensiveness. People often assume that if they make statements like “my neighbors are people of color” or “my best friend is black,” they can actually prove a lack of racism. 

Close proximity does not lead to or equal racial acceptance. Again, this notion is deceiving and excuses the very real presence of discrimination.  

Niceness is separate from care, consideration or compassion. It can be staged, fleeting or hollow, or even all three at once. 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 who have lived different experiences. 

The notion that niceness can be a solution to racism is one informed by ignorance. 

When eagerly jumping to demonstrate niceness to people of color, even when it is intended to convey acceptance and approval, white people reveal their racial anxieties. It is rooted in a passivity of being anti-people of color that lingers in the United States’ foundation, which creates the discomfort white people resolve with insincere benevolence.

These deceptive niceties create ambiguity for people of color when attempting to decipher who is actually trustworthy versus those who are checking off the boxes for following white liberalism. When filling in for unspoken duties of a “white liberal,” people often believe that simply putting on a polite act toward people of color makes them pass the social standards that are associated with a progressive political affiliation. 

Racial “niceness” sits on a platform of assumptions and misguided principles, similar to the over-glorified ideology of colorblindness. This behavior comes off as condescending, but more importantly, it reproduces a racially segregated society of unequal treatment and biases.


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