Masks, Karens, and Whiteness

Drawing insights from the science of white identity.

Posted Aug 01, 2020

 Alberto Jorrin Rodriguez/Dreamstime
"Karens" have become a recent source of tension in the racial divide in the U.S.
Source: Alberto Jorrin Rodriguez/Dreamstime

This post was sparked by a recent tweet from a white social media influencer. They casually and seemingly harmlessly observed (paraphrasing): Videos of white adults freaking out over being required to wear masks, or of white people making false 911 calls on Black people who are on their own property, have a simple explanation: mental health distress brought on by the pandemic.

In other words, we should have empathy for so-called “Karens” and other white adults demonstrating privileged, discriminatory behavior. We should chalk it up merely to being stressed.

Don’t get me wrong, the COVID-19 pandemic certainly has implications for mental health. This view, however, lets white adults off the hook, much in the same way the U.S. media tends to inaccurately link white domestic terrorists or mass shooters with mental illness.

The illustrative example of this tweet stares down into a much deeper problem: that of the potential damage done by whiteness. Luckily, the social science literature provides us with some insight as to the nature and possible solutions to toxic manifestations of whiteness.   

Insight 1: Whiteness is complex.

With the vast contentious range of events such as “Karens” not wearing masks and filing false police reports to documented instances of police brutality, the concept of whiteness has come to the forefront of American society. A recent review article provides insight into definitions and measurement of whiteness and white identity. Simply, whiteness is the experience of privilege benefiting those deemed the white racial majority at the top of a racial pyramid. Whiteness is both unconscious and explicitly assumed status and power. This includes the racial beliefs, experiences, and behaviors of white persons.

Privilege is the enjoyed benefits afforded by society based on race. To illustrate, white privilege is getting pulled over by police and not having to worry about your life. Or calling the cops and filing a false report against a Black person on their own property without experiencing actual consequences.

A common misconception of whiteness or “white privilege” is that they imply white persons do not work as hard as minority group members. This is not the scholarly definition and the misunderstanding can lead to needless intergroup tension. Rather, from a social science vantage point, whiteness or privilege does highlight how racial stigma about work ethic, safety, and other characteristics of minorities create systematic inequality.

The science also spells out measures that capture various aspects of whiteness ranging from racial attitudes and beliefs about racial integration to white identity development and a continuum of embracing privilege to engaging in antiracism.

Insight 2: Whiteness has vast negative impacts on everyone.

Privilege shows in ways such as Black Americans requiring higher education levels to attain equal financial standing to White counterparts. In this way, white privilege is not invisible; to the contrary, it has been argued that privilege is visible and tangible, leading those with privilege to go to great lengths to hold on to it. 

From this view, unregulated whiteness can cause white supremacist ideology and action. For instance, intense white racial identity mixed with a strong belief in social dominance, or maintaining the current majority group power structure, drive involvement in far-right extremism. As can be seen from many American tragedies, (e.g., Oklahoma City bombing), far-right whiteness can hurt us all.

Whiteness is far-reaching in terms of where it does harm. For instance, white dominant ideology has been argued to negatively affect academia in the maintenance of racially-driven scholarships and viewpoints. Additionally, resentment of racial minorities and stronger identification with white identity show clear influence on voting choice and support of political candidates.

These examples speak to the potency of aspects of whiteness such as how beliefs and behaviors can foster continued white dominance of the American power structure. It’s critical to remember—these are just two illustrative examples of a deep well of the imbalances in power, safety, and control afforded to White persons in America. 

Austin Distel/Unsplash
Source: Austin Distel/Unsplash

Insight 3: White communities possess well-entrenched defenses and strategies to maintain the status quo.

An interesting qualitative study demonstrated that white persons knowingly and unknowingly construct strategies to prevent themselves from needing to engage with the reality of racial inequity and white supremacy. These maneuvers include:

  1. Evasion. This involves complete avoidance of engaging with race-based discourse.
  2. Willful color blindness. This entails defensive efforts to introduce alternative facts or reasons, downplaying race-based explanations despite awareness race influences the matter at hand.
  3. Reasoning ignorance. This comprises efforts to rationalize acknowledged racism or prejudice; for instance, one might blame racist beliefs of friends or family members on solely unconscious bias, thereby alleviating the offending person of moral blame or culpability.
  4. Creating doubt in solutions. Even where racism is acknowledged, antiracist solutions are cast in doubt in terms of likely success.

Evasion is an aggressive, overt attempt to maintain racial imbalance, whereas the other three strategies are thought to be defensive. All four techniques serve to strengthen racial inequity. 

Another social science model of whiteness highlights that white individuals experience two different types of threats when confronted with the idea of privilege: (1) that one’s accomplishments were not earned based on merit, and/or (2) that being white may mean one has inherent social advantages. Authors propose the 3D model of White identity management in which white persons engage in three strategies to cope with these threats:

  1. Deny. This strategy allows white individuals to view accomplishments in a binary; that is, accomplishments are solely viewed as a result of personal competence (as opposed to situational or other factors) through denying that privilege exists.
  2. Distance. While possibly acknowledging the existence of privilege, this technique entails a White person arguing that the privilege does not apply to their personal experiences or successes. Privilege remains “valid” in the abstract, but is positioned as something foreign to the person at hand.
  3. Dismantle. This strategy shows as a white individual embracing or supporting policies and other changes aimed at evening the playing field.

Deny and distance serve to unilaterally maintain white privileged, whereas dismantle may yield positive outcomes even while being based in an effort to undo perceptions of whites as advantaged.

Insight 4: Starting points for a path forward.

An obvious take-home point focuses on the need to lessen defensive efforts. This requires acknowledgment of privilege first, in order to act to reduce racial bias. Yes, this is easier said than done. Honest conversation about matters of evasion, willful colorblindness, and other efforts to maintain the status quo are a reasonable starting point.

The idea has also been put forth that a lack of exposure to racial diversity early on may negatively impact white youth’s development. Growing up in the absence of diversity may lead to future devaluing of racial minorities. In other words, a path forward may well be situated in early racial socialization and discussion with our children.

A 2016 study on simple multicultural interventions shows promise for a solution: We may be able to use education (e.g., short written examples of white privilege) or entertainment (e.g., a documentary on interactions experienced by minorities compared to white persons) as change agents. This study demonstrated positive effects of educational and entertainment content on the acknowledgement of problematic whiteness. Educational and entertainment may provide pathways to interceding with problematic whiteness.   

Founders of the 3D model described above also provide insight. There may be benefit to shifting the conversation of white privilege matters and the personal accomplishments and competence of white individuals to focus on how whites are viewed as a group. In essence, efforts to tackle privilege may be less threatening to one’s white identity when focusing on the privileged status of the group. Authors surmise that such messaging may increase the likelihood of efforts to dismantle privilege rather than denying or justifying it.

I thank Dr. Alan Meca of Old Dominion University for his comments on this post.