The Cognitive Tom Fuckery that Maintains the Inner Racist of Many White People

A funny thing happened on the way to the primal world beliefs post, CupidBots post, and mis- and dis- information post, a comment from Bob, Of Cabbages and Kings fame, derailed all editorial plans and machinations. It was in response the pernicious influence of cognitive dissonance post in which it was suggested that white people use cognitive dissonance to reconcile their votes for racists and racist and anti-democratic policies and their belief that racism is bad. A summation of the reasoning:

  • I am a good person.
  • Therefore, everything I do is good.
  • Since racism is bad, and I cannot do bad things (I am a good person, after all, so everything I do is good).
  • Ergo cognito sum, I am not a racist.

In response, Bob suggested this possible solution:

Might there be a pathway of sorts to unlock the impasse?

1 – “I am good, and racism is bad, therefore I am not a racist.”
2 – But, there are features and relics of racism in the system, for which I am not to blame.
3 – Therefor [sic], I can be free to change those things in the system without ever admitting that I am, or ever was racist.

Unfortunately, such a solution runs head on into the projection that sees the problem, the real problem as reverse racism that discriminates against my poor helpless white self to take away my stuff and give it to those other people.

Indeed, the starting point question to understand any of this is, “In what world does any of this make sense?”.


The Cognitive Biases and Heuristics that Maintain Racial Animus in White People

Such a provocative comment started the old gears a turning! Why doesn’t such reasoning hold sway over educated white people? There’s all kinds of cognitive Tom Fuckery going on in the hearts and minds of whitey white meats that keeps us in this place of being vulnerable to racist demagoguery:


Anxiety is to the brain what a fork is to an egg in a bowl, a scrambler. Whereas, scrambling an egg by mixing all of its parts thoroughly together and forcing a little air into it, makes it better, especially when slowly cooked in a buttered pan, mixing all of your thoughts and feelings together with the anxiety fork doesn’t make anything better.

All that scrambling can help you, really it can, if you are in a dangerous situation. It helps you prepare to fight, flight, or freeze. However, if you’re just stuck in traffic, preparing for a meeting, or listening to a BLM activist accuse all white people of being racist, at least according to Tucker Carlson, then fighting, flighting, or freezing doesn’t really help, does it?

Essentially, anxiety has stopped you from thinking or functioning effectively just when you need it most, when you’re contemplating how you might actually be contributing to the racism inherent in our social system, how socialization in a racist system has imbedded some racist ideas and thoughts deep in your psyche that influence your behavior and beliefs, how since racism is rooted in white culture (Don’t believe there’s white culture? That’s white privilege and the basis of your inner racist), only white people can end racism.

The argument is that anytime racism comes up for white people, so does anxiety because fear of being seen as racist, which we are NOT. you just never know when something you say that touches upon race is going to be taken as racist, like that time you compared Michelle Obama to a gorilla. How is that racist? Have you SEEN her shoulders? (That’s sarcasm, y’all, don’t @ me.)

This ground was covered pretty thoroughly in the previous post.

The easier question

When faced with a difficult question, like, Is calling Michelle Obama a gorilla racist? many people turn to an easier but related question to find an answer, like Is racism bad? or Am I a bad person? Since (a) racism is bad and (b) I’m a good person and good people can’t do bad things, I can’t be a racist, so calling Michelle Obama can’t be racist, see? Logic.

Answering an easier question is evolutions answer to a big brain that uses twenty percent of the energy of our bodies while only consisting of two percent of our body mass. Our big-assed brains are a big-assed help to us, but they can also be a real drag, so we evolved to take shortcuts when we can and avoid thinking. In other words, we evolved to be lazy. Honest, we did. Science fact.

When confronted with a difficult question, people will consistently answer a related but easier, if only by virtue of the fact that it’s already been answered, one. In the hunter-gatherer world where we evolved, it worked purdy good. In our complex urban ultrasociety, it still works purdy good, unless and until it contributes to the oppression of twelve percent of your population.

Illusions of explanation

Unfortunately, when you arrive at a seemingly satisfactory answer to a seemingly satisfactory question — remember, answering the easier question occurs outside of our conscious awareness — we stop thinking about it. Why would you continue thinking about something that (a) really upsets you when you do think about it and (b) you’ve got the right answer to?

That feeling of having a perfectly good explanation and answer when you actually don’t is called the illusion of explanation, and when you think that explanation and answer provides you with a better understanding of the world than you actually have, it is called the illusion of explanatory depth.

White people think they understand racism — it’s hanging Black people from trees at night, wearing hoods, and burning crosses in yards, using the n-word, and hating Black people in general. Since they aren’t doing any of those things, they can’t be racist. It couldn’t possibly be assuming all Black men are criminals and rapists and all Black women are whores and thieves even if you don’t think it consciously but just play the percentages and lock your car doors when a Black man walks too near or close your purse when a Black shopper enters the store.

Some Helpful Suggestions

What can white people do to help reduce support for Republican racist policies and laws and stop knee-jerking-off to their racist dog whistles?

Framing the issue

We know that people abhor taking chances and will avoid then unless it is to avoid a certain loss. White people don’t know what lies at the end of the road for them when they contemplate their inner racist. It is a big risk. Will they be vilified for being a racist when they really aren’t? Will they be completely misunderstood? And, worst of all, will they have to change?

Instead of focusing on attitudes about race and whether or not someone is a racist or not, focus more on these ideas:

  • CREATING A MORE PERFECT UNION. That’s patriotic, right? Who could be against patriotism? Everyone wants perfection and union!
  • EQUALITY FOR ALL. We needn’t be focused on racial enmity, but rather focused on ensuring that all are recognized as equal before the law in society.

No matter how it is framed, our own personal beliefs and behaviors as white people will have to be addressed if we are to actually change our society. Starting with a frame as a gain helps us ease into the insight of how we affect those around us.

Social support for white people’s introspection

As we contemplate the ways that we talk to and think about PoC, we’ll need to discuss our experiences with someone. Currently, it is difficult to find anyone to have an open honest discussion of how we think about race.

For example, there is a new teacher at our school. He has a very normal sounding name, not a stereotypically Black name that would get your resume rejected when you apply for a job. Let’s say it is David Fuller. I had heard about new teachers, we did the introductions at the whole faculty meetings at the beginning of the year. I saw him join the line up on the stage to introduce himself. I was introduced to him at a staff party.

Then, I saw a list of names. One of them was Da’Vide Fuller. I thought, who is that? That’s not a Khmer name.

The, I saw David Fuller sitting in the staff lounge talking to some other teachers, and it hit me. Oh, Da’Vide Fuller is David Fuller. So, I went up to him and said, “You’re DAH-veed. DAAAH-veeed. I get it now. I was wondering…” And, he said, “Yeah, but it’s David.”

Later, I thought, that’s what they mean by a micro-aggression. I was so taken by having put together his name that I didn’t stop to think about the impact it would have on him, those sitting with him, or anything. It’s like when we were in South Korea and every school-aged child would say hello to you as you walked down the street… and there were a lot. For them, it was a seldomly occurring occurrence that only occurred once-in-awhile if ever before, for us white-white-meats there, it happened a dozen times or more a day. It wore on you.

Here I was reminding Da’Vide that he was different from the rest of us. Not my greatest moment.

I wish I could say that I’ve acknowledged the situation to him, but I haven’t. I intend to. In my defense, he’s not someone I see everyday or even at all. But, I’ve barely even spoken of it. I’m embarrassed by it. I feel like I shoulda known better. I wish there were a forum in my life where I could talk it out, but there just isn’t anywhere I feel safe doing so.

We also need prominent people, celebrities, that white people identify with, to say, Wow, I never thought about it, but I realized that when I locked the doors of my car when a Black man crossed the street in front of me, revealed my negative stereotyping of Black people and not a playing of the odds that many criminals are Black, so I will be super cautious and lock my doors… just in case.

Maybe one day, when all us olds are dead and gone — but only after we’ve done our part to save our democracy and planet — racism will be something we’re safe from, but until then, we need to work on and with each other to help us diminish our negative impact on those around us.

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10 replies »

  1. We are all, predisposed, to feel a certain way about, people who are, different than us (skin color, sexual orientation, yada, yada, yada), and, it’s, next to, impossible, to throw these beliefs out, because we are drawn, to attract people, who prove our own stereotypes true in our lives, to socialize, with, and, we are, more than likely, to, pass these, racist beliefs, down to the next generations, if we have them…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Taurus!

      While I agree that the degree of comfort that an individual has with being around people perceived as being different is innate, and that the degree of perceived difference it takes before that discomfort is triggered differs widely and is also innate, I would point out that our behavior can be modified by our rational minds. Indeed, one of the finding from the Harvard Implicit Bias study is that implicit bias does not actually correlate very highly with actual biased behavior.

      Since about 75% of our behavior is determined by our situation, we can actually change behavior by changing the environment. This is why it is crucial to remove Confederate statues and flags in the US. This is why we need representations of PoC in our media and governments. This is why it is important for white people, or the majority, to speak out against discrimination.



  2. People may, rationalize, all they want, but, racists are, racists, ARE, racists, and, the behaviors, usually, showed, exactly opposite of what’s being, preached, which made all these people, H-Y-P-O-C-R-I-T-E-S! And, what’s worse, is, these unaware, racists are, self-righteous too…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Taurus!

      The funny thing is is that we are all hypocrites. None of us live up to our standards or by all of our beliefs. Racists can be reformed.

      That said, self-righteousness and indignation and preaching are all payoffs or reinforcing rewards in and of themselves.

      One of the biggest reasons for this blog existing is demonstrate how understanding the psychological forces that underpin our behaviors and thoughts can be used to make the world a fairer and more equitable place.



  3. In the Hidden Brain episode on Implicit Bias [https://hiddenbrain.org/podcast/revealing-your-unconscious-part-2/], the researcher’s reaction to the test of sorting Black names with good things and White names with bad things was intense. Not only was the process slower and more difficult than sorting White to Good and Black to Bad, much slower and more difficult, needing real concentration and deliberation, but the anxiety was large, to the point that she said she felt dread (i.e., potential existential danger). But, that’s not all. She’s not born and bread American white bread. She is South Asian, born and grew up in India, only moving to the US for college and grad school and work. She absorbed that deep level of the culture as an immigrant. That’s how fundamental and pervasive our racism is. It swallowed her whole without her noticing until those tests. That’s the really scary part.

    Oh, and thanks for the shout out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Howdy Bob!

      You’re welcome. Very happy to do it. Thank you for sharing your ideas with me and engaging in discussion. It really helps me think things through and widen my horizons.

      After listening to the Hidden Brain episode has been interrupted, I feel very vindicated in some of my conclusions concerning white racial animus. The Civil War Never Ended series has been supported, for example. The description of Lincoln’s slave-free ratio map and how it correlated very highly with implicit bias test results supports the idea that culture is passed down generationally and that behavior is 75% situationally based. While she notes that many people have migrated in the 150+ years since the Civil War ended, movement into and out of some of the very rural counties in the South has not kept pace with a large segment of the population either not having moved or moved to “friendlier” areas, meaning places that are perceived to have similar views.

      While much of our racism is systemic and relies on our aggregation of viewpoints, these findings suggest that by elevating our awareness of our own implicit biases and how they are influence by and influence our surroundings, we can do more to change our systems, institutions, and society.


      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, before you can work to change something, you have to see it, feel it, and make that decision. There, we run into one of the liberal mind versus conservative mind differences, the willingness or resistance to engage in introspection.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Howdy Bob!

          It really does explain the persistence of the vulnerability to racial animus that many conservative leaning “independents” are susceptible to. That they get together and create an atmosphere or situation which encourages others to also adopt their racial animus is what is amazing. It really supports the idea that white people need to be more vocal about systemic racism and white privilege, and we need to know a lot more about how these environments are created.



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