This is your brain on Whiteness: The invisible psychology of white American ignorance explained

The contrast in media narratives about Baltimore and Waco are undeniable—but many white Americans are blind to them

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 22, 2015 5:40PM (EDT)

Bill O'Reilly                   (Fox News)
Bill O'Reilly (Fox News)

Earlier this week, outlaw motorcycle clubs engaged in a daylight gun battle in Waco, Texas. This combat involved hundreds of people. The mall where the riot occurred was left resembling a war zone, with hundreds of spent bullet cartridges strewn about, broken bodies everywhere, and police and other local municipal services overwhelmed. By the end of melee, nine outlaws were dead, 18 wounded, and at least 165 people were arrested; 120 guns were recovered at the crime scene.

In late April and early May, African-American young people protested the killing of Freddie Gray by the Baltimore police. Those peaceful protests escalated into a local uprising against the police. This was neither random nor unprovoked: The Baltimore uprising was a response to the long-simmering upset and righteous anger about poverty, racism, civil rights violations, and abuse by the police.  No one was killed during the Baltimore protests or subsequent uprising.

The gun battle chaos in Waco was a result of rivalries between outlaw motorcycle clubs, in competition with one another for the profits from drug and gun traffic, various protection rackets, and other criminal enterprises. The Baltimore uprising was a reaction to social, economic, racial, and political injustice; a desperate plea for justice in an era of police brutality and white-on-black murder by the state.

The participants in the Waco, Texas gun battle were almost exclusively white. The participants in the Baltimore Uprising were almost all black. Quite predictably, the corporate news media’s narrative frame for those events was heavily influenced by race. News coverage of these two events has stretched the bounds of credulity by engaging in all manner of mental gymnastics in order to describe the killings, mayhem, and gun battle in Waco as anything other than a “riot.”

As writers such as Salon's own Jenny Kutner keenly observed:

I use the terms “shootout” and “gunfire erupted” after reading numerous eyewitness reports, local news coverage and national stories about the “incident,” which has been described with a whole host of phrases already. None, however, are quite as familiar as another term that’s been used to describe similarly chaotic events in the news of late: “Riot.”

Of course, the deadly shootout in Texas was exactly that: A shootout. The rival gangs were not engaged in a demonstration or protest and they were predominantly white, which means that — despite the fact that dozens of people engaged in acts of obscene violence — they did not “riot,” as far as much of the media is concerned. “Riots” are reserved for communities of color in protest, whether they organize violently or not, and the “thuggishness” of those involved is debatable. That doesn’t seem to be the case in Texas.

The dominant corporate news media have used the Baltimore uprising and other similar events to attack Black America’s character, values, and culture. The argument is clear: The events in Waco were committed by white men who happen to be criminals; the Baltimore uprising was committed by black people who, because of their “race” and “culture,” are inherently criminal.

Racial bias in news reporting has been repeatedly documented by scholars in media studies, critical race theory, political science, and sociology. As anti-racism activist Jane Elliot incisively observed, “People of color can’t even turn on the televisions in their own homes without being exposed to white racism.” The centuries of racism, and resulting stereotypes about the inherent criminality of Black Americans, are central to why the events in Waco and Baltimore have received such divergent news coverage.

In an interview about the Waco shootout, Harrold Pollock, co-director of the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab, makes this point very clear:

I have never encountered a gang incident in Chicago remotely like this. The number of perpetrators involved — not to mention the nine deaths — far exceed the typical urban gang-related shooting. Maybe there was some gang incident in Chicago like this decades ago. But this sort of pitched battle? I’ve never heard of anything like it. If these biker gang members were non-white, I think this would cause a national freak out…

But I do think that our views about urban crime are so framed by race and inequality in a variety of ways. When criminal activity seems unrelated to these factors, it doesn’t hit our national dopamine receptors in quite the same way. People tend to view these motorcycle gangs as a kind of curiosity.

Yet, there is a deep resistance by many in White America to accepting the basic fact that the mainstream American news media is habitually racist in its depiction of non-whites.

The mass media helps to create what Walter Lippman famously referred to as “the pictures inside our heads.’” The news media (and popular culture as a whole) helps individuals to create a cognitive map of the world around them by teaching lessons about life, politics, society, desire, relationships, and other values. This cognitive map also helps individuals to locate themselves relative to other groups of people in a given community. This cognitive map provides a set of rules, guidelines, and heuristics for navigating social reality.

In a society such as the United States, organized around maintaining certain hierarchies of race, class, gender, and sexuality, how one sees themselves is often a reflection of precisely how they are not members of a given group. Those lessons are internalized on both a conscious and subconscious level; on a basic level, the in-group is defined relative to the out-group.

This is the essence of making a person or group into the Other.

Simone de Beauvoir, feminist philosopher, made this essential observation:

The category of the Other is as primordial as consciousness itself. In the most primitive societies, in the most ancient mythologies, one finds the expression of a duality -- that of the Self and the Other. This duality was not originally attached to the division of the sexes; it was not dependent upon any empirical facts. It is revealed in such works as that of Granet on Chinese thought and those of Dumézil on the East Indies and Rome. The feminine element was at first no more involved in such pairs as Varuna-Mitra, Uranus-Zeus, Sun-Moon, and Day-Night than it was in the contrasts between Good and Evil, lucky and unlucky auspices, right and left, God and Lucifer. Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought.

Thus it is that no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself. If three travellers chance to occupy the same compartment, that is enough to make vaguely hostile ‘others’ out of all the rest of the passengers on the train. In small-town eyes all persons not belonging to the village are ‘strangers’ and suspect; to the native of a country all who inhabit other countries are ‘foreigners’; Jews are ‘different’ for the anti-Semite, Negroes are ‘inferior’ for American racists, aborigines are ‘natives’ for colonists, proletarians are the ‘lower class’ for the privileged.

In a society like the United States, one that is structured around maintaining white (and male) privilege, a type of logic is created where some groups and individuals are deemed to be more valuable and privileged than others. 

Language, as a way to describe the world around us, is pivotal in this process; it locates a given person relative to others, describes relationships, and both acknowledges and reinforces differences in power. Language also evolves. It is not fixed. And it reveals a great deal about changing norms about identity. As such, language is inherently political.

In America’s public discourse, the knee-jerk and instinctive move to refer to black people as “thugs”, and the parallel impulse to resist any such marking of white individuals with the same language, is a function of how the “I” and the “ego” are structured in a race-stratified society. Thus, the divergence in language used by the corporate new media to frame and discuss the events in Waco may actually reveal much more about how white Americans see themselves than it does about people of color, and black youth in particular.

White racial logic demands that whites and blacks engaged in the same behavior are often described using different language. (White people have a “fracas,” while black people “riot”; during Hurricane Katrina white people were “finding food,” while black people were “looting.”)

In the post civil rights era, White racial logic also tries to immunize and protect individual white folks from critical self-reflection about their egos and personal relationships to systems of unjust and unearned advantage by deploying a few familiar rhetorical strategies, such as “Not all white people,” “We need to talk about class not race,” or similarly hollow and intellectual vapid and banal claims about “reverse racism.” Ego, language, and cognition intersect in the belief that Whiteness is inherently benign and innocent.

Whiteness is many things. It is a type of property, privilege, "invisibility," and "normality." Whiteness also pays a type of psychological wage to its owners and beneficiaries. While its relative material value may be declining in an age of neoliberalism and globalization, the psychological wage wherein Whiteness is imagined as good and innocent, and those who identify themselves as “white” believe themselves to be inherently just and decent, still remains in force. One of the most important psychological wages of Whiteness remains how white folks can imagine themselves as the preeminent individual, the universal “I” and “We,” while benefitting from the unearned advantages that come with white privilege as a type of group advantage.

Non-whites in the United States, and the West more broadly, do not have the luxury of being individuals. If a “Black” person commits a crime, it is somehow a reflection of the criminality of Black people en masse. Similarly, when a person who happens to be marked as “Arab” or “Muslim” commits an act of political violence, an obligatory conversation on the relationship between “terrorism” and the “Muslim community” ensues.

However, white folks can commit all manner of murder and mayhem, and there is no national conversation about the meanings of “Whiteness” or of “White America’s” particular problems. In many ways, being white is the ultimate marker of radical autonomy and freedom: Its members rarely feel the obligation -- nor are they made to by the media or the state -- to be held accountable for each other’s behavior.

So it is that white people who do “bad” things are “bad” individuals; while black and brown people who do “bad” things are representative of a type of collective or group problem and pathology.

During those rare public moments of intervention, when the particular problems and pathologies of White America are discussed white denial is immediately deployed as a type of defense shield (the response to any rigorous or critical discussion(s) of Whiteness and white privilege is especially toxic and hostile from white conservatives). Ultimately, white denial is the immune system of a white body politic that is averse to critical self-reflection about its own poor behavior and shortcomings.

There are many examples of this phenomenon:

  • White male college students: Most recently, a Boston University Professor named Saida Grundy dared to state that white male college students are a problem population. Based on studies of white male college students’ use of drugs and alcohol, propensity to violence, sexual assault, and other negative conduct, Dr. Grundy’s claim is rather obvious and matter of fact. Nevertheless, she was met by howls of rage and upset by aggrieved Whiteness. Saida Grundy has been forced to apologize. Her future employment at Boston University may be imperiled.
  • Mass shooters: America is sick with gun violence. Mass shootings are a particular problem and behavior of white men, as they constitute approximately 30 percent of the population and commit about 70 percent of mass shootings. However, concerns about public health and white men’s relationship to mass shootings have been met by rancor. The suggestion that “aggrieved white male entitlement syndrome” may be fueling white male gun violence is routinely shouted down as impolitic.
  • Domestic terrorists: The United States has a serious problem with right-wing domestic terrorism. Right-wing domestic terrorists, almost all of them white men, have killed police officers, planted bombs, engaged in sedition and treason, and have openly talked of starting a second American Civil War by attacking the federal government. America’s police and other civil authorities are so concerned about these developments that they have issued a number of reports and alerts on the matter. Republicans and the right-wing media were so aghast at these facts that they chose to censor and harass the officials who dared to suggest that America may have a serious problem with white domestic terrorists. Public safety is secondary to protecting white men—and the White Right—from being held accountable for domestic terrorism.
  • Financial gangsters: The American (and world) economy was almost destroyed by the recklessness of casino capitalism, financial gangsterism, fraud, and other criminal acts by Wall Street. The people who participated in those acts ruined lives, and through the loss of jobs, stress, and wrecked communities, have shortened the life spans of many millions of people. Those who created said chaos were mostly white and male. If these financial thugs were instead people of color or women, the Great Recession would have been met with rage and upset about “affirmative action,” “unqualified” professionals, or about the “poor cultural influences” of the people who broke the world. Instead, there was no conversation about the white male culture of greed and destruction among the financiers and plutocrats, they have not been imprisoned for their crimes, nor have those white male banksters and casino capitalists been marked as a criminal class.

Against all of these examples of malfeasance, black people must be deemed thugs who uniquely “riot” and constitute a natural “criminal class” for the many lies of Whiteness to solidly cohere. The cognitive mapping, language, and sense of ego that support a belief in the inherent goodness and nobility of Whiteness cannot withstand rigorous and critical self-examination.

The contradictions in how Black Americans and other people of color are discussed by the mainstream media, as compared to white folks, are glaring and obvious for those who choose to see them. Those who choose to speak truth to power about white supremacy, white privilege, and white racism are forcing White America to confront what the latter has by choice deemed as somehow illegible and unseen. To force White America to realize that, yes, it too has a criminal class of people, is pathological, and neither inherently noble nor benign, is a type of ideologically disruptive moment that has and will continue to be met with rage, anger, denial, and dismissal.

Why? Because such observations and facts are too challenging for many white individuals to process, because they have been socialized by a society that deems them better than the Other by virtue of belonging to a semi-exclusive club of people who are categorized as being members of the “white race.”

But white denial does not make the aforementioned facts any less true.

When white folks, whether among the pundit classes, or in day-to-day interactions, are confronted with the gross contradictions of their language -- why black people in Baltimore are called “thugs,” while white outlaw bikers who kill people somehow did not engage in a “riot” -- they may appear confused, frustrated, or perhaps even willfully stupid as they try to evade and explain the distinction between the two examples.

I have come to the conclusion that many white folks are legitimately confused when confronted by such examples, that their inability to process this data is sincere; those who have not disowned their Whiteness and white privilege are unable on a cognitive level to process many aspects of empirical reality. Units of speech such as “white crime,” “white pathology,” and “white thugs” have no meaning in the cognitive schema and conceptual grid of Whiteness.

Such concepts “do not compute.”

As great American thinkers such as Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois, and others have suggested, Whiteness and white privilege have damaged the cognitive, intellectual, ethical and moral processes of White America (as distinct from any given white person). The challenge thus becomes: Is it possible to help those white individuals who are still loyal to Whiteness and White racial logic, to see the world as it actually is, and to transcend the White Gaze?

One of the existential questions that have repeatedly confronted Black America is: “what does it feel like to be a problem?”

White America needs to begin to ask itself the same question.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Baltimore Psychology Racism Sociology Waco