The immense set of sociopolitical privileges that insulate and protect white people teaches them in sometimes implicit ways that not only are they better than people of color, but also that racial others are subordinate. Despite how ridiculous this presumption of superiority sounds, it is repeatedly steeped in the consciousness of white people from a very early age. In discussing what it means to have merit among a diverse population, it should be considered that the parties involved are speaking with different definitions. White merit is defined by privilege and access, and is dependent on specific adherence to unspoken rules protecting whiteness.
Racism is born out of xenophobia and a horrid history of unspeakable violence and fearmongering. It is founded on the principle that if you are not white, then you do not belong here and you do not deserve human rights and certainly not fair and equal treatment. I am reminded of a simple observation my colleague shared about going to a mall and noticing for the first time brown mannequins. He remarked, “I have never in my life had to imagine what clothes looked like up against dark skin.” This story teaches us two things. First, sometimes racial discrimination and racism begin with what might appear as innocent oversights. Also, a sincere interest in equity often requires an active decision to interrupt white privilege where it hides out in the open as simply ordinary and portends its own innocence.
The immense set of sociopolitical privileges that insulate and protect white people teaches them in sometimes implicit ways that not only are they better than people of color, but also that racial others are subordinate. Despite how ridiculous this presumption of superiority sounds, it is a mantra that is repeatedly steeped in the consciousness of white people from a very early age. Even when their parents do not teach them, this society does. Society convinces them that they are entitled to full access to racially exclusive privileges.1 Michelle Fine, Lois Weis, April Burn, and Linda Powell-Pruitt suggest that this is an entitlement to unearned assets.2 Whites never have to fear rejection based on race. If they do not get what they want in life, it is because it is not available to them; it is almost never because of their skin color. Being white in America means not ever being forced to think about race or racism, and its consequences.3
In discussing what it means to have merit among a diverse population, it should be considered that the parties involved are speaking with different definitions. White merit is conditional, defined by privilege and access, and usually dependent on specific adherence to unspoken rules protecting whiteness.4 Societally, there are a series of “micro-moves” through which white people accrue what they refer to as merit and larger societal structures “collude to produce White as merit.”5 They do not use words that signal race explicitly, of course, and often it is the work and labor of people of color to name what is happening at the risk of being labeled paranoid, or worse. Whiteness, through its invisibility and silence, upholds structural inequality while remaining unseen.6 Inadvertently, because whiteness tends to be protective of its own self-interests, the result is the use of merit as a neoliberal dog whistle for whiteness; hence, race-based structural inequality persists.
Unfortunately people too frequently treat racism like an automobile accident on the expressway. As they go about their normal day, suddenly they are either witness to or confronted by a racist incident. The inherent violence in the act of racism is deeply disturbing. It is not always physically violent. Alternatively, it can be emotionally, psychologically, and/or relationally violent. If you are fortunate enough to be merely a witness rather than a target, then the immediate human reflex is to be grateful that it is not happening to you. Despite the momentary gasp or the instinct telling you this is not okay or that people might be hurt, you have to get to wherever it is you are going. You convince yourself it is not your trouble and therefore you do not have time to stop. This internal tension all happens in a matter of seconds. Even the nicest, most well-meaning person, who ordinarily cares for others and thinks of themselves as an ally, allows others' racially violent predicaments to become fleeting thoughts. The rationale goes something like this: “It is not happening to me. I am not the target. The people affected by this will be okay.” Perhaps one of the saddest parts of this is that, within 60 seconds after seeing the incident, the witness who metaphorically drives past the accident cannot even remember the color of the cars involved. The details are fuzzy because it is not happening to them. However, when tragedy strikes directly, they are compelled to recall the intricacies of how the incident unfolded. They are left to pick up the pieces. They must grapple with the aftermath. The violence leaves emotional and psychological residue that may continue to traumatize those involved over and over again. This is what people of color experience practically every day. The most egregious act, besides the act of violence itself, is the reinstatement of that violence through white silence.
When theorizing about whiteness, George Yancy suggests making “no distinction between whiteness, white supremacy, and white people.”7 It could be argued that Yancy is right to suggest this, especially because of the ways many white people navigate whiteness and their own places in these structures. Many white people assume that because they are not actively seeking to be racist or because they are not violently racist, they are not participating in sustaining racism at all. But to quote a popular protest chant, “White silence is white violence.” There needs to be a consideration of how not questioning or examining the overwhelming whiteness of institutions and systems leads to racial discrimination.8 Whiteness is not as simple as the color of one's skin alone. It also refers to the actions, thoughts, and work of any given person (white or not), and it seeks to position white people as the sole arbiters of cultural, social, and political constructions.9 Because whiteness offers the privilege of seldom questioning the systems that allow whites to be rendered as distinguished, elite, or otherwise considered to have merit, whiteness and therefore white supremacy is protected.10 Racially xenophobic institutions tend to recycle a system of meritocracy that avoids selecting and rewarding worthy scholars. In this way, the hegemony of whiteness immediately marks people of color as unacceptably different and identifies the racial, cultural, and political differences as ineludible deficits.11 This way of thinking facilitates a strange logic that those who are different are without merit, or that any celebration of their sociocultural differences while engaging in equitable selection processes is immediately oppositional to merit. Clearly those who espouse such do not and cannot see the inherent value of difference.
In discussing what it means to have merit, there also needs to be a consideration of the fact that we exist in a capitalist society. In short, “rhetoric of merit is the rhetoric of markets,” and therefore our definitions or standards of merit and what makes someone good enough for something do not exist in a vacuum.12 Their value is in how much they can give to the dominant systems and ideologies. It is often framed to people of color as a matter of choice. So, in theory, people of color have chosen to be less competent, research less-interesting subjects, do less-rigorous work, and/or not nominate their peers for distinguished research awards. In conceptualizing what she calls the “White institutional presence” (WIP), Diane Gusa says that a primary attribute of WIP is “white ascendancy,” wherein white people assume that their thoughts, ideas, knowledge, etc. are “universally and exclusively correct.”13 Those whites who consciously or unconsciously subscribe to this notion feel no need to ever question the choices they make because they are constantly rewarded for supporting and continuing the legacy of whiteness.
When someone chooses to reframe and question the legitimacy and merit of how white people organize themselves around defending white supremacy and white privilege, it is then that white fragility expresses discontent with bucking the status quo. When race becomes part of the discussion, those interested in protecting white entitlement and privilege start to suggest that the identification of racism is merely a tactic of those who are intellectually incapacitated. This is usually followed with a protection of white entitlement in the name of “reverse racism”; and also a general intolerance for those who “[conflate] perceptions of exclusion with actual exclusion.”14
Those who protect white entitlement take any disruption of racism as a personal attack. It reveals so much about the internal life of someone with white privilege when even the simple act of trying to include other people feels like an exclusion. In the eyes of these individuals, choosing diversity means going against merit, which means that all white people will be shut out of the conversation and therefore punished just for being white.15 It is not a rational train of thought, but when one has only ever known privilege, even the smallest of moves toward justice or equity may feel like a personal attack. In this way, any progress of the other translates into a loss of white privilege. The simultaneous fragility and stubbornness of whiteness is what makes discussions around merit, and what it means for different people, so difficult. The terms, conditions, and rules are constantly changing. The ability to be considered what whites would define as “having merit” means having access to what other whites consider to be schools of merit, materials of merit, and other obscure reflections of privilege.16 A considerable list of achievements within one's community or field of cultural study means nothing in the face of white standards for meritocracy because it has not been produced with those standards in mind. Let there be no mistake: there are dozens of communication researchers, who are members of racially marginalized groups, whose work has earned them a scholarly reputation worthy of prestigious awards that recognize their research excellence.
Arguably, one of the most radical acts one can perform is to decide to name the standards of merit constituted by whites, recognize people of color who already meet those standards, and enact excellence in every corridor of intellectual work (e.g., research, teaching, service, engagement, leadership). It is also radically progressive for whites to stand firmly in the gap, rallying for greater equity every time those with white entitlement and privilege seek to define what is normal, appropriate, and worthy of merit. After all, people of color did not invent white privilege and it is not their responsibility to singlehandedly dismantle it.