The white racial frame (1600s- ) is the frame through which White Americans and the whitewashed make sense of issues about race. It is made up of stereotypes, images, narratives, mythology, history that is played up, history that is played down, etc. It is expressed – and strengthened – through jokes, slurs, discrimination, institutions, heroes, holidays, hatred, Hollywood stereotypes, etc.
It is sociologist Joe R. Feagin’s take on the white lens.
The white racial frame makes sense of racial inequality in American society, excuses it, makes it seem “natural”, “fair”, even “post-racial”!
- It lies about how whites got so rich.
- It tells them that they are good people, more moral than ever before, that blacks and other people of colour are screwed up.
- It shapes institutions and is shaped by them.
- It shapes white thought and character.
- It is learned from parents, teachers, friends, the media, etc.
- It is ingrained into every person brought up as White American, from rednecks to senators to white liberal professors. It becomes like a second skin, one they are blind to.
It is profound and hard to shake: The changes after the Civil War and during the civil rights movement did not affect the deep structure of racism.
By 1700 White American scientists, ministers, thinkers and leaders were already stereotyping blacks as:
- different looking in skin colour, hair and lips,
- disagreeable in smell,
- being like monkeys,
- uncivilized, alien, foreign,
- immoral, dangerous, given to crime,
- ungrateful, rebellious,
- having disorganized families.
Whites were the opposite of all that, the model majority. These stereotypes were based not on close observation and study but on what excused keeping blacks as slaves, raping their women, breaking up their families, overworking them, keeping them like animals, etc.
In the 1990s, nearly 300 years later, a study of Taiwanese people who knew about Black Americans mainly from American film and television, found that they thought blacks were:
While the white racial frame is pounded into the heads of Americans of colour through the media and schooling, Black, Latino, Asian and Native Americans each have their own counter-frames.
- White racial frame: Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice, Fareed Zakaria
- Counter-frame: Rev Jeremiah Wright
While the whitewashed use the white racial frame, most people of colour use both the white racial frame and a counter-frame.
The liberty-and-justice frame: Most white people do not have any racial counter-frame. But they do have the political liberty-and-justice frame they used to fight and overthrow the British, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence. It contradicts the white racial frame.
Blacks take that frame to its clear, anti-racist conclusions, but only a few whites do. Most whites go with the white racial frame and save liberty and justice for speeches. Barack Obama avoided it completely when he ran for president in 2008.
The good news: Anything that is learned can be unlearned.
The bad news: The white racial frame is deeply ingrained in white history, institutions and character.
Source: Joe R. Feagin, “The White Racial Frame” (2010).
- Racism Review – Feagin’s website. Good for those who want the sociology behind race in the news.
- colour-blind racism: the four frames – Another frame-based sociological take, that of Eduardo Bonilla-Silva.
- political arguments – also uses the idea of frames
- The white lens
- Jeremiah Wright
- IAT: Implicit Association Test
- How white people think
- How White America got rich