Denial of racism, in it's modern varied forms, is a key feature in modern racism (Nelson, 2013). This occurs at both the individual level and the societal level by means of the following forms of discourse:
At the individual level, as identified by Van Dijk, the discourses include act denial (I did not say/do that), control denial (I did not do/say that on purpose), intention denial (I did not mean that), and goal denial (I did not say/do that in order to...). We have all seen, here on NewsVine, numerous examples of statements that will fit at least one of these forms of denial--and more likely ones that will fit all.
Denial across these four forms of discourse allow the speaker to present the "Other" in a negative light while not damaging one's own self presentation. It is a defensive strategy intended to make words and beliefs congruent at the individual level. Most of us would agree that negative comments regarding race or ethnic groups are unacceptable--although we have seen many instances of blatantly racist remarks. Speakers who want to maintain an "impeccable" self image manage their remarks by using particular types of language such as "hedging" or "minimizing". Other strategies used are justification, excuses, and blaming the victim. These are all discursive tools designed to mitigate accusations of racism and are attempts to appear "even handed and balanced", while at the same time, downplaying the extent of racism (Nelson, 2013;McKittrick, 2013).
The next four types of discourse used to deny racism occur at a societal level, even though expressed by the individual. The types of societal discourse used to deny racism are temporal deflections (there is less racism than in the past), spatial deflection (racism is worse in other countries; there is not a problem with racism where I live), deflection from the mainstream (racism is not a widespread problem and includes only a minority who are overtly racist), and absence discourse (outright denial that racism exists).
Attributing racism to a small group of people contributes to the "myth of tolerance" (Nelson, 2013). The danger is this denial strategy is that white privilege largely goes unquestioned and protected. Another claim frequently used in these discussions is that racism is a part of the Jim Crowe era and has been expunged since the Civil Rights Laws were passed. Related to this assertions is that racism is a thing of older generations, and is now a declining phenomenon, despite evidence to the contrary. Another claim frequently seen us the high level of racism in another country makes racism in America inconsequential by comparison. The final discourse ig absence includes the assertion that we are a "post-racist" society. People who use this claim often cite the election of a bi-racial President, the passing of Civil Rights and EOC laws, and integrated neighborhoods and schools. The message behind a claim of a "post-racist" society is: "We don't need anti-racist campaigns because there is no racism to deal with. We have already put it to rest."
These strategies of denial are not observed just in America, but have been studied and documented in virtually all Western countries. They are widely employed psychological and sociological defenses against self examination and intended to minimize that which does not affect self.
The problem with acceptance of the above strategies for denial of racism is that polls. sociological studies, popular culture and psychological studies estimate that 60% of all whites admit to holding racist views about African Americans. So, while we, as a society can take some comfort in progress, we also need to exercise great caution in making grand conclusions about white racism in this country.
In conclusion, I offer an excerpt from Frank McCloskey's Old Wine, New Bottles: the Reality of Racism in Post Racial America:
In other words, whites remain disconnected from the causes and effect of institutional racism. We remain clueless in recognizing that our behavior at times is racist in nature. I know this observation might be hard for African Americans to comprehend, but whites generally don't have to think about or see racism. We perceive ourselves as being unaffected by it. It is an inconvenient truth and conversation because we lack understanding about race matters.
I personally doubt that we are capable of having a meaningful discussion on the topic. If so, we eventually have to confront our inhumanity and unfair advantage. Instead, when the topic comes up and puts whites in a defensive mode, we flip the conversation and claim that the other person (likely a person of color) is racist. We minimize their concern as reactionary and label that individual (or group) as a troublemaker. My observation is not intended to dispense white guilt. Guilt is a useless and debilitating emotion. Rather, it is meant to acknowledge that the obligation of whites to act and confront racism can only start by being honest with ourselves.
Reagin, Joe R.(2006). Systematic racism: A theory of oppression. NY: Routledge.
McCloskey, Frank(2012). www.insightintodiversity.com
McKittrick, K.(2012). Quiescent change: Reading Barack Obama, reading race and racism, reading whiteness. Qualitative Sociology.35:p243-249.
Nelson, J.K.(2012). Denial of racism and it's implications for local action. Discourse and Society. 24(1) p89-109