“You’re Just Being Oversensitive”: White Talk Moves in Higher Education

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... These discourses, most of which we saw in our interview data, include discourses related to establishing oneself as a good person who is not racist, downplaying racism and one's own advantages, justifications to deny the existence of racism, expecting BIPOC people to teach white people about racism and justifying not taking claims of racism seriously. Many others have identified similar patterns (Daniels 2021, Matias, 2016, Finders 2020, Hytten 2003, Knowles 2014). ...
Background: We present an analysis of interviews with 27 self-identified progressive white-male physics faculty and graduate students discussing race and gender in physics. White men dominate most STEM fields and are particularly overrepresented in positions of status and influence (i.e. full professors, chairs, deans, etc.), positioning them as a potentially powerful demographic for enacting systemic reform. Despite their proclaimed outrage at and interest in addressing inequity, they frequently engage in patterns of belief, speech and (in)action that ultimately support the status quo of white male privilege in opposition to their intentions. Results: The white male physicists we interviewed used numerous discourses which support racist and sexist norms and position them as powerless to disrupt their own privilege. We present and discuss three overarching themes, seen in our data, demonstrating how highly intelligent, well-intentioned people of privilege maintain their power and privilege despite their own intentions: 1) Denying inequity is physically near them, 2) Locating causes of inequity in large societal systems over which they have little influence and 3) Justifying inaction. Conclusions: Despite being progressively minded, well-meaning, and highly intelligent, these men are frequently complicit in racism and sexism in physics. We end with recommendations for helping these men to engage the power they hold to better work with women and people of color in disrupting inequity in physics.
In Short •• Derrick Bell called for a White leader able to free White people of racism; this article expands on Bell’s idea. •• Whiteness will always resist the undoing of itself; thus, feelings of guilt, fear, or shame are resistance strategies that can be overcome •• Whiteness is not invisible. It is something racially minoritized students, faculty, and staff see every day, but it’s okay to be White. •• Whiteness is imperfection and requires a lifelong journey for those who claim a commitment to racial equity. •• White people have nothing to lose and everything to gain by reimagining their Whiteness.