Are All White People Racist?

“I’m Not Racist… Am I?” is a documentary film released in 2023 by The Calhoun School and Point Made Films that is getting some attention lately. The film follows 12 New York City teenagers from diverse racial and socioeconomic backgrounds as they go through a series of workshops and conversations on how to confront racism.

While I have not seen the movie (it is available for private showings only), I came across an article in the March 4, 2024, edition of the Charlotte Observer reporting that Davidson College (my alma mater) required its student-athletes to view it. The article reported that some found it to be divisive and offensive. One scene was identified as being particularly so. It showed antiracism consultant Justin Freitas, with the nonprofit organization Undoing Racism, explaining to the students how to interpret and define what racism is. The clip ends with Freitas responding “yes” to a question from a student who asks whether he thinks all white people are racists. 

I have written extensively regarding racism in America, particularly as it applies to the educational and economic exploitation of the Black athlete. Much of my perspective around this issue was developed during my career as a college and professional basketball player, as a college athletics administrator at the NCAA and Southeastern Conference, and being engaged with issues relating to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in running a Community Benefit Organization ( Most recently, these experiences and the lessons learned throughout led me to write The Journey of an Old White Dude in the Age of Black Lives Matter, released in 2023.

Thus, I took notice of “I’m Not Racist…Am I?” and the controversy around Freitas’ comment that all White people are racists.

After careful consideration, I am not sure whether all White people are racists is the right question to ask and explore.

Are there White people who are racist? Absolutely! While I may be naïve, I’d prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt. I believe in people’s “better angels.” I believe most people are kind and caring and want to do the right thing.

So, no, I do not believe that all White people are inherently racist.

That said, I don’t think that is the best way to frame the issue. A more effective and representative question might be, “Do all White people do racist things?” The answer is, “Absolutely!”

This begs the question. If that is the case, how can you believe that not all White people are racist?

Here’s why.

Most people do not want to commit racist acts. But it is difficult to avoid racist behaviors when you have lived in a segregated all-White world your entire life. So, yes, in your heart, you do not believe you are racist. But after enjoying and benefitting from a lifetime of White privilege, it’s not surprising that some of those beliefs, behaviors, and habits have rubbed off. It is like the process of osmosis, which is an effortless and unconscious assimilation, in this case, the assimilation of ideas, language, or assumptions relating to race and people of color.
The fact is racism is pervasive throughout our society. For over 400 years, it has influenced and impacted every nook and cranny of our culture. Racism influences and forms our attitudes relating to education, medicine, media, government, the judicial system, and housing policy, to name only a few, in ways both direct and subtle. The result is that even those with the purest of hearts, best intentions, and no ill will engage in racist actions, large and small.

In short, when it comes to having a pure heart in matters relating to racism and social justice, it’s not our intentions that matter, but rather our words and actions. As Robin DiAngelo writes in her book White Fragility, “Stopping our racist patterns must be more important than working to convince others we don’t have them. We do have them, and people of color already know we have them; our efforts to prove otherwise are not convincing.” (DiAngelo 2018, 129)

In other words, it’s less important that we spend our efforts on convincing POC that we are not racist than it is that we acknowledge that we all do racist things. But most important, once acknowledged, what do you do about it? Rather than simply claiming not to be racist, what are you going to do to demonstrate that your heart is, in fact, pure?  

In a nutshell, you’ve got to “do the work.” Becoming a social justice ally requires doing the reading and research. It’s also about thoughtfully contemplating not only the history and current realities of racism but also the role you might be playing in perpetuating them. It requires critical, thoughtful reflection and self-examination. Given the subject matter, it is likely that if you engage in honest, thoughtful self-examination, it will cause some discomfort. You will likely discover ways in which you have been contributing to maintaining systemic racism without even knowing it. It is messy and unsettling. But that’s the point. If you don’t face these issues and feel uncomfortable, the racial status quo in general and your role in maintaining it will never change.

In my personal journey in doing the work, I discovered many ways in which, with no ill intent, I engaged in racist behaviors and patterns. I was forced to confront my own biases. It’s been a humbling experience. This is difficult work. The challenges are enormous. And it is work that lasts for a lifetime but work that must be done.

It’s also been exhilarating. If you approach these issues with profound humility, an open mind, and a commitment to do the necessary work, you can learn. You can grow. You can improve.

We are all on a continuum regarding awareness, knowledge of, and commitment to racial justice. For each of us, it is a highly personal journey. But the fact is, there is no way we White folks will ever fully “get it” regarding what it means to be Black in America. But that does not mean we don’t have a responsibility to make the effort to better understand it. But more important, to do something . . . anything . . . large or small . . . to “make it” right.

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