Why Are White People So Sensitive?

White peopleWarning: This post does not contain the folly typically found therein. Sorry. But non-folly thoughts were in my head and I needed to let them out.
Totally understand if you click away.
(I’ll judge you, but I’ll understand.)

This last week, I came to a startling realization: we White People are a sensitive lot.

Make that damned sensitive.

At the high school where I work, a video was shown to the staff on the topic of racial microaggressions. Some of the staff thought it should be shown to the students, so it was.

Parent phone calls ensued. Angry parent calls. Calls accusing us of Reverse Discrimination, White-shaming, and “pushing a left-wing, liberal agenda.”

(Because suggesting to kids that thinking before you speak and letting go of racial stereotypes is all part of a left-wing, liberal conspiracy. Imagine that.)

Now granted, these parents hadn’t seen the video, so they were only responding to what their kids told them.

And admit it, you didn’t watch the video either. For a quick overview, the statements below would all count as ‘racial microaggressions’:

You’re only good at sports because you’re Black.
You’ll get into college because of Affirmative Action.
Why do you act White?
Are you illegal?
What are you?
You speak good English for a Latina.

The term applies to other things too, such as clutching your purse when you walk past someone of color, sighing heavily when someone speaks with a heavy accent, and so on.

The ‘micro’ in the word does not imply these are insignificant, but that they are in the everyday. Something a person of color might experience or hear on a regular basis, in one form or another, over and over again.

Seems only natural we’d want to avoid them, right? I mean, if you’re someone who’d rather not be considered racist, if you think of yourself as being open-minded and intelligent, wouldn’t you want to know how these things come across so you don’t inadvertently say or do something stupid?

So why do you suppose students were complaining to their parents about the video?

Well, as one teacher told me, there’s a big jump in maturity from freshman to senior year, so not all kids are going have the life experiences and empathy skills needed to process this kind of subject.

I can see that. But their parents? Or our teachers?
More than one teacher said to me, “It’s like you can’t say anything anymore.”

(Seriously, what does that mean? Are comments based on stereotypes or ignorance the screen-shot-2017-02-28-at-8-01-28-pmentirety of your conversational skills?)

And that’s when it hit me: we White People are damned sensitive. As soon as the subject of race comes up, we tense up and get defensive. Irrationally so.

Why is that, do you think? Is it fear? Guilt? A lack of compassion? (And before you take the default argument that it’s our current state of politics, I don’t agree. It might be more visible now, but I don’t think it’s anything new.)

Maybe it’s just human nature to be defensive of who we are and who we imagine ourselves to be. Maybe all people are this way?

If so, is there any hope for us?

In any case, I have to say I’m confused by people’s reactions. It seems to me that if someone says, “Hey, I’d rather you not say that because this is what it sounds like to me,” the proper response is, “Oh, I’m sorry. I never thought of it that way.” And then you don’t say it again.

And even if you think the person took it wrong or was being overly sensitive, you still apologize and move on. Because that’s what decent folk do.

And that’s what we should be teaching our kids!


Anyway, these are the thoughts that have been bouncing around in my head.
What about you? Any thoughts on the subject?

27 thoughts on “Why Are White People So Sensitive?

    1. I expect you’re right. Fear is at the root of most of our bad behaviors, and there’s more than a fair amount of guilt to go around. I suppose there might be tunnel vision going on too, as in we’re deliberately blinding ourselves to issues that make us uncomfortable.

  1. I don’t think the sensitivity’s base is exclusively from whiteness (though for 8 years the white traditional Christian American did indeed seem kicked to the curb, and folks in every strata suddenly faced self-qualifying thought-police to a ridiculous point). When the schools here showed films to my second set of kids, I asked them to ask my parental permission first and to provide an opt-out alternative. They did. These are my kids, after all, and this way, there were no unnerving surprises coming to me after the fact (again), which is enough to put anyone’s dander up. That way, I had a chance to think about the value of it, and to speak with my child about it, first. Or to simply opt her out.

    1. We would never have thought to send parent permission slips regarding this video, as it was so innocuous. The point was to simply create discussion, and some teachers reported they got some really good results from it. My suspicion is that the calls we got were from those whose teachers didn’t handle it as well. I doubt the parents understood the nature of the video and simply jumped to conclusions. Oh well.

  2. Sounds like a reasonable educational experience. Unfortunately, what should be just good manners has turned into a minefield and the mines are constantly moving. I don’t know the answers — I wish i did. However, it strikes me as if no group likes to be pre-judged — including white people. Not all blacks are good athletes, not all Latinos are illegal and not all white people are unconscious racists. The problem is we live in a world where you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t and damned if you try — but, we need to keep trying. cheers.

    1. True enough. I know people get a bit edgy when they hear that some term they always used before is now deemed unacceptable. And I totally get that. But being more aware and growing in our understanding is necessary too.
      Yeah, it’s definitely a minefield out there.
      Cheers back atchya.

      1. I totally agree. Understanding is the key to everything and we can’t understand if we’re not aware. That’s why we have to keep trying. cheers! (very good blog BTW)

  3. I had an inner turmoil just yesterday about a question that I REALLY wanted to ask someone, but didn’t know if it was an ok question to ask. I ran through several different ways to say it in my head, and finally decided to just leave it for another time, or try to find out another way. I was talking to a new friend, who just happens to be a Lesbian with a wife and 2 children. I wanted to know if the children were adopted, or if they were biological. So do I say, “Hey, did you pop those out on your own?” (Definitely not), or “So, your son really looks a lot like you…” (Still uncomfortable). My solution is to live with my curiosity, hoping some day to have the answer revealed to me. I think that’s the most proper thing to do.

  4. Tis true, white people are a sensitive lot, but so are all the other shades. Knee jerk reactions seem to be par for the course, especially if folks comfort zones are threatened. As Andrew mentioned, fear is a factor. Seems like it causes IQ to drop about 20 points and tolerance about 100 points.

    1. True, it’s hard to maintain critical thinking skills when you’re running scared. A Twitter friend suggested it’s fear of losing our status quo, but I kind of doubt that. I have difficulty believing our motives are that nefarious, at least for the majority of people.

  5. Excellent post. I’d have to go with guilt as being a considerable factor in the hypersensitivity. Anyone who is at least moderately engaged with the world has to be aware of the negative value of inequality, exclusion and racism, so if someone overreacts to the possible suggestion that they might be behaving inappropriately, there’s a deeper story in the mix. Of course, the best way to understand the ramifications of inequality is to live some aspect of your life AS a minority, and there are many people in this country who have never experienced such.

    1. Excellent point. I remember a time when my husband and I lived in a small college town in Iowa, primarily Dutch (the largest section of the phone book was V: Van-, Vander-, etc.). I thought the people there were sooo nice! Then one time we were with a group of faculty from the college and they got to talking about how unfriendly the town was, people were so rude, and so on. When I argued the point, saying everyone was super friendly to me, one woman said, “of course they’re friendly to you! You look Dutch!” Only then did I see I was the only blonde-haired white person in the group.
      God, how I felt awful! And to think I thought those townspeople were nice!
      That’s the trouble with racists. They’re so hard to detect among the decent folk.

  6. My first thought was – if we could all just see people as People it would be better.
    Then I thought: but some folks like to display their heritage, and they deserve to be respected for that so they wouldn’t want to be lumped in with People.
    Now I don’t know.
    Seems we should all just try to be super polite, learn to shut up and think before we speak/judge – but then, we are people, and people are frequently stupid.

  7. I believe fear and guilt play a major role in the sencitivity of white people and it doesn’t help if you have people in high places who constantly remind you by their actions of the way minorities have been treated.

    1. Very true. We have had a great number of reminders lately.
      Someone told me recently that at least the crazies are out in the open now – they’re easier to battle that way. (I think their point was, if we look hard enough, we can find a positive in most anything.)

  8. I think there’s a handful of different causes all converging:

    1) There are people that want to continue to be insensitive, for whatever reason. Maybe they’re jerks, maybe they’re sensitive themselves but were told to “man up” as a kid and the effect of that has made them unable to empathize. (Yay, toxic masculinity!!) Regardless, the behavior is not okay.

    2) There are people that are genuinely racist.

    3) The language of microaggressions and “dog-whistles” is constantly. constantly. shifting. In such a way that they are used more often by your average nonracist person in completely benign ways than actual racists. The reality is – people who are racist and want to talk about people in racist ways are always going to find ways to do it. If you wall off one set of words as “dog-whistles” they will move on to other words. We’re at a point now where enough of the English language is bookmarked as a dog-whistle that people benignly trip over these words because they are the most efficient ways to express the plain meaning (i.e. the non-racist meaning) of what they want to say.

    The discussion on this post (*) illustrates this issue in one of the best possible ways. The TL/DR: Company advertises an opening in a communications position requiring a candidate to be “well-spoken.” White, 29-year-old woman rejects black male candidate for not being “well-spoken” (to be clear – echoing the exact language in the job description) because he addressed her as “hey dawg” and used slang in in the interview such as bae, fleek, and woke. The candidate only received a form-letter rejection and was not privy to the reason for rejection; nevertheless, he sued the company for racist hiring practices. Interviewer is suspended without pay while the investigation goes on. Her supervisor (a gay black man) writes in to ask how to support her during this nonsense. In the comments (which were overall very intelligent), a dynamic developed where a bunch of well-meaning white people were whitesplaining to a gay black man how “dog-whistles” and discrimination works, which was kind of a ridiculous, absurd result.

    So, all three of those things (and probably some others) converge into a person saying “Minorities need to stop being so sensitive.” Same result, different reasons.

    (*) http://www.askamanager.org/2017/02/im-still-getting-calls-from-clients-after-being-let-go-my-coworker-is-interfering-in-my-work-and-more.html

  9. But in addition to what I said above, that basket of issues ALSO leads people to be more resistant to changing more obvious micro-aggression-type behavior (as in, the more obviously impolite things). A lot of people are so allergic to nuance that they oversimplify, and all these things get put in the same mental bucket as that one person they read somewhere that was clearly unhinged and overreacted to a normal use of common words. So they fail to see the real impact of unconscious biases and impolite behavior of a particular flavor that stems from a white-normative train of thought.

    1. You made some great points and given me much to think about. Thank you!
      It’s such a difficult issue, but until we resolve to talk to each other decently and respectfully, I don’t know how we hope to find solutions. Also, the anonymity of the internet doesn’t help, when some are so quick to express hateful opinions with no fear of repercussions.
      Have you considered doing a few blog posts on this subject? You would be marvelous. 🙂

  10. I agree! I don’t understand why our people get so offended when other races tell us we are being offensive! I have a friend who is legitimately afraid it’s going to turn around on us, which is even more offensive! To suggest that “minorities” are like animals and we can’t turn our backs on them. That’s how what he said came across to me anyway. I actually wrote a post about a Thai dish and one man got offended by it. I meant no offensive at all. I showed it to my non-white friends and asked if I was being offensive, because I didn’t want to be and wasn’t intending to, but obviously this guy felt I was. They all told me they didn’t quite get it, but I still apologized because like you said, it’s what you do!

    1. I think I remember that post, and being a bit thrown by how offended the guy was. But you handled it really well.
      I read about some comedians complaining about how they have to be careful not to offend, one saying “it’s not fun anymore.” Which in one way I get, but in another way, why was it fun to offend people?
      It’s like you say, there are some who are going to be overly sensitive, but even so, there are lines you don’t cross and maybe we should be thankful when it’s pointed out to us, as none of us are perfect.
      Sounds like you have good friends!

      1. Yeah, I mean, I get it, because sometimes I get real irritated about jokes I find sexist, but this world is incredibly sexist which is why I’m so sensitive about it. In the end, I think that’s the lesson. Things aren’t going to get better unless we communicate and find common ground. That’s how most healthy relationships work anyway.

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