Remaining Human: Learning to See the White Racial Frame

“Every single day folks are dying. Not being able to take another breath. We are in a state of emergency. If you don’t feel that emergency, you are not human.” Patriss Cullors

We have a problem.

People of color are being murdered by police,  put in jail, and kicked out of schools, all at rates that are disproportionate to whites.

And we can no longer view this from what Joe Feagin calls “the white racial frame.” Because this view is the problem.

Before I go into what the white frame is, I want to very clear about what it is not.

It is not limited to the personal. The white frame does not depend only on individual racial prejudice for its existence. It is not limited to your or my personal beliefs, or biases, or stereotypes. When we talk about the white frame, we’re not talking only about any single personal point of view. We’re not only talking about prejudiced people.

So there is no need to get defensive. It’s not about you.

In American Racism in the “White Frame,” Feagin says,

“To understand well the realities of American racism, one must adopt an analytical perspective focused on the what, why and who of the systemic white racism that is central and foundational to this society. Most mainstream social scientists dealing with racism issues have relied heavily on inadequate analytical concepts like prejudice, bias, stereotyping and intolerance. Such concepts are often useful, but were long ago crafted by white social scientists focusing on individual racial and ethnic issues, not on society’s systemic racism. (Emphasis added)

Yes, personal prejudice matters. But the white frame, and thus the root issues, remain  much bigger than prejudiced individuals.

Feagin continues, saying the “…white frame is made up of two key types of subframes: The most-noted and most-researched are those negatively targeting people of color. In addition, the most central subframe, often the hardest to ‘see,’ especially by whites, is that reinforcing the idea of white virtuousness in myriad ways, including superior white values and institutions, the white work ethic, and white intelligence. This white-virtue framing is so strong that it affects the thinking not only of whites, but also of many people of color here and overseas. Good examples are the dominant American culture’s standard of ‘female beauty,’ and the attempts of many people of color to look, speak, or act as ‘white’ as they can so as to do better in our white-dominated institutions.”

As a simplification, This “white racial frame” is a conglomeration of different “bits” of information that work together to influence a view of the world, and thus policy and institutions, that benefit one race at the expense of others.

This is crucially important to understand and to see, especially if you hope to remain human, as Cullors, a leading figure in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, alluded to in the quote above.

This white frame works in subtle ways, and depends on this subtlety for its existence. Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva says in Racism Without Racists?,

“In contrast to the Jim Crow era, where racial inequality was enforced through overt means (e.g., signs saying ‘No Niggers Welcomed Here’ or shotgun diplomacy at the voting booth), today racial practices operate in ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ fashion.” 

It’s hard to see, particularly for people privileged by their race- that is, white people- because this privilege offers the freedom from having to think about race. People of Color don’t have this freedom. They are confronted with the effects of their race daily. So seeing the white frame at work necessitates thinking deeply about how race functions, and this requires seeing from perspectives outside of the white frame.

To help make this concrete, let me explore an example from the #BlackLivesMatter protest at Netroots Nation gathering. As some background, Netroots holds an annual convention of progressive writers and thinkers. This year, both Mike O’Malley and Bernie Sanders were interrupted  by the #BlackLivesMatter activists during their presentations. The disruption itself offers a powerful example of activists resisting and refusing to allow their perspectives to be silenced by the white frame. As Cullors said in the protest, “It’s not like we like shutting sh*t down, but we have to. We are tired of being interrupted.” This protest itself was disruption of the white frame that allowed for other perspectives to be heard.

I found the O’Malley presentation to offer a particularly salient example of O’Malley understandably struggling with the white frame. When he realized this disruption was taking place, O’Malley generously shifted from the center of the stage to allow space for the activists.

When the activists allowed O’Malley’s presentation to continue, he responded in a way that shifted the frame right back to whiteness.

“Black lives matter…white lives matter…all lives matter.”


What’s wrong with this? Don’t all lives, in fact, matter?

Of course. But, in order to see the white frame, we need to learn the ways in which language functions- we need to see what language does. And what does the phrase “all lives matter” do? It shifts the focus away from, in this instance, black lives, and the particular way that black lives are situated in our society, to a frame that dilutes black lives in whiteness.  In When We Fully Claim Black Lives Matter, We Move Closer to All Lives Matter, john a. powell puts it this way:

“The universal aspiration is a society where all lives matter. But if we just proclaim that and stop there, we are ignoring the reality in America. All lives do not matter in America and some of this difference is how whites and blacks are differently situated not only in our geographic and psychic structures, but also in relationship to police and other institutions. Blacks lives have been constrained and cut short.

When one replaces ‘Black Lives Matter’ with ‘All Lives Matter,’ one may be slipping into a false assumption that we are all similarly situated. We are not.”

I don’t use this example to beat up on O’Malley. I certainly don’t think this is evidence that O’Malley is a racist. Again, the white frame is not about any single individual. His fellow Democrat candidates, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, have also struggled with this same phrase as they stumbled into this unfamiliar territory. And all three candidates have since showed signs of change as they learn and grow. I hope the same for the rest of us. White people, myself included, are bound to make mistakes and embarrass ourselves as we struggle with seeing the white frame. It’s when we stop struggling with it that we should be worried.

To help see this white frame a little more clearly at work in this example, let me quote Eclectablog’s Chris Savage. He was present at the protest, and bravely shares how he came to see what happened from a perspective outside of the white frame.

“I, like many of the others there, was initially irritated by the protestors. I was there to hear the candidates and was frustrated that they weren’t being heard. Even a bit angry, in fact. ‘These are your allies,’ I thought. ‘Why on earth are you attacking them? Why are you disrupting an event where the people there are sympathetic to your cause?’

Frustration. Anger. Being silenced.




Talked over.


Every single one of these emotions that ran through my white privileged brain in the first few moments of the protest until I was slapped across the face with what I was being forced to confront. Every single one of these emotions are felt acutely and painfully every single day by racial minority groups in our country. But, instead of being inconvenienced by not being able to hear a politician speak, they face them in the context of being slaughtered in the streets by the police officers who are tasked to protect them, incarcerated in astonishingly disparate numbers, and blamed for not being able to escape from the prison of poverty that holds far too many of them in bondage.” (Emphasis added)

Here you can see Savage’s perspective shifting from his experience as a white man, his white frame, to the perspective of others. He moves from being selfishly annoyed, to being empathetic to the experience of others in a way that he wasn’t as the protest began. This is the move that makes the white frame visible.

And once you begin to see the white frame, you see it working everywhere.

With this in mind, if we look at education, all you have to do is find any situation where there is comparison or competition, and then look at who benefits from this comparison/competition, and who loses. This is where Feagin’s “white virtues framing” is the clearest.

It is at work:

* Whenever there is talk of the “achievement gap” rather than the equity gap.

* Whenever you hear the language of “failing schools” rather than underserved communities.

* Whenever students are viewed in terms of their deficits rather than their abilities.

* Whenever ranking systems of any kind are used- who ends up on top? Those who are leveraged with social capital. And on the bottom. The others.

* In the biased tests used to sort students and schools.

* Whenever an emergency manager is imposed over a democratically elected school board.

* When “the problem” with school is viewed as a “teacher problem,” thus erasing the conditions and context that students exist within.

* Whenever you see a “turnaround” district established, such as Michigan’s EAA.

And on and on…

We need to learn to see empathically from other perspectives in order to allow for the contrast that makes the white frame visible.

Because the first step to making change is seeing accurately the depth of change that needs to be made.


One response to “Remaining Human: Learning to See the White Racial Frame

  1. Bill – read an interview with Joe Feagin this morning in the NY TImes;

    Right on! Bill. Your writing is on the money. Bruce

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