Instead of Asking If Whites Can Experience Racism We Should Address the Cynicism Behind this Question

Kai McKinnon
3 min readSep 3, 2018

There’s a semantic argument replaying across the country in dive bars and over Thanksgiving dinner tables wherein a perceived more woke minority attempts to convince a white person they cannot experience racism because racism is defined as a historically disempowered group being discriminated against based on their race and the white race has never been historically disempowered. Convention has it that the white person must respond with Google’s first definition of racism — “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior” — a description that appears on its face to apply equally to blacks, whites, or anyone else being discriminated against.

Then confusion and bad faith follow charged terms like ‘reverse racism’ and ‘privilege’, and everyone leaves the argument feeling at best morally superior and at worst, misjudged, attacked, or angry.

I will not litigate this argument here. Instead, I’ll try to explain why we continue to engage in this unproductive debate in the hopes of moving us beyond it.

Beneath each sides’ arguments are thinly-veiled allusions to a larger conversation steeped in shame and misunderstanding. Reciting the literal textbook definition of racism is less of a comment about language than it is an attempted abdication of personal responsibility for the country’s legacy of racial discrimination and the ways it still shapes the lived experiences of historically disempowered peoples. Insisting whites cannot experience racism — or that blacks and other people of color cannot be racist— is a prideful attempt to acknowledge that the many unnoticed or difficult-to-articulate, though still palpable, ways in which the tendrils of our racist, oppressive past still operate on the descendants of both the victims and perpetrators of that past leave obstacles that are tough to overcome or even acknowledge.

Both feelings are valid. However, attempting to bury the skeletons in our closet using this debate as a proxy inevitably results in accusing the other side of our most derisive beliefs. We continue to have this debate due to a collective lack of empathy. Not just skepticism, but cynicism.

Listening is tough and understanding is even harder, but in this conversation where both sides often enter the ring well-intentioned, the only way we can begin to stop having this argument is by hearing the narrative beneath the indignation.

Aim to listen. Talk second, ask genuine questions, and disagree in good faith.

Blacks and other people from historically disempowered groups can take the long, exhausting, unfair, and ultimately necessary path of describing the many ways not only perceived but also concrete barriers persist for us that don’t exist for whites in the same way. Whites can investigate a completely foreign set of challenges whose absence in their lives has allowed them to focus on areas where many minorities might not have enough energy remaining to even engage.

This doesn’t mean that white people don’t face and overcome extraordinary challenges or that blacks and others operate on an even playing field. It means that in order to achieve racial equality we must all continue the hard work of peeling away the husks of division our segregated past has left us with so that we can build a more empathetic future, one that transcends racial boundaries if not in our lived experiences then at least in the ways in which we recognize how the people we care about face obstacles we don’t. Empathy is anathema to cynicism. Listening breaks down barriers so that we can find solutions to others’ problems, many of which we don’t even realize impact us.



Kai McKinnon

Software Engineer and aspiring fantasy writer living in Brooklyn