White Racial Conditioning

White privilege is an evocative phrase that gets a lot of airtime. While it is true that white people in a white supremacist society are granted privileges, a more expansive way to understand the experiences of white people is through the sociological process of conditioning.

I first learned about white racial conditioning in 2009 when I joined a six-month white anti-racism workshop through the UNtraining. The founders Rita Shimmin and Robert Horton describe white conditioning as both the process through which white people learn that we are superior and the actions we take based on that conditioning.

Our culture is immersed in messages of white superiority, both explicitly and implicitly, from the time we enter this world. We learn this from all aspects of our society: our family, our friends, our teachers, and the media – TV, books, the internet, advertisements, news, and movies. This is the “smog” that Beverly Daniel Tatum writes about.

Ricky Sherover-Marcuse, the late influential anti-racist activist emphasizes the unwanted nature of conditioning:

“No young person acquires misinformation by their own free choice. Racist attitudes and beliefs are a mixture of misinformation and ignorance which is imposed upon young people through a painful process of social conditioning. ‘You have to be taught to hate and fear.'” (Towards A Perspective On Eliminating Racism: 12 Working Assumptions)

It doesn’t matter if you were raised in a white liberal family, a conservative Southern family, or if you were surrounded by people of color. White conditioning crosses the political and geographic spectrum; no one is spared.

The UNtraining workshop helped me notice the racist conditioning I had internalized. Instead of ignoring the loud whispers of stereotypes in my head whenever I interacted with a person of color, I began to pay attention. Sometimes I caught them before I acted, sometimes I didn’t. Because much of white conditioning is unconscious, I wouldn’t even know that I acted in ways that were hurtful to people of color.

Around the time I was in the workshop, I was on an airplane and a young black woman with a baby sat next to me. We started chatting and she told me she was in pharmacy school. I asked if she was training to become a pharmacy technician. She kindly said, “no, a pharmacist.”

My body instantly tightened, my face flushed, and I recognized that sickening feeling of shame just flood my body. We spent the next few hours chatting and playing with her baby but I had a sick stomach the entire flight. As I thought about that interaction over the next few days, I was truly shocked that I so quickly assumed that she was training to become a pharmacy technician, a lower paying job that requires much less schooling.

That was the first experience I had that made the insidiousness of unconscious white conditioning real for me. And it was painful. The process of white conditioning on white people is devastating to our souls. Political activist Jona Olsson describes the process:

“Our conditioning filled us with fear, suspicion and stereotypes that substituted for true knowing of people of color. We internalized our beliefs about people of color, ourselves, other white people and about being white. Those internalized attitudes became actualized into racist behavior.” (Detour-Spotting for White Anti-Racists)

If you think you might be immune to conditioning and want to be humbled, take Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald’s free online Implicit Association Test. These social psychologists describe hidden bias, an aspect of unconscious conditioning, as:

“…bits of knowledge about social groups…that are storied in our brains because we encounter them so frequently in our cultural environments. Once lodged in our minds, hidden biases can influence our behavior toward members of particular social groups, but we remain oblivious to their influence…[M]ost people find it unbelievable that their behavior can be guided by mental content of which they are unaware.” (Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, xii)

The first step to changing conditioned behavior is to recognize your conditioned thoughts. Uncovering your conditioning requires you to face the internalized white supremacy that you may have been previously unaware of. Ricky Sherover-Marcuse titled her workshops Unlearning Racism (similarly to the UNtraining White Liberal Racism workshop) because what is learned can be unlearned. Once conditioned thoughts are in your conscious awareness, you can change your behavior.

This unlearning process, though, must be done with love and compassion for yourself. A central practice of the UNtraining is what Rita Shimmin calls multidimensionality – “the capacity and ability to hold more than one reality simultaneously.” Yes, I am conditioned to enact white supremacy AND I am worthy of love. Holding these dual realities is easier said than done. The shame of our conditioning can block any feelings of love or agency.

Love, though, is what will change things. James Baldwin in 1962 wrote,

“White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this – which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never – the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.” (Letters From a Region in My Mind)

Examining privilege through the lens of conditioning provides a more expansive way to understand your experience as a white person in a white supremacist society. “Accepting that we have all been indoctrinated into white supremacist thinking allows us to let go of a shallow politics of blame” (bell hooks, Writing Beyond Racep. 147). You are then free to focus on changing your behavior, loving yourself, and courageously disrupting the systems that reinforce white supremacy.


Appreciations: Thank you to all of the people I linked to in this post. To my husband for his support and editing suggestions. To Robin DiAngelo for her comprehensive handbook What Does It Mean to Be White: Developing White Racial Literacy. To bell hooks and Barbara Smith for their scholarship. 

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