The Scandal of White Complicity

White Habitus and the Four Walls of White Imprisonment

The sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva explains how white habitus, or white socialization, creates intragroup identity and cohesion. He defines white habitus as “a racialized, uninterrupted socialization process that conditions and creates white American’s tastes, perceptions, feelings, and emotions, and their view on racial matters. White habitus occurs within a separate residential and cultural life that fosters a white culture of solidarity and negative views about nonwhite Americans. White habitus includes both position, described throughout this chapter in terms of the geography, location, and power of whiteness, and practice, the ways white Americans live and are socialized to perceive and act within the world. In other words, white self-segregation is a critical incubator for white internalization of white superiority and black inferiority.

Even in the face of pervasive racial inequality, many white Americans continue to belive that people of color do not face significant disadvantage, and even place blame on people of color for these disparities. The anthropologist Jane Hill explains how racism persists in white “folk theory,” or “common sense” assumption persists is found in the argument that interracial marriage will erase racial difference and conflict. In other words, the “common sense” assumption advances a genetic solution to a nonscientific, social construction. Hill cites numerous articles in the news media that threat the scientific consensus as an “astonishing novelty,” as if the “common sense” assumption held scientific validity. A second key assumption of white folk theory holds that racism is entirely a matter of individual belief and that individual ignorance can be corrected by education. This view is commonly communicated in opinion pieces that rightfully desire an end to racism and decry the use of racial epithets. However, this white individualist assumption renders opaque, if not invisible, the structural relations of domination-subordination that give rise to hyper-incarceration in the first place.

A third key assumption of white folk or “common sense” theory is that prejudice is part of the human condition, a view commonly described by white Americans in the statement that “all people prefer to be with people who are like them.” Hill points to the enormity of white power and its distortion in the ways that white Americans deny structural inequality to “white cultural projects” that maintain this distortion are not marginal or archaic. They are an active, productive, and dynamic contemporary reality in which they, and the populations of color subordinated within this reality, must live.

White habitus builds its own prison that is residential, cultural, relational, and institutional. Joseph Barndt, a parish pastor who has devoted his life in helping white Americans understand and dismantle their role in racism, especially through his work with the anti-racist ministry, describes how white Americans imprison themselves within four walls of whiteness. Barndt names these walls (1) separation and isolation; (2) illusion and delusion; (3) amnesia and anesthesia, and (4) power and privilege.