The Psychology of a White Person Reading a Post about Race

Reformed Margins is proud to introduce its first white guest contributor, James Duguid. James recently graduated with a Masters degree from Westminster Theological Seminary, and is currently working on a PhD in Semitic and Egyptian languages and literature at Catholic University of America. James loves carne asada burritos from San Diego, is an ENTP, and likes his Reformed theology 17th-century scholastic. We are honored that he’s been reading RM, and even happier that he was willing to contribute with a response to Andrew Ong’s “4x I wished I was white”. For the record, RM doesn’t hate white people! We welcome this piece, titled “The Psychology of a White Person Reading a Post about Race.” (BTW, we are still looking for more contributors, and would love to hear the voices of our readers! Contact us at

Why is it so difficult for white people to listen to minorities talk about their experiences with race? Why do these stories elicit such strong reactions from white people?

Let me try to capture a little of what it is like to be a white person reading a post about race.

White people don’t conceptualize themselves as white: they simply don’t habitually view themselves through racial categories. The categories are there, of course, and they subconsciously influence their behavior towards people of other ethnicities, but they do not usually engage consciously unless someone else brings it to their attention. For the person who is different, that difference is a constant part of their awareness, but the person who fits in is not aware of their sameness, and can usually only become aware of that sameness when confronted with the difference in some way.

What that means is that white people are focused most of the time on the ways in which they are excluded in the categories that are visible to them (to list two big ones in our culture, money and beauty). What is most visible to them is all the ways in which they aren’t included. This means that white people don’t feel privileged.

So when someone tells them that they are privileged, they feel like they are being attacked. They are already the underdog, and now someone is saying that they don’t deserve even what little they have. And since the ethnic categories don’t feel real to them, the attack seems irrational. And since the critique is usually framed in terms of white people in general, and the author does not know them personally, they feel it is unfair. The large stigma on racism in our culture actually gets in the way here, because people have a strong motivation not to see themselves as racist, and so become much more defensive if sin is pointed out. The instinctive responses of this defensiveness are denial or lashing out. This response is all very sinful of course: I don’t explain it to dismiss it, but in the hopes that understanding where it comes from is helpful.

I’ve noticed that those pointing out the inequity are often surprised at this defensive reaction. But I think our doctrine of sin helps us here. Proverbs 9:7-8:The one who corrects a mocker will bring dishonor on himself; the one who rebukes a wicked man will get hurt. Don’t rebuke a mocker, or he will hate you; rebuke a wise man, and he will love you. The wise love rebuke, but most people don’t respond well to it. Most sinners, when confronted with the law, double down on their sin.

That is why I appreciate blogs like Reformed Margins, where these points are made with a lot of grace. The law alone is not going to work. I don’t mean to demand as a point of justice that ethnic minorities bend over backward to make their critiques of ethnic injustice palatable to white people. I know that can feel like an onerous burden, when white people really should listen carefully to this critique however well it might be formulated, and carefully examine their consciences, looking for any ways in which it might be true.

But white people need grace too, and the law alone won’t change them. Thanks for all the ways you extend that grace to us! May God give us the grace to listen well.

Andrew Ong

Andrew is a third-generation, San Francisco Bay Area ABC (American Born Chinese). He and his third-gen wife have two daughters and still live in the East Bay. After graduating from the University of California Irvine and Westminster Theological Seminary, he completed his PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. He presently serves on staff at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California. Andrew's a simple guy whose passions include: sushi, pizza, nachos, and the Golden State Warriors. On his less sanctified days he lives by the maxim: #ballislife.

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