How to Be Anti-Racist

The Savvy Psychologist has 6 tips for being anti-racist, including why you shouldn’t claim to be color blind and why white people should actually have a racial identity.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #58

Tip #3: Speak Up

You’re allowed to talk about racism and speak up when you see something happen that raises your hackles. This is actually key. The idea that stopping racism is the responsibility of people of color or that white people can’t do anything about it is a misconception. You have the power to advocate for change. Don’t be afraid to use it.

Tip #4: Have a Racial Identity

Oftentimes, when asked to describe their racial background, white individuals will say something like “Hmmm, well, I don’t really have a race. I’ve never really thought about it. I'm not really anything.”

Actually, it’s OK to say you’re white. Having no racial identity demonstrates not only that you don’t have to think about race, a privilege that people of color don’t have, but also that you don’t realize it, which I’m sure is not your intent.

At the same time, you don’t need to apologize for being white. You don’t speak for your entire race, just as minority individuals don’t speak for theirs. Build an anti-racist white identity by educating yourself about privilege, being aware of what your race gets you, and supporting changes that let everyone share the same starting line.

Tip #5: Don’t Let Others Denigrate You as an Individual

An essay from a white Princeton undergrad made the rounds of social media recently after he was told by a classmate of color, a bit flippantly, and with a bit of hostility, “Check your privilege.”

In the essay, he discusses his family’s time in a concentration camp and rise from pennilessness to prosperity through education and hard work. I salute his family and their sacrifices. You can find a link to his essay here.

I agree that he, as an individual, shouldn’t be held up as “the oppressor.” Just like people of color should be able to excel and achieve without being thought of as a credit to their race, individual white people should not be held responsible for history.

That said, to quote The New York Times Op-Ed columnist Nicholas Kristof, who is white,

“I think for people who were born on third base, and whose friends were born on third base, and who assume a third base context, it’s really hard to understand the enormous obstacles that face those who in early life encountered a much less rosy environment. It’s so easy to hit a home run from third base and say, ‘Boy, this is pretty easy, why can’t everyone else do this?’”

The Princeton writer’s point was that his family did not start on third base and that he and his family have struggled and worked hard. All this is true, and yet throughout American history, it has been easier to make it around the bases if you’re white.  

Which brings us to...

Tip #6: Educate Yourself About White Privilege

There's no need to flog yourself or feel guilty, but be aware of how the system is stacked. This will hopefully inspire you to work for change, both internal and external.  

The classic 1988 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack,” by Dr. Peggy McIntosh, who is white, is a great place to start. To use some of her examples, it can be startling to realize that, as a white person, you can be pretty sure that if you ask to talk to “the person in charge,” you will be facing a person of your race.  

Or that you can be sure that if you need medical or legal help, your race won’t be an issue. Or that you can arrange to protect your children most of the time from people who might not like them. Links to dozens more of her observations and two versions of her essay can be found here and here.

Missed last week's episode?  Check it out: How to Deal with Racism, then share your experiences with us. Have you been the victim or witness of microaggression? How did you react? Share your thoughts on the Savvy Psychologist Facebook page


Gushue, G.V. (2004).  Race, color-blind racial attitudes, and judgments about mental health: A shifting standards perspective.  Journal of Counseling Psychology, 51, 398-407.

Neville, H. A., Worthington, R. L., & Spanierman, L. B. (2001). Race, power, and multicultural counseling psychology: Understanding White privilege and color-blind racial attitudes. In J. G. Ponterotto, J. M. Casas, L. A. Suzuki, & C. M. Alexander (Eds.), Handbook of multicultural counseling (2nd ed., pp. 257–288). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.