White People Sharing Racist Videos Are Telling on Themselves
Publicly declaring that you’re better than the person shouting the n-word at a child doesn’t mean what you think it does.
Videos of white people being racist, often circulated by other white people condemning them, have become so ubiquitous that they’ve become a genre in and of themselves. Videos of anti-Black police violence have played on viral loops for years now, but more recently there’s been a wave of low-stakes stuff, like “Karens” yelling at people.
Across social media, week in and week out, cellphone footage clips document—just for example—white women hurling the n-word at Black children and defending their use of the n-word; white men yelling “go back to Africa” at Black American strangers; white teenagers who can’t even make it through a homecoming proposal without shoehorning in a racist “joke” about slavery.
It’s exhausting to watch this unstinting, grotesque orgy of American white folks performing American whiteness in ways so uncreatively unchanged from the American whites who came before them—and to see other white people sharing those clips as if condemning (and circulating and amplifying in the process) explicit acts of racism is the same thing as being anti racist. It’s not, and maybe that’s why I’ve hit an unprecedented peak of “racist video fatigue.” And I know I cannot be alone in experiencing RVF.
It’s not just that these videos don’t teach us anything new about the deep anti-Blackness that defines our national character. It’s that they also give a certain kind of white person a distractionary cover from their own anti-Blackness by sharing and condemning these videos. Put directly: The white people sharing the videos, as if anti-racism comes down to tut-tutting or doxxing some random racist caught on camera, are telling on themselves.
To be clear, I understand why Black folks—the people who are by far the most frequently targeted in these videos—and others record and post footage of their attackers in the act. They rightly worry that their accounts of racist violence will be contested by other excuse-making white folks, whose numbers are legion on social media. But that’s part of the problem.
When media outlets cover these videos, they do so under the guise of taking anti-racist action, adding yet another bit of evidence to an evergrowing pile of exhibits demonstrating just how prevalent and enduring white American racism is. But who doesn’t know that anti-Black racism is everywhere you look in this country, aside from Black conservatives and white people who don’t want to know, will never be convinced, and clearly don’t give a damn anyway?
It’s insulting that so much effort has to consistently be put into convincing white people that racism is real in the first place. White folks who watched George Floyd have the life snuffed out of him in the cruelest way possible, rededicated themselves just two months later to the idea that racism was never the problem, Black people are. If Black death can’t move the needle of white anti-racism, why would garden-variety white racism? There’s nothing new under the sun.
And then there’s the cynicism with which these videos are shared by white people whose self-congratulation spilleth over. Sometimes, it shows up in the form of classist tropes, wherein white self-identified liberals use the footage of a lower-class racist white person to shore up their education, placeless accent, or well-readness, which are ultimately meaningless as signifiers of anti-racism. In plenty of cases, the white person circulating whatever video and condemning the racist featured in it is simply throwing pebbles from inside their glass luxury condo.
They’re appalled by these open displays of racism, but do the work of maintaining white supremacy in far more insidious ways on the daily. If you’re feeling self-satisfied because you aren’t shouting the n-word in my mentions but you send your kids to segregated schools, think it’s too hard to find “diverse” candidates at work, nurture an unspoken belief that Black folks lack accountability, and think your Black barista counts as a friend, you are doing anti-racism wrong. Publicly declaring that you’re better than someone shouting the n-word at a child doesn’t mean what you think it does, and the time you spend being outraged about “Karens” would be better applied to figuring out all the racist harm you yourself cause.
And that’s what it really comes down to. Along the way, somehow sharing a video got conflated with actually doing the work of anti-racism by an awful lot of white people whose comfort remains paramount. Pretending that racism comes down to white people behaving badly on camera—instead of recognizing that racism is embedded in systems that were painstakingly crafted to exclude Black folks and ensure white supremacy proceeds smoothly, and which continue to be effective in that goal because white people collectively participate in the project of maintaining structural and institutional racism—is not “doing anti-racism” or “effecting social change.” It’s a useless, empty act conceptually related to what scholar Janet Mawhinney calls “moves to innocence,” whereby white people un-implicate themselves in white supremacy by engaging in “strategies to remove involvement in and culpability for systems of domination.”
When racism is reduced to a meme, and the pervasiveness of anti-Blackness is so endlessly replicated across media that it renders us numb—as all these racist videos have essentially left me—what we’re really learning to do is ignore the issue. I’m tired of racist videos, but I’m more tired of the idea that this is how we delete racism—with a lost job here, and a sorry-not-sorry apologies there.
I do not want, nor do I expect, Black folks to stop filming racist attacks—not as long as white folks always take each other’s words for it on pretty much everything. But I know that the glut of racism that fills our timelines doesn’t change lives. If video captures of racist white folks fundamentally changed anything, we’d have seen a precipitous drop in the videos themselves. Instead, they’ve simply become part of an endless churn that includes cats knocking things over and dumb Ben Shapiro hot takes.