fb-pixelThe art of the denial: The excuses people make to ignore racism Skip to main content
About this section

See how the stories we tell shape the world we live in, and how the arts affect our ideas about racial justice and equal participation in democracy.

The art of the denial

How racism deniers obscure the reality of racism, minimizing its significance

Examples of racism denial.Alex LaSalvia

Elon Musk posted a video mocking some “Stay Woke” T-shirts he found in a closet at Twitter headquarters.

He also posted that the U.S. Dept. of Justice under Barack Obama found that Michael Brown, the teen whose killing sparked the Ferguson protests, did not have his hands up. The implication is Black Lives Matter is based on a fiction and lacks credibility. This only makes sense if you choose to ignore the rest of what justice officials found: Ferguson, Missouri, residents were victims of racist policing.

This fact does not concern Musk and other people though, because they are engaged in “racism denial.”

Racism denial involves obscuring the reality of racism or minimizing its significance. Racism denial is a political strategy. Its proponents know they benefit from racism and want to perpetuate it. They attempt to convince people racism is no longer an issue or is not a big enough one to require attention.

Racism denial is a coping tool. The contradiction of living in a society that preaches equality, freedom, and democracy but often practices the opposite, generates psychic distress, triggering denial. Whether reflecting strategy or psychology, racism denial comes in many forms.

Refuting denies that racism is a problem, claiming that it is not a relevant factor in certain situations. Tactics include demanding absolute certainty to prove something is indeed racist. Such demands are often followed by dismissing whatever evidence is provided.

Minimizing tries to make racism appear to be less of a problem than it truly is. Tactics include focusing on incidents in isolation from their context or suggesting those incidents are being exaggerated.

Myopia is an unwillingness to perceive racism accurately. Tactics include attributing outcomes to everything other than racism, or claiming that alternative explanations for outcomes means racism is not a factor.

Replacing shifts the focus from racism to something else. Tactics include changing the subject to focus on other forms of oppression or other social problems.

Defending dodges accountability for racism. Tactics include claiming that by having relationships with Brown, Asian, Indigenous, or Black people, or some other marginalized group, a person cannot be racist.

Excusing avoids accountability. Tactics include blaming people for their experiences of racism or portraying racism as “humor.”

Revising history misrepresents the past. Tactics include cherry picking historical facts or claiming that historical figures were “people of their time” to excuse the racism those individuals engaged in.

Distorting turns reality inside out to claim that White people are the real victims. Tactics include misrepresenting antiracism as “racist” or claiming that the experiences of White people are analogous to the experiences of people of color.

Racism denial can and must be countered. Strategy and psychology can be exposed and interrogated. The facts about racism can be explained, and miseducation, disinformation, and misperceptions corrected. Conversations can be refocused, defenses defeated, excuses challenged, and accountability demanded.

Phillipe Copeland, Ph.D., is a clinical associate professor at the Boston University School of Social Work, faculty lead in education and training at the BU Center for Antiracist Research, and faculty affiliate at the Center for Innovation in Social Science.