Hypothetical Racism: The Trauma We Feel when White Terrorists Go Home and Innocent Black People are Shot on the Spot
Dr. Taharee A. Jackson
January 7, 2021
My name is Taharee Jackson, and I am suffering from HYPOTHETICAL RACISM.
I have not slept in two nights due to hypothetical racism-induced insomnia.
Allow me to explain.
On January 5, 2021, I stayed up until 4:37am to see with my own eyes if Reverend Raphael Warnock and John Ossoff would be elected to the United States Senate from the state of Georgia. I wanted to see if the red state I lived, taught, and earned a doctorate in would finally lean Democratic.
They won. It did.
Thank you, Stacey Abrams.
Last night, on January 6, 2021, I was glued to the television, trying to see with my own eyes if the invasion of the United States Capitol by angry, White, gun-toting terrorists was actually happening. I kept waiting to see if throngs of police officers, special forces for insurrections, and National Guard members would show up in riot gear, handle them violently, spray rubber bullets, arrest them, shoot them, or even execute them on the spot.
It happened. They did not.
What truly kept me awake last night was my inability to identify the emotion I was feeling as a multiracial-mixed-with-Black woman watching the storming of the U.S. Capitol unfold WITHOUT CONSEQUENCE.
Or, I should say, without the SAME consequences as the Antiracism and Black Lives Matter protests we just witnessed in all 50 states and the world over.
What made my night sleepless was witnessing, first-hand, the obvious and outrageous racial inequity in how White terrorists are simply asked to “go home” when peaceful Black people are shot on the spot.
I could not name the emotion of seeing angry White Trump supporters quite literally invade the edifice and symbol of the highest elected offices in the land, but without the same predictable carnage we just witnessed during protests that were legal, justifiable, and in almost every circumstance, peaceful.
What I and many Black people — and people of all ilk — are experiencing right now is the veritable trauma and intense, nagging psychological struggle of what I am terming HYPOTHETICAL RACISM.
Hypothetical racism is when a Black, Indigenous, Person of Color (BIPOC) witnesses an experience involving gross levels White privilege, White freedom, and White lenience knowing full well that if a Black, Indigenous, Person of Color were involved, the outcome would be completely different.
Hypothetical racism is comprised of both:
1) the pain of witnessing White individuals, groups, or entire organizations engage in illegal, immoral, unethical, abusive, criminal, and even lethal acts that are punishable to the fullest extent of the law with little or NO consequence
2) the subsequent, persistent, psychological torment of constantly proposing — and then replaying hypothetical scenarios involving racial role reversals in your mind. Often on loop.
Hypothetical racism is not only about what you see, but the incessant thoughts and “What ifs?” about what you do NOT see.
Hypothetical racism is characterized by posing questions such as, “But what if they were Black?” and fact-based, hypothetical responses like, “If they were Black, this would have happened.”
Hypothetical racism is a deeply rooted, troubling neurosis that can plague both BIPOC and White people. It is often a coterminous condition with racial battle fatigue and injustice exhaustion.
The operational definition of hypothetical racism is when you witness behaviors carried out by White people that would NEVER be accepted, rewarded, positively reinforced, tolerated, or even promoted if they had been carried out by a Black, Indigenous, Person of Color.
An antiracist White mentor once told me, “If you ever have to ask questions like, ‘But what if they were White?’ or ‘What if they were Black?’… the posing of the question alone is how you know something is racist.
In societies rife with racial equity and social justice, where rewards and punishments are fairly distributed and law and order are applied justly, one would NEVER have to pose such questions.
If you can reasonably predict a dramatic difference in response, accountability, legal process, sentencing, indictment, and justice, THAT should suffice in convincing you that we live in a society rife with racism.
Below lies a non-exhaustive list of psychologically invasive questions I have been asking myself all night, all day, at work, during the Summer of George Floyd, throughout all four years of the Trump Administration, and to be quite frank, constantly over the course of my entire life.
1. What if Donald Trump was Black?
This man has been involved in alleged public affairs, sexual misconduct, and an astounding number of improprieties. He has fathered three different sets of children with three different women. He has been impeached, disavowed by several members of his own political party, and scandalized by allegedly orchestrating the payoff of a porn star — reportedly while his wife was pregnant. There is a running ticker of the 29,508 untruths he has told during his presidency. He has been caught on camera touting his ability to grab women by their sacred parts, and he has actively appointed known White supremacists to prominent posts in his office. Of late, he appears to be party to treason, inciting a public riot, and sedition. He has been suspended from both Twitter and Facebook for spreading racist, sexist, xenophobic, false, and even violent information, and faces a permanent ban from social media platforms.
Over 74,223,958 people voted to re-elect Donald Trump during the November 2020 election.
If Donald Trump were Black, based on his personal background alone, his bid for the presidency would have been nothing more than a cheap, publicly embarrassing laugh.
2. What if President Obama behaved the same way as Trump?
Remember when the only newsworthy scandal from President Obama’s White House for a complete news cycle was the sartorial choice of a taupe suit?
The Trump administration has spent an entire presidential term attempting to reverse policies like Obamacare and healthcare for all, protections for DACA recipients and Dreamers, and Civil Rights Voting Act legislation. Despite inheriting a “Playbook for Early Response to High-Consequence Emerging Infections Disease Threats and Biological Incidents”, a fortified economy, and a low unemployment rate, his administration attributes alleged “failures” of the American government to one of the most successful, globally respected, erudite Presidents in the history of the United States.
What roils so many African Americans is that, if President Obama had presented even ONE of the gross deficits in civility, moral character, political leadership, or failed business acumen, he never would have won the presidency to begin with. Maddeningly, he couldn’t have even been a candidate for president.
Let us NEVER forget that Donald Trump was the same individual who led the effort to discredit Obama’s presidency by inciting the Birther Movement and planting deep doubt that he was indeed born in the United States. That a racist aggressor like Trump could attain the same political office as a constitutional law professor, best-selling author, beloved community organizer, and fellow U.S. citizen is an affront to democracy and decency itself.
3. What if my Black best friend and I had chased, hunted down, and videotaped ourselves murdering a White jogger?
We would not have lived long enough to tell you the story. Predictably, we would have raised our hands, surrendered our weapons, and much like Michael Brown and countless other unarmed Black people, we would have been summarily shot anyway.
When your skin color is a weapon, you are NEVER unarmed.
Please note that almost every time a White gunman commits a mass murder, he is taken alive. In the case of Dylann Roof, he was even offered fast food after his killing spate. We almost ALWAYS take White murderers into custody alive, while Black, Indigenous, People of Color do not outlive their initial encounter with the police.
Just 17 minutes after the first squad car responded to George Floyd’s attempt to make a small purchase at a convenience store with a counterfeit $20 bill, he was lying on the street dead. Seventeen minutes.
Please think about that.
My best friend and I would have experienced what I call a “Street Trial.” This is when Black and Black-presenting people are surveilled, accosted, interrogated, tried, and executed right on the street. The arresting officer serves as both the defending and prosecuting attorney, the judge, the jury, and the executioner all in one. This is what I call “Street Justice.”
If my best friend and I had done what the McMichaels did to Ahmaud Arbery, we would be dead right along with him.
Rest in peace, Mr. Arbery.
You should be here to tell your own story.
4. What if a White child was murdered by police for playing with a toy gun in a public park?
The officer responsible for the murder would be in prison following national outrage over the assault on childhood itself. There would be a “Rice Law” to prevent the murder of children who have full rights to a normal childhood. There would be a “Free Play” movement to support the creative expression of young learners, irrespective of the toys they choose. “Let them play!” signs would adorn every wall and mural space. There would be public parks named after Tamir Rice to commemorate his sacrifice on behalf of all children who “just want to play.”
At the very least, Cudell Commons Park in Ohio would be renamed in Tamir Rice’s honor. A series of special labels, clear markers, and bright colors would be added to ALL toy weapons to distinguish them from real ones. The toy industry — particularly the toy gun manufacturing industry — would have been rocked by concerned White parents and class action lawsuits designed to reduce the “realness of toy guns and likeness of toys to actual weapons” that led to a single White child’s life being lost.
Rest in peace, Tamir Rice.
You should be here to enjoy a normal childhood.
We should have let you play.
5. What if a White first responder during a global pandemic was murdered by police in her sleep?
Rest in peace, Breonna Taylor.
I’m too exhausted to tell your story again because I have been up all night pondering hypothetical racism.
I wrote an entire article about your murder — On Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Black People Don’t Even Have Basic Safety: How YOU Can Prevent Another Breonna Taylor — and I am STILL trying to process how your walls and your still alive, un-shot neighbors received more justice than you did.
I am so sorry.
You should be here to finish your night’s sleep and keep saving lives on the front lines.
I still don’t have the words…
6. What if a group of angry, gun-toting Black men occupied the capitol in Lansing, had a veritable plan to kidnap Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer, and intended to quite literally overthrow the Michigan state government?
The last time I checked, these constitute a litany of federal crimes, literally punishable by death.
If these Michigan kidnappers had been Black, they would all be dead by now. Likely without a trial.
Please see the above on “Street Trial” and “Street Justice.”
If the Proud Boys were Black Boys, they would not have been told to “stand back and stand by” by the President of the United States. Rather, much like the Civil Rights protestors of the 1960s and the brave Antiracist and Black Lives Matters protestors of 2020, they would have been called “THUGS, looters, and rioters,” apparently only worthy of this incendiary tweet from Donald Trump:
7. What if a group of angry, gun-toting Black men thrust past Capitol security, scaled the walls of the U.S. Capitol, interrupted one of the most sacrosanct electoral traditions in history, killed four people, and sat in lawmakers’ offices with their feet up?
They would have been executed instantly, without consequence, at the BOTTOM of the steps of the U.S. Capitol. BEHIND the breach barriers. WITHIN the confines of where they could legally protest.
Again, please see my treatise on “Street Trials” and “Street Justice” for Black people who peacefully protest.
If you are reading this article, you should know that Black, Indigenous, People of Color do not merely experience hypothetical racism in turbulent times. Oh no. We experience hypothetical racism on a daily and recurring basis.
While non-exhaustive, here are a few examples of everyday hypothetical racism, which we don’t need seditious overthrows of our national government to trigger:
1. What if I publicly admitted that I was less qualified than my Black subordinate?
Not long ago, I had the honor of speaking with a high-ranking Black female leader at a federal agency. She noted that when a body of lawmakers needed expert testimony, she was almost never selected. When she was finally asked to testify, her higher-ranked, higher-compensated White supervisor was asked a question. Their casual response?
“Oh, I don’t know. Ask [Black woman]. She knows WAY more about this than I do!”
How is possible that a high-ranking government official could so readily, easily, and publicly admit that their Black female subordinate was actually smarter, more knowledgeable, more qualified, and more of an expert on the topic than the White person who was paid to be an expert on said topic?
How is this possible?
As Black people, we are subject to daily racism and any number of indignities rooted in racist limitations. The root of all -isms is low expectations. Organizations are already loathe to hire us, and most certainly to promote us. Not because we are incapable, uneducated, or unworthy, but because they don’t trust us. They don’t believe in us. And they expect us to be inferior in our intellect, performance, and leadership.
How is it possible, in a society like ours, that a totally unqualified businessman with a penchant for porn stars and failed business deals can reach the SAME elected office as the former editor of the Harvard Law Review and an all-around wholesome family man?
The answer is White privilege. White people are free to be uneducated, inexperienced, and inferior in real and tangible ways, yet STILL occupy spaces that hyperqualified Black people clamor to join.
The fact that I have to, on a daily basis, witness White mediocrity, male mediocrity, and the same hypothetical racism that this dignified Black woman endures is beyond shameful.
To be honest, it’s enervating.
Each day, strong Black leaders like this woman leave agencies and their positions not because they are lacking, but because they are exhausted.
2. What if I wore ultra-casual clothing to an interview and exhausted the Black people around me to fully perform?
My friends and I frequently discuss what we love about our current employment situations. To be clear, we are grateful to be employed at all during a global health emergency and now year-old pandemic.
This past year I was recruited for several positions and therefore had to interview frequently. Despite the virtual format of each interview, I donned professional clothing, applied full-face makeup, and braved the salons to have my hair straightened and professionally styled.
Did you hear that?
I literally risked my life to have my hair straightened for job interviews.
I not only took great care with my professional appearance, but meticulously prepared for each interview. I studied every webpage, document, report, and industry standard for that organization. I combed leadership lists and staff rosters to learn more about each employee’s role and vision for that company. I watched videos, viewed slide presentations, and carefully studied the details of my interviewers’ backgrounds, education, professional interests, company, and club affiliations. In other words, I did my homework AND dressed for the executive-level leadership positions I was being offered.
One of my friends mentioned a White leader who wore ultra-casual clothing to an interview. Were they White?
Did they get the job?
Did this interview occur before the pandemic?
Assuming for one moment that clothing and appearance don’t and shouldn’t matter, let’s move to leadership. My friends and I were equally rocked by the the virulent spate of lethal racism this past summer. Many organizations had virtually no response. In too many workplaces, Black employees became even more important in leading diversity efforts in general, and assisting their organizations in responding to Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, centuries-old racism, and yet-unresolved anti-Blackness in particular.
One of our greatest challenges as Black employees, on a daily basis, is not only being underpaid undervalued compared to White employees, but being overtaxed and overburdened regarding the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We serve on time-consuming committees, we are charged with developing DEI programs and initiatives without compensation or even compensatory time, and we too often serve as FREE internal diversity consultants within our own organizations. My friends and I are not alone in that. We are not the exception. Sadly, we are the norm.
We are constantly asked to help our White colleagues, supervisors, and leaders at the highest levels by doing some of the heaviest lifting employees can do. Are we not leaders too? And can they fully perform without us? Without the crucial support of Black employees?
What if my friends and I wore casual clothing to a job interview and had no idea how to move our organizations forward across the multiple strategies and areas of expertise for which we were hired? What if we constantly “leaned on” others to effectively do our own jobs? Not as teammates or a collaborative leaders — which we should strive to be — but as a group of professionals who simply cannot execute some of the most crucial organizational functions on our own?
We would never have been hired in the first place based on the casual clothing alone.
If we made it past the interview, we would be let go. We would be reviewed right out the door.
We might be placed on a performance improvement plan before being shown the door, but there would certainly be talk of “not being a good fit” or “not meeting standards and expectations” for everything from appearance and professionalism to lack of strategic thinking, proactive emergency response, independent performance, creative self-guidance, and innovative leadership.
Black people all over the globe are denied jobs, contracts, and opportunities each day, not based on their wardrobe choices and lack of leadership prowess, but because of their Blackness. We need entire laws — the Crown Act, for instance — rendering it illegal to discriminate against us based on our hair and natural appearance.
Meanwhile, mediocre White employees with disheveled hair and gross levels of incompetence –a la Boris Johnson and Donald Trump — are occupying the highest offices in the land, executive leadership positions, spacious C-suites, and commanding the salaries that come with them.
If my friends and I were any less physically put-together, hypercompetent, and helpful to White colleagues than we are, we would NOT find ourselves in positions of power or high-paying jobs.
But if we were White?
We would be our own leaders.
The Daily Indignities of Hypothetical Racism
In 2020 I assembled a group of Black biomedical researchers and scientists for an open forum on race, and what one federal agency might do to improve their workplace for all African Americans. One of the most profound statements someone made was:
There are White leaders in this building who won’t even speak to us. They walk right past the Black people like we are totally invisible. How can you be in a leadership position, stay in it for years, steadily climb the professional ladder, command higher and higher salaries each year, and NEVER even speak to the people who enable you to do your job? How is it possible that you can lack basic interaction skills — common courtesy and respect — and still be here? How is that possible?
Hypothetical racism is REAL. As a member of this society and interconnected world, I am asking you to consider what life is like for people who not only endure serious racial injury, but have to serve as witnesses and bystanders to those who deserve the same treatment or worse, yet somehow exit unscathed.
In my next piece, I plan to offer specific advice to “White Infiltriators” — the White accomplices we need to help us combat these daily indignities.
The injustice of watching someone literally get away with murder, while people who look like you are executed in the street.
The injustice of perpetually asking yourself, “But what if I were White?” and always knowing the answer.
Again, if the protestors who stormed and took over the United States Capitol building were Black, they would have been shot at the BOTTOM of the Capitol steps, BEHIND the “riot” barriers.
Today we would be seeing their names and images in memoriam.
The one good thing that happened to me today, despite a restless and sleepless night, is that I finally named what vexes me. What hurts me. What bothers me each and every time I see White terrorists and murderers like Kyle Rittenhouse walk free, go home, and return to their happy White lives untouched.
My name is Taharee Jackson, and I am working toward a society where hypothetical racism and ALL forms of injustice are elements of the past.
To name a thing is to empower myself to fight against it.
After all, you cannot change that which you do not understand.
Look out, hypothetical racism.
I’m sleeping well tonight.
Taharee Jackson, Ph.D. is Founder and Tonesetter-in-Chief of DrTaharee Consulting. She has served as a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Expert Consultant for nearly two decades. Dr. Jackson is a speaker, writer, and certified trainer-of-diversity trainers. A veteran professor, Dr. Jackson’s research focuses on whiteness, antiracism, and anti-oppression in a variety of organizational contexts. She is deeply passionate about inspiring members of empowered groups to become allies, accomplices, and “infiltraitors” for minoritized people. Dr. Jackson is also passionate about witnessing the installation of a new American President on January 20, 2021.