Dear White People: It is Natural to Get Defensive about Racism. Written by Helen Frewin

Today, I am happy to introduce Helen Frewin who has written this very powerful and passional piece. Helen is a Business Psychologist and Director of Talent Management Consultancy Totem. She spends the majority of her time advising companies on how to select and develop people to be at their best, which includes projects from competency framework and assessment centre design to management and leadership development and coaching. She is currently writing a book on how to get results through honest conversations.

I thank Helen for agreeing to write this piece and I hope she inspires other Allies to write and have these uncomfortable Race conversations.


It’s worth me highlighting that I write this to you as a white woman who has indeed got upset and defensive about this topic. I also write as a Business Psychologist who helps companies develop managers and leaders, which includes training people on difficult conversations, giving feedback and unconscious bias. So I’ve had some experience with the issue of people getting defensive.

Why is it that many perfectly friendly white people get so upset and uncomfortable, even angry, in conversations about racism?

I’d like to add an extra perspective to what I’ve read in many publications about racism, which state that the white defensive reaction is about protecting power. As an example, in her book, “Why I'm no longer talking to white people about race,” Reni Eddo-Lodge speaks about the need for white people to protect the power and privilege they have. And so the discussion about racism becomes more offensive than the racism itself.

I believe that this protection of power will certainly be in play within particularly powerful circles and where there is a strong agenda. So for example, if someone is protecting their multi-billion-pound company from having greater diversity at Board level, this suggests they want to keep the power where it is. And if someone is pushing for a stop to all immigration, then it seems they have a desire to keep the power where it is.

Maybe this power protection is in play in many more conversations. And I believe there is something else at play too.

In the local, everyday conversations, where our friends and family get upset about us raising the topic of racism, what else could be going on? When someone we know to be friendly and kind suddenly seems so closed and defensive because we started a conversation about white privilege?

This links much more closely to other conversations we find uncomfortable. Like when we’re told we didn’t do a good enough job. Or when we upset our partner or friend. Or when that person didn’t reply to our email. Or we got rejected for that promotion. We get upset as a natural defence mechanism. Our brains want to protect us from both physical and social threats, meaning both attacks from sabre-tooth tigers and attacks from people which suggest we may not be good enough or fit in.

From an evolutionary perspective, thinking back to the days when we were Neanderthals living in caves, our brains needed to protect us in both of these ways, to survive. The tiger attack is immediately understandable as a threat to our survival. But why would we have a survival response to feeling cast out or not good enough? Well, our tribe will have been our protectors, our safety in numbers. So not being liked could have led to us being alone and with less chance of survival.

It is hardwired into our brains to react instantly and in a survival state, to physical and social threat. If you tell me I’m a cruel, nasty person, I subconsciously go into overdrive protecting myself from being cast out from my tribe.

On top of this survival instinct, we have a sense of identity. The person we want to be. Our values – those things we hold most dear. Think for a moment about those things that are most important to you… it could be family, health, justice, kindness, success, friendship, gratitude, love, fairness, joy… we each relate to some of these words more strongly than others, those priorities in our lives.

When a conversation starts about white privilege, what a lot of white people hear is a direct finger pointing at them.

When a conversation starts about Black Lives Matter and the need to be anti-racist, a lot of white people it seems hear this as “you are racist.”

So even if there is no big power play, it is going to be natural for a white person to get defensive – both as a survival instinct and as a threat to their identity. The subconscious is shouting “are you saying I’m not kind, friendly, fair, just, loving?!”

It is natural.

And it is something we can move past.

Rather than follow that defensive reaction with unhelpful comments about being colour-blind, or not wanting to promote tokenism…. All the things that have been said a million times and truly offended those in minority groups, what we can choose to do instead is notice what is happening and choose a different path.  

What if, the next time you got defensive or upset by something, you stopped. Took a breath and thought, “that’s interesting. I seem to be getting upset about this.” And then, considered what might be a more helpful response. Which most of the time, is more listening.

Instead of responding with what you think about white privilege or racism, what if you asked the person talking to you about it, “what does that mean to you?” and “Tell me more about your experience.”

When we listen in place of reacting and responding, we can learn. We can open a conversation. We can discover and explore how others’ experiences are different to ours.

We can become allies.

And together we can change the world.


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