The more nuanced Elegant Racism can damage and offend as much as Blatant Racism.
Elegant Racism
 June 17, 2014

On the eve of my departure for a meeting at the University of Mississippi, I had dinner at a friend's home in Seattle. When I mentioned my travel plans, the mostly white and liberal guests made some disparaging comments about the South. Then they all had a good laugh. Later, as I helped my friend clean up, her mother approached me and said, "You're such a good dishwasher. Did your family own a restaurant?"

On both the left and right coasts, media-fueled stories of blatant, good-old-boy racists give us easy targets. More indicative of the deeper challenge, however, are well-meaning and often insidious comments made by don't-have-a-racist-bone-in-my-body liberals like my friend's mother. Mrs. Callahan, my neighbor who moved from Alabama to San Francisco sixty years ago, calls these folks "nice-nasty." Journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to them as elegant racists.

"The elegant racist knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt," Mr. Coates wrote in a recent article in The Atlantic.

A YouTube video, "If Asians Said the Stuff White People Say (to them)" underscores the same points. Though funny and even ridiculous, most of the Asian versions of the lines in that video have been said to me. As a person of color, I always have to be ready with a range of responses - humorous, serious, angry, not worth the bother - because I never know when I will need to use them.

Elegant racism is not just interpersonal but institutional as well. Banning affirmative action, voter I.D., stop and frisk, and a vast slate of housing policies have perpetuated these practices. Liberal folks may point to the obvious places - Texas, Mississippi, Utah, or Florida for example. But elegant racism knows no borders. 

In 2012, citizens in Washington State legalized the sale and use of marijuana for recreational use. The state is currently issuing business licenses to allow the sale of recreational marijuana. These likely profitable business ventures will generate millions in tax revenue and result in fortunes for many. Licenses have become coveted.

Many of these licensed businesses have beautiful logos and marketing campaigns. Cascadia Cannabis markets itself as a "boutique grow" operation, while Katie Gardens prides itself as "a mom-and-pop marijuanery that listens to Mother Nature and uses organic methods to grow happy plants and high quality cannabis."

Meanwhile, the mostly black and brown folks in South and Central Seattle are still being arrested and charged with possession of the same substance. If convicted, and thousands have been, they can be fined ten thousand dollars and incarcerated for up to five years.

"The elegant racist knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt."

These elegant inequities, both interpersonal and institutional, can't continue if we are sincere in our desire for a more just society. So, what can a well-meaning agent of change do? In his book, "Overcoming Our Racism: The Journey to Liberation," Dr. Derald Sue outlines four steps - Awareness, Knowledge, Skills and Advocacy.  

Begin by becoming aware that elegant racism damages and offends as much as blatant racism. Saying that you really didn't mean what you said is insufficient. Acknowledging that this journey is tough, is never truly completed, and always worth your time, care, attention and effort is a good start.

Then, seek to discover. Become as ambitious in questioning your perspectives as you might have been in defending them.  Discomfort isn't always a bad thing. Courage to set aside comfort and elegance can inform, compel, and guide us as we ask more of ourselves and more of one another.


Elemental Partners cultivates healthy and prosperous organizations through clarity of purpose, alignment of principles, and integration of systems.

For more information, visit us at or email us at



Kevin will be facilitating a series of Welcome Table meetings and retreats on June 25-28 in New Orleans in partnership with the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation.

Kevin will be co-facilitating an Elements of Organizational Success session on June 30 in Marco Island, FL for the Broward Community and Health Center.

Please mark your calendar for Monday, June 30 as "American Revolutionary - The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs," will make its television debut on PBS as part of its POV series. Be sure to check your local listings and tune in to this outstanding, award winning-documentary.
Follow on Twitter | Friend on Facebook | Forward to Friend 
Copyright © 2014 by Elemental Partners, LLC.  All rights reserved.
Elemental Partners distributes this article without charge.  Requests for copying and distribution of these works may be made to Invite your friends and families to subscribe to this bi-weekly e-newsletter by visiting our website:

All of our previous articles can be found at our website:   
unsubscribe from this list | update subscription preferences