Layering Strategies: How and Why White People Say Conflicting Things About Race


Because of the centrality of race and racism in social, economic, and political life, coupled with the racially privileged position of whites, the assessment of racial attitudes of whites is an ongoing concern. There is plenty of survey-based quantitative work that demonstrates a compelling case of polarization of white attitudes—a clustering of authoritarian and racist attitudes against another alliance of progressive, anti-racist attitudes—an increasingly racialized culture war. However, other studies, largely qualitative and open-ended, demonstrate the heterogeneous, shifting, and hypocritical nature of white discourse on race. To resolve this paradox, I refrain from the assumption that white racial “attitudes” are essentially bifurcated, while also rejecting the claim that whites produce spontaneous, all-weave narratives. Rather, I argue that with careful attention to time, context, and triangulation, we can better understand how and why white people talk about people of color positively one moment and negatively the next, bringing the two together to defend, rationalize or improve their position as a racialized subject. I argue that these contradictions are – in the manner of Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment – ​​“layering strategies”. Racist and anti-racist attitudes are simultaneously alive and dead in the same individual or group. Contradictory white discourse helps maintain a sense of self-efficacy and a cohesive white racial identity in conflicted and politically charged social situations, as well as within racially unequal social structures.


  • Author contributions: MWH wrote the article.

  • The author declares no competing interests.

  • This article is a direct PNAS submission.

Data availability

Data cannot be shared. (The full data used in this work comes from previous IRB-approved ethnographic research. Per IRB stipulations, transcripts of interviews and field notes are not accessible to others.)

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