If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say

A group in deep thought during the Accelerator in 2019.

Nice isn’t so “nice.”


Being committed to anti-racism requires a commitment to all the ways racism shows up in our thoughts and actions. And it’s not in the obvious manifestations but it is also in what we think of as benign, “regular” behaviours. One major example of this is the idea of being “nice.” While many of us grew up being told to be nice and that niceness is a virtue, it is actually a key tool in holding up white supremacy culture. Instead of being a way to treat others with kindness, “niceness” actually serves as a way of policing ourselves and others in order to uphold the status quo and often to silence dissenting voices. 


In the book, Waking Up White by Debbie Irving, Irving writes, “The culture of niceness provides a tidy cover, creating a social norm that says conflict is bad, discomfort should be avoided…”  What niceness does is create a cover for people in power, and in white supremacy culture, whiteness remains protected and comfortable.


Of course, white supremacy culture doesn’t just shape white folks’ behavior, but keeps Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in line by squelching expression, encouraging them to be “nice,” and driving internalized racism. At the same time, People of Color, especially Black people, do not have the privilege of avoiding conflict by being “nice” because any critique or dissent, even given in a kind manner, will not be perceived as positive and supporting the status quo.


In the 2019 book The Price of Nice: How Good Intentions Maintain Educational Inequity, edited by Angelina E. Castagno, contributing writers examine the ways in which the culture of niceness perpetuates harm and inequity in classrooms and education in general. Castagno explores niceness as a practice of whiteness that serves to mask structural dominance, thus protecting the racism and inequity embedded in the educational system.


In the introduction, Castagno writes about American education within which “…diversity and Niceness have been so intertwined that any engagement with  diversity is necessarily, almost by definition, nice.”  Within the education system, there is a  “desire to hear happy stories of diversity rather than unhappy stories of racism.” There’s no more blatant example of this than the College Board’s recent decision to eliminate certain topics and authors from the African American Studies AP course, including any mention of the Movement for Black Lives, reparations, intersectionality and queer studies. Castagno continues, “Despite their good intentions and the general Niceness among educators, most schools in the United States contribute to inequity every day.”


Here we see the cost of niceness, civility, and “keeping things positive”: harm.


There is a “privilege” of being nice.


Castagno explains, “Within a frame of Niceness, oppressive actions are not actually oppressive; they are just hurtful. They are therefore assumed to be the result of individuals who have made bad choices or who just do not know any better. This framing diverts attention away from patterned inequity, structural oppression, and institutional dominance.” And when niceness keeps us focused on individual’s behaviors and knowledge, ultimately it “function(s) to maintain the structured, institutionalized power of the state.”


In this way, an individual‘s insistence on or compliance with the culture of niceness keeps systems of inequity in place.  For Black, Indigenous and Brown folks, niceness may be an act of survival, but for white folks, embedded in acts of niceness and in conflict avoidance is privilege. Avoiding conflict when someone else’s life, livelihood or thriving is on the line is quintessential white supremacy culture.


Niceness is a particularly entrenched behavior for women, because niceness is also a tool of patriarchy. 


In the article “White Women Doing White Supremacy in Nonprofit Culture” by Heather Laine Tally, Director of Social Justice Leadership and Community Engagement at Tzedek Social Justice Fund and author of Saving Face: Disfigurement and the Politics of Appearance, she writes, “Breeding fear of conflict is a tried and true strategy for keeping women in line. This fear of conflict is reflected in white women’s communication patterns. Passive aggressive feedback, in-direct communication, or downright lying are ways white women retain a tight grasp on “niceness.’”


Avoiding the conflict that arises when naming a problem or challenging the status quo may make a white individual feel “safer” in the moment, but it comes at the price of perpetuating racism and patriarchy. An important component of antiracism and intersectional feminism is pushing back on this culture of niceness. Telling the truth and challenging the status quo might be frightening, but does not typically bring harm to white people. Challenging the status quo challenges power and white folks should not be surprised when hell breaks loose because power is challenged. They should expect and get used to pushback. 

In the face of racism, becoming non-compliant to the culture of niceness takes 1) awareness of how niceness functions; 2) an ability to identify manipulative tactics in response to truth telling;  and then 2) continual practice. It’s only through repetition that all folks — particularly white folks — can push through their socialization so they can actually do the work of equity and inclusion.


Learn more about unpacking the culture of niceness from everyday life from Inclusive Life’s offerings like Embodying Antiracism.

Offered only once in 2023:

We are so pleased to let you know Inclusive Life is Embodying Antiracism, a 3-month conversation and course created for white folks who are ready to develop awareness of the culture of niceness and deliberately develop the analysis, skills, and stamina to dismantle white supremacy culture in their spheres of influence.

Register by February 24th. We begin February 27th.

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