For any white person even beginning to try to examine racism authentically, you run into the phrase 'white fragility.'
Robin DiAngelo published her now bestselling book "White Fragility: Why it's so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism" years ago, though I had never heard this phrase before now, nor had any inclination to understand what it meant. And what I'm learning is not only sobering, but a powerful lens through which I can begin to see my whiteness for what it is and try to figure out how to be real about anti-racist practice in my life.
So, for all of my white friends who may be as ignorant as I am, I wanted to start by defining what white fragility is. DiAngelo defines white fragility as "a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves." Essentially, it's a white person's need to build a solid defense against having any meaningful racial conversations, while at the same time (consciously or unconsciously) perpetuating racism in our world. Even now, I'm feeling defensive just being told that I'm defensive against racism. Ugh. So white. So fragile.
Okay, but before we dive in to learning more about what white fragility is, just a word on why it is. Why are we so fragile? What are we protecting? Lots of reasons have been hypothesized, but the one that resonates most for me is the reality of how very insular an experience I, as a white person, live and the impact that experience has on why I struggle with real conversations about racism.
What do I mean by an insular life? For me, I am rarely ever out of my racial comfort zone. I've gone through my whole life as a white person, with a white frame of reference and a white experience. For the better part of it, almost exclusively surrounded by people who look like me -- from the neighborhoods I live in, to the guest list at my wedding, to the schools I send my kids to, to the places I've worked and the places I've played. My daily conversations rarely involve race. I have gone through the better part of my life without context, historical or modern day, or understanding of colonization, oppression, discrimination, or marginalization at the systemic level, so any of my conversations about racism have been barely superficial at best. Even just laying that out makes me feel illiterate. Let's keep going.
Living in this space, without racial awareness, I have never seen racism as the deeply embedded system upon which our country was founded that it is. Never understood that all of our institutions were created out of a racist belief system to propagate the idea that white people are superior and solidify white power and dominance. Racism to me was always about individual acts of discrimination and prejudice –– conscious, intentional, bad things that bad people did to others. But I always saw myself as a good person, someone incapable of doing such things, and so I never connected myself to racism. So any insinuation that I might play a role in perpetuating racism in any way was a personal affront to my goodness as a human. And, I defended that goodness through whatever my version of white fragility is, and in doing so, stayed blissfully ignorant. Well, hopefully until now.
So stay with me and let's get to the heart of the matter. DiAngelo talks about a few pillars of white fragility that I'd like to unpack one by one.
Any exception I apply to the 'I'm not a racist' card I carry, I can see now is futile, because nothing can exempt me from having been raised within a racial society.
The first is something we do she calls 'individualism.' It's a defense we use to exempt ourselves from participating in any real conversation about racism. It's the feeling that each of us is unique and brings our own perspective to the table regardless of how we might have been socialized. So, when confronting the idea of my racism, I might defend myself (and avoid engaging in a real conversation) in saying things like, 'but, I'm Jewish, so I'm a target of racism myself," or "I was raised by a Black nanny whom I loved more than life, how could I be racist?" or "I have friends who are People of Color who are a meaningful part of my life and that I love, how could I be racist?" Any exception I apply to the 'I'm not a racist' card I carry, I can see now is futile, because nothing can exempt me from having been raised within a racial society. So, assuming I have been shaped by that society, I need to better understand how I've been shaped, acknowledge my role, and start having those courageous conversations (with myself and others!) that my fragility has defended me against.
The second pillar of white fragility we tap into is what she refers to as 'universalism,' (ie. aren't we all the same?), which is ironically kind of the opposite of individualism. This is when I say, "wait, but I was raised to believe that everyone was equal," or "don't you know me? I'm so colorblind," or "it doesn't matter to me if someone is black or brown, or white, I just don't look at people through that lens." But that can't be true because it denies that we, as white people, have had a fundamentally different experience, and, in doing so, it denies that racism is real. Universalism may feel like a good excuse, but I can see now that it dismisses the reality of a racist society and is a hurtful defense I've definitely used to deflect and stay in my comfort zone.
The third pillar of white fragility DiAngelo highlights is probably the easiest one for me to wrap my head around. She calls it the "good/bad" binary and she believes it to be the number one construct that keeps racism in place, and makes it hard to talk to white people about racism. It's likely my biggest defense. I've been socialized to believe that racism is not a system, but something that is ascribed to an individual. And that individual is a bad person, ignorant, bigoted, mean, uneducated, back-country, maybe even someone from the South. On the other hand, I've been socialized to believe that someone who is not racist is better educated, more progressive, open minded, well intentioned, maybe even from the North, like me. But in the post-Civil-Rights-Movement era I grew up in, these 'truths' were mutually exclusive. You could not be a good person and someone complicit with racism. So there I am waving the white flag of white fragility. Good person. Not a racist.
You could not be a good person and someone complicit with racism. So there I am waving the white flag of white fragility. Good person. Not a racist.
The fourth pillar gives me the greatest pause. It is the power of segregation that keeps the systems in place and keeps me from even entering into conversations about race. I always thought segregation was a thing of the past. For me, it was about the Jim Crow laws of the late 19th, early 20th centuries, school segregation, Plessy v. Ferguson, culminating in the Civil Rights Movement and Brown v. Board of Education. But no, no, no, no. It is a thing of the present. The institutions that I live within were created to propagate white supremacy and promote segregation at every turn. Every institution of our capitalist society (housing, education, finance, defense, commerce, health & human services, government, any institution that effects my life) reinforces this system of unequal power. Racism is axiomatically systemic. And so, I live a segregated life. My neighborhood, my schools, where I've traditionally worked (though not at present, which is likely why I'm on this journey!) and where I've played
are predominantly white. And I've consciously planned for it to be that way.
Which brings me to DiAngelo's last pillar of white fragility, and that is my internalized superiority and unconscious or otherwise investment in the racial order. Society has reinforced for me, at every crossroad of my life, that, fundamentally, it's better to be white. I have internalized that perspective and have called upon that final defense as I have continued to ignore my racist point of view.
Okay, that's a lot to unpack. And honestly, a lot for me to work through. But even though much of this makes me feel sad, inadequate, shameful or beyond ignorant, I am liberated by the notion that I can be a racist and be a good person at the same time.
And that permission has opened up so many doors to exploration, understanding, reflection, and revelation. It's not all me, but also the system into which I've been socialized that I play a role within. But that system has always been broken. Every system I know has been built upon racism to consolidate white supremacy and dominance. My entire world view was formed through that lens. And no, I didn't cause it and it's not my fault that I was born white or privileged, but I do feel a responsibility to help change it.
"the default of our society is the reproduction of racism, it is built into every institution, and if we just carry on, we'll reproduce it."
I'll leave you with one last thought that I cannot shake from Ms. DiAngelo: "the default of our society is the reproduction of racism, it is built into every institution, and if we just carry on, we'll reproduce it."
I understand why she then notes that inaction is a form of action in perpetuating racism. As Angela Davis says, "in a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist."
I'm sitting still with that thought and what it means for me, how I can work toward the goal of reversing my own culture of complicity, and know that I am still learning and will likely always be.