Sunday, April 12, 2015

White fragility

Recently Michigan public radio did a story called Why All White People Are Racist, But Can't Handle Being Called Racist: The Theory of White Fragility. One might wonder the following: what is white fragility? Do we need more jargon about racism? Why are we talking about white people again?

After listening to the story, I realized I've encountered white fragility. White fragility is the hypersensitivity with which white people often receive the news that, yes, they count as racist. Many white people believe that the word "racist" doesn't apply to them because they've equated "racism" with killing Black people, using the n word, believing in white supremacy and being an asshole in general. They think, "I don't believe white people are better, I've never killed anyone and I'd never use the n word, so there's no way I'm a racist." They don't (want to) realize that racism includes many more behaviors than using racial slurs and aiming guns at people of color.

I've blogged this before: racism is when you make any assumption about someone else based on their skin color. This means it's also racist to assume someone is smart or better with computers or good with children based on their skin color. All Americans are racist because those assumptions are part of our learned culture. I'm racist. You're racist. We are all perfectly nice people and we are racist. We're also implicated in racism because we're part of the American traditions and institutions that treat people unfairly according to our skin color. Racism is simply part of the fabric of American society and culture. (If you're a white person who's having a hard time with this paragraph, you're experiencing white fragility right now.)

So here's my experience with white fragility. I recently made a Facebook friend who's an American white man in his 40's. I met "Mike" recently when we both took a TESOL (teaching English to speakers of other languages) course. Mike had linked the following article on his Facebook page: Indiana Democrat Says GOP Colleague's 18-Month-Old Son Is Racist. I believe he was being sarcastic when he commented "Perfect."

I commented that babies are very aware of skin color so, of course, an 18-month-old might be racist if it reacted to someone based on the color of her skin; babies are racist just like we all are: aware of skin color and making assumptions based on that skin color.  One of Mike's friends then commented that because babies can't carry out violence or call names, they can't possibly be racist. From what I could tell from her Facebook page, it looked like this friend was an American white woman. I directed her to my blog post of November 24, which she apparently read. She commented that she disagreed with me and asked Mike to weigh in.

Mike commented that he also disagreed with me. In addition to other statements, I responded, "Like many white people, you and Cindy are using a definition of racism that conveniently excludes you." I told him I was including myself in a definition of racism that's much more pervasive and commonly shared than he or his friend wanted to see.

I might not need to tell you that Mike and Cindy rejected my opinions. A day or so later I returned to Mike's post, only to find that he'd taken it down. I emailed him directly and said I had wanted to continue the exchange, but it seemed he'd taken down his original post. He didn't respond and some time after that he unfriended me. That's white fragility.

Do we need a new word? Has the word "racist" become too inflammatory to evoke anything but the most negative responses from white people (especially the nice ones)? I don't think so. White people who are brave and clear-eyed are able to face their own racism without their egos feeling threatened. White people who truly understand the structure of American racism recognize their place in it and know that doesn't mean they aren't good people. They know not to take it personally when someone recognizes their white privilege. And if I had any doubt that there are white people who are secure enough and brave enough to own their racism, it disappeared today when I saw the video embedded below. It's a self-named redneck talking about the need for white people to stop letting fear keep them from standing up against racist language, behavior and thinking. This video was published by "W Honky" on YouTube on April 4, 2015 and it impresses the hell out of me.


This man has no fear of the concept of white privilege, which is rare in a person with white privilege. Do you own your white privilege? (Many people of color have some, including me.)

Yes, we're talking about white people again, but there's no way to discuss racism without doing so. I remember when the "Criming While White" hashtag was trending on Twitter last December. I posted my frustration with the people of color who thought it was inappropriate for white people to take part in a discussion about the double standard with which police treat people. People thought whites were bragging about all the crimes they had gotten away with, when what was really going on was that white people were recognizing their white privilege. They were seeing it, many of them for the first time. I found that exciting and encouraging, but many people of color criticized #crimingwhilewhite as being white people taking up all the oxygen again. They missed the importance of what was going on.

White fragility makes it damn hard for people of color to talk to white people about racism. As I found out with Mike, white people can respond quite negatively to being called racist, even if the speaker is also calling herself racist.* The best chance for getting through to people with white fragility is for white people to do it. Criming While White did that. W Honky is doing that. I think people like him are the most likely to be able to successfully explain to white people how they participate in racism and why it has to stop. I hesitate to write this, but sometimes the best thing people of color can do to advance the cause is to be quiet and let the white people talk to each other.

*Uh, yeah, I probably shouldn't have been surprised by that.

2 comments:

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