White Fragility: Crucial Conversations about Race

White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. – Robin DiAngelo

Whiteness itself refers to the specific dimensions of racism that serve to elevate white people over people of color. – P. McIntosh

These processes and practices include basic rights, values, beliefs, perspectives and experiences purported to be commonly shared by all but which are actually only consistently afforded to white people. – Robin DiAngelo

As in other Western nations, white children born in the United States inherit the moral predicament of living in a white supremacist society. Raised to experience their racially based advantages as fair and normal, white children receive little if any instruction regarding the predicament they face, let alone any guidance in how to resolve it. Therefore, they experience or learn about racial tension without understanding Euro-Americans’ historical responsibility for it and knowing virtually nothing about their contemporary roles in perpetuating it (p. 51). – Marty, 1999.

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It seems as if black Americans have been talking about racism, privilege, and social injustice for a while, but we need to remember that slavery, Black Codes, Jim Crow, The Civil Rights Act of 1964 were not so far away.  Additionally, the effects of these traumas are still present today.  When we bring it up in conversations, on social media sites, and in awkward situations it’s because it’s a constant in and around our lives.  Shaking white people’s sensitivity for the race topic is not my fault and shouldn’t be taken as me whining.  Your privilege affords you a comfort that I may never experience, but your behaviors toward me when I speak on it shouldn’t try to make me feel guilty.  As a matter of fact, it won’t!  I listen in order to understand, white people tend to listen in order to reply.  Stop replying and listen to understand me….a black American woman.

I read this awesome journal article titled, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo and it gave great insight on things that white Americans don’t know, have experienced, or refuse to understand about themselves.  I will post the link to the article at the end for anyone to read.  Here are the important parts I found interesting and worth sharing:

  • White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress.
  • For many white people, a single required multicultural education course taken in college, or required “cultural competency training” in their workplace, is the only time they may encounter a direct and sustained challenge to their racial understandings.
  • This unequal distribution benefits whites and disadvantages people of color overall and as a group. Racism is not fluid in the U.S.; it does not flow back and forth, one day benefiting whites and another day (or even era) benefiting people of color. The direction of power between whites and people of color is historic, traditional, normalized, and deeply embedded in the fabric of U.S. society.
  • Whites are often at a loss for how to respond in constructive ways. Whites have not had to build the cognitive or affective skills or develop the stamina that would allow for constructive engagement across racial divides.
  • White people are taught not to feel any loss over the absence of people of color in their lives and in fact, this absence is what defines their schools and neighborhoods as “good;” whites come to understand that a “good school” or “good neighborhood” is coded language for “white.”
  • Whites are taught to see their perspectives as objective and representative of reality (McIntosh, 1988). The belief in objectivity, coupled with positioning white people as outside of culture (and thus the norm for humanity), allows whites to view themselves as universal humans who can represent all of human experience. This is evidenced through an unracialized identity or location, which functions as a kind of blindness; an inability to think about Whiteness as an identity or as a “state” of being that would or could have an impact on one’s life.
  • Universalism assumes that whites and people of color have the same realities, the same experiences in the same contexts (i.e. I feel comfortable in this majority white classroom, so you must too), the same responses from others, and assumes that the same doors are open to all. Acknowledging racism as a system of privilege conferred on whites challenges claims to universalism.
  • In the dominant position, whites are almost always racially comfortable and thus have developed unchallenged expectations to remain so (DiAngelo, 2006b). Whites have not had to build tolerance for racial discomfort and thus when racial discomfort arises, whites typically respond as if something is “wrong,” and blame the person or event that triggered the discomfort (usually a person of color). 

Since all individuals who live within a racist system are enmeshed in its relations, this means that all are responsible for either perpetuating or transforming that system. However, although all individuals play a role in keeping the system active, the responsibility for change is not equally shared. White racism is ultimately a white problem and the burden for interrupting it belongs to white people. – Derman-Sparks & Phillips, 1997; hooks, 1995; Wise, 2003

 

In order to have these crucial conversations, we have to interrupt people’s comfort levels.  Some white people just don’t know or haven’t experienced it.  As black people we need to be mindful of what they may or may not have experienced, instead of getting frustrated by the talks.  Race, racism, wealth inequality, gender wage gaps discussions are uncomfortable in a system that has functioned on the backs of people they once considered 3/5ths of a “white” person.  It wasn’t that long ago that slavery happened.  It wasn’t that long ago that our ancestors were invisible and couldn’t vote.  Let’s start the conversation in order to listen to understand.  I don’t need white people to reply.  Let me talk and I promise you that the education I teach will be worth more than what you were taught in a classroom.

Source: DiAngelo, R. (2011). White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3).

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