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Reunifying African diaspora across the Americas with each other, their pride, history, culture, true homes & identity…

Archive for the month “December, 2014”

White Fragility

by

Robin DiAngelo [a white woman]

(with minor editing by me)

White people in North America live in a social environment that protects & insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort, while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility.

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 & guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence & leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. This document explicates the dynamics of White Fragility.

I am a white woman. I am standing beside a black woman. We are facing a group of white people who are seated in front of us. We are in their workplace, and have been hired by their employer to lead them in a dialogue about race. The room is filled with tension and charged with hostility. I have just presented a definition of racism that includes the acknowledgment that whites hold social & institutional power over people of color [PoC]. A white man is pounding his fist on the table. His face is red and he is furious. As he pounds he yells, “White people have been discriminated against for 25 years! A white person can’t get a job anymore!” I look around the room & see 40 employed people, all white. There are no PoC in this workplace. Something is happening here, and it isn’t based in the racial reality of the workplace. I am feeling unnerved by this man’s disconnection with that reality & his lack of sensitivity to the impact this is having on my co-facilitator, the only person of color in the room. Why is this white man so angry? Why is he being so careless about the impact of his anger? Why are all the other white people either sitting in silent agreement with him or tuning out? We have, after all, only articulated a definition of racism.

White people in North America live in a social environment that protects & insulates them from race-based stress. Fine identifies this insulation when she observes “… how Whiteness accrues privilege & status; gets itself surrounded by protective pillows of resources and/or benefits of the doubt; how Whiteness repels gossip & voyeurism and instead demands dignity…” [Although white racial insulation is somewhat mediated by social class (with poor & working class urban whites being generally less racially insulated than suburban or rural whites), the larger social environment insulates & protects whites as a group through institutions, cultural representations, media, school textbooks, movies, advertising, dominant discourses, etc] Whites are rarely without these “protective pillows,” and when they are, it is usually temporary & by choice. This insulated environment of racial privilege builds white expectations for racial comfort, while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial 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 & sustained challenge to their racial understandings. But even in this arena, not all multicultural courses or training programs talk directly about racism, much less address white privilege. It is far more the norm for these courses & programs to use racially coded language such as “urban,” “inner city,” & “disadvantaged” but to rarely use “white” or “over-advantaged” or “privileged.” This racially coded language reproduces racist images & perspectives while it simultaneously reproduces the comfortable illusion that race & its problems are what “they” have, not us.

Reasons why the facilitators of these courses & trainings may not directly name the dynamics & beneficiaries of racism range from the lack of a valid analysis of racism by white facilitators, personal & economic survival strategies for facilitators of color, and the overall pressure from management to keep the content comfortable & palatable for whites. However, if & when an educational program does directly address racism & the privileging of whites, common white responses include anger, withdrawal, emotional incapacitation, guilt, argumentation & cognitive dissonance (all of which reinforce the pressure on facilitators to avoid directly addressing racism).

So-called progressive whites may not respond with anger, but may still insulate themselves via claims that they are beyond the need for engaging with the content because they “already had a class on this” or “already know this.” These reactions are often seen in anti-racist education endeavors as forms of resistance to the challenge of internalized dominance. These reactions do indeed function as resistance, but it may be useful to also conceptualize them as the result of the reduced psychosocial stamina that racial insulation inculcates. I call this lack of racial stamina White Fragility.

Although mainstream definitions of racism are typically some variation of individual “race prejudice”, which anyone of any race can have, Whiteness scholars define racism as encompassing economic, political, social, and cultural structures, actions, and beliefs that systematize and perpetuate an unequal distribution of privileges, resources and power between white people and PoC. This unequal distribution benefits whites and disadvantages PoC overall and as a group. Racism is not fluid in the U.S.; it does not flow back & forth, one day benefiting whites & another day (or even era) benefiting PoC. The direction of power between whites & PoC is historic, traditional, normalized & deeply embedded in the fabric of U.S. society.

Whiteness itself refers to the specific dimensions of racism that serve to elevate white people over PoC. This definition counters the dominant representation of racism in mainstream education as isolated in discrete behaviors that some individuals may or may not demonstrate & goes beyond naming specific privileges. Whites are theorized as actively shaped, affected, defined & elevated through their racialization & the individual & collective consciousness’ formed within it. Recognizing that the terms I am using are not “theory-neutral ‘descriptors’” but theory-laden constructs inseparable from systems of injustice”, I use the terms white & Whiteness to describe a social process. Frankenberg defines Whiteness as multi-dimensional:

Whiteness is a location of structural advantage, of race privilege. Second, it is a ‘standpoint,’ a place from which White people look at ourselves, at others, and at society. Third, ‘Whiteness’ refers to a set of cultural practices that are usually unmarked and unnamed.

Frankenberg & other theorists use Whiteness to signify a set of locations that are historically, socially, politically & culturally produced, and which are intrinsically linked to dynamic relations of domination. Whiteness is thus conceptualized as a constellation of processes & practices rather than as a discrete entity (i.e. skin color alone). Whiteness is dynamic, relational, and operating at all times & on myriad levels. These processes & practices include basic rights, values, beliefs, perspectives & experiences purported to be commonly shared by all, but which are actually only consistently afforded to white people. Whiteness Studies begin with the premise that racism & white privilege exist in both traditional & modern forms, and rather than work to prove its existence, work to reveal it. This document explores the dynamics of one aspect of Whiteness & its effects, White Fragility.

Triggers

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, & guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence & leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. Racial stress results from an interruption to what is racially familiar. These interruptions can take a variety of forms and come from a range of sources, including:

• Suggesting that a white person’s viewpoint comes from a racialized frame of reference (challenge to objectivity)
• PoC talking directly about their racial perspectives (challenge to white racial codes)
• PoC choosing not to protect the racial feelings of white people in regards to race (challenge to white racial expectations and need/entitlement to racial comfort)
• PoC not being willing to tell their stories or answer questions about their racial experiences (challenge to colonialist relations)
• A fellow white not providing agreement with one’s interpretations (challenge to white solidarity)
• Receiving feedback that one’s behavior had a racist impact (challenge to white liberalism)
• Suggesting that group membership is significant (challenge to individualism)
• An acknowledgment that access is unequal between racial groups (challenge to meritocracy)
• Being presented with a person of color in a position of leadership (challenge to white authority);
• Being presented with information about other racial groups through, for example, movies in which PoC drive the action but are not in stereotypical roles, or multicultural education (challenge to white centrality).

In a white dominant environment, each of these challenges becomes exceptional. In turn, 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. Bourdieu’s concept of habitus may be useful here. According to Bourdieu, habitus is a socialized subjectivity; a set of dispositions which generate practices & perceptions. As such, habitus only exists in, through, and because of the practices of agents & their interaction with each other & with the rest of their environment. Based on the previous conditions & experiences that produce it, habitus produces & reproduces thoughts, perceptions, expressions & actions. Strategies of response to “disequilibrium” in the habitus are not based on conscious intentionality, but rather result from unconscious dispositions towards practice, and depend on the power position the agent occupies in the social structure.

White Fragility may be conceptualized as a product of the habitus, a response or “condition” produced & reproduced by the continual social & material advantages of the white structural position. Omi & Winant posit the U.S. racial order as an “unstable equilibrium,” kept equilibrated by the State, but still unstable due to continual conflicts of interests & challenges to the racial order. Using Omi & Winant’s concept of unstable racial equilibrium, white privilege can be thought of as unstable racial equilibrium at the level of habitus. When any of the above triggers (challenges in the habitus) occur, the resulting disequilibrium becomes intolerable. Because White Fragility finds its support in & is a function of white privilege, fragility & privilege result in responses that function to restore equilibrium & return the resources “lost” via the challenge – resistance towards the trigger, shutting down and/or tuning out, indulgence in emotional incapacitation such as guilt or “hurt feelings”, exiting, or a combination of these responses.

whiteContinued below: See White Fragility 2

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White Fragility 2

Factors that inculcate White Fragility
Segregation
The first factor leading to White Fragility is the segregated lives which most white people live. Even if whites live in physical proximity to PoC (& this would be exceptional outside of an urban or temporarily mixed class neighborhood), segregation occurs on multiple levels, including representational & informational. Because whites live primarily segregated lives in a white-dominated society, they receive little or no authentic information about racism & are thus unprepared to think about it critically or with complexity. Growing up in segregated environments (schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, media images & historical perspectives), white interests & perspectives are almost always central, resulting in an inability to see or consider significance in the perspectives of PoC.

Further, white people are taught not to feel any loss over the absence of PoC in their lives & in fact, this absence is what defines their schools & neighborhoods as “good;” whites come to understand that a “good school” or “good neighborhood” is coded language for “white”. The quality of white space being in large part measured via the absence of PoC (Blacks in particular) is a profound message indeed, one that is deeply internalized & reinforced daily through normalized discourses about good schools & neighborhoods. This dynamic of gain rather than loss via racial segregation may be the most profound aspect of white racial socialization of all. Yet, while discourses about what makes a space good are tacitly understood as racially coded, this coding is explicitly denied by whites.


Universalism & Individualism
Whites are taught to see their perspectives as objective & representative of reality. The belief in objectivity, coupled with positioning white people as outside of culture (& 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. In this position, Whiteness is not recognized or named by white people & a universal reference point is assumed. White people are just people. Within this construction, whites can represent humanity, while PoC, who are never just people but always most particularly black people, Asian people, etc., can only represent their own racialized experiences.

The discourse of universalism functions similarly to the discourse of individualism but instead of declaring that we all need to see each other as individuals (everyone is different), the person declares that we all need to see each other as human beings (everyone is the same). Of course we are all humans & I do not critique universalism in general, but when applied to racism, universalism functions to deny the significance of race & the advantages of being white. Further, universalism assumes that whites & PoC 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 & assumes that the same doors are open to all. Acknowledging racism as a system of privilege conferred on whites challenges claims to universalism.


At the same time that whites are taught to see their interests & perspectives as universal, they are also taught to value the individual & to see themselves as individuals rather than as part of a racially socialized group. Individualism erases history & hides the ways in which wealth has been distributed & accumulated over generations to benefit whites today. It allows whites to view themselves as unique & original, outside of socialization & unaffected by the relentless racial messages in the culture. Individualism also allows whites to distance themselves from the actions of their racial group & demand to be granted the benefit of the doubt, as individuals, in all cases.

 A corollary to this unracialized identity is the ability to recognize Whiteness as something that is significant & that operates in society, but to not see how it relates to one’s own life. In this form, a white person recognizes Whiteness as real, but as the individual problem of other “bad” white people. Given the ideology of individualism, whites often respond defensively when linked to other whites as a group or “accused” of collectively benefiting from racism, because as individuals, each white person is “different” from any other white person & expects to be seen as such. This narcissism is not necessarily the result of a consciously held belief that whites are superior to others (although that may play a role), but a result of the white racial insulation ubiquitous in dominant culture; a general white inability to see non-white perspectives as significant, except in sporadic & impotent reflexes, which have little or no long-term momentum or political usefulness.
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Whites invoke these seemingly contradictory discourses—we are either all unique or we are all the same—interchangeably. Both discourses work to deny white privilege & the significance of race. Further, on the cultural level, being an individual or being a human outside of a racial group is a privilege only afforded to white people. In other words, PoC are almost always seen as “having a race” & described in racial terms (“the black man”) but whites rarely are (“the man”), allowing whites to see themselves as objective & non-racialized. In turn, being seen (& seeing ourselves) as individuals outside of race frees whites from the psychic burden of race in a wholly racialized society. Race & racism become their problems, not ours. Challenging these frameworks becomes a kind of unwelcome shock to the system.


The disavowal of race as an organizing factor, both of individual white consciousness & the institutions of society at large, is necessary to support current structures of capitalism & domination, for without it, the correlation between the distribution of social resources & unearned white privilege would be evident. The existence of structural inequality undermines the claim that privilege is simply a reflection of hard work & virtue. Therefore, inequality must be hidden or justified as resulting from lack of effort. Individualism accomplishes both of these tasks. At the same time, the individual presented as outside these relations cannot exist without its disavowed other. Thus, an essential dichotomy is formed between specifically raced others & the unracialized individual. Whites have deep investments in race, for the abstract depends on the particular; they need raced others as the backdrop against which they may rise. Exposing this dichotomy destabilizes white identity.


Entitlement to racial comfort
In the dominant position, whites are almost always racially comfortable & thus have developed unchallenged expectations to remain so. Whites have not had to build tolerance for racial discomfort & thus when racial discomfort arises, whites typically respond as if something is “wrong,” & blame the person or event that triggered the discomfort (usually a person of color). This blame results in a socially-sanctioned array of counter-moves against the perceived source of the discomfort, including: penalization; retaliation; isolation; ostracization & refusal to continue engagement. Whites insistence on racial comfort ensures that racism will not be faced. This insistence also functions to punish those who break white codes of comfort. Whites often confuse comfort with safety & state that we don’t feel safe when what we really mean is that we don’t feel comfortable. This trivializes our history of brutality towards PoC & perverts the reality of that history. Because we don’t think complexly about racism, we don’t ask ourselves what safety means from a position of societal dominance, or the impact on PoC, given our history, for whites to complain about our safety when we are merely talking about racism.
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Racial Arrogance
Ideological racism includes strongly positive images of the white self as well as strongly negative images of racial “others”. This self-image engenders a self-perpetuating sense of entitlement because many whites believe their financial & professional successes are the result of their own efforts while ignoring the fact of white privilege. Because most whites have not been trained to think complexly about racism in schools or mainstream discourse & because it benefits white dominance not to do so, we have a very limited understanding of racism. Yet dominance leads to racial arrogance & in this racial arrogance, whites have no compunction about debating the knowledge of people who have thought complexly about race. Whites generally feel free to dismiss these informed perspectives rather than have the humility to acknowledge that they are unfamiliar, reflect on them further, or seek more information. This intelligence & expertise are often trivialized & countered with simplistic platitudes (i.e. “People just need to…”).
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Because of white social, economic & political power within a white dominant culture, whites are positioned to legitimize PoC’s assertions of racism. Yet whites are the least likely to see, understand, or be invested in validating those assertions & being honest about their consequences, which leads whites to claim that they disagree with perspectives that challenge their worldview, when in fact, they don’t understand the perspective.Thus, they confuse not understanding with not agreeing. This racial arrogance, coupled with the need for racial comfort, also has whites insisting that PoC explain white racism in the “right” way. The right way is generally politely & rationally, without any show of emotional upset. When explained in a way that white people can see & understand, racism’s validity may be granted (references to dynamics of racism that white people do not understand are usually rejected out of hand). However, whites are usually more receptive to validating white racism if that racism is constructed as residing in individual white people other than themselves.

Continued below: See White Fragility 3

White Fragility 3

Racial Belonging
White people enjoy a deeply internalized, largely unconscious sense of racial belonging in U.S. society. This racial belonging is instilled via the whiteness embedded in the culture at large. Everywhere we look, we see our own racial image reflected back to us – in our heroes & heroines, in standards of beauty, in our role-models & teachers, in our textbooks &historical memory, in the media, in religious iconography including the image of God himself, etc. In virtually any situation or image deemed valuable in dominant society, whites belong. Indeed, it is rare for most whites to experience a sense of not belonging & such experiences are usually very temporary, easily avoidable situations. Racial belonging becomes deeply internalized & taken for granted.

In dominant society, interruption of racial belonging is rare & thus destabilizing & frightening to whites. Whites consistently choose & enjoy racial segregation. Living, working & playing in racial segregation is unremarkable as long as it is not named or made explicitly intentional. For example, in many anti-racist endeavors, a common exercise is to separate into caucus groups by race in order to discuss issues specific to your racial group & without the pressure or stress of other groups’ presence. Generally, PoC appreciate this opportunity for racial fellowship, but white people typically become very uncomfortable, agitated & upset – even though this temporary separation is in the service of addressing racism.


Responses include a disorienting sense of themselves as not just people, but most particularly white people; a curious sense of loss about this contrived & temporary separation which they don’t feel about the real & on-going segregation in their daily lives & anxiety about not knowing what is going on in the groups of color. The irony, again, is that most whites live in racial segregation every day & in fact, are the group most likely to intentionally choose that segregation (albeit obscured in racially coded language such as seeking “good schools” & “good neighborhoods”). This segregation is unremarkable until it is named as deliberate – i.e. “We are now going to separate by race for a short exercise.”I posit that it is the intentionality that is so disquieting – as long as we don’t mean to separate, as long as it “just happens” that we live segregated lives, we can maintain a (fragile) identity of racial innocence.

Psychic freedom
Because race is constructed as residing in PoC, whites don’t bear the social burden of race. We move easily through our society without a sense of ourselves as racialized subjects. We see race as operating when PoC are present, but all-white spaces as “pure” spaces – untainted by race vis á vis the absence of the carriers of race (& thereby the racial polluters) – PoC. This perspective is perfectly captured in a familiar white statement, “I was lucky. I grew up in an all-white neighborhood so I didn’t learn anything about racism.” In this discursive move, whiteness gains its meaning through its purported lack of encounter with non-whiteness.

 Because racial segregation is deemed socially valuable while simultaneously unracial & unremarkable, we rarely, if ever, have to think about race & racism & receive no penalty for not thinking about it. In fact, whites are more likely to be penalized (primarily by other whites) for bringing race up in a social justice context than for ignoring it (however, it is acceptable to bring race up indirectly & in ways that reinforce racist attitudes, i.e. warning other whites to stay away from certain neighborhoods, etc.). This frees whites from carrying the psychic burden of race.

 Race is for PoC to think about – it is what happens to “them” – they can bring it up if it is an issue for them (although if they do, we can dismiss it as a personal problem, the “race card”, or the reason for their problems). This allows whites to devote much more psychological energy to other issues & prevents us from developing the stamina to sustain attention on an issue as charged & uncomfortable as race.

Constant messages that we are more valuable – through representation in everything
Living in a white dominant context, we receive constant messages that we are better & more important than PoC. These messages operate on multiple levels & are conveyed in a range of ways. For example: our centrality in history textbooks, historical representations & perspectives; our centrality in media & advertising (i.e., a recent Vogue magazine cover boldly stated, “The World’s Next Top Models” – every woman on the front cover was white); our teachers, role-models, heroes & heroines; everyday discourse on “good” neighborhoods & schools & who is in them; popular TV shows centered around friendship circles that are all white (i.e. Friends, Seinfeld); religious iconography that depicts God, Adam & Eve & other key figures as white, commentary on new stories about how shocking any crime is that occurs in white suburbs & the lack of a sense of loss about the absence of PoC in most white people’s lives. While one may explicitly reject the notion that one is inherently better than another, one cannot avoid internalizing the message of white superiority, as it is ubiquitous in mainstream culture.
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Continued below: See White Fragility 4

White Fragility 4

What does White Fragility look like?
A large body of research about children & race demonstrates that children start to construct ideas about race very early; a sense of white superiority & knowledge of racial power codes appears to develop as early as pre-school states:

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 & 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 & knowing virtually nothing about their contemporary roles in perpetuating it.

At the same time that it is ubiquitous, white superiority also remains unnamed & explicitly denied by most whites. If white children become adults who explicitly oppose racism, as do many, they often organize their identity around a denial of the racially based privileges they hold that reinforce racist disadvantage for others. What is particularly problematic about this contradiction is that white moral objection to racism increases white resistance to acknowledging complicity with it. In a white supremacist context, white identity in large part rests upon a foundation of (superficial) racial toleration & acceptance.

Whites who position themselves as liberal often opt to protect what they perceive as their moral reputations, rather than recognize or change their participation in systems of inequity & domination. In so responding, whites invoke the power to choose when, how & how much to address or challenge racism. Thus, pointing out white advantages will often trigger patterns of confusion, defensiveness & righteous indignation. When confronted with a challenge to white racial codes, many white liberals use the speech of self-defense. This discourse enables defenders to protect their moral character against what they perceive as accusation & attack while deflecting any recognition of culpability or need of accountability. Focusing on restoring their moral standing through these tactics, whites are able to avoid the question of white privilege. Those who lead whites in discussions of race may find the discourse of self-defense familiar. Via this discourse, whites position themselves as victimized, slammed, blamed & attacked.
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These self-defense claims work on multiple levels to: position the speakers as morally superior while obscuring the true power of their social advantages; blame others with less social power for their discomfort; falsely position that discomfort as dangerous & re-inscribe racist imagery. This discourse of victimization also enables whites to avoid responsibility for the racial power & privilege they wield. By positioning themselves as victims of anti-racist efforts, they cannot be the beneficiaries of white privilege. Claiming that they have been treated unfairly via a challenge to their position or an expectation that they listen to the perspectives & experiences of PoC, they are able to demand that more social resources (such as time & attention) be channeled in their direction to help them cope with this mistreatment.
A cogent example of White Fragility occurred recently during a workplace anti-racism training I co-facilitated with an inter-racial team. One of the white participants left the session & went back to her desk, upset at receiving (what appeared to the training team as) sensitive & diplomatic feedback on how some of her statements had impacted several PoC in the room. At break, several other white participants approached us (the trainers) & reported that they had talked to the woman at her desk & she was very upset that her statements had been challenged. They wanted to alert us to the fact that she literally “might be having a heart-attack.” Upon questioning from us, they clarified that they meant this literally. These co-workers were sincere in their fear that the young woman might actually physically die as a result of the feedback. Of course, when news of the woman’s potentially fatal condition reached the rest of the participant group, all attention was immediately focused back onto her & away from the impact she had had on the PoC. As Vodde states, “If privilege is defined as a legitimization of one’s entitlement to resources, it can also be defined as permission to escape or avoid any challenges to this entitlement”.
The language of violence that many whites use to describe anti-racist endeavors is not without significance, as it is another example of the way that White Fragility distorts & perverts reality. By employing terms that connote physical abuse, whites tap into the classic discourse of PoC (particularly blacks) as dangerous & violent. This discourse perverts the actual direction of danger that exists between whites & others. The history of brutal, extensive, institutionalized & ongoing violence perpetrated by whites against PoC—slavery, genocide, lynching, whipping, forced sterilization & medical experimentation to mention a few—becomes profoundly trivialized when whites claim they don’t feel safe or are under attack when in the rare situation of merely talking about race with PoC. The use of this discourse illustrates how fragile & ill-equipped most white people are to confront racial tensions & their subsequent projection of this tension onto PoC. Goldberg argues that the questions surrounding racial discourse should not focus so much on how true stereotypes are, but how the truth claims they offer are a part of a larger worldview that authorizes & normalizes forms of domination & control. Further, it is relevant to ask: Under what conditions are those truth-claims clung to most tenaciously?
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 Bonilla-Silva documents a manifestation of White Fragility in his study of color-blind white racism. He states, “Because the new racial climate in America forbids the open expression of racially based feelings, views & positions, when whites discuss issues that make them uncomfortable, they become almost incomprehensible – I, I, I, I don’t mean, you know, but…- ”. Probing forbidden racial issues results in verbal incoherence – digressions, long pauses, repetition & self-corrections. He suggests that this incoherent talk is a function of talking about race in a world that insists race does not matter.

This incoherence is one demonstration that many white people are unprepared to engage, even on a preliminary level, in an exploration of their racial perspectives that could lead to a shift in their understanding of racism. This lack of preparedness results in the maintenance of white power, because the ability to determine which narrative are authorized & which are suppressed is the foundation of cultural domination. Further, this lack of preparedness has further implications, for if whites cannot engage with an exploration of alternate racial perspectives, they can only reinscribe white perspectives as universal.

 However, an assertion that whites do not engage with dynamics of racial discourse is somewhat misleading. White people do notice the racial locations of racial others & discuss this freely among themselves, albeit often in coded ways. Their refusal to directly acknowledge this race talk results in a kind of split consciousness that leads to the incoherence Bonilla-Silva documents above. This denial also guarantees that the racial misinformation that circulates in the culture & frames their perspectives will be left unexamined. The continual retreat from the discomfort of authentic racial engagement in a culture infused with racial disparity limits the ability to form authentic connections across racial lines & results in a perpetual cycle that works to hold racism in place.

Continued below: See White Fragility in Conclusion

White Fragility in conclusion

Conclusion
White people often believe that multicultural / anti-racist education is only necessary for those who interact with “minorities” or in “diverse” environments. However, the dynamics discussed here suggest that it is critical that all white people build the stamina to sustain conscious & explicit engagement with race. When whites posit race as non-operative because there are few, if any, PoC in their immediate environments, Whiteness is reinscribed ever more deeply. When whites only notice “raced others,” we reinscribe Whiteness by continuing to posit Whiteness as universal & non-Whiteness as other. Further, if we can’t listen to or comprehend the perspectives of PoC, we cannot bridge cross-racial divides. A continual retreat from the discomfort of authentic racial engagement results in a perpetual cycle that works to hold racism in place. While anti-racist efforts ultimately seek to transform institutionalized racism, anti-racist education may be most effective by starting at the micro level.

 The goal is to generate the development of perspectives & skills that enable all people, regardless of racial location, to be active initiators of change. 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 & the burden for interrupting it belongs to white people. Conversations about Whiteness might best happen within the context of a larger conversation about racism. It is useful to start at the micro level of analysis & move to the macro, from the individual out to the interpersonal, societal & institutional. Starting with the individual & moving outward to the ultimate framework for racism – Whiteness – allows for the pacing that is necessary for many white people for approaching the challenging study of race. In this way, a discourse on Whiteness becomes part of a process rather than an event.

 Many white people have never been given direct or complex information about racism before & often cannot explicitly see, feel, or understand it. PoC are generally much more aware of racism on a personal level, but due to the wider society’s silence & denial of it, often do not have a macro-level framework from which to analyze their experiences. Further, dominant society “assigns” different roles to different groups of color & a critical consciousness about racism varies not only between individuals within groups, but also between groups. For example, many African Americans relate having been “prepared” by parents to live in a racist society, while many Asian heritage people say that racism was never directly discussed in their homes. A macro-level analysis may offer a framework to understand different interpretations & performances across & between racial groups. In this way, all parties benefit & efforts are not solely focused on whites (which works to re-center Whiteness).

 Talking directly about white supremacy & privilege, in addition to providing much needed information & shared definitions, is also in itself a powerful interruption of common (& oppressive) discursive patterns around race. At the same time, white people often need to reflect upon racial information & be allowed to make connections between the information & their own lives. Educators can encourage & support white participants in making their engagement a point of analysis. White Fragility doesn’t always manifest in overt ways; silence & withdrawal are also functions of fragility. Who speaks, who doesn’t speak, when, for how long & with what emotional valence are all keys to understanding the relational patterns that hold oppression in place. Viewing white anger, defensiveness, silence & withdrawal in response to issues of race through the framework of White Fragility may help frame the problem as an issue of stamina-building & thereby guide our interventions accordingly.
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Albert Einstein: The Negro Question

Albert Einstein addressed what was called, in 1946, “The Negro Question” in another document belonging to the so-called ‘Dead Sea Scrolls of physics’.

“I am writing seriously and warningly,” he began, before noting that as a newcomer to America, he might not have the right to speak “about things which concern Americans alone, and which no newcomer should touch.”

But “I do not think such a standpoint is justified,” Einstein wrote. “One who has grown up in an environment takes much for granted. On the other hand, one who has come to this country as a mature person may have a keen eye for everything peculiar and characteristic.”

One characteristic Einstein observed as that the American “sense of equality and human dignity is mainly limited to men of white skins.”

“Even among these there are prejudices of which I as a Jew am clearly conscious,” he continued, “but they are unimportant in comparison with the attitude of the ‘Whites’ toward their fellow-citizens of darker complexion, particularly toward Negroes. The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape the feeling of complicity in it only by speaking out.”

Einstein then addressed the complaints of those who have had “unfavorable experiences…living side by side with Negroes” which have led them to believe “they are not our equals in intelligence, sense of responsibility, or reliability.”

“I am firmly convinced that whoever believes this suffers from a fatal misconception,” he wrote. “Your ancestors dragged these black people from their homes by force; and in the white man’s quest for wealth and an easy life they have been ruthlessly suppressed and exploited, degraded into slavery. The modern prejudice against Negroes is the result of the desire to maintain this unworthy condition.”

Einstein maintained that this position was, in part, a conditioned response that Americans had “unconsciously absorb[ed] as children from [their] environment.” But he implored them to not only be better — but to be better than the Greek philosopher Aristotle.

“The ancient Greeks also had slaves,” he wrote. “They were not Negroes but white men who had been taken captive in war. There could be no talk of racial differences. And yet Aristotle, one of the great Greek philosophers, declared slaves inferior beings who were justly subdued and deprived of their liberty. It is clear that he was enmeshed in a traditional prejudice from which, despite his extraordinary intellect, he could not free himself.”

“We must try to recognize what in our accepted tradition is damaging to our fate and dignity,” Einstein concluded, “and shape our lives accordingly. I believe that whoever tries to think things through honestly will soon recognize how unworthy and even fatal is the traditional bias against Negroes.”

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Einstein sitting on the front steps of his home in Princeton c. 1950

Einstein sitting on the front steps of his home in Princeton c. 1950

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