Factors that inculcate White Fragility
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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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…”).
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.