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:
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?
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.