|As we who are white seek to educate ourselves and become better allies of Black Americans and people of color, Carolyn Vance shares her experience of reading “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” by Robin DiAngelo. It is a great follow-up to Gladys Hunt’s teaching about her experiences of racial injustice and how we can be the Church. May their words challenge and inspire us to become salt and light in this world. -Renée|
In part, “White Fragility” is about recognizing and letting go of our safe spaces as white people. I realize that being in my head is a safe space. I love reading and learning about justice issues, but often what I learn stays in the safe space of my head. I can share ideas with others, but that’s still in my safe head space. This is likely in part because I’m an introvert. But it likely also has to do with privilege. Reading a book and living out the ideas are not the same.
Many people define racism as intentional acts or words of racial animus. This is contrasted to prejudice which can include the racial thoughts that might wander through our brains, which we quickly reject as wrong. I remember once saying to an African American friend, “I realize that I’m as racist as the next person” and being quickly corrected and told, no that’s prejudice. I had chosen the word “racist” intentionally, but at the time didn’t know how to explain what I meant. It’s certainly not a word I’m proud of and I would rather I wasn’t racist. Robin DiAngelo gives me the words I lacked at that time.
DiAngelo, a white woman, frames racism differently, and, I think, helpfully. Basically she says we (white persons) are all racist, not because of intent to do harm, but because we all benefit from a racist system that favors white dominant control and because we’ve all been acculturated, socialized and conditioned since birth in this system. It’s a part of us whether we realize it or not. It was in that sense that I was trying to own it.
There is a common binary way of thinking about this that says, if I am a racist that means I’m bad, but I’m good, so I cannot accept being called a racist. DiAngelo says it’s not about individual goodness or badness, it’s about the macro system and how it works in our society and how it privileges white people. Interestingly, she said progressive white liberal people have the hardest time hearing or accepting this and often become very defensive and angry.
“White fragility” is the unwillingness to tolerate any racial stress. People of color face racial stress all the time. Ask any African American if they’ve been followed by clerks while shopping at a store. It happens all the time. Housing and employment discrimination and inequality in education and in the justice system are still very real. Black males (and females) face racial stress when they are pulled over by police for “driving while black.” And the most extreme racial stress is when they lose their lives at the hands of police, as the witness of cell phones has made clear to the world in recent years.
What kind of racial stress might white people face? Being challenged to think about the privilege that we have as white people; that we benefit from a system that grew out of white supremacy and still gives whites more options, possibilities, privileges than it does people of color; that if we are not actively challenging racism at the systemic level, and are in fact benefiting from it, we are complicit in it; and that being “white” is not “normal and objective,” but carries all kinds of entitlement and social dominance, born out of our history which has always favored “white” people over people of color. These are hard things to hear and DiAngelo is not easy on us. Anger and defensiveness is a common reaction, DiAngelo says.
DiAngelo herself has had a long learning curve. She recounts times when she has said something really inappropriate without realizing how offensive her comments or attempts to be humorous were. She is not positioning herself as having “arrived.” I appreciate that she honestly shares some of her own mistakes as well as the insights she has gained over her years of doing diversity training.
What I found most helpful is the idea of looking at the macro-level rather than the individual blame level. I’ve done enough self-blaming over my lifetime that moving to the macro level actually felt freeing. And perhaps because I’ve been a self-blamer, acknowledging the racism in me is not difficult. I see it. The challenge for me is leaving the safety of my headspace and moving into spaces challenging the system that privileges me because I’m white. Those spaces will undoubtedly be uncomfortable and difficult.