On Intersectionality, White Fragility, and #Hamilton

(Originally posted on my blog on 11.29.16)

A week or so ago #Trump blew up the Twittersphere when he criticized the cast of #Hamilton’s appeal to Pence. (You can watch the video here). While Trump’s outlandish statements on Twitter are nothing new, the aftermath of the Hamilton interaction intrigued me. I observed a tension: this election has unearthed commentary about nationalism, supremacy and white power in correlation to the president-elect. Amid all this talk, this tweet from Trump embodied an overwhelming display of white fragility.

Let me explain this thought to you by taking you on a little journey. First I want to offer some thoughts on intersectionality (yes, it’s overused), but important for laying a foundation of power. Once we chat about that, I want to show you how I think it connects to a new era of identity politics shaping out after the election– that’s when we’ll get to fragility, our beloved #Hamilton,and Pence. Heck, I may even throw in a few illustrations… because everyone likes pictures. Ready? This one’s a little longer than usual.

The Implications of Intersectionality

Intersectionality has become a bit of a buzzword– in the same way that explanations of ‘privilege’ and ‘multiculturalism’ now are read about on the daily. Largely due to activist groups and awareness of gender and orientation based violence, intersectionality has grounded itself in our minds, reminding us that we do not have single narratives or identities what we live through.

The term was first used by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw as a way to critique feminist scholarship. Like most things, the word got a little lost in translation as it leaked its way down from the academic journals into our mainstream media. She recently wrote an article in Washington Post to take us back to its roots, she states “Intersectionality is an analytic sensibility, a way of thinking about identity and its relationship to power.”

What we’ve reduced in discussing intersectionality is the function of power. Intersectionality showed up overwhelmingly in this last election– but perhaps in ways we didn’t expect. While certain demographics were slated to vote for our female candidate, polls have shown us that race had a strong correlation that over-rode any preconceived loyalties due to sex. (Yes, even all those white feminists who were sure to be a sweeping ‘win’ for Clinton still show as votes for the president-elect).

I believe that post-election, we are in an era of seeing the effects of intersectionality show up in a new way. In order for intersectionality to be discussed justly, it must be examined in all directions. The double-edged sword of intersectionality is that it reveals who has the power as it simultaneously shows who lacks it. Just as I cannot erase being female or a person of color in an interaction or experience, one cannot remove whiteness from their gender, position or action.

How Intersectionality Informs Fragility

We all want our experiences normalized. It when we feel like we stand out that we suddenly become aware of parts of our identity. Cue the term fragility. No one likes to be fragile, so this one’s a bit harder to swallow. It may be better stated as displacement–the cognitive dissonance one experiences when you suddenly recognize something is no longer focused/centered on you. Crenshaw continues “Being front and center in conversations about racism or sexism is a complicated privilege that is often hard to see.”

Remember intersectionality? This is where that double edge comes in. Think about a moment where you were suddenly aware of being feminine or masculine, sometimes it’s as simple as walking into the wrong restroom (or not feeling like you fit one). Oops. Suddenly you’re entirely aware of your sex. That heightened awareness is fragility. You had to think about how that part of your identity was contributing to a situation.

Privilege (and supremacy) are tricky because they tell you part of your identity can be invisible. It’s the normalization of your experience. If you know you’re in the right restroom, you don’t have to think about it. Sometimes it’s bigger things, like your ethnicity or socioeconomic status that become normalized. It may look like finding the right sized clothes or food at the grocery store or not having to worry about stairs. Privilege and supremacy show up more often as having your preferences and experience normalized and accessible than it does in grandiose actions of hatred or favor.

Again, returning to our double edge sword, as intersectionality points to those who don’t have power, it simultaneously reveals who does. When accessibility and normalization centers on ethnicity and race, it shows up as “whiteness.” When any disruption to this homeostasis occurs, we see #whitelash, or as Robert DiAngelo describes– 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, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and 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” (White Fragility, 2011).

And this is what brings us to #Hamilton, Pence and Trump’s comments on twitter.

#Hamilton, Pence & White Fragility

So let’s put all this together. Just over week ago we watched as the beloved cast of Hamilton petitioned our Vice-President Elect. They stated:

“We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights,” he said. “We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.” (Brandon Victor Dixon, Hamilton)

In defense of Pence, Trump tweeted that evening (see, I promised pictures):

This is where we see intersectionality come into play and white fragility unfold. Pence, in a significant position of leadership, now has to account differently for the way his ethnicity influences and intertwines with his position of power (the other side of intersectionality). Not only is he representative of our country because of his position, but now his sex and ethnicity play a significant role in how his power is perceived (or normalized) in an election where there was an overwhelmingly white majority voting for Trump & Pence.

Trump’s defense showcases white fragility, which we see described by DiAngelo. The immediacy of his action reveals a frailty which results in argumentative behavior. Let me be clear. This is not a time to be tip-toeing around white fragility and upholding it as an excuse. In an era where the “Alt-Right” is being affirmed and given credence as a belief system, rather than called out for what it is– supremacy and racism, it’s time we take some steps to talk about fragility and let it compel us to solidarity, rather than stop us in our tracks.

So Now What?

If you find yourself in the dominant (white) culture, pay attention. It’s important to recognize that your ethnicity means something. Intersectionality can start as a frame work for naming and recognizing where you have privilege, power, and influence. Own it. It’s not negative if you take steps to learn its significance and use it wisely.

White Fragility is something that is often discussed but then backed away from. Take the time to use this as an opportunity to build some resilience. Do some identity work for yourself, and be patient with yourself. Here are some ideas if you have a hard time recognizing “whiteness”:

  • Where are moments you’ve felt aware of your ethnicity or whiteness? Pay attention.
  • Why were you uncomfortable? Take the time to sit in that discomfort for a bit.
  • Ask yourself about the ideals you hear floating in these articles about the “Alt-Right.” Re-read it and name it as supremacy. Call. it. out. (And if that makes you uncomfortable, good. See the above statement). As a white person, it’s important for you to name it and stand against it.

Allyship is just as much about standing up to those who are like you as it is about learning about the “other”. (I’d actually say, it’s more important to do the work within your own people groups).

If you’re a POC… hang in there friends. These are rough times. Be kind to yourself and be patient. Practice self-care. Limit what you read (don’t read the comments). Do the work to keep your mind sharp and heart soft. Don’t let the anger and hurt turn to bitterness and hardheartedness. Commit to staying in relationship with those who are learning.

For all of us, the way of reconciliation is in a messy, consistent relationship.