Why It’s So Important to Fight Our Own Fragility

Karen Merzenich
Jan 23, 2017 · 6 min read

(One of my oldest friends, Amir Talai, attended the Women’s March in Los Angeles this past weekend. His sign has been making the rounds of news and social media, and the mixed reactions and conversations it has been inspiring spurred me to lose an entire night’s sleep and write this.)

Amir Talai at the Los Angeles Women’s March — January 21, 2017. Photo credit: Rudy Espinoza

Progressive white women, what is your reaction to this sign? Is it a knee-jerk feeling of defensiveness and anger? I get it. I totally get it. That feeling is called white fragility and if we are going to move forward as a progressive, inclusive movement then we all need to work hard to get rid of it.

What is white fragility? As Leah Roberts Peterson says so eloquently, white fragility is “old programming” that pops up when a person of color expresses hurt and anger. Our white fragility is that force that makes us feel that their hurt and anger is somehow directed at us, personally. We feel like saying “Hey, we’re out here trying! We’re out here marching! Why are you complaining?” or saying “I’m one of the GOOD white people!” or even “you are wrong.”

As Ijeoma Oluo so eloquently puts it, “where were you when our babies were being shot in the streets, locked away in prison, deported away from the only home they’ve known?” Now this is where it gets sticky. Yes, I am a “good” person. Yes, I try to be an ally. But the fact is that she is right: I wasn’t there. I wish now I had been there. The person I like to believe I am, the person I would like my children to have as a model, THAT white lady would have been there, but in actual fact THIS white lady wasn’t. That truth hurts me because I am disappointed in myself. But it is not Ms. Oluo who is hurting me by reminding me of my inadequacy and selfishness in the past — it is ME who hurt me by being a selective ally. It is ME who hurt me by not making it a priority at the time. Feeling the need to defend myself to her or blame her for my feelings of disappointment in myself is white fragility. And dwelling on my past inaction or hating on myself for it is not helpful or useful for what I am doing today — or tomorrow — except as a means of spurring me to do better.

A recent New York Times article highlighted the voices of some white women who decided not to go to the Women’s March after ShiShi Rose, one of the organizers, wrote openly and honestly about some important issues for white women to think about. Yes, you read that clearly — their white fragility was such a powerful force that they opted out of participation in the Women’s March because of it. To read the article, you would think the blame lies at the feet of Ms. Rose. People of color who write things of that nature are often accused of fomenting “racial division.” That is white fragility at work: a black woman writes an article about allyship and is blamed when a white woman fails to show up for a protest.

White women are and have always been welcome in the women’s movement — a movement that women of color have largely shouldered for generations. I appreciate my friend’s sign because I think all of us white women need to be reminded of our hypocrisy and inaction in past times of injustice, so we can do better going forward. I hear the argument that this kind of targeting doesn’t “make the tent larger” because it alienates white women who would potentially be allies. I say that making the tent larger is more readily and fully achieved by making equal space for women of color and the issues that disproportionately affect them — not pandering to the white fragility of so-called “allies.” We need to listen and learn, and yes, change — so we can stop the knee-jerk reactions when we are called out on our very real and very selective feminism and participation.

The heart of white fragility encompasses two troubling constructs. One is that the feelings and opinions of white women should be the “default” setting of the movement. Even if you don’t consciously believe that should be the case, it is true just as whiteness is the “default” setting for nearly everything in America. We now have an opportunity to make our women’s movement a place where that paradigm is turned out and everyone can have an equal voice and equal representation, without caveats or asterisks. But we can’t achieve that with our fragility in place.

The second construct is that it is natural to have a component of self-interest built into our allyship. Our fragility is triggered because we want a gold star for participating, not a slap on the wrist. This is where the change can be painful, because we have to be really honest with ourselves about why we’re here and what our goals are.

Now, some good news about white fragility

Now let me share something that might surprise you: letting go of your white fragility feels so good. You might worry that your fragility has somehow been protecting you, or that shedding it may leave you raw and exposed.

It is actually the opposite. When you are able to start getting rid of it, you will find that you are calmer, more rational, and more focused. As you peel away the layers of white fragility, you will find that you have changed the entire dialogue because you have changed where you’re coming from. You are no longer approaching the conversation from a place of defensiveness, combativeness, and hurt, but from a place of rationality and openness. You can make space to acknowledge every opinion and perspective without having to agree with it completely, nor defend yourself from it. You can truly listen to how other people think and feel, making them the center of their thoughts and feelings instead of making it all about you. You will notice a difference in how you perceive your own allyship and your place in the movement, knowing that you have taken an important step that allows you full participation.

So just let it go. It will be a process, and vestiges of it may still remain even with your full effort. This stuff is deeply ingrained and hard to let go of. But you can do it. And you will love yourself and others more for it.

As Leah Roberts Peterson says, “I tell you this with sincere love in my heart because I KNOW you’re trying. Sit in the discomfort of these moments. It’s OK to not feel comfortable. That’s how lots of people around the world live their lives every single day. Comfort is not our goal. Equality is.”

The Women’s March was not perfect — but it was a watershed moment for inclusive feminism and took some solid first steps towards dismantling white fragility. This time, white feminists listened when women of color asked for inclusion. The march’s organizers added leaders who were representative and inclusive. And they made a commitment to finding a diverse group of supporting organizations and promoting an intersectional set of principles. I am heartened by the planning and the outcome of the march because it proves that we truly are, to steal a phrase from Hillary Clinton, stronger together.

In the meantime, open yourself up to people that talk about these issues, like Luvvie Ajayi, Shishi Rose, Lara Witt, Ijeoma Oluo, and Jamelle Bouie. It won’t always be comfortable. But try just listening, without talking back. You can do this. We can do this. We have to do this. And we will.

And I’ll see you at the next Black Lives Matters march.

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