White Incredulity and Why it Matters? Distrust, Disbelief, and the Immigrant Experience.
The term White Fragility coined by Robin D’Angelo refers to the defensiveness or disbelief that white people display when their ideas of race and white privilege are challenged. White Fragility connotes the idea of a brittle almost delicate Fabergé like white identity that can be shattered or broken at the slightest criticism. Such constructions intentionally or unintentionally center Whiteness and White experiences in conversations of race. Furthermore, White Fragility homogenizes the experiences that People of Color may have had in their interactions with Whiteness and White folk. It is important to recognize that not all People of Color in their interactions with White people may experience White Fragility or White Tears, that our experiences may differ depending on contexts and circumstances. Thus, by foregrounding the experiences, social location, identities, and circumstances of Black and Brown bodies, we can decenter white experiences and nuance conversations of race. The concept of White Incredulity in my mind, is an attempt to capture an aspect of whiteness that arises in interactions between People of color and their white counter parts.
Quite simply, the term Incredulity can be defined as the state of being unwilling or unable to believe something. Subsequently, White Incredulity is the disbelief to accept People of Color and their experiences at face value. At the same time, White Incredulity also refers to the persistent ways in which the success, capabilities, and talents of Black and Brown bodies are subjected to suspicion, disbelief, and amazement. I will look at the ways in which White Incredulity operates in personal, professional, and public spaces. As an Indian immigrant who has lived in the United States for more than twenty years, my interactions with White Incredulity were and continue to be expressed in ways that appear to seem innocent at first but mask a deep anxiety towards immigrants who are people of color. As Indian immigrants, our linguistic capabilities are viewed through a mixture of suspicion and astonishment. Phrases such as “How Come you Speak English So Well?” “I love your accent,” “Did you learn English in India or did you learn it in this country?” “It is so easy to understand you” among others are quite common to the Indian immigrant experience. Immigrant are expected to understand questions like these as expressions of genuine curiosity, maybe even flattery. However, closer introspection reveals that immigrant bodies placed in predominately white spaces functioning as leaders, thinkers, writers, and speakers are an anomaly that must viewed through distrust and disbelief. In other words, immigrant bodies successfully speaking and mastering the language of the colonizer is an example of White Incredulity. Language plays an important role in prioritizing the assimilation of immigrants into the fabric of the United States. The inability to accept at face value the idea that immigrant bodies can communicate clearly and effectively in English disguises the deep anxieties of Whiteness that harbor deep biases at the linguistic capabilities of immigrants.
Professionally, White Incredulity appears to take on a more consequential form. In higher education, scholars of color encounter White Incredulity quite often. When it comes to scholarship produced by People of Color our work is subjected to suspicion, the idea that scholars of color could produce something that is intellectual, original, and brilliant is often met with disbelief and is demonstrative of White Incredulity. At the same time, the dubiety expressed towards the work of scholars of color is further evidenced in the ways in which our work is accessed and cited by White scholars in the academia. Simply put, scholars and particularly white scholars in academia collectively experience White Amnesia when it comes to engaging with the work of scholars of color. Sometimes our work might be relegated to footnotes or work cited sections, thus illustrating the marginal ways in which our scholarship is engaged and interacted with in the mainstream.
Furthermore, teachers of color in classrooms experience White Incredulity as our bodies are viewed through the lens of suspicion, distrust, and disbelief. It is not White Fragility but rather White Incredulity/White disbelief that we encounter in academic spaces. As both a Woman and a Professor, the double whammy of gender and race constructs my authority in the classroom as something that needs to be resisted, questioned, maybe even ignored. In the classroom, the authority, experience, and the knowledge of scholars of color is viewed as dubious and incredulous. The perception that continues to be perpetuated is that Black and Brown bodies do not have anything valuable to teach us even though they may have the professional degrees and training to back them up. When it comes time for evaluations and professional reviews, white employers in positions of power often express feelings of disbelief and astonishment at the success of their black and brown counterparts. For example, in the academia when Professors of color receive student evaluations that are positive, it is deemed that the only reason why students like your course is because you are an easy grader! The disbelief that a Professor of Color may be good at their job is never the first consideration. Meanwhile, when Professors of Color receive student evaluations that are critical, it is suggested that there must be something wrong with the teacher or their pedagogical style as opposed to acknowledging the biases that are prevalent in such spaces. At the same time, White Incredulity is engrained so deeply in all of us that often it is not just my white students that express their distrust towards me, but also my students of color who view my authority and my very being in white spaces through the lens of suspicion and disbelief. This illustrates the ways in which whiteness and White Incredulity is insidious in nature and is internalized by People of color. Consequently, infecting White, Black, and Brown bodes alike White Incredulity causes People of Color to be divided against each other and not trust one another and their successes in professional circles.
Perhaps the most dangerous and sinister aspect of White Incredulity appears when it moves into public spaces. My reflection and thinking on White Incredulity began when I viewed the video of Amy Cooper, the white woman who threatened to call the cops on Christian Cooper a Black man and a birdwatcher in Central Park. As I watched this video, I kept chalking my anger to the deep fear, anxiety, and the injustice that I was witnessing before me. However, I began to realize that this video spoke to something much bigger and more nuanced the ways in which we view the interactions between Black/Brown and White folks in the United States. In the video, we see the appearance of White Incredulity that captures the disbelief, the distrust, and the suspicion that is imposed upon bodies of color daily. In most of the stories about Karen’s it is often the white lady who takes it upon herself to police black and brown bodies in public. However, in this case the tables are turned, it was Christian Cooper a black man who asked a white lady to follow the rules of the park by requesting that she put her dog on a leash. What follows then, is a flash of White Incredulity that expresses its anger at the audacity of a black man asking a white woman to follow the rules of the park. In other words, white incredulity is the utter disbelief and the unwillingness to take responsibility by Amy Cooper by accepting that she is wrong and that her behavior needs to be corrected. White Incredulity is also the distrust of the fact that a black man could know the rules better than a White woman and dares to school her about how to proceed in public spaces. The disbelief expressed by the woman in the video becomes apparent when the realization sinks in that a Black man is correct and she is wrong, it is precisely at this moment that the white lady activates her whiteness and weaponizes not only her race but also her gender knowing fully well that her actions may very well lead to dire consequences. Drawing on White Fear, Amy Cooper blatantly displays the history of distrust and suspicion that was and continues to be levied against Black/brown men who are viewed as a threat to white women.
It must also be noted that White Incredulity interacts with immigrant bodies who are people of color slightly differently than it does with people of color who are citizens. As immigrants in predominantly white spaces, we need to express gratitude, humility, and become examples of model minorities. Nothing less is expected from us. As a result, the audacity of my voice that dares to differ from the status quo is often met with an onslaught of White Rage. As many of my Black friends have noted, their audaciousness and resistance in white systems of power are met with White tears and/or White Guilt/White Shame. The vulnerability of our status as immigrants makes us susceptible to binarized expressions of Whiteness that can range from anger or rage to incredulity. Immigrants experience White Incredulity that expresses deep disappointment at our lack of humility and gratitude that must always be performed in white spaces.
Terms such as White Fragility while helpful, are problematic because they homogenize the ways in which Black and Brown bodies interact with White people. Author Chimamanda Adichie warns of the danger of a single story, where we privilege only one point of view and thereby risk accepting this to be the universal truth so to speak. Thus, in a similar vein White Fragility has become a “catch all” phrase to describe interactions between White people and People of Color, thereby, reducing us into a singular narrative that privileges only one side. However, as we have seen above contexts and experiences of People of color matter in the ways we understand race relations. The diverse experiences of black and brown bodies can decenter Whiteness and help dismantle white supremacy effectively. At the same time, a “one solution that fits all experiences” or a single term that encompasses experiences of black/brown bodies hinders the ways in which we understand the interactions between White people and People of Color in a more nuanced light. Thus, as we have seen people of color who are immigrants experience Whiteness slightly differently than those who are citizens. As immigrants who are not born in this country but still face racism, the decentering of White Fragility and the privileging of our own voices helps us understand our experiences and interactions in our own terms. White Incredulity adds another layer by revealing the ways in which White Supremacy interacts with Black and Brown bodies. Thus, in doing so, the experiences of People of Color are not only centered, but we are provided with a language that helps narrate our experiences from our perspectives. The subtle ways in which White Supremacy interacts with People of Color, whether it is in the form of White Rage, White Guilt, White Tears, or White Incredulity can create avenues to build inter racial solidarity that encourages us to see humanity in one another by crossing our own lines of racial distinctions.