Living on an alien planet
The perils of navigating white fragility
The gates to equality have eroded, but they remain firmly embedded in a deep foundation of white supremacy. While it’s true more can squeeze through than years before, the point is the gates remain — however rusted.
People of colour navigate a world more concerned with maintaining what Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility” under the guise of peace than promoting progress under the banner of justice. DiAngelo writes:
Not often encountering [race] challenges, we [white people] withdraw, defend, cry, argue, minimize, ignore, and in other ways push back to regain our racial position and equilibrium…
It became clear over time that white people have extremely low thresholds for enduring any discomfort associated with challenges to our [white people’s] racial worldviews...
Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority and entitlement that we [white people] are either not consciously aware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race.
This means, for people of colour, effectively living on an alien planet, where our actions are constantly mistranslated and mischaracterised as threatening peace, rather than upsetting the toxic status quo.
It’s treated as threatening because “white” has become synonymous with everyone. The world is painted a single colour whose various shades are treated as difference rather than distance. Adding anything else upsets the clean white peace so many would tuck around themselves — which was also put over heads with the eyes cut out for a better view of the flames.
Any movement aimed at prioritising that which isn’t white folk, becomes viewed as disruptive… full-stop. Whether anti-apartheid activists or Black Lives Matter, all are treated as unnecessarily loud, antagonising, disorderly. The implied object being put into disorder or disrupted is “society” or “the world” or “lives” — whereas, in reality, what’s being disrupted is white privilege, the wall white folks have built supported by their accumulated supremacy slowly crumbling under the strain of progress. Instead of wondering why the wall is there in first place, white people would rather sink beneath its shade and pretend even the darkness is a blanket rather than further obscurity.
The difficulty is our concerns exist on the other side of that wall.
Coming through the cracks, white people hear only fragments and interpret it as threats. There is no way for us to phrase concerns without it being a “threat” because that wall must come down.
At best, our concerns are dismissed, at worst they are viewed as a deserving of opposition. Too many white folks express concerns on the topic of race only when they don’t like the way people of colour are responding — these white people raise their voices only to disparage people of colour responding to racism. These white people never tackle racist oppression itself.
Oh, they’ll tell you about how much they hate racist slurs and oppose the KKK. Yet, when faced with actual hard work — such as examining their defensive posture when it comes to range of topics like an all-white Oscars, affirmative action, blackfacing, police brutality, imprisonment — they would rather aim their energy at people of colour “forcing” such reflections, rather than do the reflecting themselves. This is trying to shatter the mirror for showing the wound, rather than fixing the wound itself.
But again, even managing to show the mirror is difficult when the wall is up, when white people shield their eyes, when they won’t hear calls to reflect as anything other than threats to “peace”.
There is no “nice” way to disrupt the status quo. And the status quo is primed to benefit white people. White supremacy isn’t just dressed in the guise of robes, it’s the ubiquitous, constant affirming that people of colour are different, not welcome… not white. The worst impact some people of colour experience isn’t from their friends’ racist, drunk uncle at dinner — it’s the employer who believes they’re not racist using casual racist slurs; it’s the parent-in-law who doesn’t trust the partner of colour; it’s the editor who gets tired hearing about “racist issues” or seeing that “angry” writer of colour. It’s the realisation that every instance of pointing out racism will be viewed as Not Racist, because so many — even people of colour — have become used to how racist the world can be. Just because we don’t call it racist doesn’t mitigate it’s oppressive nature, Clint Eastwood.
In her article on Black Lives Matter, Jennifer J. Carroll writes:
The biggest challenge faced by BLM activists is not one of decorum. The real challenge for BLM is that society’s default response to systemic trauma is amnesia, a void of memory filled by the false narrative that we live in a post-racial society. The real challenge is that, when faced with the reality of anti-Black racism, America always forgets.
It doesn’t matter whether BLM is polite. It matters that BLM finally makes us remember.
Eroding white supremacy, getting white people to examine their privilege, is not easy. And it’s not helped by this system of mistranslation and viewing our concerns as as challenges and disruptions… full-stop, rather than challenges and disruptions to the status quo that mainly benefits white people.
While we see it everywhere, they take this to mean we’re delusional rather than that they’re in the shadows of the wall the status quo erects for them.
As Fusion’s David Matthews points out, Dr King received replies eerily similar to modern anti-racist movements.
this type of discourse is nothing new, as we can see when we examine the hate mail that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.received during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. It’s overwhelming how the fear of the status quo being changed has been something white America can’t stop thinking about–and loudly announcing how it’s a problem–for so long now. These messages could have been written yesterday in the comments of a Facebook post as easily as they were on stationery or in a telegram 50 years ago.
From victim-blaming to questioning why black folks never challenge others of their race, it’s all there—written before Twitter eggs were even invented.
There’s probably no way even the most sympathetic white person will ever climb the wall. All are too deeply embedded in a world that’s told them their views matter more, that peace for them individually means peace everywhere for others. There’s no way, to them, that peace could ever be a cover for stagnation or a wall preventing other ideas from entering. Not Racist White People, with their good intentions and genuine desire to listen will and often have blindspots in their responses — they’d never label these racist (though I think we should let them).
Yet these blindspots so often hurt people of colour, never the white person. At least with outright racists, we know where we stand. With the white person who refuses to believe they have racist blindspots, we end up existing in the alien landscape: We never know what we might say or do that results in this Not Racist angrily responding. These blindspots have become so vast, we have to constantly wonder “Will saying this mean I’ll lose that contract, this job, these friends, this future?”
If it’s not the outright racism that’ll get you, it’s the anxiety around what a Not Racist will claim is disruptive that will.