“Is it really that one-sided?”
Dr. Robin DiAngelo has coined the term “white fragility” to describe common reactions of white people when issues of racial identity arise.
Whites “withdraw, defend, cry, argue, minimize, ignore, and in other ways push back to regain our racial position and equilibrium. […This] push back [is] white fragility.”
Most American whites are unaware of white supremacy in everyday life because the system invented by the founding fathers is effective at hiding the ways white privilege works. This means most white people are raised unconscious of the role whiteness plays in overall society. Waking up to this reality is typically painful, which is what leads to the observable patterns of white fragility.
The specific behaviors of white fragility are an indicator of the white fog that envelopes white people as we live our lives. Michael Meade describes white fog in his mentoring work with young people, claiming that youth in the white fog are at risk because they don’t fully know who they are: anyone operating from an incomplete awareness of their identities cannot account wholly for their role(s) in society, including the associated status and attendant hazards. The first hurdle, then, for white people coming to terms with the growing evidence of systemic and violent injustice, is realizing that our initial emotional reactions are evidence of a deeper issue. A crucial next step is to treat this new knowledge like one would the reality of a health condition: it just is. There’s no time for dwelling in blame or guilt. The more integrity we bring to dealing with this difficult aspect of life, the better our chances of healing.
Whites need to get through our individual and collective white fog in order to cultivate healthy habits of cohabitation in our neighborhoods, workplaces and overall on planet earth. Reproductive justice activist Loretta Ross has been speaking about appropriate whiteness since the 1980s. Appropriate whiteness means we’re behaving and interacting in ways that don’t naively perpetuate prejudice, stereotyping or discrimination against people of color. Appropriate whiteness also means we’re cognizant of and refuse to participate in subtle attitudes and actions that incidentally support belief in white supremacy.
When we’re acting from white fragility and in the early stages of addressing white fog, whites buy into the notion that racism is a basic evil and anyone who is racist is an awful person. This is what raises identity threat (DiAngelo) and a deep feeling of vulnerability. Through accepting that harboring racism and white supremacy is an inevitable outcome of being raised in the United States, whites start the long journey to appropriate whiteness. There’s a lot of stuff to root out. Here’s the thing: there is something worse than being a racist. If you care enough to acknowledge and address the racism in you, then you are not an asshole. Yes, being an asshole is worse than being a racist! We whites have all got the residue of racism in us, but we do not have to be assholes about it.
One way to begin making progress through your own white fog is to start noticing what you say to other whites, especially when the topic involves race. A telling way that whites unknowingly participate in white supremacy is the comfort we give to each other when displaying the signs of white fragility. Dr DiAngelo has listed a bunch of behaviors indicative of white fragility, I’ve selected some of these that serve as microvalidations — ways in which whites excuse, forgive or even congratulate each other on doing enough when in fact, we’re simply giving each other permission to continue being superficial.
- agreeing with (or saying nothing about) an un-racialized perspective of white people or a racialized perspective of any group of people of color
- agreement, silence, or affirmation of white racial innocence (e.g., “I didn’t know)
- supporting the idea of individuality as if whites have no white group membership
- confirming reactions to people of color in authority positions or receiving positive visibility
- offering platitudes — usually something that starts with “People just need to,” or “Race doesn’t really have any meaning to me,” or “Everybody’s racist.”
- supporting or encouraging reactions against the perceived source of discomfort (i.e., blame the messenger, could be a person of color or another white person) through social forms of punishment such as gossip, retaliation, isolation and refusal to continue engagement
What makes the items in the list a micro-validation is when they occur in a conversation with other whites. Someone (a white person) says something that shows white fragility or affirms subtle, implicit white entitlement or white privilege, and you (a white person) respond in a way that validates, affirms or justifies what the first person said. Together, now, we have participated in white supremacy.
Loretta Ross emphasizes how important it is for whites to learn how to talk with each other about white supremacy because the failure to confront its ideas can lead to terrible consequences. Over the past month, we see the costs of our ignorance and denial of whiteness and it’s interrelatedness with racism, homophobia and transphobia playing out in an escalation of race-based violence. At this moment in history, the only way to counter and overcome a societal descent into the throes of terrorism is to join the new human rights movement. We must learn to turn to each other and call each other in to this struggle, instead of turning on each other out of fear, anger, or hatred.
Learning to recognize an unearned advantage, Mindy Cameron
Branches of Mentoring, Michael Meade