Fearless Futures Podcast Episode 6: Fragility and Accountability [Transcript]

Cleo Bergman
Nov 25, 2020 · 16 min read
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Hanna Naima McCloskey: Hi you’re listening to the Fearless Futures Podcast. I’m your host Hanna Naima McCloskey the CEO and founder of Fearless Futures. And this is the show where we unpack and interrogate mainstream methods for equity and inclusion. I’ll be sharing new perspectives as well as alternative approaches we have developed and deployed working in daring companies across sectors around the world. Each week we will explore a new angle you won’t want to miss, so stick around.

In this episode we explore fragility and its inverse: accountability. Some of you may have heard of the term “white fragility”. It’s a term coined by scholar Robin DiAngelo and has come into the mainstream to describe the behaviors of defensiveness, attack, and resistance that white people engage in when confronted with how they’re perpetuating racism or how it manifests generally. Her book White Fragility has become a best seller as an explainer of this particular phenomenon.

In some cases, the fragility that emerges from white people actually happens before there has been any particular exploration of their behavior in relation to perpetuating racism in the first place. Sometimes white people go on the attack, are defensive, and are resistant at the very mention of them being in fact called white. Now while this term white fragility has been coined by DiAngelo specifically with respect to white people’s response to their confrontation with the ways in which racism may indeed, when they’re even more fragile, adjust the very notion of being named as white and therefore part of a group. We can in fact extrapolate the particular dynamic that Robin DiAngelo speaks to for any group that aren’t subject to an oppression. And how they might behave when they’re confronted with their actions about how they in fact might be perpetuating an oppression.

So, we could kind of extrapolate, and we do in our work, to non-disabled fragility or heterosexual fragility or cisgender fragility, for example. While the term itself has been used to describe what Robin DiAngelo terms a kind of lack of racial stamina from white people because they aren’t used to being racialized, white people are invisibilized and in fact any group that benefits from oppression we can see as being invisibilized. Their status within that wider system is not named or marked typically. And therefore white people, non-disabled people, heterosexual people, when they are in fact marked or named within these parameters, behave in these very negative, defensive and attacking ways which we’ll go on to explore, you know, why specifically that happens, but I think what’s really important here is in that invisiblization, we also need to kind of draw attention to the impact of that behavior on those who are subject to the oppression in question: people of color, disabled people, trans and non-binary people and so on and so forth. Mia Mingus who’s a transformative justice practitioner, disability justice advocate says the following in one of her blogs called “Disability justice is simply another term for love”, in her blog, leaving evidence:

“Mia Mingus says how many times have we been in rooms and shared our truths only to be met with backlash, avoidance or blank faces and awkward silence, because people have not done their own work to educate themselves to be able to meet us.” I kind of, I draw on that quote because I think it’s really important for us to acknowledge and kind of sit with the impact of fragility, white or otherwise in relation to other systems of oppression and what it produces in our relationships on a day-to-day basis or what relationships it undoes, in fact. What’s clear here is that the impact of exhibitions and engagements with fragility is painful for those who are on the receiving end who more often than not are confronted with this when they have offered up their experience of oppression in those moments. Before we go into kind of why does this behavior emerge and what’s the function of this fragile behavior, I do want to kind of flag and acknowledge that there are many useful things that we can kind of take from Robin DiAngelo’s framing of this fragility and how we can extrapolate it to other repressions. And I think it’s a really useful frame actually to understand how we’re behaving and how others might be behaving in relation to us to kind of name what’s going on. There are also kind of rightly a number of critiques of Robin DiAngelo’s analysis and so far as it’s very much located at the interpersonal level, by which I mean the ways in which racism is kind of showing up at that micro level perhaps without the acknowledgment or the kind of zooming out to recognize and identify the broader structures that inform that behavior in the kind of wider systemic nature of these issues. So, I think it’s important to flag that while also holding on to the fact that this can be a useful framing when we’re understanding behaviors that are quite routine and commonplace from those who you know benefit from the status quo.

So, if we do go to the questions of like why does this fragility, why does this behavior emerge, I think we can say that in part it’s because of the ways in which we’ve been taught in the mainstream about how oppressions manifest. So, for example in the case of racism you know the idea that people have in their minds as to who perpetuates racism, or indeed to use other language, who is a racist if we were kind of going to ascribe the identity onto someone. We would say somebody that belongs, for example, to the KKK to use a US example or somebody who’s a member of the English Defense League or the National Front in the case of the UK, for example, and this is because of the ways in which we’re broadly taught to understand oppression as being those individualized actions. So, we come to the kind of “bad apple” idea. The idea that there’s one or two individual people where this negative behavior exists, but that most people in fact almost everybody else isn’t that and isn’t part of that. Now the mainstream framing of this kind of individualized way of seeing oppression ultimately preserves the status quo, because it means that basically nobody meets the criteria of what it is to perpetuate racism. And therefore, everyone can sort of get on with their lives or everybody who isn’t subject to this oppression can get on with their lives, more specifically, and doesn’t have to take responsibility for anything in this regard.

It’s such that for racism or any other oppression, it’s somebody else’s problem and it’s sort of very, very, very far out of sight. So that the kind of the next question I have is then what is the function of this behavior, the fragility behavior in particular, and I think that it’s clear that this behavior is a diversionary tactic on the part of the person who’s exhibiting fragility because they’re able, through defensiveness, through attack to turn the conversation away from the specificities of what’s been raised with them and instead it becomes about their feelings and the nature of how they’ve been engaged with. So for example the person might say, you know this is also part of the kind of fragile existence: “I’m not the racist, you’re the racist”. So sort of going on the attack to turn the tables as it were and to claim that the observation of the ways in which somebody has perpetuated racisms is in fact what is racist, but not the person who may have been invited into examining their behavior in the first place. And we see again here that this individualized understanding of how oppression plays out through the kind of bad apple idea or construct, is at the root of our understandings here and the consequences of this, of that transformation is kind of prevented, where it might have been possible because of our misunderstandings collectively I would say about responsibility in general and also how oppression exists and our understanding of it more broadly as it plays out in society.

So, we have a sort of binary thinking at the root here: we have a bad apple, there are very few of them, and then we have all the rest of them which are good apples, but ultimately, we’re seeing everything is part of individual apple counting as it were. And I think this binary thinking is a really kind of important thing for us to get our head around as we kind of dig into, well if it’s not about individual bad apples and it’s actually about something bigger, it is about a system, what does it mean for our individual participation and therefore our collective participation within these wider systems and how might that move us out of fragility and into something more powerful? Now what I want to kind of really note here is that where we get to if we kind of take this thinking outside of the individualized nature of the ways in which harm can be enacted, you know, the bad apple idea idea. I personally, and Fearless Futures more broadly owe huge amount of debt to many, many, many, many thinkers that do the hard every day work in the space of accountability and what it looks like to bring that into our relationships and our organizations.

And I’ve used therefore for the first time this nature of accountability because I really see that as being the departure point from the individualized bad apples concept but also what we want to be striving towards when we’re moving away from the behaviors of fragility are ideas that ultimately produce that behavior. And so, for me personally Miriam Carver is an amazing abolitionist, a transformative justice practitioner, activist, educator, whose thinking on this is just it’s just so exciting and powerful. And there are others whose work I think it’s really worth crediting their writing and their thinking. Mia Mingus who I already kind of flagged earlier alongside Lea and Stas of an organization called Spring Up, Sarah Schulman, and Rousseau for example and others. So, there is a huge amount of very, very exciting thinking about ways in which we can move out of our bad apples analysis and action into something far more transformative. And the accountability notion that many of these people are kind of dreaming up and practicing is I think where there’s huge promise for all of us to kind of experiment with and engage with.

This is to say that everything I’m about to say now is not the kind of distillation of their thoughts, it’s been built on a lot of their thinking and the ways in which we have interpreted it. So, any misinterpretations are not to be described back to these and these wonderful people rather this is a kind of synthesizing of the ways in which we might think about these in all their imperfections as well. So, let’s kind of think about how we might kind of emerge with some new building blocks as to what else might be possible instead of fragility and how we might get to accountability in our relationships and therefore in our organizations in relation to these issues. The logics of systems of oppression are such that they broadly organize us into binaries of good people or bad people, innocent people or guilty, victim or perpetrator, and that’s the kind of broad underpinning off a system of oppression, those who are subject to it on the negative end of that construction and those who benefit from it are on the positive end.

But all the while systems of oppression, while they’re doing this, are basically rendered invisible and the outcomes of these systems are therefore seen as just you know the way things are, they’re just normal because we haven’t shed a light on what’s producing these outcomes, it’s just the way things are. So, when systems of oppression are kind of invisibilized, and obviously and I want to be clear that this is by design, this is how systems of oppression work. We can only ascribe blame for a behavior to an individual. We can only say that that individual is uniquely bad and guilty for example for perpetuating oppression because there are no wider, there’s nothing bigger than that individual that could be involved to produce certain outcomes. So, individuals become solely responsible for the entirety of the outcomes of the system of oppression. Because of that kind of totalizing location of being bad and guilty for perpetuating an oppression, because we have nothing else to visibilize or shine a light on in this, individuals don’t really have a choice within that system other than to deny, diminish, deflect and defend themselves from taking responsibility for any hurt or harm that they are in fact responsible for because otherwise all that they become is that uniquely and individually bad apple as an individual. Now this is not to kind of remove responsibility from individuals in their relationships. It’s also about proportionate responsibility in these contexts about a broader understanding of how the conditions that produce our particular individual behaviors. So, if we were to kind of then have another framing we could visiblize systems of oppression and what we would see if we take that systemic analysis is that oppression is almost a default in our relationships, our workplaces, our communities ,society more broadly, right. If we were to kind of honor the systemic nature of oppression then reproducing behaviors that perpetuate oppression, we’re going to be able to see them as basically highly likely and extremely ordinary ways of engaging in the world. We have to move out if we have a systemic analysis from a bad individual apple phenomena or narrative for kind of why things happen.

And therefore we’re kind of confronted with perhaps a very uncomfortable reality. If we’re kind of in the space of systemic oppression that we all have the capacity to hurt people and to harm people that we already have to differing extents and that we all probably will do so in the future too, and that’s a lot because that’s a really big departure from everything we’re told and it also means we each have to sit with our capacity as human beings to do hurt and harm. It’s uncomfortable because many of us prefer to see ourselves as good people first and foremost with good intentions. That’s safer, that’s safest if we can, it’s also a very useful defense from accusation. We get to distance ourselves from the very, very bad people which again makes us feel better, while it might not be a very accurate analysis. And it means that none of us get to claim ourselves as sort of pure from what’s going on in the world which many of us perhaps like to do particularly when it comes to challenging oppression to see ourselves as distinct from all those other bad people who we are better than perhaps.

I really want to emphasize again that this analysis is not about removing responsibility at all. But it’s also about understanding what produces that so that we can think about what else we can do in the systems that we find ourselves in to make space for new possibilities of how we might show up. And I think creating environments where we have a collective understanding of what produces hurt and harm and where that comes from and therefore attributing proportionate responsibility is one thing I’ve learned from many of the people who I named earlier towards making accountability a part of the ways in which we are in relationship with each other.

What is accountability? What we have learned as an organization from Lea and Stas of Spring Up is that accountability is taking proportionate responsibility for the outcomes of our actions. Accountability is a verb and a continuous process. What I think is really important about the term proportionate responsibility is actually kind of speaking to what can happen in some situations where people feel really bad for things they might have done and they move into the realm of sort of self-flagellation, taking responsibility for things that they just simply cannot be responsible for.

And when we start to take responsibility for things that we aren’t responsible for it actually diminishes the very act of doing accountability because accountability that’s kind of un-boundaried no longer has the kind of power beneath it or indeed can have a sustainable commitment to it because if we’re taking responsibility for things that we really cannot be responsible for, our commitment for change will never be fulfilled because of that significant gap between ourselves in relation to the impact of what we’ve done on what we are saying we could be responsible for. So that’s a really, I think an exciting part of this. That’s not an excuse to reduce one’s proportionate responsibility either and to say well I’m only going to be responsible for this tiny, tiny, tiny little bit because we know also that those who benefit from the status quo with respect to oppression, have a tendency to take very little so we can go more than the very little responsibility, but this is just a kind of shining a light on some behavior that we can do when we’re sitting particularly in a site of shame in relation to our behavior, we can go beyond that which we actually are able to be responsible for and that diminishes the possibility of committing to new behavior which is of course key in that second half of the definition of accountability where it’s a verb in a continuous process.

Something else that I think kind of really exciting to kind of really grapple with is how accountability is typically used every day in our organizations and in our relationships. Most of the time when people say that they want accountability, what I’ve observed now I’ve kind of been engaging with this new lens, is that most of the time what they really mean is that they want a person to be punished or they want revenge and what I’ve learned from Miriam Carver in particular is that what accountability doesn’t mean is punishment, what it does mean is proportionate consequences. And punishment is very distinct from that, but oftentimes when we’re talking about accountability we really just want somebody to suffer very badly to make ourselves feel better. And I think that is obviously a very legitimate thing for human beings to feel and this isn’t a kind of high horse position, but in the framing for many of these thinkers and practitioners, we just need to be really clear about that distinction. So, it’s fine to want punishment we just have to then say that that’s what we want and it’s fine to want vengeance and we then just have to say that that’s what we want, but being clear that within this particular framing that that isn’t what accountability or doing accountability might look like.

And I think for each of us to be really clear about our language in this regard because it shapes our action, because it shapes our collective realities is really, really important. And so a phrase like hold people to account what I’ve also kind of learned from many of these thinkers and practitioners is that we can’t hold other people to account if we’re truly existing within this new idea of accountability that isn’t about punishment or revenge because accountability in this new framing is not a coercive relationship and to hold people to account is to kind of coerce them in some way. So, if we aren’t sort of coercing people into accountability, what happens? Because we live in a world where people don’t want to take accountability, right. We’ve already just been through all of those reasons why people would not want to take accountability of themselves. So the question then sort of emerges, which I think is so exciting, but really you know a radical departure actually from how many of us are taught and our kind of mainstream understandings of the world actually.

The question that we then are kind of confronted with is what conditions are required for people to step in and take responsibility for their actions and to hold themselves to account? How is accountability something that people invite into their lives and their practice as part of their growth and part of their commitment to this kind of longer term goal of just relationships and a just world. What is required from each of us for that to become a possibility? And I think that this can’t be an individual pursuit, I mean I think we can of course start individually and Mia Mingus in particular speaks really powerfully about this kind of accountability as an individual commitment, but what it means to be accountable to ourselves to do the things that nurture us and to be in right relationship with ourselves as that starting point. So, I think that’s hugely important and I think for me something to kind of pause and reflect on. And I also recognize that within workplace contexts this requires a collective of people coming together almost to produce a micro set of new conditions perhaps of new ways to be with each other that invites this new frame of accountability and recognizes the ways in which systems of oppression play out in our lives and therefore what we need to do from a preventative perspective, and the ways in which we need to be proactive about challenging the harm and hurt that is ordinary on seeing ourselves as connected to these wider systems.

And also really seeing accountability as something that is continuous and a verb and about proportionate responsibility and holding all of those things at the same time, such that we can move out of our bad apples shaming revenge, vengeful and kind of punishment-oriented set ups that are themselves a product of these systems of oppression that we sort of live out all the time day to day. You know, very finally to create any sort of microcosm that is a new paradigm and therefore doing accountability within this particular paradigm that means kind of fragility is to some extent limited, diminished, or managed because we are all human beings and maybe we won’t always show up in perfect ways and that’s to be expected and that’s what I think some of this thinking invites us to lean into. It’s to be expected and therefore how do we plan for it such that we can work through it. All of this is really experimental and iterative work. There are no clean, perfect answers to how this can be done that it’s always going to be these five steps that an organization takes to kind of invite such a paradigm into their world and for us as Fearless Futures, this is something we’re learning and developing and kind of engaging with conceptually in our work and in our own practice. And we’re therefore kind of committed to developing internally as our first step, hopefully with a view to kind of sharing those insights of all kind of fumbles and failures with others as part of that collective learning. So for anyone who’s interested in these kind of new ways of thinking, please engage with the kind of scholars and practitioners that I mentioned, they are doing this kind of very, very actively and then I think in the spirit of experimental initiative practice go forth, engage, and know that messing up is an inevitable part of this process.

Thank you for listening to the Fearless Futures Podcast. If you like what you hear be sure to subscribe, rate and share this episode with a friend. If you’re interested in learning more about the work that we do it Fearless Futures, please visit our website fearlessfutures.org. ’Til next time.

Fearless Futures

Unlearn inequity. Transform the world.

Fearless Futures

Fearless Futures serves daring organisations ready to actively challenge inequities by addressing their roots, intersections, and lived realities. We facilitate transformative learning experiences & partner with our clients through consultancy to design equitatable ecosystems.

Cleo Bergman

Written by

US Corporate Programs Coordinator @ Fearless Futures

Fearless Futures

Fearless Futures serves daring organisations ready to actively challenge inequities by addressing their roots, intersections, and lived realities. We facilitate transformative learning experiences & partner with our clients through consultancy to design equitatable ecosystems.