White Fragility at the Financial Times

Jennifer Shepherd
Jul 20 · 7 min read

“I’ve been reflecting on how naïve I am on the subject of racism. How easy it is to ignore racism as a system, and think of it as a thing that only “bad people” perpetrate.”

The killing of George Floyd and many other events in recent weeks have increased public consciousness and discussion globally on systemic racism.  Last year, the FT hosted a screening to begin a conversation in the workplace about some areas that many of our workforce are unlikely to have explored previously.  This post was a write-up of that event and all the quotes are from attendees unless otherwise stated.It is hugely important to us to look at what it means to be anti-racist when the hashtag stops trending, and next week we host Nicola Rollock to help us continue with the work.  Nicola is an academic, consultant and public speaker specialising in racial justice in education and the workplace.  She is widely known for her research which examines the career experiences of Black female professors and the exhibition that led on from this, Phenomenal Women. You can read her latest article for FT Work & Careers here.

Last year, Product + Tech partnered with FT Embrace to screen a lecture by Robin DiAngelo on ‘White Fragility’. Embrace is our employee network that seeks to celebrate (and educate people on) BAME experiences, and this video was an excellent resource to inform and generate thought and discussion. Understandably some of the Embrace committee felt apprehensive: they felt uncomfortable about the title but were reassured by the fact it was proposed by white colleagues.

“I don’t think it was something I’d have sat down and found the time to watch myself so I appreciated it being screened to a group. It was a very self-selecting audience but everyone there seemed to be paying attention and taking it in.”

What is ‘White Fragility’?

Robin summarises: “White fragility is meant to capture the defensiveness that so many white people display when our worldviews, our identities or our racial positions are challenged…the fragility part is meant to capture how easy it is to trigger that defensiveness. For many white people the mere suggestion that being white has meaning will set us off. Another thing that will set us off is generalizing about white people”.

“I am white people. It taught me a lot, and I hope I can help other white people see it.”

The lecture, delivered by a white woman and aimed at white people who do not consider themselves racist, explores why it is so hard to talk about race, how racism shapes our society and what we can do about it. Robin uses a definition of racism that’s established yet unfamiliar for many — expanding it from unpleasant, intentional and conscious acts by individuals and instead presenting a problem that manifests as a system we are all part of.

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“This was the second time I’d watched the video. The first time, one of the main things I took from it was that I need to stop being afraid of talking about race. The worst that can happen is that I look foolish or I inadvertently reveal my own racism — essentially, the worst that can happen is that I feel discomfort. That is nothing compared to what can happen to people of colour who are much more harshly impacted for speaking out about racism, and it’s nothing at all compared to actually living with the effects of racism.

The second time I watched it I really heard the message that I hadn’t heard so clearly the first time — how liberating it would be to admit “Yes, I am racist”. It’s impossible not to be, as a white person, having grown up in this culture. And instead of tying ourselves in knots to prove that we are in fact different from all those other racist people, how liberating it would be to just let that go, and spend our energy instead on the real work of addressing racism.”

We knew that some people would find the title controversial but ideally we’d all learn something new, discuss what impacted us and reflect and adjust going forward. All employees were invited and although it was predictably a self-selecting group who did attend, this did include some of our most senior colleagues and a board member.

It reminded me that I work with lots of people who feel that topics such as this are important and worth being educated on.”

I asked guests if they’d like to share their reflections on the event. The initial reflections focussed on who had come along. One thing people commented on was who had attended. About half the room was white and half was people of colour, but as this lecture is so squarely aimed at white people, many attendees would have liked to see more white people in the room.

“I felt uncomfortable, but in the vein of “hi do you know you’re naked”, like, it’s totally something I need to fix.”

There were also reflections on the discomfort that white colleagues felt watching the screening with colleagues of colour whose shared glances hammered home the points DiAngelo made. The message was unavoidable and not a measure of how good or bad we are, but something every single one of us is part of. The mood shifted from ignorance to awareness. Many realised they’d had few discussions about racism with anyone, let alone people of colour. Observing dialogue online was the extent of most people’s exposure. Changing the system felt like a difficult task — it’s all so ingrained.

“I was so pleased to see so many of my colleagues engaging in conversations afterwards on topics that certainly many of those of us who are white have never had to consider before.”

After the screening we stuck around to chat through what we’d heard. It was a fantastic, immediate opportunity to discuss our responses: a time of thoughtfulness, confession, dismay and vulnerability. DiAngelo talked about how we tend to use our racial discomfort as a way to avoid discussion, rather than seeing it as an indication that it’s a useful, vital attitude to explore within ourselves.

“This lecture has given me the language to talk about my own racism and white fragility. I’m not afraid of “saying something racist” anymore because I know that fear is stopping me from acting to combat racism. I know that the pro-move is (as with everything) learning how to apologise, repair, and not repeat mistakes. I don’t waste time feeling guilty about my white privilege because that guilt isn’t doing anything unless I convert it into action.”

We discussed what we might change on a micro level. Listening to colleagues of colour’s experiences, asking friends about our actions and trying to understand how white privilege, fragility and racism plays into our behaviour or views were all ideas. We looked at ourselves and society in a new way, and many attendees have taken steps to research more into racism within the UK rather than viewing it as predominantly a problem the US faces.

The screening was a great first step and it’s important that we continue to spend time grappling with the ideas in the lecture. Product and Tech (and FT Embrace) are keen to hold more events like this so that we can work together, sharing and sharpening each other as we learn more. It has helped us grow interest, start conversation and allow questions. I highly recommend it! Grab a bunch of friends or colleagues to watch this with and have a chat afterwards. Pile together your questions; start looking for answers.

“I’m extremely proud that, as an organisation, we can do this kind of event, and I would like to see more like it.”

Edit 21/7/20:

Since watching this lecture we have become aware of the criticism of her work. Several black writers and activists have shared their concerns (e.g. Lauren Michele Jackson, Kim Crayton, Cedrick-Michael Simmons).

This very development is an excellent example of how white people need to be continually listening to people of colour and changing behaviour. This is where today’s event with Nicola Rollock aims to move things forward.

I wanted to share this process with others. This is the very work itself. We (white people who aim to be allies) have to acknowledge and accept that we will always be working on this and must adapt to what people of colour are saying. It’s a very fluid and dynamic learning process.

There is no shame in this. We have learned to feel shame but it is not about us or about ‘being right’. We are evolving, continually and I hope that sharing this process will help others accept their own need to evolve as they participate in this process.

We absolutely believe that the best education on anti-racism comes from people of colour and suggest these recommended resources (UK focussed).

Suggested listening:

“I felt glad to work at a place where you can get white people to voluntarily go to a room to be told they are racist.”

FT Product & Technology

A blog by the Financial Times Product & Technology…

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