WE CAN’T GET THERE FROM HERE
I am a white woman. I am standing beside a black woman. We are facing a group of white people seated in front of us. We are in their workplace and have been hired by their employer to lead them in a dialogue about race. The room is filled with tension and charged with hostility. I have just presented a definition of racism that includes the acknowledgment that whites hold social and institutional power over people of color. A white man is pounding his fist on the table. As he pounds, he yells, “A white person can’t get a job anymore!” I look around the room and see forty employees, thirty-eight of whom are white. Why is this white man so angry? Why is he being so careless about the impact of his anger? Why doesn’t he notice the effect this outburst is having on the few people of color in the room? Why are all the other white people either sitting in silent agreement with him or tuning out? I have, after all, only articulated a definition of racism.
White people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality. As a result, we are insulated from racial stress, at the same time that we come to feel entitled to and deserving of our advantage. Given how seldom we experience racial discomfort in a society we dominate, we haven’t had to build our racial stamina. Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable—the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualize this process as white fragility. Though white fragility is triggered by discomfort and anxiety, it is born of superiority and entitlement. White fragility is not weakness per se. In fact, it is a powerful means of white racial control and the protection of white advantage.
Summarizing the familiar patterns of white people’s responses to racial discomfort as white fragility has resonated for many people. The sensibility is so familiar because whereas our personal narratives vary, we are all swimming in the same racial water. For me, the recognition has come through my work. I have a rare job; on a daily basis I lead primarily white audiences in discussions of race, something many of us avoid at all costs.
In the early days of my work as what was then termed a diversity trainer, I was taken aback by how angry and defensive so many white people became at the suggestion that they were connected to racism in any way. The very idea that they would be required to attend a workshop on racism outraged them. They entered the room angry and made that feeling clear to us throughout the day as they slammed their notebooks down on the table, refused to participate in exercises, and argued against any and all points.
I couldn’t understand their resentment or disinterest in learning more about such a complex social dynamic as racism. These reactions were especially perplexing when there were few or no people of color in their workplace, and they had the opportunity to learn from my co facilitators of color. I assumed that in these circumstances, an educational workshop on racism would be appreciated. After all, didn’t the lack of diversity indicate a problem or at least suggest that some perspectives were missing? Or that the participants might be undereducated about race because of scant cross-racial interactions?
It took me several years to see beneath these reactions. At first I was intimidated by them, and they held me back and kept me careful and quiet. But over time, I began to see what lay beneath this anger and resistance to discuss race or listen to people of color. I observed consistent responses from a variety of participants. For example, many white participants who lived in white suburban neighborhoods and had no sustained relationships with people of color were absolutely certain that they held no racial prejudice or animosity. Other participants simplistically reduced racism to a matter of nice people versus mean people. Most appeared to believe that racism ended in 1865 with the end of slavery. There was both knee-jerk defensiveness about any suggestion that being white had meaning and a refusal to acknowledge any advantage to being white. Many participants claimed white people were now the oppressed group, and they deeply resented anything perceived to be a form of affirmative action. These responses were so predictable—so consistent and reliable—I was able to stop taking the resistance personally, get past my own conflict avoidance, and reflect on what was behind them.
I began to see what I think of as the pillars of whiteness—the unexamined beliefs that prop up our racial responses. I could see the power of the belief that only bad people were racist, as well as how individualism allowed white people to exempt themselves from the forces of socialization. I could see how we are taught to think about racism only as discrete acts committed by individual people, rather than as a complex, interconnected system. And in light of so many white expressions of resentment toward people of color, I realized that we see ourselves as entitled to, and deserving of, more than people of color deserve; I saw our investment in a system that serves us. I also saw how hard we worked to deny all this and how defensive we became when these dynamics were named. In turn, I saw how our defensiveness maintained the racial status quo.
Personal reflections on my own racism, a more critical view of media and other aspects of culture, and exposure to the perspectives of many brilliant and patient mentors of color all helped me to see how these pillars of racism worked. It became clear that if I believed that only bad people who intended to hurt others because of race could ever do so, I would respond with outrage to any suggestion that I was involved in racism. Of course that belief would make me feel falsely accused of something terrible, and of course I would want to defend my character (and I had certainly had many of my own moments of responding in just those ways to reflect on). I came to see that the way we are taught to define racism makes it virtually impossible for white people to understand it. Given our racial insulation, coupled with misinformation, any suggestion that we are complicit in racism is a kind of unwelcome and insulting shock to the system.
If, however, I understand racism as a system into which I was socialized, I can receive feedback on my problematic racial patterns as a helpful way to support my learning and growth. One of the greatest social fears for a white person is being told that something that we have said or done is racially problematic. Yet when someone lets us know that we have just done such a thing, rather than respond with gratitude and relief (after all, now that we are informed, we won’t do it again), we often respond with anger and denial. Such moments can be experienced as something valuable, even if temporarily painful, only after we accept that racism is unavoidable and that it is impossible to completely escape having developed problematic racial assumptions and behaviors.
None of the white people whose actions I describe in this book would identify as racist. In fact, they would most likely identify as racially progressive and vehemently deny any complicity with racism. Yet all their responses illustrate white fragility and how it holds racism in place. These responses spur the daily frustrations and indignities people of color endure from white people who see themselves as open-minded and thus not racist. This book is intended for us, for white progressives who so often—despite our conscious intentions—make life so difficult for people of color. I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color. I define a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the “choir,” or already “gets it.” White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived. None of our energy will go into what we need to be doing for the rest of our lives: engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual antiracist practice. White progressives do indeed uphold and perpetrate racism, but our defensiveness and certitude make it virtually impossible to explain to us how we do so.
Racism has been among the most complex social dilemmas since the founding of this country. While there is no biological race as we understand it (see chapter 2), race as a social construct has profound significance and shapes every aspect of our lives.1 Race will influence whether we will survive our birth, where we are most likely to live, which schools we will attend, who our friends and partners will be, what careers we will have, how much money we will earn, how healthy we will be, and even how long we can expect to live.2 This book does not attempt to provide the solution to racism. Nor does it attempt to prove that racism exists; I start from that premise. My goal is to make visible how one aspect of white sensibility continues to hold racism in place: white fragility.
I will explain the phenomenon of white fragility, how we develop it, how it protects racial inequality, and what we might do about it.
1. Angela Onwuachi-Willig, According to Our Hearts: Rhinelander v. Rhinelander and the Law of the Multiracial Family (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013).
2. Larry Adelman, Race: The Power of an Illusion, video (San Francisco: California Newsreel, 2003); Heather Beth Johnson and Thomas M. Shapiro, “Good Neighborhoods, Good Schools: Race and the ‘Good Choices’ of White Families,” in White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism, ed. Ashley W. Doane and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (New York: Routledge, 2003), 173–87.