Why do white people tend to freak out when the conversation moves to being about race?
i just read an excellent interview article online that spoke into some of the things i have been thinking and observing and while it is worth reading the whole thing, there are two aspects i wanted to dive into. Robin DiAngelo [who is being interviewed and is white and runs workshops on anti-racism and has been for more than twenty years] introduces the term ‘White Fragility’ as something she has noticed again and again. One reason she gives for this is the idea we tend to have that ‘Only bad or racist people can be racist’ as opposed to the possibility that a good person can still have some racism in them. It’s not the black and white [ha!] of Complete Racist or No Racism Whatsoever. As a white person, the likelihood is that i am racist in some way or ways [i see it in myself and it’s horrible and needs to be tackled every time] but the question is ‘To What Extent?’
For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist – we don’t engage in those acts. This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time—that we can think of racism as only something that individuals either are or are not “doing.”
In large part, white fragility—the defensiveness, the fear of conflict—is rooted in this good/bad binary. If you call someone out, they think to themselves, “What you just said was that I am a bad person, and that is intolerable to me.” It’s a deep challenge to the core of our identity as good, moral people. [Robin DiAngelo, professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University and author of What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy]
Many white people tend to be a little iffy around race conversation in general, but it tends to be when you bring up the term ‘White Privilege’ that so many of them suddenly get a little “shaky”. i believe that for the most part it’s not understanding what many of us are talking about when we talk about ‘White Privilege’ that causes some of the issue. i think the term has become one of those overused ones that for many people is instant red cloth waved to a bull. If we managed to get some of the people who react so strongly around a dinner table and explain what we are talking about when we talk ‘white privilege’ i believe that for the most part people would be nodding their heads, going, “Oh, well yeah of course.”
White fragility also comes from a deep sense of entitlement. Think about it like this: from the time I opened my eyes, I have been told that as a white person, I am superior to people of color. There’s never been a space in which I have not been receiving that message. From what hospital I was allowed to be born in, to how my mother was treated by the staff, to who owned the hospital, to who cleaned the rooms and took out the garbage. We are born into a racial hierarchy, and every interaction with media and culture confirms it—our sense that, at a fundamental level, we are superior.
And, the thing is, it feels good. Even though it contradicts our most basic principles and values. So we know it, but we can never admit it. It creates this kind of dangerous internal stew that gets enacted externally in our interactions with people of color, and is crazy-making for people of color. We have set the world up to preserve that internal sense of superiority and also resist challenges to it. All while denying that anything is going on and insisting that race is meaningless to us. [Robin DiAngelo]
Wow. DiAngelo nails it on the head. i would love to participate in one of her race workshops.
One thing that helps me think i might be right on the whole direction of where these race conversations have been going on my blog and on Facebook and beyond is the posture. The kinds of people that are saying the same kind of things i am saying or engaging positively in those conversations tend to come with a sense of question, of listening, of being open to learn, of saying things like, ‘Well i don’t know what the answers are but i know we have to do things differently’, of being open to being wrong or needing to change within themselves, of moving away from comfort if necessary, of the possibilities of sacrifice. And more.
Whereas, typically, those people who are arguing against what we are saying and the process are judgemental and accusatory, they say it how it is [as opposed to asking questions, listening, being open to see wrong in themselves], they make personal attacks, they leave ultimatums [“i dare you to post this comment else it proves you’re a liberal doos” or whatever], use Us vs. Them language [“those people”, “the blacks”…], ridicule, talk about how they earned their money and deserve to spend it on themselves, and speak quite negatively about where the country is headed.
If someone disagrees strongly with me and i can see they’ve taken time to listen and hear what i am saying and have formulated an argument based on facts, or sensible ideas, or reasoning, and if they treat me with respect despite strong disagreemnet, and if they argue the issue as opposed to making it personal whether it be about me or other people, then i am far more likely to engage with them further and see if maybe i have something to learn from them even if i disagree with them. And that is what i hope to see more of on here – strong disagreements, back and forth wrestling, passionate arguments on both sides of the conversation – but done with respect, empathy, love, appreciation of the other person’s story and more.
If only we weren’t all so fragile, maybe we could see these conversations move forwards…