White Fragility



After the recent incident in Minneapolis where a white police officer killed a black by kneeling on his neck for nearly 9 minutes even though he was lying on his back with his handcuffed behind him and he was clearly having great difficulty breathing. That incident has energized  and enraged people around the world including Canada.

I was already thinking about the issue of racism because I had recently read a fascinating book called White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for White People to Talk About Racism, written by Robin DiAngelo. The book was given to me for Christmas by my half-indigenous daughter-in-law. I wonder what she was trying to tell me?   But I have learned a lot from that book. I recommend that everyone read it. It is worth the read. I also heard DiAngelo on PBS’s Amanpour & Company.

I have never met anyone who admits to being a racist. None. There may be some out there who admit that they are racists, but they would be extremely rare. That does not mean, of course, that there are no racists. There are many.

No one likes being called a racist. It is generally considered one of the worst things you can say about someone, even people who are clearly racists.

Even many progressive or liberal thinking people however are racists. They just don’t know it. That does not mean they are racists about everything. It does mean that they exhibit racism. They express racism.

When white people are questioned about racism, even without a deliberate accusation of racism, people are very quick to respond viscerally ‘I am not a racist.’ The problem is things are not that simple. Robin DiAngelo, in her  book,  argues that there is an unconscious bias even among the most progressive of white people, including herself.

What does she mean by the expression ‘white fragility’? She puts it this way, “The expression ‘white fragility’ is meant to capture how little it takes to set white people off into defensiveness. For many white people the mere suggestion that whiteness has meaning is enough to cause us to erupt in defensiveness.” Many white people object to any such generalizations. “Individualism is a really precious ideology for white people and we don’t like to be generalized about.”

DiAngelo responds to such objections a sociologist. She is comfortable about generalizing about people. Social life is observable in patterned ways. But, she adds, “I am also a member of a social group and we all have to be willing to grapple with collective messages we are all receiving because we live in a shared culture.”

She is a professor of sociology but she came to her current beliefs through experience. She got a job in the 1990s as a diversity trainer. She felt confident she could lead discussion on such topics because of course, she was above racism. After all, as she said, “I was a vegetarian how could I be a racist?” Yet she exhibited all the classic liberal symptoms of racism and when she worked with people of colour some of them challenged her. And those challenges were uncomfortable. She had to learn to handle accusations of racism openly and with grace and honesty. That was not easy at first.

Until then, when she was in her thirties, she had never had her racial world-view challenged. She did not believe she had a racial world-view. As a white person she saw herself as “just human.” As she said, “Most white people have an unracialized identity.”

When she went to workplaces they were overwhelming filled with white people who were mandated to have such discussions. As a result she was met with deep hostility. After all none of them were racists. At one company seminar where there were 40 people and 38 of them were white, one white man pounded the table screaming that white people can’t get jobs. According to DiAngelo this position is a kind of delusion. As some people have said, ‘when you are used to 100% 98% feels oppressive.’

DiAngelo tries in her book to explain why whites feel uncomfortable about discussing race with non-whites. It is worth thinking about. I intend to blog more about what I learned from reading her book and others, as well as some personal experiences.  All of us should think about racism. Even if it’s uncomfortable. Maybe, especially if it’s uncomfortable.

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