Confronting Racism

 Glenn Bigonet, M.A.

Social Activist for Racial Equity

Facilitating Discussions about Racism

 

617-462-6642

gbigonet@icloud.com

           

 

White Fragility

 

"It is white people's responsibility to be less fragile; People of color don't need

to twist themselves into knots trying to navigate us as painlessly as possible."

Robin DiAngelo

 

In her book "White Fragility" Robin DiAngelo very carefully and gently defines and describes what white fragility means.  I'd like to be a little more blunt. White fragility is a description of white people when confronted with racism. Basically most of us are too fragile emotionally to handle it so we deflect, defend, attack and run away in a variety of ways. I know I have for years and I still struggle with my own white fragility today even as I make confronting racism my new life mission.

 

The truth is because of our white privilege we have a choice on whether to deal with racism while people of color do not. Racism is ugly, shameful, and painful. We white people are like all living creatures: we naturally avoid discomfort. Why in the world would we want to look at racism when it causes so much discomfort and we have a choice. It's natural for us to want to avoid it, but avoiding it ensures that racism will continue to hurt and kill our brothers and sisters of color. Understanding white fragility and pushing through it is the only way we can truly stop racism in its tracks by looking at it square in the eyes and labelling it for what it is.

 

Methods and Effects of White Fragility

 

While white fragility is a normal self-protective response it results in more racial harm for people of color. When we are confronted with a behavior we have that is considered to be racist and we defend or deflect that accusation we are in fact negating that person's experience. We are marginalizing them by telling them they are wrong and their experience is not accurate. One way we do this is by focussing on our intentions and negating our impact on the people of color we offended. We also often will say we're not racist because we know what it's like to be marginalized too because we're Jewish, Gay, disabled, etc. What we fail to see is that we can still be racist in some way and be marginalized in a different way. In this case we are showing a lack of understanding of intersectionality and again negate the person's experience of racism. We sometimes try to prove how what we did can't be racist because of white exceptionalism and because of our white exceptionalism we can't be racist because you are either racist or not racist falling in line with the Good/Bad Binary. One common deflection is to declare that reverse racism is occurring and making the harmed party in the wrong which in turn doubles the harm to the person who was already feeling racially harmed. Many times we'll just walk away leaving the person alone in their racial pain or make it all about ourselves again leaving the harmed individual alone in their pain.

 

Our white fragility leads us to avoid racism altogether. In fact, we become oblivious to it. so much so that we've become completely unable to recognize the system of white supremacy within our society. Our failure to recoginze it or even acknowledge it makes it impossible for us to address and change it.   When we are refusing to look at racism we are silent when it occurs and thus complicit in the racist event. When we fail to notice racism we become apathetic to it stopping us from taking any action to stop it. Our white fragility harms those who are trying to tell us they've been harmed many of whom we shut down through tone policing. It also harms them because when we avoid racism and act like it doesn't exist. With techniques like color blindness we are blinding ourselves to the racism that is happening right in front of us. When we refuse to look at racism and address it we are in essense condoning it and continuing the harm that is too painful for us to look at.

 

White Fragility is Power in its Essence 

 

While the behaviors or white fragility are connected to an emotional fragility of many white people this does not mean that white people are fragile. As all people are, white people are incredibly resilient. We also have this way of responding as if we're incredibly fragile when confronted with racism or have it implied that we are bad in any way. This reaction is connected to our white supremist programming that is very black and white and pushes many of us to need unreasonable levels of perfectionism. When we don't meet these expectations we respond with the white fragility as DiAngelo describes.     

 

Robin DiAngelo spells out how "White Fragility is a form of bullying; I am going to make it so miserable for you to confront me - no matter how diplomatically you try to do so - that you will simply back off, give up, and never raise the issue again." She continues that "White Fragility keeps people of color in line and 'in their place'. In this way it is a powerful form of white racial control. Social power is not fixed; it is constantly challenged and needs to be maintained. We might think of the trigger of white fragilty ... as challenges to white power and control, and of white fragility as the means to end the challenge and maintain that power and control." (p.112)   

 

The Way Out of Our White Fragility 

 

Confronting racism cannot happen without confronting our white fragility.  We need to acknowledge and feel our fragility to change it. We need to allow ourselves to feel the discomfort that racism causes all of us and build up our tolerance to it. We need to be gentle and compassionate with ourselves as we experience our own racism and fragility.

 

Robin DiAngelo suggests the following things that we can do about racism and white fragility:(p.144)

  1. Ask yourself "What has enabled you to be a full, educated professional adult and not know what to do about racism? ... How have we managed not to know, when the information is all around us? When people of color have been telling us for years?"
  2. "Do whatever it takes to internalize" her guidelines that I list on my workshop logistics page.
  3.  "Take the initiative and find out on your own. To break with the conditioning of whiteness - the conditioning that makes us apathetic about racism and prevents us from developing the skills we need to interupt it - white people need to find out themselves what they can do. There is so much excellent advice out there today ... search it out. Break with the apathy of whiteness, and demonstrate that you care enough to put in the effort.   

In addressing white fragility Resmaa Menakem writes "I don't give a rat's ass how guilty - or how offended and falsely accused - you feel. What I do care about is what you do with your life now. Are you treating all human beings with genuine regard? Are you calling out evil and immorality when you encounter it? Are you serving your fellow human beings? Are you acting out of the best parts of yourself? Are you working with other white people to develop culture and dismantle all forms of white-body supremacy?" (p.268)

 

Some of My Experiences of My White Fragility

 

I have to say that my experiences to white fragility are far too many to list or remember but there are a few significant ones that I'd like to share with you.

 

A few years ago we were hosting a backyard barbeque for a group of our friends. One of the guests was an acquaintence who I have always liked and felt drawn to but never really connected with in a way that I would like to. Keith is black and showed up to this particular event wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. I had never heard of Black Lives Matter and when I saw the shirt I felt my chest tense up and noticed myself thinking that it was something violent towards whites. It scared me. Wow you talk about white fragility and white centrality, it was all right there in my face. I kept this all to myself of course and felt ashamed by my reaction but I didn't know how to deal with it. My white fragility stopped me from being curious and going up to him and asking him about his shirt and what it was about. It stopped me from having a meaningful conversation with a man who I had always wanted to have more of a connection with. I liked Keith. I still do, and I have never developed a friendship with him because my racism and my white fragility got in the way. I have always felt a sense of loss around this and as I know have a greater understanding of what was happening for me feel that loss to be even greater.     

 

The next experience I'd like to share with you is the night that motivated me to do this work. Not long after the murder of George Floyd my wife and I were on vacation on our boat in Nantucket. If you're not familiar with Nantucket it is the most affluent of the islands off Cape Cod. One common nick name of it is "the white man's island." For the most part it is the epitomy of white privilege. So there I am spending a quiet night on our boat with my wife when she asks me if I'd like to watch a video on racism that had been recommended to her. There I was relaxing on vacation and the last thing I wanted to do was listen to something as distressing as racism. I groaned and said no thanks and went about lounging on the boat. Eva decided she'd watched it herself and started the video on her computer. As the living space on boats is small I could not help to overhear the video featuring Robin DiAngelo talking about white fragility.

 

As I listened, I had an "oh shit" moment as I realized that I was doing in that moment exactly what she was describing. I didn't want to watch a video about racism because it was going to negatively affect how I was feeling. I then started to listen closer. What I heard in the end got me excited. I gained a new understanding of racism that I didn't have before and that as white people if we can honestly look at our own racism we can change the racial dynamic in our society. I was fired up and excited and knew that I needed to make this work a major part of my life.

 

The next night I was sitting up by myself in complete terror. My thinking was that if I do this work every white friend I have will be made uncomfortable with it and pull away from me leaving me with no friends. I was so fearful that their white fragility would cause them to stop being my friends. "I can't do this. It's too scary. I'm not an activist. I was always encourged to rock the boat as little as possible." These were the thoughts running through my head when all of a sudden I thought, "Damn this is my own white fragility again." Then I realized that there I was a relatively affluent white man vacationing on my boat in Nantucket trying to decide if I'm going to get involved with antiracism and bring the discomfort of racism into my life. Being able to make that choice put in my face the incredible amount of privilege that I have and at that moment I knew that I no longer could stay in my integrity and not commit to this work. Seeing my white fragility and having my privilege put so strongly in my face clearly changed my life.

 

Now I have been preparing to do this work for several months and have had my white fragility put in my face time and time again.  Most often it's been when I'd be doing a lot of reading on the topic and would get to a point when I jsut couldn't hold anymore emotionally and I'd backaway from it for a while. Sometimes I'd realize that had no idea what I had been reading for the last half hour or so. Sometimes I'd find myself completely avoiding doing research or anything else moving forward with this project. I also have noticed it on days that I have commited to write in these pages. I don't believe there's been a single day that I haven't dawdled around and procrastinated getting to work many times starting hours later than I had planned.  That's unusual for me around something that I'm excited about but clearly I am regularly bumping into my white fragility.

Copyright © 2020   Glenn Bigonet, M.A.