As white people start to do the work of becoming anti-racist, there are some phrases we hear that we might not be super familiar with. Part of the purpose of the NAFC blog is to help those who are on this journey understand the language of this field of study. Today we are going to discuss white fragility.
White Fragility: Discomfort and defensiveness on the part of the white person when confronted by information about racial inequity and injustice. It is important to note that while white fragility is not technically racism, it can contribute to racism by dismissing white domination and racial conditioning.
While the above definition mentions discomfort, it is the defensiveness piece that is key. When people are learning more information and peeling back the layers of their previously unknown bias, it does not feel comfortable. Anytime someone has a mirror held up to their face, and they observe characteristics of themselves which are mean and ugly, it can feel gross and uncomfortable. However, leaning into that discomfort is what determines someone who is willing to do the work of growing and someone who just gets defensive about why they are the way they are.
On a popular television show, Real Housewives of New York City, a group of women were sitting around the dinner table discussing their various struggles. The attention turned to one Black mother who was attempting to share her personal, traumatic experience with giving birth to a premature baby at 29 weeks gestation. As this woman tried sharing her experience (peppered with data from recent studies from other Black women in similar situations) of being denied pain medication from the white nurses telling her that she was just looking to score drugs, a few of the white women at the table interrupted her to discount her experience or accuse her of making a big deal out of nothing. One of these women was especially animated, claiming that she too had pain in childbirth and the Black nurse who assisted her ignored her, told her she wasn’t experiencing pain and refused to give her pain meds. These white women were attempting to “one-up” the Black woman’s story as well as discount her experience. When others pointed out that these experiences happen often, they became defensive and angry and felt personally attacked. The white women stopped listening to the Black woman talking about her experience. They did not stop to consider the data supporting the notion that Black women are refused pain medication more often than white women. They shifted the attention from the Black woman and her experience to the white woman and her feelings. This is a textbook case of white fragility.
The problem with white fragility is that instead of people learning and growing in discussions surrounding race, the discussion shuts down immediately. Instead of focusing on issues at hand, attention turns to the recipient of information and how it affects her personally.
People who struggle with white fragility often do not consider themselves to be racist. This is where their problems stem from. If you believe you are part of the solution and someone calls you out on problematic ideas or behaviors, chances are your feelings will be hurt. The problem isn’t that you need to learn more about racism and how to be anti-racist, the problem is the reactions you have when called out by wrong beliefs.
There are many different situations which can cause someone to react to information in fragile ways. The main thing to keep in mind, however, is that it has nothing to do with the subject matter or the difficulty of the discussions, and everything to do with the person who is receiving this information. Some examples of things that trigger a fragile reaction from someone are:
- Accusations of being racist: For someone who believes that they are an ally to BIPOC, the worst thing in their mind is an accusation of being racist. Afterall, racists are bad people and they cannot be a bad person. One woman shared a story about discussion with her sister. She writes, “I had an uncomfortable experience with my sister a couple of weeks ago where I was talking to her about her declaration that because she’s conservative, she’s called a homophobic racist. I mentioned out to her that I’m on a journey to explore and correct my own racist tendencies. She stated that she considers herself “prejudiced” with the implication that calling out someone’s racism is name-calling.” In her sister’s mind, it was worse to be called a racist than it was to consider how her actions were racist. This is a prime example of white fragility!
- A BIPOC person talking about their own racial experiences and perspectives: White people are used to being the center of the narrative. In much of our world, we are the main character! When someone talks about their experiences and it doesn’t line up with how we experience things, it can feel uncomfortable. White fragility in this instance manifests itself as taking the offensive here and turning the light back onto the white person’s experience while minimizing anyone else’s experience. An example of this is when people discuss systemic racism. I have had many discussions with white women about Affirmative Action and how they believe it is unfair. What usually happens as I ask clarifying questions their stances, their responses become textbook. “I’ve struggled my whole life, I’m not privileged.” “No one ever handed me anything, I’ve had to work for what I own. It’s not fair that people should be able to get a job just because of the color of their skin.” When I point out that no one claims someone hasn’t struggled, but that the color of their skin has never held them back, they usually argue that because of Affirmative Action it has held them back (read the post about this here: https://newtownallies.org/blog/general/reverse-racism-is-it-a-real-problem/). Many will also claim that their white children are refused access to prestigious colleges because they are white while their Black friends (who are never as accomplished as their own children) get into those schools.
- Any situation wherein the white race is not central: This goes along with the above example, except it’s a little broader. A factor in white fragility is the idea that white people are just people, while BIPOC belong to a race. We wrongly believe that white people can represent all of humanity, but POC can only represent their little corner of the world (and this isn’t even touching the statistics about how white people aren’t even the most populous group in the world). This played out in the media recently when the trailer for the live action version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid was released. Ariel, who was drawn as a pale red headed girl in the 1989 cartoon, was played by Halle Bailey, a Black woman. The amount of white people offended at this casting choice was astonishing. In an article published by CNN (Analysis: Why racist ‘The Little Mermaid’ arguments don’t hold up | CNN), the author points out that YouTube had to delete the dislike button on the trailer because it was bombarded with more than 1.5 million dislikes along with racist comments. One racist group even digitally remastered the trailer to take Bailey completely out and replace her with a white actress. The hashtag #NotMyAriel was trending as well. This is just one more example of white fragility on display
- Dismissing informed perspectives on race rather than acknowledging a lack of understanding: This is where someone believes that because they have read a book (or maybe two) about racial issues, they have a better perspective on it than someone’s lived experiences.
How can we do better?
As a white woman this is a difficult topic for me to write about. There are times that I am incredibly aware of my fragile ego, but there are probably more times that I am completely unaware of it. It never feels nice when someone calls me out on my ignorance. Rather than responding with gratitude and relief that I have an opportunity to learn and grow (so that I will hopefully not repeat my mistake), I sometimes respond with anger, denial, or what I like to call “my own butt-hurt feelings”. When these gut reactions happen, “Why don’t they see my heart in this? Why aren’t they seeing that I’m trying? I’m spending so much of my time learning and doing work and no one has given me a participation award!” I have to sit back and remind myself that the work of becoming anti-racist isn’t about me. None of this is “The Carrie Show” and I need to shut up and consider those who live the experiences as opposed to just reading about it in books.
Wendy Leon-Gambetta, a local Newtown woman involved with NAFC and fellow contributor to this blog, shared her own personal experience dealing with her fragility. She shares, “I was participating in a book discussion via Zoom, co-sponsored by the library and NAFC. At one point, someone called me out on something I had said. My comment was racially problematic and they called me on it. I became increasingly flustered, tripping over my tongue as I struggled to find the right words. I felt misunderstood, judged, annoyed, and ready to leave NAFC behind. ‘They don’t know me!’ ‘I’m not a racist!’ ‘I’m politically progressive!’ The next day, like a lightbulb over my head, I realized that I had exhibited the very thing I was struggling to understand: white fragility.”
So, what can we do better? If you are called out (or rather, called in) for something you say or do that is considered problematic or racist, pause. Just stop for a minute and consider your reaction. Why do you feel the way you do? Are you centering yourself or are you really trying to learn and grow? While it never feels good when we are called on our crap, it always feels good to grow in our knowledge and understanding. If you are called out, apologize for your comment/actions but do NOT make excuses for it. A simple, “I’m so sorry for what I said. Please forgive me, I will try to do better in the future. Thank you for helping me understand that what I said was wrong.” Remember: Our BIPOC friends have ZERO obligation to coddle our feelings or make us feel better in our discomfort. When we are called out it means that they trust us enough to believe that we DO have good intentions. They simply want us to know better.
And when we know better, we do better.