written by Katherine Kirkinis,Metal health counselor and doctoral fellow at SUNY Albany. Sarah Birdsong, Mental health counselor and emotional intelligence educator
No one wants to be called fragile. And if you’re white, what you feel reading the title of this article may be indicative of the term. “White fragility” refers to white people’s low emotional tolerance for discussing topics of race and racism.
The term was coined by Dr. Robin DiAngelo in a 2011 article discussing her experience with white people in anti-racism trainings. She defines it as “a state when even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.”
We’ve taught similar anti-oppression trainings at tech companies, where we worked as in-house psychotherapists and emotional intelligence educators, and we’ve struggled with similar challenges. In our experience, when introducing the concept of race and oppression, the first defense is usually a diversion led by the students to the topic of the oppression of red-headed people, the overweight, the disabled, or their own immigrant heritages. We aim to explain to the group how although these experiences, while indeed oppressive, are not comparable to the centuries of enslavement, race-based legislation, systematic incarceration, and unequal wealth distribution that is racism in the United States. The other class favorite is the derailment to a discussion about “reverse racism,” where we often defer to comedian Aamer Rahmen’s three minute video to resolve. What begins as a workshop often ends up feeling much more like a battle. Facilitators before us have gone so far as to outline specific participation guidelines for these workshops such as ”speak from your own experience” (i.e. no playing devil’s advocate or using hypotheticals) to nip some of the other common defense mechanisms in the bud and to promote more productive conversations.
What makes race so hard for white people to talk about? For many, topics of race and racism trigger intense emotional reactions for a few reasons:
- They’re not used to it: As the longtime racial majority in the US, white people experience little, if any, race-based stress. When it is experienced, it’s usually only temporary, superficial, and/or by choice. There’s a running joke that you can’t call a white man anything that particularly insults him at the identity level except for racist or sexist—that joke is about white fragility. Louis C.K. expands upon this in one of his routines, stating that the worst thing you can call a white man is “cracker,” but even that harkens back to “a time of owning land and people”—a power position and, therefore, not particularly hurtful. Because white people haven’t been fundamentally exposed to race-based stress, they have high expectations for racial comfort. It’s not only that whites aren’t accustomed to race-based discomfort—it’s a novel type of stress that they have pretty much no practice coping with. Words like “low-income,” “urban,” and “under-resourced” are comfortable because they’re terms used by the media to describe “other” people (i.e. non-whites). On the flip side, words like “white,” “advantaged,” and “privileged,” ignite in us an emotional reaction because suddenly the finger is pointed at us—we are suddenly the problem—and we are overwhelmed by feelings of guilt, shame, and blame. When that happens, all emotional hell breaks loose because we just don’t have the tolerance to deal with it, and, depending on your personality, tend to either erupt or shut-down.
- They don’t see it: Often times, talking about race with white people is like talking about water with a fish. Dr. Derald W. Sue (2004) conducted a series of interviews in San Francisco, with some great quotes from white people answering the prompt, “What does it means to be white?” Their answers can be summed up as several variations of: “I don’t know, normal?” Whites don’t even notice their whiteness—they don’t tend to think of themselves as having race. It’s awkward, because we all have a race and white is one of them. It’s even more awkward when white people say things about envying culture and ethnicity, because they don’t see their own culture and ethnicity as anything other than the baseline.
- Moral dilemmas: Discussions of racism challenge whites’ conception that they’re good people, and “privilege” challenges the belief that they are hardworking and deserve everything that they have. When someone says “privilege” we hear “you’re undeserving of your blessings,” (like this guy) and when someone mentions “racism” we all think we’re being called racists! For whites, racial discussions often become (unintentionally) about whether they’re good or bad people—moral or immoral. It’s the same reason a discussion of sexism lead to the popular “not all men” meme. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to derail the conversation, other ourselves, and separate from the system of oppression. When the core of our existence is brought into question, it gets emotional pretty quickly. But these emotional reactions are track-switching—we’re no longer talking about the issue of inequality, we’re talking about ourselves. When our reality as good and moral people feels threatened, up go the defenses and we stop listening. That “track-switching” process right there is actually a continuation and reinforcement of our privilege—whites get to walk away from the implications of race when people of color don’t have that luxury, so let’s get real about that for a second.
What can a white person do?
- Build tolerance by consciously moving past the good/bad reactionary thinking and learn how to manage feelings of guilt and shame without putting up defenses. Racial conversations are not about you individually, or if you are a good or bad person, racist or not racist. For white people, understanding that racial oppression is not your fault as an individual can be both revolutionary and incredibly helpful. You were born where you were born, your skin is the color that it is, and you grew up how you did, exposed to the media and a society that you had no control over, all of which led you to being exactly who you are today.
We all have biases, regardless of our race, gender, sexuality, class, or religion, many of which are unconscious. The human brain uses split second reactions to make sense of the world using only cues in appearance and behavior, and those reactions are highly socialized by cultural norms and media influences. If you don’t believe us, check out the Harvard implicit associations test (IAT) to measure your own.
Society and media have contributed to inlaying some biases you didn’t choose to have. Does having biases make you a bad, immoral person? No. Is it good to acknowledge and work to challenge your own biases? Absolutely. Are you “bad” because you didn’t know that you had unconscious biases until now? Not at all.
In retrospect, you might realize that some of your learned behavior or speech has been pejorative, supporting a system of oppression, or exclusionary, but that’s not a definitive character judgement and recognizing that could be a really valuable moment. We’re building awareness here. Try to let go of the good/bad binary, and open yourself up to discussion and possibility that if you’re American, you almost definitely have racial biases, and if you’re white, add unearned access to privilege to that too. Still with us?
So, while it’s not your fault that you were born white, and benefit from white privilege, it is your obligation and responsibility to develop awareness of the ways in which you benefit. Whites can and should acknowledge the past and present of their own racial group—the people who look like you (whether you share a hereditary bloodline or not)—and acknowledge how racism preserves today without the need to call into question your own morality. Individualism here is not to erase history or to negate the fact that white is still part of a racially socialized group. You as an individual are not outside of socialization or messages from society about race in culture. You are not outside unequal wealth distribution by race. No one is.
- Resist your defenses and keep listening. There’s a role in this system of oppression that you are playing, and the sooner you can tolerate that reality, the sooner you can decrease that participation. Rather than have the fragility and inability to talk about it, why not put on a new attitude and try to accept a few things about you that might not look so hot? In life, there are certain chain reactions at play that lead some people straight to the top and leave others at the bottom. The myth of meritocracy gets in the way of seeing this—we all want to hold onto our story that we’re strong, smart, and deserve everything we have. Maybe a white person graduated from Princeton because she was a good student, but it also might be because they had sufficient funds to attend, access to resources to take all those SAT prep courses, and look like the people Princeton has traditionally accepted. Maybe that white person is really good at her job, but they may also have had some connections (from Princeton, perhaps?) that helped get her in the door, not to mention an anglicized surname that may have pushed their resume to the top of the interview pile. Yes, some people get scholarships, take out loans, have at it the hard way, and rise to the top despite many significant challenges, but these are the outliers. So let’s let go of the myth of meritocracy, and make way for a more fully encompassing (and validating) truth—that if the former sounds like you, you had the golden ticket—a lot of help (financial and otherwise) to get to where you are today.
- Become an ally. The more white people can increase their tolerance for these conversations, they immediately decrease their entitlement and open themselves to the possibility of being allies. When a white person responds to a conversation about race by taking a breath and listening instead of being defensive and trying to prove how “not racist” they are, they are seen as an ally—and allies are easy to spot! There’s an understanding in the field that people of color may have a greater access to what it means to be white than white people, just as women have a greater understanding of what it means to be male than men—it’s a product of living as a minority. So calm yourself and try to listen, even if only because you look foolish grabbing at straws for an explanation of something much greater than your own small behaviors.
- Work to transform the system—not perpetuate it. White people perpetuate the problem by being fragile in their inability to even discuss the issue, by the denial of white privilege and the significance of race. We perpetuate it by being angry when someone “accuses” us of benefiting from racism. Transform the system by understanding how whites have and continue to benefit from it. White people have the power to transform it by accepting the psychological burden that we live in a racialized society. It’s heavy, and no one wants to hold it, but maybe, just maybe, we can.