Last week, I was lucky enough to get a ticket to Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility Workshop. It was riveting, challenging, enlightening, stimulating, scary, fun, and totally worth my time.
I left full of thoughts and plans and hopes. One thought: I will talk about this. I will write about this.
One week later, I’ve been unable to write about my white fragility. Every time I think I’m ready to get started, I skitter away like a drop of water on a hot frying pan. And it is a frying pan, and it’s hot, but I am not a drop of water.
I’m a white woman living in the U.S. in the 21st century. I’m a middle-class liberal living smack in the middle of an evergreen city.
Not talking about the white fragility workshop is a demonstration of white fragility. To toughen myself, I’m going to talk.
I live in “a social environment that protects and insulates [me] from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress.” This is DiAngelo’s setting for “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves… [including] the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”
I am usually silent on race. Sometimes, in my family setting, I’ll easily discuss race in ways both serious and humorous. Does that mean sometimes I tell inappropriate jokes? Yes, in my bubble of safety. It also means that among people like me, whom I love, I can explore the boundaries of acceptable behavior and do the kind of noticing and social commentary that I don’t feel comfortable doing in public.
As I write this, I’m worried I’ll say something wrong. Something offensive. Usually, I don’t worry about being offensive in the topics I choose; anybody who doesn’t like my foul language can fuck off. But that’s not what I’m worried about. I’m really nervous about somehow revealing my underlying racism.
And that’s the kind of fear that shuts white people down.
I came home from the workshop with a bunch of useful handouts for situations just like this one.This may sound feeble, but I keep looking at them for inspiration and support. There’s a checklist for “10 Simple Ways White People Can Step Up to Fight Everyday Racism.” There’s “To Equalize Power Among Us,” a list of do’s and don’ts.
There’s a list of silence breakers, ways to “speak to the fear of losing face, making a mistake,” and all the other fears that shut me down.
For a while I thought: I’ll just take one of these and write about it and practice it every day. I’m not done with that thought, but I want first to address four others that have come up during and since the workshop.
1) I realized that in looking at my first ten years of life, in West Lafayette, Indiana, I can not only count and name all the black people I met, but when remembering about people of color in my community, I only thought about black people. In my accounting, I missed the Latinos and Asians I can also count and name. Even so, I have fingers left after counting, and it’s clear that I was living in a segregated world. It’s clear that today my world is also fairly segregated; DiAngelo pointed out her own realization that it was possible for a white person to live and die without ever having to socialize, worship, play or work in a room of people who weren’t all or mostly like her, and that is certainly my experience.
2) I went to a well-meaning public alternative school in Seattle, Summit K-12, which was at one point in its history (I believe its doors are closed) a magnet school. I bused from the North End of Seattle to the Central District; the school was placed so it could be more of a neighborhood school for people of color and a destination for the white liberals who sought alternative schooling. I made the trek for 5 years, and I feel angry and sad that I was not very well-equipped to handle the racial tension of the bus ride and the school day. I can’t speak to the actual curriculum at the time, but it certainly reinforced my white fragility, putting me on the defensive at the only period in my life I’ve been around enough people of color to form lifelong impressions of and relationships with individuals. I still carry the impressions and stories about the individuals, but I don’t have the lasting relationships. Instead, I have reinforced white guilt, which from my perspective at the time was the curriculum.
3) Being a woman gives me a double-edged perspective, a way of identifying and contextualizing what I don’t like about how I’m treated and why I might want to treat other people differently in the future. (I’m having a moment of intense fear that someone is going to parse my sentences so carefully that they question phrases like “in the future” — Why not in the present? Why didn’t you behave differently in the past? — and I have to turn away from the fear so I don’t get defensive and shut down in the face of phantoms because that is a clear sign of white fragility.) That is to say, I have white privilege which makes it hard for me to see my white privilege, but I can see men’s privilege all the time, even when they can’t, so I know there are unknown worlds for me to discover. I want the world to reflect MY experiences as a woman, so I understand the need to be seen and to shape the world in ways that reflect the experiences of people of color.
4) I have lost at least one friend to what today might be called “race-splaining.” We were home from college, both having had our heads filled with theory that we were trying to put into practice, and I decided not to listen to her theories about race. She was biracial, after all, and hadn’t had it nearly as bad as many others — in fact, I was pretty sure she had never suffered from racism, and I told her so. And then I wondered why she stopped calling me. Though that was over 25 years ago, I’m not all better now. I’m probably somewhat better, at least at some of the things I say, and many of the things I think. I no longer believe it is my right to correct her reality.
And that is where I’ll leave it, where I’ll take a deep breath and take a break from dealing with my own head. It is not my right to correct another person’s understanding of their reality. My reality is tinted by whiteness, which is not invisible but is hard for me to see most of the time. I’d like to make it easier to see. I hope I can be tough enough.