During the 2016 election, I was standing in a long line of voters waiting our turn, and a white woman in her late 50s took the opportunity to address the captive audience with her spiel that went something like this, “In my day, there was no such thing as racism. Obama invented racism. Nowadays everybody is oversensitive and suddenly they see racism where there was never any before.”
Delusional? Sure. But she was delusional in a specific way that’s not unique to her. It’s common among white people, and especially women of her generation. When she says there wasn’t any racism when she was young, she’s not lying. She’s saying that she lived in a bubble that allowed her not to see or address what was going on for black people in our country. She’s saying that bubble allowed her to ignore racism, pretend it was something from the long-forgotten past, and, most of all, think of herself as a good person. She’s saying that attitudes and opinions she’s held her entire life are now being called out for what they’ve always been: racist. And that makes her uncomfortable.
I can remember when I was growing up being told, especially of people’s grandparents, things like, “He might make some ‘off-color’ remarks, but we just ignore those. He’s old and doesn’t know any better, but our family isn’t racist.” What’s changed isn’t the amount of racism but the amount of patience for old people simply not knowing any better. Nowadays we expect people to learn and grow, and it’s perceived as an attack.
In White Fragility, Robin Diangelo says:
…pointing out white advantage will often trigger patterns of confusion, defensiveness, and righteous indignation. These responses enable defenders to protect their moral character against a perceived attack while rejecting any culpability. Focusing on restoring their moral standing through these tactics, whites are able to avoid the challenge.p. 109
The author goes on to explain:
White equilibrium is a cocoon of racial comfort, centrality, superiority, entitlement, racial apathy, and obliviousness, all rooted in an identity of being good people free of racism.p. 111
So when issues of race are addressed, white people immediately feel like they’re being told they aren’t good people and apparently being “nice” is more important in our culture than addressing issues and righting wrongs. As the author says:
White fragility functions as 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. 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 triggers to white fragility … as challenges to white power and control, and white fragility as the means to end the challenge and maintain that power and control.p. 112
If you’re new to books on race in America, start with White Fragility. It will help answer how a woman can stand in line in a voting precinct gerrymandered to have fewer people of color than are actually in her town and confidently assert that Obama invented racism.
It also has a list of resources with books, articles, blogs, podcasts and films to help you figure out where to go next on your antiracist journey.
5 out of 5 stars
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism
Beacon Press, 2018