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White Fragility

To continue The Oppy’s active discussion on racism and white privilege, I wanted to focus on the concept of “white fragility” in this issue, from the perspective of a white female, and how it slows meaningful discussions, prevents our understanding of POC’s (people of color) experiences with racism, and is detrimental in social progress towards equality.

White fragility, a term coined by Robin DiAngelo, is a state where even a minimum of  racial stress becomes intolerable for a white person and therefore, triggers defensive reactions ranging from seemingly well-meaning to blatantly vicious behavior. Unfortunately, it is a common theme in our society, and it runs deep. There are two possible reasons for this. The first being a lack of exposure to conversations about racism, since our day-to-day life is not impacted by skin color. Our white privilege has unfairly afforded us the opportunity to live in a sheltered alternative of reality and thus makes us ill-equipped to have productive dialogues about race. When the topic arises, white people tend to often become defensive, as we lack the basic knowledge of what racism and systematic racial inequality feel like in earnest. A second cause may be a lack of understanding of what racism is. Racism is colonization, oppression, neglect, discrimination, and marginalization at the systemic level. Racism tends to be talked about as if it is binary; it is anything but.

White fragility is assuming the role of the victim during scenarios where racism is brought to light and in moments where we must acknowledge the color of our skin. Examples include becoming angry, defensive, afraid, arguing, believing you are being targeted, falling silent, and checking out of the conversation. For the vast majority, conversations about racism are uncomfortable at first, and may  always be, but they are absolutely necessary. If we cannot have frequent and frank discussions about racism and prejudice, society will never be able to go beyond this superficial, binary understanding of racism.

When having honest conversations about racial inequities, people’s skin colors and individual “virtues” can feel under attack. This inadvertently promotes participation in a response that benefits white people at the expense of POC on a level that we are not even aware of. White fragility enables us to act out and defend our individual sense of worth. It brings us shame for being white, due to our lack of understanding and our knowledge of the historical wrongdoings of people who look like us. Rather than removing the personal element and leaving our defensiveness at the door, we exit the conversation. This is a dangerous hurdle in combating systemic and personal racism. This desire to be viewed as being empathetic tends to make us unaware we are a continuum of the problem. But if we don’t see ourselves as part of the problem, we cannot be part of the solution. Jumping into defense mode prevents us from hearing the pain from POC. White fragility makes us an unreliable ally to POC because we do not have the fortitude needed to talk about racism. We are unable to hear others’ experiences with racism and therefore, cannot react with empathy and compassion. Fragility is fear, which can turn into conscious and unconscious harm. It is our responsibility to recognize our white privilege and open the door for frank discussions that will ignite change.

Photo credit: (John McCann/M&G)

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