A couple of good articles about the defensiveness we’ve been seeing when white people discuss race:
Samantha Field, stomping on eggshells: on white fragility and speaking up
Which brings me to the topic of today, which is part criticism, part education, and part encouragement for my fellow social justice advocates and progressives. In speaking with people over the past two weeks about ways to get involved and stand up for vulnerable people– especially Muslims and people of color– I’ve been seeing a common theme. It’s certainly not new, and it’s something I’ve struggled with until relatively recently. People with privilege– white, straight, male, Christian, etc– frequently want to do what’s right, but they feel like they’re “walking on eggshells.” They want to be an ally, but they don’t want to say or do the wrong thing. Many of us feel anxiety or nervousness about racial issues in particular.
I would like to gently and lovingly and directly say that this feeling of “walking on eggshells” is based in a lie, and one we believe because our privilege has made us incredibly arrogant. I don’t say this to be mean or harsh, but because I believe it’s the truth, and one I had to learn for myself sometimes painfully.
Some notes in the comments do make sense, however: A couple of commenters–one who grew up fundamentalist, where any wrong thing makes you hellbound, and one who is autistic and often made to feel like her mistakes are “pathetic screwups”–note that arrogance isn’t always the reason we feel we are “walking on eggshells.”
This is my own situation, both as NVLD (socially like autism) and having grown up fundamentalist. I’ve already been accused of horrible things because of my social ineptitude. Also, being fundamentalist taught me that even cussing over a banged toe could send me to Hell if I didn’t ask for forgiveness right then. So if somebody tells me I’m doing something wrong, it can immediately be heard as “You’re going to Hell” or “You’re a wicked, evil person.”
So I can understand the sentiments in the next blog post, on “white fragility”: Sam Adler-Bell’s Why White People Freak Out When They’re Called Out About Race
For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist – we don’t engage in those acts. This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time—that we can think of racism as only something that individuals either are or are not “doing.”
In large part, white fragility—the defensiveness, the fear of conflict—is rooted in this good/bad binary. If you call someone out, they think to themselves, “What you just said was that I am a bad person, and that is intolerable to me.” It’s a deep challenge to the core of our identity as good, moral people.
I see this very thing going on in my family, and it’s very distressing. I have been open to rebuke about racism since my teens, however, and this has allowed me to avoid much of the “white fragility.” But it also means I can get terribly uncomfortable around a certain family member who is very fragile–but denies his/her own fragility.
I try to avoid discussing race issues with this person as much as possible. I try to avoid watching TV shows/movies featuring black characters, around this person. (When this person walks through the room while I watch, he/she will make indignant little remarks that make me have to back up the recording because I could not hear the TV.)
I have seen this person get so defensive about race on Facebook, that I removed him/her from my newsfeed and notifications. I even avoid posting anything on Facebook about race anymore, lest this person get mad in the comments, and embarrass me.
After this person argued with one of my friends about race and discovered I did not want to break off relations with my friend, this person became indignant and guilted me over it. This person also became irate at his/her favorite cousin (who is mixed-race) after arguing with her over race issues.
This is definitely white fragility, which is not at all helpful, as written by Adler-Bell, above:
When I’m doing a workshop, I’ll often ask the people of color in the room, somewhat facetiously, “How often have you given white people feedback about our inevitable and often unconscious racist patterns and had that go well for you?” And they laugh.
Because it just doesn’t go well. And so one time I asked, “What would your daily life be like if you could just simply give us feedback, have us receive it graciously, reflect on it and work to change the behavior? What would your life be like?”
And this one man of color looked at me and said, “It would be revolutionary.”
Let me use my white privilege to tell other whites: Dealing with someone else’s white fragility is intensely frustrating. I can’t express myself anymore. I can’t be myself. I’m afraid of hurting this person’s feelings if I speak up, and getting chewed out, because I’ve already tried, and that’s what happened. I am very embarrassed to see this person behave this way on Facebook, so much so that I took this person out of my newsfeed.
This person doesn’t seem to have any regard for how he/she is affecting other people with this constant defensiveness. And yes, others can see exactly what’s going on, that white fragility leads to hostile, bullying behavior–yet the person doing it thinks they’re the one who’s being bullied!
White fragility leads to fractured and lost friendships. It leads to constant stress.
I can tell you that my own friendships are still intact, including ones with minorities, that I have very few arguments online, and that I can hear about racial concerns without feeling attacked and abused. It is a much better place to be in, than to be on the defensive all the time.
Seriously, you’ll be much happier if you stop defending your whiteness, stop telling other people what their experiences really were (that’s gaslighting), and instead just listen to their concerns. If you’re willing to be open to what minorities are trying to tell us, and reflect on things you may unconsciously do that are racist, it doesn’t make you a bad person. It means you can grow and help make life better for everyone.