Thoughts on “White Fragility”

This post is about a great book I know you have heard about: White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, by Robin Diangelo. It was great–really eye-opening and also uncomfortable in all the right ways. I hope after you read this blog, you read the book.

Let me start with a true story. Several years ago I had been invited to be a presenter at a continuing education event, and I was speaking about feminist theology and women’s issues. After one of my presentations, a white man came up to me and began telling me how sympathetic he was and supportive he was of his female colleagues but how his own feelings hadn’t been respected and how hard it was for him, and then he started to cry. I remember how I felt in that moment–I’m a pastor, after all–and so immediately then the conversation shifted to his emotions and his experience, and the larger issues of sexism and continued gender discrimination in the church were swept aside. I remember feeling very unsettled for quite some time after that conversation; feeling like something had gone wrong, but not quite knowing what it was or how to name it.

That experience came rushing back to me as I read one of the last chapters of White Fragility, titled “White Women’s Tears.” In that chapter, Diangelo talks about when “good” white women get emotional when their behavior is challenged–she gives several examples from the workshops she leads–and then all of a sudden it becomes all about them and their hurt feelings, rather than dealing with racism in their place of work or wherever. [She talks about white people who use the word “trauma” to describe their experience in anti-racism workshops, which should make all of us cringe.]

For me, this was perhaps the most vivid example of “white fragility”–the subject of this entire excellent book–the way that white people, especially people who consider themselves progressive liberals, expose their fragility around racial issues by simply refusing to genuinely hear and accept criticism of their own behavior and commit to acting differently.  Instead, we get defensive, we get upset, we shut shut down, and we blame others for their insensitivity. As Diangelo describes it, because whites have created a “good/bad” framework for thinking about racism, we are desperate to keep ourselves on the “good” side of the line–I’m not racist, it’s those other people–and therefore, any suggestion that we might have racial prejudices immediately makes us feel like we are inherently bad people, and we have to repudiate any hint of such an idea at all costs. Hence, white fragility.

By contrast, I found this statement of Diangelo’s really insightful. She says, “I know that because I was socialized as white in a racism-based society, I have a racist worldview, deep racial bias, racist patterns, and investments in the racism system that has elevated me.” But here’s the kicker: “Still, I don’t feel guilty about racism. I didn’t chose this socialization, and it could not be avoided. But I am responsible for my role in it. To the degree that I have done my best in each moment to interrupt my participation, I can rest with a clearer conscience. But that clear conscience is not achieved by complacency or a sense that I have arrived.” It’s continued work, continued learning, continued growth, all the time. That statement is amazing to me [it shouldn’t be, I know]. Her point is that instead of feeling guilt or shame when this worldview and patterns are exposed, which doesn’t lead to any constructive behavior, she takes it as a teaching moment and works to improve. That is an attitude to which I truly aspire, but I’m not there yet, I know.

There is too much that is excellent in this book to try and summarize it all: chapter 2 has a great discussion of the whole concept of race; chapter 4 reveals uncomfortable truths about “belonging” in this society–how that sense of “I belong” [or “I don’t”] is so broadly and deeply reinforced; and chapter 5 explores what I mentioned above, the “good/bad” binary. And that’s just the beginning.

Toward the end of the book, Diangelo shares a story about a conversation she had with an African-American colleague. She asked him, “What would it be like if you could simply give us feedback, have us graciously receive it, reflect, and work to change the behavior?” His response was one word: revolutionary. I think we can all agree that is not too much to ask.

I really think, white friends and colleagues, that reading this book can help put you in a better frame of mind to do just that; I know it did for me. I really recommend reading it–and then sharing it with others.

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