White Fragility
July 21, 2018 10:39 AM   Subscribe

"I think you’re racist. I think I am, too." (full talk) Dr. Robin DiAngelo coined the term "white fragility" to describe "a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable." She has just published a book on the subject and in this talk for the KUOW Speakers Forum she has particularly pointed words for the fragility of white progressives.
I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color. And I define the white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, is less racist, is in the choir, or already gets it. White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because to the degree that we think we have it we're going to put all our energy towards making sure YOU think that we have it and none of it into what we need to be doing for the rest of our lives.
I can't find a transcript--what is quoted has been transcribed by me.

More of DiAngelo's work: And more from others: Previously:
Why is this white man so angry?, snarking in the face of oppression, the scientific way to train white people to stop being racist, True or False
posted by schroedinger (100 comments total) 114 users marked this as a favorite
 


God yes. I think of racism as actually the remnants of an earlier in-group out-group evolutionary scheme which drove human social organization to incredible heights of ever-greater internal cooperation but which has been more destructive than useful since civilization emerged. And I detect in myself occasional racist thoughts. I know my job is to internally acknowledge them and brush them aside.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:19 AM on July 21, 2018 [6 favorites]


And I define the white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, is less racist, is in the choir, or already gets it.

Given that there are avowed white supremacists who don't think they are racists, and given Donald Trump's claim that he's the "least racist" person the White House press pool has ever interviewed, this seems like an odd definition of white progressive.

The concept of white fragility seems real and useful, but the suggestion that this is particularly a problem of progressives, and that the racism of progressives is particularly damaging to people of color is puzzling to me.

I do admit to a bias against white people who make a career of explaining racism to white people in corporate settings, so I'm not inclined to give DiAngelo a generous hearing. I have heard the claim that other white people are more open to challenges to prevailing racist ideas when it comes from someone else who is white,. Her major contribution, the notion of white fragility, suggests that this is not necessarily true, or significant enough to justify hiring white people to do this work.
posted by layceepee at 11:27 AM on July 21, 2018 [23 favorites]


(talking explicitly from the perspective of a white person here)

Talking about racism with white people demands a great deal of emotional labor. POC spend a lot of emotional labor just navigating white feelings in their day-to-day, much less being saddled with the additional task of educating us. We white people should not be expecting POC to do all the educating themselves. Additionally, it is my understanding that DiAngelo does her training with POC--not by herself.

Given that there are avowed white supremacists who don't think they are racists, and given Donald Trump's claim that he's the "least racist" person the White House press pool has ever interviewed, this seems like an odd definition of white progressive.

If you listen to her talk or read through the interviews then you know she is more explicit than this. Her point is that the white progressive is more likely to be around POC and actively attempting to prove how not-racist they are--while simultaneously engaging in racism.

Her major contribution, the notion of white fragility, suggests that this is not necessarily true,

White fragility indicates it is extremely difficult to discuss racism with white people. It makes no statement about whether it is easier to hear it from white people or POC. It is certainly the case that studies of the subject indicate when white people are open to discussions of racism, they're more open to it from white people.
posted by schroedinger at 11:35 AM on July 21, 2018 [23 favorites]


Looks like disagreeing with DiAngelo's take on a given situation is used as evidence that one is racist. That's a neat trick.

Also: she deliberatly confronts people in public, in front of their coworkers, and then when they act like people put on the spot she labels that "fragility."

I'm not sure this is the person best suited for the job of educating anyone on anything, let along something as charged with emotion and controversy as race.
posted by eustacescrubb at 11:36 AM on July 21, 2018 [29 favorites]


It is certainly the case that studies of the subject indicate when white people are open to discussions of racism, they're more open to it from white people.

Can you link to these studies? This strongly contradicts both my personal experience and my observation of other white people.
posted by andrewpcone at 11:41 AM on July 21, 2018 [3 favorites]


Mod note: In the name of avoiding an irony vortex, let me suggest that if you're white, it's probably not the best instinct to bring to this thread an all-purpose skepticism that prompts you to make a bunch of critical or defensive-seeming remarks about this thesis... this thesis which says that white people often become defensive around this topic?
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 11:47 AM on July 21, 2018 [114 favorites]


You can help here with research on white fragility. Submissions help Idle No More in Washington state to develop and conduct workshops on white fragility in today's activism.
posted by johnca at 12:20 PM on July 21, 2018 [4 favorites]


Can you link to these studies? This strongly contradicts both my personal experience and my observation of other white people.

White people experience anxiety talking to people of other races, especially with regards to topics of race. This is behind a paywall, unfortunately. In brief, this study looked at the likelihood that white students would choose a black partner to discuss racial discrimination with or without an intervention beforehand. The intervention was telling students that discussing a topic with a member of the out-group could reduce future anxiety. Here's one of the primary figures; basically, if the white person received the intervention they were more likely to choose a black partner, whereas if they did not (i.e. left to their own devices) they were less likely.
posted by schroedinger at 12:57 PM on July 21, 2018 [7 favorites]


Thank you for this post and the resources you’ve followed up with in the comments, schroedinger.

I hope this discussion doesn’t continue to become a tone argument which basically is a perfect example of white fragility. There are many resources out there that us white folks can use to confront racism if DiAngelo is not using methods you particularly agree with.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 1:46 PM on July 21, 2018 [13 favorites]


Mod note: A few comments deleted; folks, as always, metacommentary doesn't belong in the thread.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 1:47 PM on July 21, 2018 [2 favorites]


I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color.

This thread is about the intersection of white progressives and race and the way that even white progressives who mean well aren't always good at it and take umbrage when called out on it. Pointing out that in this thread we have white, well meaning progressives speaking about race in a way that erases POC voices (right here in this very thread) is not metacommentary. It's literally what we are talking about.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 2:02 PM on July 21, 2018 [36 favorites]


Fantastic post. Thank you.

Somehow the specter of being deemed A Racist is so powerful that it just shuts white people’s emotional regulation skills down completely. Immediate defensiveness, immediate need for validation. Immediate demand for emotional labor from whatever unfortunate POC happens to be in the conversation so they can feel better. We make it all about us and our feelings without a conscious thought. It’s the way people react to a criticism when they suspect or fear that the criticism is at least somewhat true, and they’re ashamed of it.

It really is childlike. And part of the privilege is that world never required us to grow the fuck up in this area. So we just continue throwing tantrums, big and small.

This is only partially a joke, but I wish there was a sort of...idk. And intersectional “Fix your shit” gym? Like intro classes or exercises you can do at home, on your own time, with your own labor, to be less shitty. Classes for white people, classes for men, classes for everybody!

Perhaps that can be included in the luxury gay space communism package. (It’s not a joke at all at this point. I am open to being told that is a fantastically terrible idea! But in the meantime I will fantasize about luxury gay space communism Good Person Classes.)
posted by schadenfrau at 2:03 PM on July 21, 2018 [52 favorites]


White fragility is a very useful concept that explains a whole lot of my experiences. If you are doing or participating in anti oppression trainings, it does help to maintain a dark and rich sense of humor. And perhaps you should also have had a moderately verbally abusive, yet still kind, father, who may or may not have served in the military.

Love the newsbroke video, sad that that team has moved on.
posted by eustatic at 2:04 PM on July 21, 2018 [3 favorites]


irisclara, I think that you are right on about the difficulty talking about racism, but don't say "we all" when you mean white people. Not everyone here is white.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 2:10 PM on July 21, 2018 [5 favorites]


ActingTheGoat, that expression just means the speaker is intending to address or talk about just the people who (like them) are white, it doesn't mean they're assuming everyone here is white.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:15 PM on July 21, 2018 [7 favorites]


Like intro classes or exercises you can do at home, on your own time, with your own labor, to be less shitty.

In the Boston area, there's a group called White People Challenging Racism, whose goal is pretty much exactly this - it's based on the premise that when white people begin to confront the racism they've internalized, their responses are often harmful to people of color, and they need to fix that shit as a part of their work to help fight racism, not just focus on racism they see external to them.

It's a really tough line to walk, because if you don't have the voices of people of color in the direction of such an organization it is really, really easy for the facilitators to start making wrong turns. So they do actually have a couple facilitators of color and in the leadership. And that itself presents a tension in that they shouldn't have to hold the white people in such a group accountable, that's emotional labor they shouldn't be expected to take on.

Basically, there are no easy answers when it comes to fighting white supremacy, but if you're white and your first reaction is to dismiss the idea of "white fragility" out of hand, I'd really encourage you to sit with that reaction for a while and think about why it feels so easy, so right, to dismiss, and really figure out if there's no part of you that's yelling for it to be dismissed because "that's not me". 'Cause if that's really your argument, you are doing the thing.
posted by solotoro at 2:17 PM on July 21, 2018 [11 favorites]


Lobstermitten, we as men should pay some attention to the words we use so as not to be constantly exclusive.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 2:24 PM on July 21, 2018 [4 favorites]


this will become a detail if we pursue it so I'll just say I disagree and leave it at that.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:29 PM on July 21, 2018 [2 favorites]


Elsewhere on the internet, I had called out another white person (and me!) because a conversation about an article about a black woman's lived experience had turned academic in that white privilege kind of way, and in the comment, I referred to myself as racist. He replied that I wasn't. Point seriously missed. He couldn't even handle me referring to myself as racist.

Elsewhere, elsewhere, I did successfully manage to get some other white dude to understand why the phrase "white pride" is so, um, problematic and uh, fucking terrifying to people who aren't white supremacists, so there was that.
posted by Ruki at 2:35 PM on July 21, 2018 [9 favorites]


Sorry about that, ActingTheGoat. I noticed it and qualified it the time I thought it only applied to white people. As for the other times I used the phrase, I honestly thought that the ideas in question were pretty universal, at least on Metafilter. Now that I read back I see that maybe not everyone denies trying to take power away from others. I hope that's what you're talking about.
posted by irisclara at 3:20 PM on July 21, 2018 [1 favorite]


"Basically the idea is that when white people get upset about the term what they're really upset about is talking about racism."

I'm sure that's true to some degree, but if I recall correctly, DiAngelo herself argues that what is most upsetting to people is finding themselves in a marked group when they're accustomed to the privilege of being unmarked (and all that implies). This results in much anxiety, which they attempt to dispel by centering the discussion on themselves as individuals and reifying their privilege of implicitly being in-group.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:35 PM on July 21, 2018 [28 favorites]


Thank you for posts like this. I have learned so much in the past ten years or so, much of it here. You give me tools and words to use in trying to bring others along.

Younger me has earnestly said, "I don't see color! People are people!" My sibs are still using that phrase long after I realized it is a problem. I just shared the Michelle Palmer link (Racism in America & The Danger of Color Blindness) with them. I like that it acknowledges "the intent and aim are noble" which I guess speaks to "fragility" but also makes it possible to be open to the rest of the message.

My biggest frustration is how hard it is to get people thinking about the concept that the white upper middle class experience of America is not the universal experience of America. Mind boggling.
posted by evilmomlady at 3:40 PM on July 21, 2018 [13 favorites]


Yeah, this sounds broadly extremely believable. Anyone who doesn’t think Liberals Who “Get It” can’t be a major source of racism has never been subjected to a game of Cards Against Humanity
posted by DoctorFedora at 3:56 PM on July 21, 2018 [14 favorites]


Many thanks for posting this, schroedinger. It's insightful, eloquent, and 100% necessary.
posted by carter at 4:06 PM on July 21, 2018 [1 favorite]


This tracks with MLK's sentiments in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail.
posted by nofundy at 4:27 PM on July 21, 2018 [5 favorites]


OK, I just read the first link and the first non-D'Angelo link (Why I'm no longer talking...")

I found the latter work less academic, imho more heartfelt, and thus more approachable. So if white people (such as I) are going to get up and get into these conversations about (systematic) racism with other whites, then I like these sentences as a strong statement to start with.

"I just can’t engage with the bewilderment and the defensiveness as they try to grapple with the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the way that they do. They’ve never had to think about what it means, in power terms, to be white- so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact; they interpret it as an affront. The journey towards understanding structural racism still requires people of colour to prioritise white feelings. Their eyes glaze over in boredom or widen in indignation. Their mouths start twitching as they get defensive. Their throats open up as they try to interrupt, itching to talk over you but not really listen, because they need to let you know that you’ve got it wrong."
posted by puddledork at 4:41 PM on July 21, 2018 [5 favorites]


This is a great conversation - thanks to all. My one hesitation with the language being used is that "racist" is a statement about someone's identity. I've definitely got racISM, which I try to recognize and address because I know it's wrong. But as someone whose core beliefs oppose the idea of racism, being labeled a racist feels like I'm being included in/equated with the folks who gleefully, unapologetically hold racist beliefs.
posted by PhineasGage at 5:16 PM on July 21, 2018 [7 favorites]


It’s uncomfortable, sure, but we woke white people dont get a special word and a cookie, though. That’s kind of the point. I’m racist, even though I try my best not to be, because I grew up in a system that privileged my skin color. It’s baked in to my subconscious. And while that sucks for me, it sucks even more for people of color when that racism comes through, even though it’s not intentional on my part.
posted by Ruki at 5:53 PM on July 21, 2018 [45 favorites]


You are quite right, Ruki. I'm happy to acknowledge and own my own feelings when called out and criticized for my racism. I am also asking, though, out of genuine interest in how best to persuade the wider population of whites to see, understand, and then work on changing their beliefs, attitudes, opinions, behaviors....
posted by PhineasGage at 6:02 PM on July 21, 2018


It's not just the internal thought process of white people that's at issue. Even supposing you could transport a white person from the mirror dimension where racism/white supremacy never happened (I know this doesn't make any sense but hopefully you get what I mean), and that person didn't have any racist attitudes or thoughts to start with, they would still be the beneficiary of other people's racism. They would be less likely to be stopped or murdered by police, to pick an obvious example. Everyone would be more inclined to center their feelings and thoughts because our entire society is set up to center the feelings and thoughts of white people no matter whether some individual white people wish it weren't so. It's my understanding that this cocoon of none-dare-call-it-racism which everyone has been forced to continually weave, and which is mostly external to the thoughts, attitudes, and opinions of white people, plays a big role in white fragility.

To me it's a little like affirmative action - if we could press a magic button to instantly wipe out "personal" (in the sense of individuals throwing "black sounding" applications in the trash) racism it wouldn't be nearly enough, because the system has a terrible inertia. Instead, the people with the most power and voice right now (white people) have to actively push to destroy/subvert/utterly overthrow (pick your verb!) the system, because if we don't, we'll have to keep hitting that button again and again. The system as it stands guarantees the re-emergence of white fragility and discriminatory admissions outcomes.
posted by threementholsandafuneral at 6:27 PM on July 21, 2018 [16 favorites]


To me she is referring to white progressives who feel like they are the heros in the story and on the right side of history, people who think they are having elevated discussions at a meaningful level on a topic affecting POC, when they are really at mega basic levels of understanding and the POC they are talking at are unable to actually elevate the discussion to an actually meaningful level.

At that point the difference between “colorblind” and “woking while white” are vanishingly small. And since the progressive sees themselves as the hero to history, it becomes the POC’s responsibility to gently manage said progressives ego, adding to the cognitive load of whiteness that is placed on POC to manage.

At this point white progressivism becomes just another plank of white supremacy.
posted by nikaspark at 6:29 PM on July 21, 2018 [14 favorites]


My fiancee once slapped me for noting that her safety concerns about various neighborhoods correlated with the racial demographics of those areas. I'm not sure quite how she will react once our kids start dealing with this.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 6:37 PM on July 21, 2018 [2 favorites]


Perfect timing! I'm almost done reading her book "What does it mean to be white"

a fundamental principle of the book is that the "Racist = bad, not racist = good" value judgement is inaccurate, harmful to discourse, and distracts from the real issue. She says that racism is a system where a group in power uses the system they control to oppress a minoritized group. When people do it, it's not racism or racist, it's prejudice.

What happens when I, a "woke" jewish/dutch american get called a racist by another white person? I can do the fragile white thing and say "No I'm not." Or I can do the woke white thing and say "You are probably right, please teach me."

But either way, it's a power balance, a power dynamic, where one white person is using, not even a real person, but a hypothetical person who's not even in the conversation, to have power over another white person.

I want to spend my time working *together* with people to improve our society. Not play power games with other white people. But it's so easy to focus on the grain of sand in my sibling's eye, instead of trying to solve the system of sandstorms that we live in.

Am I racist? You BET I am. Hella racist! And I want to do better. But not saying the wrong words in my (almost exclusively white!) circle of friends isn't going to help much of anything compared to building community with the diverse people in my own neighborhood.
posted by rebent at 7:33 PM on July 21, 2018 [7 favorites]


Related: Awesomely Luvvie on On the Weary Weaponizing of White Women Tears.
posted by TwoStride at 7:35 PM on July 21, 2018 [5 favorites]


I liked her insight into how our (i'm white) "evidence we're not racist" functions; because our intentions trick us into perpetuating this cocoon of racism and excempting ourselves from it.... it is a priviledge of white (and male) power that we have the luxury of worrying about our intentions instead of the consequences of our actions on others. To the extent that we just act and let the world deal with our actions, we impose the unpaid emotional labor of all those not so privledged who adjust to us. I thank the metafilter comments on emotional labor and MeToo for helping me discover this large blind spot in my life and dealings with others, i'm sure it extends not just to race and sex.
posted by Anchorite_of_Palgrave at 7:56 PM on July 21, 2018 [8 favorites]


I've found white fragility really useful to put a name on my experiences. But it's a lot harder with a real, face-to-face person who I have an important relationship with. One time, this (white, highly educated) person denied and discouraged my experiences of racism, by suggesting that I not "assume" things about a personal situation. They're a professional and yet has expressed skepticism of progressive notions as if such material is too extreme and radical and I'm just being "drawn" to it in a way that doesn't serve my needs. Another time they've literally compared my issue to the more "real" racism/oppression happening a 3rd-world country.

At some point, I might have to initiate a conversation with them. But what bothers me now is, they could nevertheless be right. White fragility, implicit bias, and structural racism have entered progressive conversations, but I've read some of the scholarship and these are nevertheless, originally academic arguments in the humanities and social sciences. I have no way to prove that these theories are true, and that my important acquaintance is simply ignorant and outdated. And that sucks.
posted by polymodus at 12:28 AM on July 22, 2018 [1 favorite]


In related news – related because I think the cause is literally white fragility – Ta-Nehisi Coates is leaving the Atlantic.
posted by Joe in Australia at 1:38 AM on July 22, 2018 [1 favorite]


It has occurred to me that some white people experience being named as white as a racial slur. I was stunned at the American Idol finalist who described being called "white boy" by the airport Popeyes cashier as "racial prejudice." Wait what? A less extreme example is the how some Americans living in Korea described their experience of being seen and othered as a white American expat -- as akin to being othered as a perpetual alien while growing up in the Midwest as an Asian American kid. Yes, being racially conspicuous is irritating and sometimes sucky. But no, it's not the same as racism.

It also strikes me that people often experience being called racist / told that they did something or said something racist as a form of racial violence in itself. It's felt as an attack. A kind of assault on self and personal integrity.

I purposefully kept open the category of people because I believe a) people of color can be and are racist, per my experience within Korean American communities and b) when I have been called out on my own shittiness I totally go into fight or flight mode but I am learning how to own my own mistakes a bit better.

As a non-indigenous and non-local person living in the Hawaiian archipelago, I have had to think a lot about my own positionality. Especially given how goddamn refreshing the day-to-day experience of Asian American privilege (!!!) that makes people assume I belong here. "Settler colonialism" (see Canada, Australia, U.S.) has been adapted into the term "Asian settler colonialism" to describe how the "local" identity of mix-plate plantation workers has often obscured and erased Native Hawaiian particularities and presence. I am sometimes leery of public self-labeling as a settler-colonial because it can create a guilt-loop but I am utterly inspired by some of the local Filipina activists here in Honolulu who are doing the hard work of figuring out how to support Native Hawaiian activism from their own histories and strengths.
posted by spamandkimchi at 5:33 AM on July 22, 2018 [15 favorites]


Folks might find this chapter"From safe spaces to brave spaces" by Arao and Clemens useful.
...what an achievable space of inclusivity and challenging dialogue looks like. The brave space concept has popped up specifically within service-learning and community engagement programming. Students excel in brave spaces through “transformative learning and disorientation” achieved by critical reflection activities within unfamiliar contexts. (Source)
posted by spamandkimchi at 5:38 AM on July 22, 2018 [1 favorite]


In fact it's been my and my colleagues' observations that while formal intersectionality (by Kimberlé Crenshaw) shows us that different people's experiences of bias are not additive, or analytically comparative (experiences of racism, for example, cannot meaningfully be compared between different people with different identities and backgrounds), almost everyone who displays full-blown Fragility, behaves in an almost indistinguishable way. The similarities of the rhetorical paths folks pursue when in a fragility meltdown are fascinatingly similar, using very similar rhetorical styles and even similar quotations, and similar references.

This has been my anecdotal experience, too. I wish people could latch on to the recognition of "Hey, I hate it when other people pull that shit on me, so I should stop pulling that shit on them, too!" So much of it seems to be centered on simply not believing or not trusting the person talking about their own oppression. Just trusting what people who don't look like you are saying shouldn't be that radical an act, but it seems like it is.
posted by lazuli at 6:14 AM on July 22, 2018 [8 favorites]


My take-away here is "Please, listen. This isn't the time to White-splain. (Meta: *-splain) What you need to do is listen".
posted by mikelieman at 6:47 AM on July 22, 2018 [2 favorites]


A thing I would like to see much less of is the assumption that the gentlest discussion of racial bias on someone's part is an attack. One of DiAngelo's points is that white people tend to lump racism into a good/bad dichotomy--racists are all bad people, so being called racist means you're being called a bad person, and now your very identity as a good person is being challenged. So someone pointing out racial bias, such as during diversity training, is interpreted as "confrontational" and thus we automatically sympathize with the negative reaction and assume the person doing the "confronting" is the aggressor and in the wrong.

But you know, there is something relieving about accepting that one has racial bias. We white people, especially on the progressive side, twist ourselves up in knots attempting to prove we're not racist. Study after study demonstrates that we are ridiculously anxious when interacting with POC and one source is the fear of being perceived as racist. When you can finally accept it, then suddenly that conflict disappears and it becomes something you can improve. It's like finding out you're selfish or need to be better at controlling your temper. It doesn't make you irredeemably evil. It doesn't mean you can't be better. It doesn't mean you don't have good qualities and are incapable of being kind and compassionate. It means you have a fault--a big fault--that hurts other people, and so you need to work on it. The only way it makes you bad, really, is if you absolutely refuse to consider that it exists (or characterize it as something else)--because that means you're just going to go on hurting other people more and more.
posted by schroedinger at 7:40 AM on July 22, 2018 [18 favorites]


It has occurred to me that some white people experience being named as white as a racial slur. I was stunned at the American Idol finalist who described being called "white boy" by the airport Popeyes cashier as "racial prejudice." Wait what?

My POC friends were absolutely flabbergasted to find out that many white people grow up being taught that it is rude to call somebody "black" or "Asian" or identify them by their race in any way. You certainly do not call anybody "white"! I in turn was flabbergasted to find out this wasn't rude. Now using those very obvious descriptors feels totally natural but it took a while to get here. DiAngelo's work really helps explain this. We're (white people) so sensitive to any discussion of race that we've created this idea that simply mentioning it is verboten.
posted by schroedinger at 7:45 AM on July 22, 2018 [6 favorites]


Which is how we get statements like, "You're the real racist for bringing up racism!" that continue to uphold white supremacy by shutting down any discussion of the problem.
posted by lazuli at 7:49 AM on July 22, 2018 [4 favorites]


It has occurred to me that some white people experience being named as white as a racial slur.

Yeah, this is often true. And if the white person doesn't come out and say it, their thought still is likely to be "Why do you have to be bringing race into it?" [1] (As if race and racism doesn't exist until mentioned.)

I think there are many, many white folks who don't notice how much being white is the 'default', is centered, or is the go to assumption. Over the last few decades, most newspapers would describe a person as a doctor, or a black doctor, a female doctor, or a black female doctor. White readers, especially white male readers, barely notice that a white male doctor gets to be a doctor *without adjectives*. But if you add in one of usually omitted adjectives in speech, that is super noticeable and weird. (It's kind of freaky the degree of sensitivity to word changes people can possess while wearing an armor of obliviousness (or pillows?) that blunts their ability to sense racial injustice and mistreatment.)

[ footnote 1: The non-verbal undercurrent of the not-so-woke white person says "I am just a human being. I am the way things are. It's normal or statistically typical for a person to be like me. You and other people similar to you are the asterisk or the hyphen."]
posted by puddledork at 8:03 AM on July 22, 2018 [8 favorites]


many white people grow up being taught that it is rude to call somebody "black" or "Asian" or identify them by their race in any way.

I don't remember ever being explicitly taught that one shouldn't mention race, but it seems to me like a possible result of kids taking the 1980s/90s ideal of "colour blindness" a little too literally.

My high school had a scant handful of Black kids, and an overabundance of kids named Jay. When kids were talking about (the only) Black Jay they would absolutely tie themselves in knots to avoid using his skin colour as a descriptor.

Kid 1: "So we were doing this thing and then Jay said..."
Kid 2: "Wait, which Jay?"
Kid 1: "Jay Smith"
Kid 2: "Er, which one is he?"
Kid 1: "You know, the tall one, big guy..."
Kid 2: "Uhhh?"
Kid 1: "Wears glasses?"
Kid 2: *blank look*
Kid 1: "Has short curly hair?"
Kid 2: "You're not narrowing it down much"
Kid 1: "In the drama club, does lighting?"
Kid 2: "Dude, I don't know anything about drama club."
Kid 1: *awkward pause* Black Jay?
Kid 2: "Ohhhhh! Black Jay! Okay. Continue."
posted by Secret Sparrow at 8:11 AM on July 22, 2018 [10 favorites]


One big problem is the level of social segregation in America. A lot of white people -- even progressive white people -- mostly have white friends. Like, I think of my own friend group. Most (if not all) of us would think of ourselves as some variety of progressive. And we often have conversations about social issues because, well, how can you not? But in a setting like this, non-white points of view become somewhat ... theoretical. Like, we've talked to nonwhite people, read articles by them, and gone out of our way to consider their point of view. But in the context of the actual conversation we're having, it's like there's a cardboard cutout of a nonwhite person in the room, and we're all doing our best to put words in his/her mouth. And the thing is, we're all aware we're doing it -- we know we're socially segregated, we know there's a viewpoint absent from the discussion, and we feel really bad about it. So that I think that's where some of this fragility comes from. We think of ourselves as enlightened, but this enlightenment is rarely tested in any real sense.

I do think this social segregation is one of the reasons we've made such big gains in the area of LGBTQ+ rights in the last couple decades, but progress on racial prejudice has been a lot slower. Over the past couple decades, a lot of Americans were suddenly thrust into a situation where someone they knew turned out to be gay, and they kinda had to adjust. We haven't had the same experience of suddenly finding out one of our friends or family members was black.
posted by panama joe at 8:33 AM on July 22, 2018 [11 favorites]


Going by the medium post, I feel that

1. white fragility is a perfectly apt and valid description of how a variety of well-known human cognitive biases play out when people are confronted

2. if you're leading workshops meant to modify people's behaviour but you regularly get participants freaking out and leaving in a huff, maybe you should re-evaluate your methodology?

i guess it feels like less of a moral imperative and more a dumb weird quirk people have that has to be worked around.
posted by pmv at 11:32 AM on July 22, 2018 [1 favorite]


As a white person, I find talking to other white people about race to be a generally hideous experience, so I cannot begin to imagine how much worse it is if you're not only suffering the racism, but also have the extra defensiveness from them feeling like they're also being accused of discriminating against you personally, IYSWIM.

And, to be honest, I don't normally get as far as actually getting anywhere near any sort of nub of the matter. I usually just say some variant of "race is a social construct", which after a little bit of conversation leads to them realising they're two sentences away from saying something they realise "sounds" blatantly racist, or agrees with the point, and then they red-herring the conversation off somewhere else and I go along with it because I'm part of the problem.
posted by Luddite at 3:04 PM on July 22, 2018 [2 favorites]


I think of racism as actually the remnants of an earlier in-group out-group evolutionary scheme which drove human social organization to incredible heights of ever-greater internal cooperation but which has been more destructive than useful since civilization emerged.


This is racist too, because it totally erases the actual reality of racism as we understand its evolution today. Race is a relatively NEW concept, not one based on an "evolutionary scheme", rather a very deliberate construction to maintain social power and to formulate hierarchies that functioned as a bulwark to the power structure that created it. Racial divisions were deliberately devised, not incidental to evolution. This comment speaks to a basic ignorance and unwillingness to understand the social construct that is racism by shouldering the development of 'races' on biology and 'evolution.' No.
posted by erattacorrige at 3:11 PM on July 22, 2018 [11 favorites]


I read that comment as suggesting that evolution has primed our brains to divide people into in-group and out-group, and that "race" (however you want to think of it) fits into that in-vs.-out scheme perfectly. But maybe I was too generous, and the commenter is as ignorant and thoughtless as you say.
posted by uosuaq at 5:00 PM on July 22, 2018 [4 favorites]


From the epilogue to John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me (published 1961):
We thought we were, finally, communicating. We were not, of course, because even well-disposed white men tended to be turned off and affronted if black men told them truths that offended their prejudices. For years it was my embarrassing task to sit in on meetings of whites and blacks, to serve one ridiculous but necessary function: I knew, and every black man there knew, that I, as a man now white once again, could say the things that needed saying but would be rejected if black men said them. In city after city we had these meetings to attempt to communicate, and in each one my function was to say those things that the black men knew much better than I could hope to know, but could not communicate as yet for the simple reason that white men could not tolerate hearing it from a black man's mouth. Dick Gregory and I once made an experiment with this. We agreed to say essentially the same things to a lecture audience at the same school. I got an ovation for "talking straight." He got an uncomfortable silence for saying the same things. . . .

Almost constantly and almost everywhere black men were being faced with this kind of duality. Whites were saying the right things, showing deep concern over injustices, expressing determination to resolve the problems of racism, but never really consulting with black people as equals. The vast difference between what this country was saying and apparently believing, and what the black man was experiencing, was embittering.
Published 57 years ago. In 2018, some white people have figured how to deal with their fragility, without hitting People of Color with shrapnel. Are there enough of them to push back meaningfully against the ones who haven't? We'll see. (If you don't know how to push back effectively, please feel free to MeMail me for suggestions.)
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 5:02 PM on July 22, 2018 [13 favorites]


More than defensiveness, I've been told by a white liberal that younger generations had been over-protected which resulted in this new attitude of vigilance, and something (Hm, I have no idea what) is lost in that cultural process. The example given to me was of a student in class having to leave the room feeling guilty, because during the class exercise/discussion, the student was named a Colonizer.

So it's not like fragile white people aren't exposed to new ideas but rather they interpret these ideas through existing preconceptions, and find "liberal" reasons to dismiss these as harmful ideology. How do I as a minority begin to engage with a real life person with this political gap between us? Because to me, it feels like whatever choice I make, I don't win.
posted by polymodus at 6:50 PM on July 22, 2018 [3 favorites]


polymodus, that seems like just another guise for white fragility, though I may be missing something. Maybe it's kind of a version of White Women's Tears? It seems like a weird mash-up of White Women's Tears and ableist complaints about students requesting trigger warnings for PTSD-related issues.
posted by lazuli at 7:21 PM on July 22, 2018 [2 favorites]


if you're leading workshops meant to modify people's behaviour but you regularly get participants freaking out and leaving in a huff, maybe you should re-evaluate your methodology?


Let's be very specific--these are white participants. And white people are freaking out and leaving in a huff because they're racist and they don't want to deal with it. The issue with white fragility is that any attempt to discuss someone's own racism with them can result in them freaking out, and frankly, the coddling that's required to have people not freak out is ultimately ineffective at teaching anybody anything about how racism actually functions within us.

Also, I am not sure where you're getting the idea that people are leaving in a huff from her workshops left and right. This is the second time in this discussion someone has labeled her as too aggressive and a terrible facilitator without actually providing any evidence that it is the case. She's pretty well sought-out as a consultant for these issues and to help lead these sort of workshops, so perhaps you are seeing something all her clients are not? In an essay about white fragility she is naturally going to highlight examples of white fragility from her workshops. If there wasn't any there would be no reason for her to be there in the first place.

polymodus, I think lazuli is right, that sounds like just another example of white fragility. React negatively and make the discussion about oneself and one's hurt feelings rather than keeping the focus on the systemic issues at play and the humans who are actually being hurt. DiAngelo discusses this as well; White Women's Tears is a variety of it.
posted by schroedinger at 7:38 PM on July 22, 2018 [11 favorites]


Race is a relatively NEW concept, not one based on an "evolutionary scheme", rather a very deliberate construction to maintain social power and to formulate hierarchies that functioned as a bulwark to the power structure that created it. Racial divisions were deliberately devised, not incidental to evolution.

There is a great documentary series called Seeing White that is a mash-up of the history of race, the history of racism in the US, how we (where "we" is mostly white people) deal with it, and the intentional journey of a progressive white guy trying to grapple with race and racism. It is pretty awesome and I strongly recommend it to any white folks (or anybody for the history component alone if you're not familiar with it). It honestly deserves an FPP of its own.
posted by schroedinger at 7:46 PM on July 22, 2018 [3 favorites]


It's hard because my acquaintance (a psychologist) puts a twist on the usual arguments. The concern is that a culture of hypervigilance harms me, apparently, because it downplays my sense of agency and psychological resources (such as, my empathy, assertiveness, etc.). They suggested that, before I assume inequality/injustice, and make attribution to the racial aspects of an interpersonal conflict situation, I can instead choose to look at the situation neutrally (i.e., I have attribution bias and can control/change that, whereas I can't change other people). The other thing they mentioned was that racism and oppression are real, and one result of that is internalized oppression which can interact with my own cognitive biases and distortions.

I don't doubt this person's intentions. But do I decide that they're subscribing to a form of outdated scientism used to rationalize their white fragility and socioeconomic hegemony? That tempts me. Unfortunately, it's a real person I have to deal with, whose feedback and advice that I do value and have found materially helpful in the past. So what I'm learning out there is, the concepts are great on paper, but face to face, it's a lot, lot harder for me as an individual to sort things out in my daily life.
posted by polymodus at 12:44 AM on July 23, 2018 [1 favorite]


polymodus, I am so sorry and angry for you. That is some manipulative bullshit. It certainly sounds like outdated scientism to me as well as pretty classic gaslighting ("the thing you think is there isn't there, it's all in your head--and I have the authority to tell you this"). They're abusing the language of their profession in order to justify their own biases and provide themselves some form of comfort rather than consider that your perspective may actually be accurate. Classic white fragility for a white person to prioritize their own view of what is or is not racism over thinking about the fact that a POC, the actual target, might be in the best position to identify it. They would rather stay in their comfort zone and maintain the belief that racism is over than think about the alternative.

So telling that they think "neutrality" means whiteness. You're unable to identify reality, and the white perspective is the "neutral" one. "A POC is too emotional and close to the situation to identify real racism" is the white supremacy version of "A woman is too emotional and close to the situation to identify real sexism." And, like, in the best case scenario here you're expending time and mental energy educating them.

What a devastating position to be in, that in order to build the future you want for yourself you have to deal with a person who refuses to even consider the reality of your lived experiences--your full humanity.
posted by schroedinger at 4:49 AM on July 23, 2018 [10 favorites]


polymodus, that sounds awful. There's a super-harmful thing that mental-health practitioners/researchers sometimes do (I mean, other people do it too, but mental-health providers tend to do it professionally) where they attribute healthy reactions to oppression/injustice as somehow internally pathological (like the whole Drapetomania thing), and it ends up creating like a quintuple bind for oppressed people. "You're being treated unfairly and you're upset, but you shouldn't be upset because you can't prove why you're being treated unfairly and so it must be a cognitive bias! So really you're only upset because of your own mind. If you would just stop being upset all the time, you wouldn't notice people treating you unfairly." It's bullshit. It's assuming that internal resources will somehow magically solve external realities, and that sort of thinking is why a lot of therapists are spectacularly bad at helping societally-oppressed people.

I was reading a short article geared toward psychiatrists, about the really really high rates of diagnosable anxiety in the US right now, and it talked about how people's number one stressor is lack of money and about how financially precarious everyone feels right now. One psychiatrist was quoted as saying something like, "We are failing our patients. We need to be teaching better anxiety-coping skills." And I was like, No, we need to be advocating for better safety nets, more secure jobs, universal healthcare, and other societal changes that will help fix the problem, not put all the blame on people who feel anxious because they're standing on thin ice. "They need better coping skills" is often a victim-blamey way of getting out of taking responsibility for fixing societal problems.
posted by lazuli at 6:33 AM on July 23, 2018 [13 favorites]


It's hard because my acquaintance (a psychologist) puts a twist on the usual arguments. The concern is that a culture of hypervigilance harms me, apparently, because it downplays my sense of agency and psychological resources (such as, my empathy, assertiveness, etc.). They suggested that, before I assume inequality/injustice, and make attribution to the racial aspects of an interpersonal conflict situation, I can instead choose to look at the situation neutrally

Wow, that is some fancy ass gas lighting. Holy shit.

It has never once occurred to this person that they are not competent to determine whether something is racist or harms POC? To the point where they literally...oh man. Sorry, even just reading this was enraging, and I’m white.
posted by schadenfrau at 7:32 AM on July 23, 2018 [3 favorites]


Also, I am not sure where you're getting the idea that people are leaving in a huff from her workshops left and right. This is the second time in this discussion someone has labeled her as too aggressive and a terrible facilitator without actually providing any evidence that it is the case

schroedinger, I'll answer this since the first time you asked was in a post LobsterMitten deleted and was a response to my post: from DiAngelo's own accounts of her workshops. You're right, of course that she's writing about the phenomenon so those articles are going to include mostly accounts of those incidents; my concerns stem not from the number of them, but from how she represents handling them. I had intended to respond to your question then, more fully, with my read on her account of interacting with "Karen" from the Medium article someone linked to, but LobsterMitten (wisely) advised against cultivating/promoting skepticism so I decided to take a step back.

The thread should really be "about" the topic at hand (white people's poor responses to interventions around behaviors that uphold/reproduce racism) and not my misgivings about DiAngelo's particular methods, so I decided not to reply to your question. It's also why I'm not going to get into further specifics here; I don't at all disagree with the idea that white people often respond poorly to these kinds of interventions; I've seen it firsthand and and I've "been that guy" myself, and I think the thread is a better place without my complaints about DiAngelo's methods. If you're really curious about what those are, feel free to MeMail me and I'll happily discuss, but I don't want to derail or clog up the thread with them.
posted by eustacescrubb at 7:39 AM on July 23, 2018


I'm wondering, how much of so-called "white fragility" is just a tactical reaction to the perception of being accused of being/acting racist.

In a community or in the workplace, there are often very negative potential consequences for being identified publicly as A Racist. We've seen videos go viral, people get fired, people's names get dragged through the mud. In many cases, these people on video did behave in a racist way - they became a valid target for public disapproval. Who wants to risk that?

Given this, it seems like a very practical reaction to push back, and to communicate in no uncertain terms "hell no, I'm not a racist" in response to any public suggestion that a person might harbor racist thoughts and sensibilities.
posted by theorique at 12:13 PM on July 23, 2018


> when white people are open to discussions of racism, they're more open to it from white people.
This strongly contradicts both my personal experience and my observation of other white people.


Whether or not they're more open to it from white people, the ones who are not open to discussion, are much less likely to attack (verbally or otherwise) another white person for bringing up the topic. If they do lash out at a white person, it's likely to be with words, and less likely to be targeted to hurt that person specifically.

The job of "find out whether this white person is willing to address their racism" should definitely belong to white people, and that's a lot of what anti-racism 101 education is about.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 12:38 PM on July 23, 2018 [3 favorites]


Mod note: Hi, a couple comments deleted, once again for being metacommentary.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:50 PM on July 23, 2018


theorique: I'm wondering, how much of so-called "white fragility" is just a tactical reaction to the perception of being accused of being/acting racist.

I've been talking to white people about whiteness for about 20-ish years, and I'm super-non-confrontational. Can't talk about the issue without referring to "white people" (or Caucasian or whatever) but THAT is the thing, in my conversations, that makes them uncomfortable or outright hostile. Psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum puts it this way:

"Another source of the discomfort and anger that Whites often experience stems from the frustration of being seen as a group member, rather than as an individual. People of color learn early in life that they are seen by others as members of a group. For Whites, thinking of oneself only as an individual is a legacy of White privilege. . . .[so] they are sometimes troubled, even angered, to learn that simply because of their group status they are viewed with suspicion by many people of color. 'I'm an individual, view me as an individual!'"

Or as maxsparber has put it: "I suspect the real discomfort is the sense of being moved away from the center, being identified as something specific when your experience is that you are the generalized mainstream and do not need to be identified. I've seen the same responses to cis and to straight as words, and it always seems like a discomfort with an identity being highlighted when in the past it was always just assumed."
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 11:19 PM on July 23, 2018 [12 favorites]


Here is a clear, thorough summary of DiAngelo's views from Katy Waldman in the New Yorker.
posted by PhineasGage at 6:03 AM on July 24, 2018 [2 favorites]


After reading this great thread, and many of the other summaries and commentaries on this topic, I am still left with the question: So what shall we DO? I am imperfect but I am listening and trying to learn. Identifying (and, yes, labeling) white fragility is a hugely important step. How then can we change white attitudes?
posted by PhineasGage at 7:39 AM on July 24, 2018


How then can we change white attitudes?

familiarity?

This white male grew up in a city that, over a period of three or four decades, shifted incrementally from predominantly white to other than that. And though I perhaps would not have identified myself as racist, I was fairly conscious as early as university that, despite all my well ingrained liberal leanings, I was not entirely comfortable in the company of those who didn't share my particular skin tone. It was a fact and I would not have denied it. But now, decades later, with any number of friends and colleagues and neighbors and family members whose blood does not present as predominantly European, I'd have to say this has changed rather significantly. Do I still have a racist bone or two in me? Probably. If you want to call it that. I prefer xenophobic, because I think it's more an overall fear of the strange that informs it, and it seems a less provocative word choice (not that there's not an argument for provocation on this particular topic).

To which I'd add an anecdote, one of my earliest memories. I'm five years old (in 1965) and traveling with my parents through rural Nova Scotia. We pull into a small town and I see my first real live humans of predominantly African origin. "Ewww," I said, "Look at the chocolate people." Which immediately got me chastised and educated, because my parents were liberal to the bone. But there it was, and there it remains (for me anyway), a xenophobia (or racism, if you will) that wasn't taught, that didn't evolve, it was merely significantly there.

Actually, maybe I should reword that last part. Because I suppose you could argue that what was in me had been taught, that it did evolve, but passively. That is, it didn't come from parents-teachers-etc consciously filling me with wrong information, but rather from not being exposed to difference from the cradle, to not having familiarity.
posted by philip-random at 9:02 AM on July 24, 2018 [2 favorites]


cybercoitus interruptus: I've been talking to white people about whiteness for about 20-ish years, and I'm super-non-confrontational. Can't talk about the issue without referring to "white people" (or Caucasian or whatever) but THAT is the thing, in my conversations, that makes them uncomfortable or outright hostile.

That's interesting and it does make sense to me.

One thing I have observed is that the only white people who seem to talk frequently and at least somewhat comfortably about "whiteness" or "white identity" on a regular basis are either anti-racists, or else more toward the spectrum of awhite nationalists. Your average white person tends not to want to talk very much about race except perhaps to say that slavery was bad, Jim Crow was bad, MLK was good, and can we please talk about something else now?

Many (most?) mainstream white people indeed seem to quickly become uncomfortable in any frank discussion about race, especially when white people are acknowledged and included as having a racial identity (as opposed to being the anonymous, race-free background). There does seem to be a certain polite awkwardness among many whites about such conversations: "uhhh... are we even allowed to be talking about this? Is it OK to mention race?"
posted by theorique at 10:51 AM on July 24, 2018 [1 favorite]


Kalessin: maybe sometimes, but I've seen lots of quite extraordinarily racist behaviour from people in those groups.

Right now there's a huge realignment going on in the black Jewish / Jewish POC online world over the reaction to an OpEd by Nylah Burton in Forward: White Jews: Stop Calling Yourselves “White-Passing”. I'm sure there are instructive parallels between Black and Jewish experiences with prejudice, but the reaction to her article was IMO an egregious example of white fragility.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:33 PM on July 24, 2018 [4 favorites]


"uhhh... are we even allowed to be talking about this? Is it OK to mention race?"

Yeah, that's the "colorblind" paradigm, which the article linked by PhineasGage refers to as "racial innocence, a form of weaponized denial that positions black people as the “havers” of race and the guardians of racial knowledge. Whiteness, on the other hand, scans as invisible, default, a form of racelessness. “Color blindness,” the argument that race shouldn’t matter, prevents us from grappling with how it does."

Actually that quote fails to mention a key feature of whiteness as invisible default: the way many white people appoint themselves as the supposedly-neutral arbiters of what really counts as real racism, often as an explicit reaction to one of us saying something mildly challenging re racial issues.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 12:54 AM on July 25, 2018 [12 favorites]


"My POC friends were absolutely flabbergasted to find out that many white people grow up being taught that it is rude to call somebody "black" or "Asian" or identify them by their race in any way. You certainly do not call anybody "white"!...We're (white people) so sensitive to any discussion of race that we've created this idea that simply mentioning it is verboten."

It's racist to explicitly point out that someone's Other, I suspect. I learned this too. I've been told by POC that "it's okay to say 'the black girl' to describe me," but man, it just sounds so shitty to say "the Asian guy" or whatever even if every guy in the group is dressed in about the same browear with no other distinguishing features on anyone like glasses and the only way to distinguish which of the guys is by his race.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:25 PM on July 27, 2018 [2 favorites]


If I feel like saying "Asian" this or "White" that, I've recently found out I might have to be guarded/careful, because new racists probably think "Why are you bringing race in to this? This has nothing to do with race"... when I think the thing has a LOT to do with race.
posted by polymodus at 10:27 PM on July 27, 2018 [2 favorites]


Would just casually referring to our society’s defaults in every day conversation be helpful?

“This straight couple I know”
“That white cis girl said”
“My able-bodied manager”
posted by nikaspark at 10:40 PM on July 27, 2018 [3 favorites]


(This falls in line with the time my wife asked me how to advertise an event as trans inclusive and I said “write ‘women and cis women welcome’ on the flyer”
posted by nikaspark at 10:42 PM on July 27, 2018 [2 favorites]


There's fragile, and there's fragile. David Roberts, a white man writing for Vox, writes about how he hypothetically asked on Twitter whether white people have a positive or negative effect on America, in much the same way as white-based media ask about people of color (as if our existence has to be approved by white folk), and all hell seemed to break loose in the subsequent thread.

How dare their existence anywhere be questioned? How dare they be called out as "white people"!?! Rebecca Traister adds a few pertinent comments in that thread worth reading, however, the majority of the opinions are some serious "Wow, you guys are really showing your asses" stuff.

My feeling as a woman of color is this is going to be a rough 15-20 years coming up, and dammit, I hope I survive. If our current troubles are because some of these white dudes are acting out now due to demographic changes that they can't stop...
posted by droplet at 11:34 PM on July 27, 2018 [4 favorites]


It almost always pisses off white people when I call them "pink people" and

back in the day, we (inspired by the Church of the Subgenius) referred to normal people as PINKS. That was then, of course, this now. But my takeaway is that nobody wants to be thought of as PINK. Not even Mr. Pink.
posted by philip-random at 12:07 AM on July 28, 2018 [1 favorite]


"Would just casually referring to our society’s defaults in every day conversation be helpful?"

It might. If you're going to go along with using the marked signifier that (usually but not always) reinforces the idea that the default is white, it could be completely offset by using markers for white people, as well. If you mention race in every instance, white included, then to the degree this is noted the overall messaging is that no race is the default race. The problem is that when you're not talking about white people, your messaging is quite likely to be misheard as reinforcing the idea that white is the default.

I prefer to avoid using marked language in every case where it truly is marked language and when the social reality is that the markedness reflects a social inequality (racism, sexism, ableism, etc).

More specifically, I ask if, in the context of race, that descriptor is truly relevant.

Mind, it's always going to be useful because the markedness of "black person" in language reflects the social attitude that blackness is so important it must be included. It actually is useful to distinguish someone by this particular trait rather than others because society itself does so. My point is that utility in communication is a poor justification because the utility is directly a function of the racism. So by "relevant" I try to apply a more strict criterion than broad utility -- instead, I ask if there's utility independent of racism. If society were not racist, would it still be important to distinguish a person by race rather than by other traits?

Sometimes the answer to this is obviously "no" and I can easily choose something else. Other times, it's obviously "yes", so likewise my choice to include race is easy. And other times it's not so obvious. In those cases, I just attempt my best judgment, with the caveat that I personally err on the side of caution (but don't expect others to do the same in these sorts of cases).

And the fact that black people can more comfortably use marked language when referring to other black people makes complete sense. It doesn't undermine this argument any more than does the similar situation with regard to the n-word.

In both cases, while there's an unambiguous asymmetry in the power relationship and that alone makes an enormous difference, one could nevertheless argue that even these usages by black people themselves contribute to the systemic oppression. It's very fucking presumptuous to make such an argument if you're a white person. But some black people do. I strongly believe it's not my place to police how black people use language, but it's obviously my responsibility to police my own language . . . and I think I have some responsibility to police the usage of other white people (within reason).

With regard to the greater discussion about white fragility, I think it's hugely revealing how quickly and strongly white fragility is revealed when the markedness rules about race are violated by implicitly marking out white people as a group identify. That's why this markedness in language with regard to race is so relevant to the discussion of white fragility. If it were only the utility of using marked language to indicate a non-white race that is the impetus for its use, then language that seems to be marked about white people would only be a curiosity, not a trigger of white fragility. That white fragility is evoked merely by using what seems to be marked language about white people proves that it's not only, or even mostly, about what is "most useful" in language. It draws a bright line under something centrally important to racism (and other -isms): that individuals in a privileged group enjoy the benefit of their dominance as a group while simultaneously pretending that their group membership is relatively unimportant and they should primarily be seen as an individual. For the non-privileged, the inverse is true.

That's super-important because a huge amount of the structural oppression is hidden within this difference that goes largely unseen and unquestioned. Markedness in language in these cases reflect the markedness in social relationships. That a particular group is marked by definition means that they are judged by a different standard than the unmarked group. The inequality is taken for granted as an inevitable product of an undeniable, essential otherness.

White fragility is, in a very strong metaphorical sense, a powerful litmus test for racism. It calls attention to itself and reveals an otherwise more difficult-to-detect bias.

It is (or should be) an especially useful concept and phenomenon for white progressives because due to the nature of structural racism, even those of us otherwise diligently anti-racist will display white fragility and, all too often, it's a very strong reaction. It reveals that racism is a social condition that infects us, not simply a product of bad character. None of us escape it. White fragility in progressives prove that the intense white progressive vilification of very explicit racism is at least as much a diversion away from self-criticism as it is a natural response to explicit bigotry.

Finally, I want to echo the people above who mention that fragility is not only a racism thing, but manifests in other kinds of social oppression. And, notably, fragility has a remarkably uniform and consistent script, whether it's white fragility or male fragility or other varieties. It really is a powerful litmus test for this reason and it's both revealing and disheartening that a person may be well-able to identify one kind of a fragile behavior in others but be blind to another kind from themselves -- even though both closely follow the same script. It's been here at MetaFilter where I've most seen this. It always comes as a surprise when I do see it, very much including from myself. I think that we progressives would be well served as a group and as individuals to be much more sensitive to being aware of fragile behavior from ourselves.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:04 AM on July 28, 2018 [8 favorites]


We are all humans with fragile egos and no one likes to be called out. I may be misunderstanding, but kelessin's formulation seems reversed from what I see, which is that privileged people who want to be allies often make mistakes and often have blind spots, but we haven't found a way to reconcile effective educating with concerns about "tone policing."

This thread and others recently are discussing our varying views on how best to call a privileged person's attention to what any of us may think they are doing wrong. The part that saddens me is not the understandable anger from those who have been and are now oppressed, disadvantaged, and less privileged. What saddens me is the frequent assumption of bad faith rather than human imperfection when considering folks who are at least trying to be allies.

A friend of mine said "The reason we are all at each other throats on the progressive side is because we see that right now the true enemies of justice (starting with the Toddler Tyrant) are largely untouchable which just makes us even angrier. It's like having a day when your boss yelled at you, and when you get home you shout at your spouse and kick the dog."

If all we did was at least start from an assumption of good faith, the progressive movement would be even more effective.
posted by PhineasGage at 9:49 AM on July 29, 2018 [1 favorite]


kalessin (from upthread): I wrote a 30-page guide (and later, a 15 pager) preemptively describing to readers all the common white fragility tropes, with citations and resources, for the context of cultural appropriation and made sure the company's leaders read it. Armed with the knowledge that minorities knew, intimately, all the common failure modes of white fragility, most of the attending white people sensibly chose to sit down and shut the fuck up.

fyi, y'all, here is kalessin's document. If you're short on time, pay attention to the "An Activist's Ideal" section, starting on p. 6, and "References and Citations," starting on p. 10. I've been sending this to two categories of people:

1. White people who have learned enough that they've started to realize how much they don't know, and

2. PoC who have suffered from these failure modes in their own white-dominated orgs, but they don't have the vocabulary or concept familiarity to describe what's happening... but they know it's wrong. At least, there's a little voice in them that says, "But that's wrong and makes me feel that this org considers me less than." But their Progressive White Colleagues, who are on point with (white) feminist activism, are all, "We're with you about Nazis being bad! The other stuff you're talking about just can't be a priority right now / isn't the big deal you say it is! We'll get to it later! Aren't you honored that we let you be here amongst us, here at this amazingly progressive, woke org?"

Reading this document helps those PoC feel less isolated, and more sane.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 9:56 AM on July 29, 2018 [5 favorites]


PhineasGage: What saddens me is the frequent assumption of bad faith rather than human imperfection when considering folks who are at least trying to be allies.

I'm not sure I'm understanding you correctly. Are you saying that, according to your read of kalessin's most recent comment, kalessin's comment doesn't emphasize enough that white people having fragility meltdowns are just being understandably, imperfectly human? Or what? Sorry, I'm not clear on your meaning.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 10:34 AM on July 29, 2018 [2 favorites]


I am not being critical at all of kalessin, I was prompted to my broader comments by the phrase "privileged folk act simply horrible to the people who should be and want to be allies and accomplices." That feels like an inversion of the phrasing I have seen. I don't think of the oppressed as the "allies and accomplices" rather the other way around - I thought we have commonly been referring to good-hearted privileged folk as the (imperfect) allies of the folks who are directly being harmed... Again, I was using that comment as a jumping off point, not criticizing kalessin.
posted by PhineasGage at 10:45 AM on July 29, 2018


Yes yes yes!
posted by PhineasGage at 11:22 AM on July 29, 2018


"What saddens me is the frequent assumption of bad faith rather than human imperfection when considering folks who are at least trying to be allies."

Given that (white) fragility is very often about putting up a big wall of good-faith as a defense, and that in doing so, this also has the tactical effect of diverting the discussion to a debate about intent and centering it on the (white) person, it's a serious problem. If this issue of good-faith is ever engaged, the one time it clearly shouldn't be is in the midst of a fragility response.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:23 AM on July 29, 2018 [7 favorites]


That will mean that minorities, too, will need to want to be allies and accomplices, same as white folks.

So being allies means multiple parties coming to an agreement about how to behave to acheive a mutually-desired, mutually-beneficial goal. I'm curious to know what you would say to a person you've decided is fragile about becoming an ally; it seems clear what work you would ask them and what you'd like them to endure. But how do they benefit? What's in it for them that's not an abstract idea about justice? How do you sell this new way of seeing the world to them?

And: I'm being sincere with these questions - this isn't sarcasm - I am really genuinely curious about this piece of the puzzle.
posted by eustacescrubb at 11:43 AM on July 29, 2018


Thanks kalessin.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:01 PM on July 29, 2018


I've been reading your very thoughtful answer and I have a follow-up question, in response to this:

But the way whites and white culture are choosing, with fragility, to proceed, is the wrong call.

My question is: does this mean you believe the package of behaviors we're calling "fragility" is employed by conscious choice (as opposed to, say, a genuine inability to perceive certain facts due to reality distortion by means of privilege)?
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:09 PM on July 29, 2018 [1 favorite]


Sorry, that wasn't my intention - again, just genuinely curious. Not trying to deconstruct anything - just was hoping to understand what you meant in your first reply.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:16 PM on July 29, 2018 [1 favorite]


I'm curious to know what you would say to a person you've decided is fragile about becoming an ally; it seems clear what work you would ask them and what you'd like them to endure. But how do they benefit? What's in it for them that's not an abstract idea about justice? How do you sell this new way of seeing the world to them?

"Endure"? That makes it sound like what we're asking of white folks is...torture? Long-term suffering?

Judging from my own experience learning about and advocating for trans rights, LGBQA rights, disability rights, etc, and acknowledging that my experience is not necessarily generalizable to others (but! my friends from various demographics have experienced similar, so I think it can be generalizable to some extent)--

the benefit is to become more in touch with the fullness of others', and our own, humanity. It's humbling (in a good way). It cracks open how complex and amazing "reality" and other people are. Is that not sufficient benefit?
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 12:22 PM on July 29, 2018 [3 favorites]


does this mean you believe the package of behaviors we're calling "fragility" is employed by conscious choice (as opposed to, say, a genuine inability to perceive certain facts due to reality distortion by means of privilege)?

Not speaking for kalessin, but in my experience, some people have reacted with fragility as a subconscious reaction at first. (Amazingly, some people don't react from fragility! They just listen and think! One of my white friends said wonderingly, after I quoted Beverly Daniel Tatum, "Y'know, I was just thinking to myself, 'I...don't think I've ever been called a white person so many times in one conversation!")

The ones who are willing to listen when I tell them about, eg, that Tatum quote, and re-think, they make an effort to learn how to recognize when it's happening in themselves. Even when they mess up, it's real clear that they've taken my words to heart.

The ones who aren't, do, I think, consciously choose to double down on fragility. My subsequent conversations with them usually involve them twisting themselves into rhetorical knots to avoid having to consider the possibility that they could have something to learn.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 12:32 PM on July 29, 2018 [4 favorites]


"Endure"? That makes it sound like what we're asking of white folks is...torture? Long-term suffering?

Point taken. I only meant that any meaningful surrender of privilege will require some kind of sacrifice - be it small like giving people space in a conversation or larger, like, say, voluntarily declining participating in a potentially career-improving panel because the panel only has white folks on it, and risking losing out on the higher income that would come with the greater exposure. So perhaps sacrifice would be a better word there. I suspect behavior changes that cost white people nothing won't help much so I was trying to ask how one call sell this vision of the future in a way that encourages white people to incur whatever the cost to them personally might be.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:34 PM on July 29, 2018


That makes a lot of sense, cybercoitus interruptus - that there are levels - some people are open to feedback; others double down, and the determination can only be made in the moment. Thanks for answering that.

Regarding panels - the method I've seen work well is for the privileged person publicly decline the invitation and publicly suggest replacments for their spot who repesent a less-privileged group.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:42 PM on July 29, 2018 [1 favorite]


Also kalessin, I'm realizing my phrasing "you believe" could be read as an attempt marginalize your answer and that totally wasn't my intention - I was hoping for your experience of fragility and I should have phrased that better - like "in your experience does it seem like fragility is conscious" - so I apologise if I came across as relegating your experience as mere belief.
posted by eustacescrubb at 12:51 PM on July 29, 2018


My question is: does this mean you believe the package of behaviors we're calling "fragility" is employed by conscious choice (as opposed to, say, a genuine inability to perceive certain facts due to reality distortion by means of privilege)?

There is a certain kind of ignorance that I like to call "malignorance", because it is ignorance that is actively maintained out of selfishness and the fear of what knowledge might bring. Once a POC starts speaking about their experiences you have to be actively chasing ignorance in order to remain in the dark about it--and plenty of POC speak up about their experiences, and their public exposure grows by more and more every day. I think most (most being the operative word here) white people would not deign to lecture to a plumber about plumbing, and yet we tell POC that by "having" a race they're not qualified to comment on the subject (i.e. we can't even allow "the Other" to speak about their experiences if "the Other" is a POC). We do not get upset when identified by our hair or eye color, but call us "white" and suddenly we freak out. "Genuine inability to perceive certain facts" is too forgiving a way of referring to a pattern of behaviors that would be regarded as asinine and mean in any other context, and yet are considered acceptable among white people when the topic of race is brought up.
posted by schroedinger at 6:10 PM on July 29, 2018 [7 favorites]


I say this as a therapist who understands that plenty of people repress insight when it's uncomfortable: There are only so many times white people can be presented with evidence of racism -- including their own racism -- before they can no longer claim "unconscious" anything. "Malice" starts to be less about intent in those instances and more about effect.

You know when you've got that friend who keeps dating totally unsuitable partners who make them miserable and you keep pointing out the pattern and they say, "I know! I know! I need to find an actual nice person and maybe get some therapy!" but then they never go to therapy and they still keep dating horrible people who make them miserable in the exact same way, and at some point you kind of throw up your hands and you're like, "This person is obviously choosing to be miserable at this point"? I feel like white people are similarly choosing to be racist at this point. Even if it's not "conscious"; we're seeing problems but not doing the reasonable work necessary to address them. That counts as a choice.
posted by lazuli at 6:21 PM on July 29, 2018 [10 favorites]


You know if people listened to the talk carefully—I'm halfway through it now—a lot of these themes are explicitly pointed out. Consequentialism over intentionalism is one of them. Another is internalized superiority of the fragile person, in contrast to the internalized oppression of the minority person.

So a thing a fragile white person might do would be to ask questions as if they're novel questions, when the sociologist in the room already mentioned them. This is a stark example of the remarkably uniform and consistent script of fragile behaviors that was just mentioned. Seeing these patterns raises very strong feelings in me; I, a minority, is putting effort in working through this talk and remembering all the relevant parts of it.
posted by polymodus at 11:55 PM on July 29, 2018 [8 favorites]


I think of racism as actually the remnants of an earlier in-group out-group evolutionary scheme which drove human social organization to incredible heights of ever-greater internal cooperation but which has been more destructive than useful since civilization emerged.


This is racist too, because it totally erases the actual reality of racism as we understand its evolution today. Race is a relatively NEW concept, not one based on an "evolutionary scheme", rather a very deliberate construction to maintain social power and to formulate hierarchies that functioned as a bulwark to the power structure that created it. Racial divisions were deliberately devised, not incidental to evolution. This comment speaks to a basic ignorance and unwillingness to understand the social construct that is racism by shouldering the development of 'races' on biology and 'evolution.' No.


I agree that it is relatively new. The groups we think of as "the races" did not encounter each other until fairly recently. What I'm saying is that the in-group out-group dynamic naturally picked up the concept of race.

I have to disagree with the use of the word "deliberate." Social constructs like race are aggregative and a combination of the preferences of many people. Nobody sits down and says "hey I think that I will create a social construct called race and use it in my daily life." Instead it fed into pre-existing structures in our social system. Having said that, these structures have been deliberately used (and are being used today) in our politics and culture for their own selfish reasons.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:10 AM on August 16, 2018 [1 favorite]


Quick and dirty transcript from the Seeing White podcast, Episode 3, "Made In America":
[trigger warning right in the beginning for movie clips of whippings]
6:00 Virginia 1640, African indentured servant John Punch runs away with a Dutchman & a Scotsman, all 3 were indentured servants, all caught, Punch only one who gets lifetime sentence. 1st time black vs white treated differently in colonial North American Law.
8:00 [Suzanne Plihcik] "They needed a consistent, reliable labor force. And they could not have a consistent, reliable labor force if that labor force was banding together and challenging the authority of the colony." [Host] "Colonial America was deeply unequal. Most people of every color were poor laborers, farm workers builders seamstresses, and those workers were prone to getting restless and pulling out the pitchforks. There were lots of worker uprisings [so] the rich landowning class and their political representatives [started] giving the poor people who looked like those in power, people of European descent, advantages, usually small advantages, over Africans and native people." [SP:]"And what did that do? It switched their allegiance from the people in their same circumstance to the people at the top. It eventually created a multi class coalition of people who would later come to be called white."
12:00 By 1660s, Virginia had changed laws so child's status depended on mother's [&, Christians could now be slaves -- English common law had said Christians couldn't be slaves]. Legal changes expanded the pool of people who could be permanently enslaved: Christians of African descent. And the children fathered by slave-owning men who raped the slaves. These laws enhanced the bottom line for slaveowners. [Ibram Kendi:]"And simultaneously they passed laws stating that white women could not have relations with enslaved or even native american men. So it gave white men the ability to have intercourse with everyone, but white women and non-white men could not." 13:00 Lawmakers: 1680, debating What Is A White Man. Who gets land & rights. 1682, law saying citizenship only for Europeans. 1691, law (1st documented use of "white") to describe people who were full citizens (ie as long as they didn't marry outside of their own race). 14:50 [SP:] By 1691 "This creation of definition of "white" & social construction of "race" was for the upliftment of white people primarily to support the white people at the top. Poor & working class whites will get little. They will get just as much as is needed to ensure their allegiance."
1640-1690, creation of structures to incentivize a multi-class coalition of white people, vs a multi-racial coalition of non-billionaires. In the US at least, we are dealing with a 300 year old brilliantly successful legacy of super-rich people who decided to protect their wealth by turning their workers, who had material interests in common but not "race," against each other.
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 9:50 AM on August 17, 2018 [5 favorites]


It's even worse than that. Episode 2 of Seeing White (episode 32 of Scene on Radio) also goes over the creation of race--the idea of "black" and "white" races were literally created in order to justify enslaving Africans and indigenous people. It didn't spring up out of nowhere nor evolve naturally out of social forces. Gomes Eanes de Zurara was commissioned to write a book celebrating Prince Henry the Navigator, who was also a big ol' slave trader who trucked entirely in Africans. de Zurara's strategy for justifying this practice was to lump all Africans together into a single group, label them subhuman, and claimed that they were better off under a Christian enslaver. Some guy invented blackness to make a slave trader look good.

Furthermore, labeling this group as subhuman was absolutely necessary to making slavery work under Christianity. You aren't allowed to enslave people, so you label the people you're enslaving as not-people. And the "beauty" of race is that it allows you to enslave Christians and non-Christians. Because if you don't keep the non-people Christians enslaved, they'll go right back to their terrible ways.

I mean, basically racism was invented and fed for profit. And what's even more fucked up is that doesn't even matter any more--recognizing that doesn't change the fact it's now so deeply ingrained into our society that simply overthrowing capitalism or whatever won't take the racism with it. White supremacy is now its own separate beast, grown far from the roots of its origin.
posted by schroedinger at 5:42 PM on August 17, 2018 [8 favorites]


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