White Fragility

White Fragility.  What this means to me, an old white guy, who has been a principal for over thirty years?  My experience in urban and suburban schools is the same.  When talking about race and culture, many white people get uncomfortable and scared. NOTE:  there are always outliers so don’t assume every white person is uncomfortable

In addition, don’t assume every person of color has an agenda against white people.  In the 90s, while being a principal in an urban environment, we organized principal PLCs.  When I heard an African American middle school principal, another high school principal who was Native American, and a Latino principal say they had the same concerns I did when we talked about race, I was amazed, AND relieved.  I am grateful for those conversations.

Growing up literally next to the tracks I always was vigilant about fairness.  I was not only affirmed by these conversations but got to learn because we all were vulnerable and shared real emotions, challenged beliefs, and shared ways to help others to build enough trust to have authentic conversations.  Therefore, I read this book and suggest you do too.

Diangelo, Robin. (2018), White Fragility.  Boston:  Beacon Press.

Pay attention to assumptions about adults and kids. Sometimes we make assumptions based on very little data. For example, though a child may look black and be treated as black, she may be raised primarily by a white parent and thus identify more strongly as white. I think it is important to realize that when a child is born, excluding a physiological issue, that brain can learn any one of about six thousand languages.

One true assumption, like it not, is ‘white privilege.’ White fragility is triggered by discomfort and anxiety, it is born of superiority and entitlement. A friend of mine, Saundra, an African American educator and I were having a discussion.  She helped me understand white privilege early when she told me that her and her husband had to talk to their kids about how to act when and if they got pulled over by the police.  I never had to do that with my two kids. The current events have certainly shown that issue to be truer than ever.

I think the next paragraph highlights the reason asking questions to increase understanding is more effective than making judgments to justify our preconceived beliefs.  If I understand racism as a system into which I was socialized, I can receive feedback on my problematic racial patterns as a helpful way to support my learning and growth. Yet when someone lets us know that we have just done such a thing, rather than respond with gratitude and relief (after all, now that we are informed, we won’t do it again), we often respond with anger and denial.

This book is intended for us, for white progressives who so often—despite our conscious intentions—make life so difficult for people of color. I define a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the “choir,” or already “gets it.” I strongly suggest reading Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist. It is not enough to take the passive stance of, ‘I am not a racist.’ It is past time to be an Antiracist.  See  https://learningomnivores.com/what-were-reading/how-to-be-an-antiracist/ ‎ for a summary of Kendi’s book.

I , Bill, have been critical of our leadership preparation programs in college and universities. Diangelo states, I can get through graduate school without ever discussing racism. I can graduate from law school without ever discussing racism. I can get through a teacher-education program without ever discussing racism.

People of color may also hold prejudices and discriminate against their own and other groups of color, but this bias ultimately holds them down and, in this way, reinforces the system of racism that still benefits whites. Racism is a society-wide dynamic that occurs at the group level. People of color do not have this power and privilege over white people. That is why now, more than ever, we need understanding, actively be antiracist, and find ways to increase the equity of opportunities.

There is research that students of color do better when there are teachers of color in the school.  There is progress being made hiring more people of color but not enough and not fast enough. This is where institutional racism has been accepted as status quo. I sometimes hear, “we can’t find quality candidates.”  How about growing your own?  Is your organization open to attracting and retaining people of color?  What are the barriers that get in the way?  Ask people of color.  If people of color trust you, they will tell you.  If  people of color don’t trust you, good luck.

All systems of oppression are adaptive; they can withstand and adjust to challenges and still maintain inequality. Take, for instance, the federal recognition of same-sex marriage and accommodations for people with disabilities. While the overall systems of heterosexism and ableism are still with us, they have adapted in limited ways. p. 40          

One line of Dr. King’s speech that continually resonates with me is “that one day he might be judged by the content of his character and not the color of his skin.” We say we want people of character, are we living that value?

Racial bias is largely unconscious, and herein lies the deepest challenge—the defensiveness that ensues upon any suggestion of racial bias. This defensiveness is classic white fragility because it protects our racial bias while simultaneously affirming our identities as open-minded.

Whites enact racism while maintaining a positive self-image in many ways:

  • Rationalizing racial segregation as unfortunate but necessary to access “good schools’
  • Rationalizing that out workplaces are virtually all white be people of color just don’t apply
  • Avoiding direct racial language and using racially coded terms such as urban, underprivileged, diverse, sketchy, and good neighborhoods
  • Denying that we have few cross-racial relationships by proclaiming how diverse our community or workplace is
  • Attributing inequality between whites and people of color to causes other than racism

What I do know is that the world, and the United States is and continues to be populated more by people of color.  Our future will be determined on how well we level the playing field, embrace diversity as energy for learning, and see the benefits of creativity that more diversity brings to life. I really like the term in the book of color-celebrate. Celebrate inclusivity. Reap the benefits.

Another quote I like is: So unless that kindness is combined with clarity and the courage to name and challenge racism, this approach protects white fragility and needs to be challenged.  p. 129    I repeat: stopping our racist patterns must be more important than working to convince others that we don’t have them. It is said talk is cheap.  It is the actions that tell what we really believe.  See a previous post, ‘Words are Rumors, Watch their Feet.     https://learningomnivores.com/rules/words-are-rumors-watch-their-feet/

There are ways to check our assumptions and if any of our behavior was a problem.  Diangelo suggests some of the following behaviors:

  • Reflection
  • Apology
  • Listening
  • Processing
  • Seeking more understanding
  • Grappling
  • Engaging

I like her final suggestion. The final advice I offer is this: “Take the initiative and find out on your own.” To break with the conditioning of whiteness—the conditioning that makes us apathetic about racism and prevents us from developing the skills we need to interrupt it—white people need to find out for themselves what they can do. Break with the apathy of whiteness and demonstrate that you care enough to put in the effort.

Bottom line: you would care enough to get informed. So consider racism a matter of life and death as it is for people of color and do your homework. Niceness will not get racism on the table and will not keep it on the table when everyone wants it off.  p. 153         Interrupting racism takes courage and intentionality; the interruption is by definition not passive or complacent.

We don’t have to be perfect and we can put in the effort.  Reduce the talk.  Take the action.  Let’s do things that matter.  Make the world a better place.  We are going to need all the brains and energy from everyone to deal with current and future problems.