White Fragility


White Fragility

We’ve been talking about race and the impact of racism at CCRC over the last year on a regular basis. It was overdue. Our often awkward and uncomfortable discussions continue and I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned so far as I’ve tried to focus on this idea and what can be done about it. I’m far from a full understanding of it. I don’t really believe that anyone will ever be able to have a full understanding of it, but as a heterosexual, cis-gender, able bodied white man I am in the position of being the most blinded by the impact of internalized white supremacy and anti-blackness. I am in the position of benefiting most from the ideas of individualism, meritocracy, capitalism, and freedom. 

In White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, the author lays out a definition of racism that helped me deepen my understanding of America and whiteness. She describes it as a systemic group concept rather than an individual trait. We live in a culture that was founded on the idea of white and black. Our country was colonized by European conquerors who were told by Pope Alexander VI in the 1493 that god thought people with black (or brown) skin were sub human and so people with white skin should take their land, enslave them and use them for labor and sex as they pleased. This idea of white supremacy has been internalized over centuries at this point. 

As a therapist I can relate to the concept of internalization. We’re working with people all the time to understand the messages they’ve internalized about themselves and to keep the good beliefs and mitigate the bad beliefs. These ideas are often held as truths. A child who is hit by his parents can internalize the idea that he’s a “bad person”. This belief can lead to all kinds of problems as the child grows into adulthood. If the adult believes that they’re “bad” in some way then they are likely to do bad in order to feel a sense of congruity. “It’s just who I am and what I do. I’m bad”. You can substitute “unlovable, lazy, dishonest, crazy…” for the “bad” and get a whole bunch of outcomes based on this internalized concept.

So we have internalized ideas about the color of people’s skin and what that means about them as a group. This is inside us no matter what color our skin is. If we’re fortunate enough to be born with white skin then we have to understand the impact of internalized white supremacy. If we were born with dark skin, we have to understand the impact of internalized oppression and messages about being less than. 

This means that Racism always favors whiteness and punishes blackness. This is different from prejudice which can go in the other direction, but which does not have the history of massive power behind it. A white kid being bullied in an all-black school is not racism, it’s racial prejudice. The well documented economic, educational, and health differences between whites and blacks in America is racism. Racism affects us all and is about our large groups and the internalized ideas we have taken in about what our skin color means. 

What can we do?!?!

One powerful idea from DiAngelo and others  is to look at whiteness. This has been a request from black scholars and activists for a long time. One of the main insidious tools of white supremacy is the denial of whiteness. If the white majority thinks of most values and beliefs as “mainstream” or “normal” rather than having a basis in whiteness, then all the problems of race are only black problems. Whiteness is normal. Blackness is other and less than. Whites have to acknowledge and explore whiteness. 

That’s what I’ve been trying to do since this idea has come on board for me. What does it mean for me, as an individual to be white and what does it mean for the whole group of us to be white? And for the whole group of none of us to be white? We are all truly biologically the same. Skin color is a mere genetic variation, like eye color. 

 DiAngelo describes many internalized beliefs that live inside my sense of whiteness. Here are a few:

I’m supposed to be perfect.

I’m supposed to be a boss.

I’m supposed to bend the rules in my favor.

I’m supposed to be free.

I’m supposed to be happy.

I’m supposed to own a house.

I’m supposed to be married.

I’m supposed to have a child.

I’m supposed to be a professional.

I’m entitled to good customer service.

When I talk, people are supposed to listen.

I can always ask for whatever I need because the worst that will happen is someone will say no and then I’ll just find another way to get my needs met.

I’m entitled to have all my needs met.

I’m “everyman”.

If I can do it, you can too.

I need to solve every problem.

If I don’t do it, no one will. 

I’m “normal”. 

I’m a “good white”. There are “bad whites”. 

I’m entitled to comfort.

I won’t presume to understand or list the concepts left inside a black person or person of color based on internalized oppression, but DiAngelo does. She also lays out the internalized ideas of anti-blackness. These differ from internalized oppression and act more as a list of concepts that we have baked into us about Blacks being bad. White goodness doesn’t exist without Black badness. 

These are uncomfortable discussions. This is one of the concepts that conflicts with whiteness. Don’t talk about it if it’s uncomfortable. I invite you into these important thoughts and discussions. How does whiteness impact you? How does blackness impact you? If we talk about whiteness and acknowledge it’s powerful place in our culture we can begin to disrupt racism, which will impact everyone.