We can also demand that we be given this information in schools and universities and that we not be required to take special, elective courses to be exposed to it. We can get involved with multiracial organizations and white organizations working for racial justice. And we can build authentic cross-racial relationships and be willing to watch, listen, and learn. Sometimes, within the context of these relationships, we can ask direct questions and ask for explicit information, but this is
not always necessary. Simply by virtue of living an integrated life and paying attention, we will learn what we need to know.
Still, white people do have knowledge of aspects of race and racism, and we can easily unearth this knowledge with some minimal reflection. For example, we can reflect on messages we have received, privileges we enjoy, how we came to be socialized to feel superior (while denying that we feel this way), and how all of this may be manifesting in our lives.
When I began this work, I dreaded getting feedback from people of color on my racist patterns and assumptions. Now I welcome this feedback. Perhaps the most powerful lesson I have learned in terms of interrupting my own white fragility is that this feedback is a positive sign in the relationship. Of course, the feedback seldom feels goodâI occasionally feel embarrassed or defensive. But I also understand that there is no way for me to avoid enacting problematic patterns, so if a person of color trusts me enough to take the risk and tell me, then I am doing well.
Many people of color have shared with me that they don't bother giving feedback to a white person if they think the individual is unwilling to accept it; they either endure the microaggressions or drift away from the relationship. They do not feel close to white people to whom they can't speak honestly about racism, and these relationships always have a degree of distance and inauthenticity. While we worry that if we have revealed our racism in any way, the people of color in our lives will give up on us, I have found the opposite to be true. When we engage with the feedback and seek to repair the breach, the relationship deepens. Trying to explain away our racism does not fool people of color or bring them closer.
Because I will never be completely free of racism or finished with my learning, what are some things I can do or remember when my white fragility surfaces? There are several constructive responses we can have in the moment:
â¢ Return to the list of underlying assumptions in this chapter.
â¢ Seek out someone with a stronger analysis if you feel confused.
â¢ Take the time you need to process your feelings, but do return to the situation and the persons involved.
We can interrupt our white fragility and build our capacity to sustain cross-racial honesty by being willing to tolerate the discomfort associated with an honest appraisal and discussion of our internalized superiority and racial privilege. We can challenge our own racial reality by acknowledging ourselves as racial beings with a particular and limited perspective on race. We can attempt to understand the racial realities of people of color through authentic interaction rather than through the media or through unequal relationships. We can take action to address our own racism, the racism of other whites, and the racism embedded in our institutions. All these efforts will require that we continually challenge our own socialization and investments in racism and the misinformation we have learned about people of color. We can educate ourselves about the history of race relations in our country. We can follow the leadership on antiracism from people of color and work to build authentic cross-racial relationships. We can get involved in organizations working for racial justice. And most important, we must break the silence about race and racism with other white people.
Audre Lorde eloquently addressed her thoughts on white guilt at the National Women's Studies Association Conference in 1981:
I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger; for to do so insults and trivializes all our efforts. Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one's own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just
another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.
I am sometimes asked whether my work reinforces and takes advantage of white guilt. But I don't see my efforts to uncover how race shapes my life as a matter of guilt. I know that because I was socialized as white in a racism-based society, I have a racist worldview, deep racial bias, racist patterns, and investments in the racist system that has elevated me. Still, I don't feel guilty about racism. I didn't chose this socialization, and it could not be avoided. But I am responsible for my role in it. To the degree that I have done my best in each moment to interrupt my participation, I can rest with a clearer conscience. But that clear conscience is not achieved by complacency or a sense that I have arrived.
Unlike heavy feelings such as guilt, the continuous work of identifying my internalized superiority and how it may be manifesting itself is incredibly liberating. When I start from the premise that
I have been thoroughly socialized into the racist culture in which I was born, I no longer need to expend energy denying that fact. I am eagerâeven excitedâto identify my inevitable collusion so that I can figure out how to stop colluding! Denial and the defensiveness that is needed to maintain it is exhausting.
There are many approaches to antiracist work; one of them is to try to develop a positive white identity. Those who promote this approach often suggest we develop this positive identity by reclaiming the cultural heritage that was lost during assimilation into whiteness for European ethnics. However, a positive white identity is an impossible goal. White identity is inherently racist; white people do not exist outside the system of white supremacy. This does not mean that we should stop identifying as white and start claiming only to be Italian or Irish. To do so is to deny the reality of racism in the here and now, and this denial would
simply be color-blind racism. Rather, I strive to be “less white.” To be less white is to be less racially oppressive. This requires me to be more racially aware, to be better educated about racism, and to continually challenge racial certitude and arrogance. To be less white is to be open to, interested in, and compassionate toward the racial realities of people of color. I can build a wide range of authentic and sustained relationships across race and accept that I have racist patterns. And rather than be defensive about those patterns, I can be interested in seeing them more clearly so that I might ameliorate them. To be less white is to break with white silence and white solidarity, to stop privileging the comfort of white people over the pain of racism for people of color, to move past guilt and into action. These less oppressive patterns are active, not passive. Ultimately, I strive for a less white identity for my own liberation and sense of justice, not to save people of color.
When I give a talk or workshop, the number one question I get from white participants is, “How do I tell so-and-so about their racism without triggering white fragility?” My first response to this question is, “How would I tell you about
racism without triggering
white fragility?” With this response, I am trying to point out the unspoken assumption that the person asking the question is not part of the problem. In other words, the question distances the participant from racism; it assumes that the questioner doesn't need feedback or doesn't struggle with his or her own white fragility. The person's question is not one of humility or self-reflection.
Having said that, I can offer a few strategies for trying to work with one another on our white fragility. First, I try to affirm a person's perspective before I share mine, and when I do share mine, I try to point the finger inward, not outward. For example, I might say, “I can understand why you feel that way. I have felt that way myself. However, because of my opportunity to work with people of color and hear their perspectives, I have come to understand .Â .Â . ” I then share what I have
come to understand with the emphasis on how this understanding relates to me. While this strategy is not guaranteed to lower defensiveness, it's difficult to argue with someone who has framed a response as her or his own personal insight.
I also give myself some time if I feel at a loss to respond in the moment. When we have an ongoing relationship with someone, it's fine to take some time and return to the issue later. With this strategy, we can then choose a time when we feel more prepared and sense that the other person is open. In this case, I might say, “Can I talk to you about something? I have been feeling uncomfortable about our interaction the other day but it has taken me a while to get clarity on why. I have a better sense now. Can we return to our conversation?” I then do my best to share my thoughts and feelings as calmly and concisely as possible. Ultimately, I let go of changing the other person. If someone gains insight from what I share, that is wonderful. But the objective that guides me is my own need to break with white solidarity, even when it's uncomfortable, which it almost always is. In the end, my actions are driven by my own need for integrity, not a need to correct or change someone else.
People of color have occasionally asked me how to navigate white fragility. I so wish I had a simple formula to offer them! I want us to stop manifesting white fragility so that people of color don't have to ask this question. Still, besides the strategies discussed thus far, there is another approach that people of color may find useful. Whenever youâas a person of colorâdo not want to bear the burden of pointing out a white person's racism but do not want to let it go, you might ask a white person whom you trust to deal with it. While addressing white racism is rarely easy, white people can certainly bear the brunt of a hostile response less painfully than people of color can. There may even be a little less fragility because the intervention is coming from another white person. This strategy also helps a supportive white person demonstrate support and practice breaking with white solidarity.
Some people of color have told me that it is useful to know how they have colluded with my white fragility. In answering this question, I must first be clear that navigating white fragility is fundamentally a matter of survival for people of color. The consequences of white fragility include hours of agonizing as well as far more extreme consequences such as being seen as a threat and a troublemaker. These biased assessments often lead to job loss, stress-related illness, criminal charges, and institutionalization. To choose to survive in any way deemed necessary is thus an empowered choice. It is white people's responsibility to be less fragile; people of color don't need to twist themselves into knots trying to navigate us as painlessly as possible. Still, in helping people of color decide whether or how to interrupt white fragility, I can share some ways that I have noticed people of color enabling mine.
Because I am seen as somewhat more racially aware than other whites, people of color will often give me a pass. While this is certainly more comfortable for me, it doesn't hold me accountable or support my racial growth. I ask my friends of color to trust that I can handle their feedback, and then it's on me to demonstrate myself as worthy of that trust. Although I recognize the risk it takes, I would not have my current awareness if people of color had chosen to protect my feelings. Since my learning will never be finished, neither will the need to hold me accountable.
When a person of color gives me feedback that I consider unfair, I am tempted to go to another person of color for reassurance that I am a good person. This search for reassurance pressures people of color to align with me over one another by agreeing that I have been unfairly attacked. Empathy with people in distress creates a strong urge to comfort them, and in my search for this comfort, I am, consciously or not, taking advantage of this urge. But the search for reassurance from people of color is inappropriate. My need functions as a kind of divide-and-conquer wedge. Further, my quest for reassurance upholds racism by reinforcing the very idea that the feedback was an unfair attack and/or that there was a correct way to give it and the person of color in question has broken the rules of engagement. In essence, by
complaining to one person of color about the unfairness of feedback from another person of color (no matter how diplomatically or indirectly I try to mask my complaint), I am pressuring a person of color to collude with my racism.
Equity consultant Devon Alexander shared with me what is perhaps the most pernicious form of pressure on people of color: the pressure to collude with white fragility by minimizing their racial experiences to accommodate white denial and defensiveness. In other words, they don't share their pain with us because we can't handle it. This accommodation requires a profoundly unfair degree of inauthenticity and silent endurance. In a vicious racial cycle, white fragility has functioned to keep people of color from challenging racism in order to avoid white wrath. In turn, not challenging white people on racism upholds the racial order and whites' position within that order.
The default of the current system is the reproduction of racial inequality; our institutions were designed to reproduce racial inequality and they do so with efficiency. Our schools are particularly effective at this task. To continue reproducing racial inequality, the system only needs white people to be really nice and carry on, smile at people of color, be friendly across race, and go to lunch together on occasion. I am not saying that you shouldn't be nice. I suppose it's better than being mean. But niceness is not courageous. Niceness will not get racism on the table and will not keep it on the table when everyone wants it off. In fact, bringing racism to white people's attention is often seen as
nice, and being perceived as not nice triggers white fragility.