“You speak Ethiopian? That’s like, the one with the clicks, right?”
Instantly, I look up from my paperwork and stare my employee down like we are about to duel. Another shift, another facepalm moment. I am prepared to lay into him, ever the self-appointed regulator of my store, but the woman he had addressed shrugged and patiently answered, “You know, my country is where the humans came from, right? You should be so lucky.”
It’s easy to think that I am not this guy. I don’t conflate all African languages into one appalling stereotype. I call myself a progressive white ally, I am sensitive to other races and cultures–at least, that is the story we tell ourselves, right? We can’t help being born into a racial hierarchy, so by saying we’re not racist, that must make it true!
I have been meditating on race lately. Specifically, White Fragility. According to Robin DiAngelo, who coined the term in her 2011 essay, this is the “state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.”
This term has been getting some press lately. It seems that ‘white privilege’ has been overused for the time being. Anytime a person of color challenges a white person’s unchecked privilege, invariably, the white person spazzes out, citing reverse racism or individualism or a personal anecdote of that one time they had a nice talk with someone that didn’t end up like this. Tune in to Fox News for nearly constant examples.
The Starbucks #racetogether campaign, kicked off by ostensibly well-meaning CEO Howard Schultz, fell flat, succumbing to some brilliantly honest, sarcastic tweets, followed by the deletion of Schultz’s twitter account. The issue is not that we shouldn’t be talking about race relations. The Starbucks brand was not prepared for any backlash (which it should have expected) and then disengaged from the conversation when tweets brought up legitimate rebuttals. Now, the conversation has been re-centered on the company itself rather than the discussions it set out to initiate. Where was the PR team on this one?
Often, it seems that a pang of white guilt is enough to send someone into a tailspin. Someone who isn’t prepared to unpack how they unknowingly contribute to and participate in systemic racism, spurring this well-intentioned but poorly executed Starbucks movement, a flurry of re-postings of articles with the BlackLivesMatter hashtag, or some other knee jerk reaction to appear emphatically NOT racist.
Several months ago, I attended a meeting for the LA chapter of Black Lives Matter. This group brings together dynamic, thoughtful and engaging people intentionally working together to provoke public discussion, as well as a call to action regarding the prevalence of “virulent anti-black racism that permeates our society.” What I expected was a lecture-style discussion that would take questions from an audience. What I walked into (45 minutes late, mind you–already a bad start) with my friend was a small group workshop that might as well have turned me to stone.
The groups were divided by race, something that is common for anti-racist endeavors, in order to center the discussion on the issues specific to each racial group. I was mortified. I tried to formulate words and mumbled something about being late and ill-prepared. The conversation centered on the ways white people could be useful in the movement, about the prevalence of anti-black state violence and what specifically we could do to promote discourse on the topic. Not wanting to be THAT person who summarily puts their foot in their mouth, I remained silent, contributing zero. I wasn’t the only one, but still.
Normally self-assured and cocky, I dwelled on that evening for weeks. I felt even worse that the friends I told about the experience were instantly sympathetic to me, as if I was the oppressed in question. Some ranted on how racial separation was akin to segregation (that is a fun logistical knot to untangle). I outright stated that I did not adequately research for the context and format of the evening. Few recognized that my allyship meant nothing if I didn’t engage, that choosing silence over discourse was cowardly at best.
So, I lacked the academic language and terminology–that was an issue raised when the larger group reformed. The format of the smaller groups separated by race was raised as well and noted by the organizers. This interplay harkened back to college, when I was perpetually muted by self-defeatism (imposter syndrome is a bitch). But at the same time, I was in complete awe of the precise care taken by the hosts to make this discussion as inclusive and transparent in its arrangement as possible. Merely wanting to be an ally was not enough, just as wanting to learn never equated to much more than a B average.
I am not searching for some sort of absolution. I am writing to reach out to other people who have experienced white fragility and want to investigate that. Reading through a recent interview with DiAngelo, the truth hit me: “You have a feeling because you’ve filtered the experience through a particular lens. The feeling is the outcome. It probably feels natural, but of course it’s shaped by what you believe.” My experience is not unique, nor am I special for feeling what I felt in that moment (fear/shame). Revealing my own white fragility is a process and I am still in that process.
When people of color tell me their experiences with racism, I validate their truth and acknowledge that I am complicit and have benefitted from racism my whole life. I start conversations with colleagues. We chat sporadically over the span of hours, between rushes and during checkouts. I appreciate the thoughtfulness this inspires; each of us has time to consider the last segment of the discussion and work out our response and rebuttal to the previous opinion or story. Additionally, I am lucky to be dating someone who is brutally honest with me, regardless of my ego, and am humbled to have friends who will level with me when I’m an asshole.
However, it is not enough to simply read and write and chat with friends. According to their site, AWARE LA (Alliance of White Anti-Racists Everywhere) exists specifically for white people dedicated to challenging racism and organizing volunteers to promote “racial justice in transformative alliance with people of color.” Actions always speak louder than words, but words get the ball rolling. “Solidarity is a verb” is one of the catchphrases of the movement. Yes, technically, it is a noun, but one that functions only in the presence of a verb. You can’t ‘solidarity’ alone, you act in solidarity with others.
This all begs the question, what about other races? Is there fragility apparent in them as well? One’s gender, class, education, et al, greatly influence the gaze through which someone perceives or denies fragility. One can theoretically experience fragility as a non-white person and though I have not found concrete examples, I would like to know what that looks like. For those who identify as multiracial, the implications for them to bridge the knowledge gap is awkward and further complicates the conversation. One person cannot speak unilaterally for their race, no matter the legitimacy of their authority.
The ways people grapple with the implications of white fragility are complex. It’s what we do with those reactions and resulting actions that define us. I tried and failed in my initial attempt. There is a Black Lives Matter rally tonight in memory of Kendrec McDade, a young black man shot down by police in Pasadena on March 24, 2012. I have to work and I can’t call off. I’m going to make sure people know about this and signal boost the invite. That is solidarity. That is what I can do. And if it’s still going on at midnight, I will be there.