The kindest, most generous take on the brouhaha surrounding Rachel Dolezal — the former head of the Spokane NAACP chapter who resigned after allegedly lying about her race — came from filmmaker Lacey Schwartz. She said it spoke to how much we want to talk about race and racial identity in this country. The thing is, we white people generally have a hard time doing it.
Race is a topic that lives right next to our hearts. Scratch the surface of any discussion — but especially those that include comments like “I don’t see color” or “Our employee evaluations are based on merit” — and you’ll see what I mean. Awkwardness, angst and even anger can ensue. Everyone has strong feelings about race and racism.
White people, however, can choose to walk away from these topics, to ignore these feelings. Most days, white people don’t have to confront the issue of race if they don’t want to. This can happen because so much of what is considered normal or desirable has been defined as white. White people defined things this way originally and continue to accrue certain advantages as a result.
This is where some white people will stop reading. Make defensive remarks. End the conversation.
Dr. Robin DiAngelo calls this behavior “white fragility.” She says, “White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment… builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering [white tolerance for] racial stress.” White fragility describes “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress [triggers] a range of defensive moves… such as outwardly displayed emotions like anger, fear and guilt.” It can also trigger behaviors like argumentation, silence and withdrawal.
White fragility puts a stop to critical conversations.
What Causes It
Several factors diminish our tolerance for tough topics. First, we learn to define racism as a problem of bad (prejudiced) individuals and their bad actions. We develop strong negative feelings about them. This individualistic viewpoint, which is augmented by powerful cultural emphasis on individualism and individual rights, lets us distance ourselves from what it means to be part of a group — particularly one with a shared history. When we’re confronted with these injustices, DiAngelo notes, we take it as a personal affront to the good individual we know ourselves to be.
We also fail to understand racism as multidimensional and adaptable. We do not grasp its systemic and cultural nature. That makes us blind to the systems of unequal power and resource distribution that are built into even our most hallowed institutions. These systems affect every one of us from even before we are born. (Think about the unequal access to prenatal care, for example.) We are socialized into these systems by, well, everything. Family. Schools. Religious institutions. And especially the media. We absorb the inherent value of whiteness unconsciously. We don’t even know it’s happening most of the time. What’s more, white people are not alone in this. It affects everyone.
Because we don’t know what we don’t know, even the very best intentioned of us can keep real progress from happening. This is why some companies and communities still struggle. Many organizations have taken good-faith steps to attract and retain a diverse workforce and to build an inclusive environment where everyone can contribute. Much like our society as a whole, though, many are also having a hard time making it happen or making it stick.
What to do about it
Horrific events have brought us to a new crossroads. Unrelenting murders of black Americans and new legal challenges to voting rights, equal opportunity and affirmative action in the U.S. are asking us to go deeper with this work: to change not just minds and hearts, but entire institutions, for lasting good.
The good news is that we can choose to NOT walk away. We can take positive action. White people can participate in the dismantling of systems — not just symbols — of oppression and inequality. We can transform white fragility into white accountability. Accountability/action categories developed for the annual, national White Privilege Conference offer some ideas of where you can start:
- Take personal action. Seek to learn, change and act within yourself and your life. Create time and practices to improve your personal reflection and insight. Examine your own strengths and challenges, as well as the impacts of the media you choose. “Like,” “follow” and read those who dispute your assumptions. Hard as it is, welcome mistakes as an opportunity to learn. Stick with it.
- Make a commitment with others. Tell others what you are doing and/or join with them to do it. Engage in critical conversations about dismantling systems of inequity. Attend an event, join a group or start one centered on this work. White members of the choir backing up John Legend and Common’s Oscar performance of “Glory” stood shoulder to shoulder with black singers without singing themselves, using their art to create a powerful metaphor for supporting those whose voices must be heard.
- Take action to change institutions and systems. Critically examine the big picture of interrelated parts and contexts that support unearned advantage. Eliminate imbalances of power, privilege and pay through policy change and accountability measures. Support professional development and training curricula that incorporate equity content, no matter the subject area. Partner with and support institutions of higher education in your area that offer race and gender studies. As David Niose noted recently, “America is killing itself through its embrace and exaltation of ignorance.” Make sure your institution — your company, your community — is instead among those building systems of enlightenment for the future.
Jody Alyn is a white organizational consultant and inclusion strategist.
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