Part 6.4:
Still have some objections, nagging doubts, or points of confusion? (cont'd)

You might be experiencing white fragility without realizing it.

That happened to me too. For a long time, I thought that white fragility was more simplistic than it actually is. I imagined it only referred to people saying things like, "I'm not racist! I'm a good person!"

I didn't realize until later on that white fragility manifests in all sorts of ways. Here are some that you might face.

  • First of all, remember from part 4 that white fragility is a general sense of pushing back on what you're learning about race instead of welcoming it in and accepting it. It's a desire to go back to the status quo where you were safe
    • When I first read the book White Fragility and heard the concept discussed in workshops, I imagined it only referred to white people having emotional outbursts with screaming or crying
    • In contrast, if I calmly tried to debate the workshop facilitator from a place of curiosity, I imagined that was something else entirely
    • Nope. Looking back, I can see clearly now that different types of people respond to stress in a variety of ways. Some people might cry or run away. Other people fight, and one way of fighting is to ask a lot of questions to try to find a flaw in their reasoning, even if you don't consciously realize you're doing that
  • You might be experiencing white fragility if you feel defensive when someone is: giving you hard feedback, calling out something you said, or asking you to stop speaking. Check if you find yourself wanting to say something that starts with:
    • “Sure, but can I just say…”
    • “Ok, but let me just clarify what I meant…”
    • "Yes, but I think you're misunderstanding me..."
  • Sorry, but there's a good chance that you're not being misunderstood and that you're just failing to appreciate your own ignorance
    • I've been in multiple workshops where a white person thinks that they have a brand new perspective on racism and it will solve all sorts of problems if they could just be allowed to fully explain it, even if it's causing everyone else to feel increasingly uncomfortable. I know it's hard to hear, but I've yet to see that turn out well. The problem is their assumption that they somehow know better or that their personal needs are more important than those of the group
    • In other words, if you're talking about racism with someone who's knowledgeable about that topic (e.g., a POC, an activist, a workshop facilitator, etc.), notice if you're more focused on making sure they understand you, or if you're being humble and approaching them with a beginner's mindset to understand them 
    • Instead of saying things like, "Let me just clarify what I meant," can you say things more like, "I don't think I'm fully grasping what you mean; would you be able to explain it a different way?" or "It sounds like that's really important to you but I feel like I'm missing some context. Could you help me understand it better?
  • White fragility can manifest if you're doubting something you're hearing about race from either (a) someone with academic expertise in a field related to race or sociology, or (b) a person of color with lived experience
    • While listening to that person talk about race, you might feel resistance. There might be a voice in your head telling you that something feels off so they're probably wrong. You might feel like it's important for you to identify the flaw in their reasoning
    • Yes, it's possible that you're bringing a new perspective to this topic that they haven't considered before. But, it's more likely that this person has already thought about this topic a whole lot more than you have and you just don't fully understand it yet or you're not quite grasping the nuance of the point they're trying to make
    • Again, see if you can seek to understand rather than seek to convince. This might also be one of those times where you make a note to yourself to do some more research on your own or ask a white friend later
  • White fragility can manifest if you're frustrated that people aren't willing to engage you intellectually or debate you
    • You might feel like you have solid logical points to make but they just keep talking about feelings. They might say that they don't want to have to explain complex concepts point by point (especially if it feels like you're going to push back on them rather than thanking them for taking the time to explain things to you)
    • In other words—and this was actually hard for me to grasp too—a lot of people don't want to debate you
    • Remember that our bodies—especially areas like our guts—have a lot of information to share with us; but, they express themselves via sensations and feelings rather than words
      • Recent research actually shows that our guts contain 100 million nerve cells—there's literally something very much like a "second brain" in there
    • Part of whiteness is prioritizing words and analytical thought over feelings and bodily sensations
      • So, white fragility might manifest if you feel frustrated when a person of color indicates some sense of "knowing" from their body that they can't easily express in words
      • For example, they could say that something about a certain white person makes them feel uncomfortable but they're not able to name exactly what it is. That might be frustrating to hear, but remember that this person's intuition here is probably finely honed after years of dealing with discrimination and micro-aggressions
      • A POC might also not want to engage with you if you have a reputation for "talking circles around people" or twisting their words like a debater when they're more interested in speaking from the heart and expressing what feels true for them
    • Part of dismantling whiteness is reconnecting with our bodies. It's becoming more comfortable with singing and dancing again. It's learning to trust the wisdom expressed via our feelings and sensations. So, white fragility can manifest if you feel frustration when someone doesn't want to engage you from an analytical place
    • Sure, we don't want to implicitly trust our "gut brain" in all situations, but when we're talking about interpersonal dynamics and the traumatic effects of oppression on people, that part of us has a lot of wisdom

I hope that you find an opportunity to continue your learning in some kind of group setting—whether that's a workshop, a training, a meetup, or an affinity group (check out the "Where to learn more" section for some starting points).

This website is a great starting point, but there's a lot of richness to being in a physical room with other people exploring these topics together.

I've learned a lot from spaces like that. And if you are able to find yourself in one, here are some things to watch out for to make sure you keep being a positive contributor and don't become frustrating to the rest of the group.

These all might be signs that you need to slow down, notice what's happening for you, and potentially apologize.

  • Notice how much your voice is being heard in the room compared to that of other people. Do you keep talking more than others?
  • Do you feel like the facilitator of color made a mistake or is missing an obvious point that you want to make?
  • Do you feel like you want to educate the room on something?
  • As you’re talking in front of the group, do you start to feel anxious or tingly?
    • Some of that might be normal public speaking nerves, but some of it might also be your nervous system picking up on growing tension in the room
  • As you’re talking in front of the group, do you hear anyone gasp, moan, or make other unpleasant sounds?
    • Do you hear those sounds but feel like they must have simply misunderstood you?
    • Or, do you feel that they'll totally get it if you just keep talking and finish what you're wanting to say?
  • Do you find that no one approaches you to pair up during small group exercises?
  • When you apologize about a mistake, do you focus on the wrong you did or are you intent on explaining your reasoning?
    • Do you use the format, “I recognize that I did ___ that impacted you in ___ way and I apologize” or the format “I’m sorry if I offended you when I said ___, but I was just trying to ___”?
  • Have you said something like "I'm sorry if..." (e.g., "I'm sorry if you were offended, but...")?
    • Try saying "I'm sorry that you were offended..." instead since that validates their experience rather than calling it into question
  • Did the facilitator cut you off at any point while you were talking?
  • Are you getting hung up on exact numbers or disputing specific facts (e.g., what percentage, or exactly how much money, etc.) rather than focusing on the main ideas?
    • In other words, are you focused more on the fact that white slave owners were cruel or are you fixated on trying to figure out if they were really bad or really really bad?
  • Again, all of this is common. You're still a good person, and we're all still learning together. But those are some signs to watch out for that could indicate the issue is with you rather than with the content, facilitator, or presentation
    • It's very common to experience white fragility and to feel strong feelings when doing this work
    • Let's all support each other as we continue this work. Let's avoid shaming each other. And let's all try to carefully notice in ourselves when it's time to own up to our actions, recognize the impact we've had on other people, apologize, and make sure that we're not hogging all the airtime

Lastly, a message to the social justice community (e.g., activists and workshop facilitators): In doing this anti-racism work, let's prioritize reducing the harm caused to people of color. That's our #1 goal.

And, secondarily, let's also try to soften the harsh learning curve for well-meaning white people. Let's not coddle them or let them walk all over us. But let's not shame them either.

  • I'm going to end this section with a plea that I recognize some members of the larger social justice community might disagree with. I'll admit that I feel vulnerable writing this section as a white man. But, I also believe it's important to say because I've seen (and experienced) how harsh some of this can be to newcomers
  • So, I want to spend a few minutes here humbly asking us all to work together to do what we can to reduce some of that harshness. And I absolutely want to recognize the very good reasons that you feel fatigue, pressure, and frustration that can sometimes lead to that reduction in gentleness 
    • Many of you have been fighting these battles for a long time and you're sick of having to explain the same things over and over again. You're sick of white privilege and white fragility. You're especially sick of dealing with heterosexual white men who are used to having the power and who lash out when they feel like the smallest bit of that power is taken away from them
    • I know what it's like when you're in a mixed-race learning space and that one white guy starts pushing back with one of the common beginner mistakes. You feel the rest of the group hold their breath, and the increasing tension is palpable. You want to step in and stop this person from finishing before it gets any worse
    • All of that makes perfect sense, and I can empathize with how activated your nervous system probably feels in those situations
    • After his third question, you probably want to yell at him, or silence him, or ask him to leave
    • I want to take a moment here to explore our options in those moments
  • Let's say the same white person has been asking a lot of questions during your training or workshop. They seem to be coming from a place of curiosity but they still don't get it. Here's a range of potential responses from one end of a spectrum to the other:
    • Option 1 - let them derail you: "Excellent question! Let me pause what I was saying and spend 20 minutes interacting with you alone to fully answer your question while everyone else waits."
    • Option 2 - briefly help them feel heard by explaining: "I'm noticing that you're asking a lot of good questions. I support your curiosity, and I'm also not going to be able to answer that right now. We have a lot of material to cover, and I'm sensing that your question is causing a negative impact on others in the room that you might not be aware of. I'm open to talking with you about it during the break."
    • Option 3 - interrupt and demonstrate: "That's enough. This is an example of the white fragility that we've been talking about. Class, pay attention: Notice how this person is focusing on having all his questions answered without noticing the impact he's having on the group. This is an example of whiteness in action, and I'm going to interrupt this by drawing a clear boundary and asking this person to stop speaking."
    • Option 4 - draw a harder boundary: "I'm going to have to ask you to leave the class. I'll follow up with you afterward to point you toward a more appropriate workshop, but this one just isn't right for where you are in your learning."
    • Option 5 - unleash on them: "Can't you see that you've been talking far more than everyone else and that you're having a major negative impact on the space? Get the hell out. You're the perfect example of what's wrong with white people."
  • Having to bottle up your emotions would be a manifestation of whiteness, so I certainly don't think that's the right thing to do. So I want to fully acknowledge all the fatigue and frustration and trauma and everything else that sometimes leads us toward options 4 or 5. But my plea is for us to try our best to focus on a response closest to option 2 when we can
  • The whole point of anti-racism work is to reduce pain, trauma, and oppression for people of color. That's absolutely the primary concern. And, as the secondary concern, we should also do everything we can in the process to not harm white people either. Ideally nobody would be hurt by this work
    • Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, white people doing this work will very likely still feel uncomfortable at points, and they might even feel attacked, shamed, or vilified

    • That said, even if that's happening to people we disagree with, if they're coming from a good place (i.e., not acting out of malice), then I think we should also do what we can to minimize their discomfort

    • This is a tricky issue because discomfort can be a natural part of learning. If a white person doesn't find this work challenging at all, it's probably a good sign that they're not taking it seriously or digging deep enough. People of color have experienced a whole lot of hardship, so an empathetic white person should very likely experience some difficult feelings

    • But, there's a nuance here: We shouldn't revel in their discomfort. We shouldn't be coming from a place of "they deserve it, now they can see how it feels." Rather, I think it's reasonable for a white person to feel the discomfort of learning and growth but not of punishment

  • Many people of color will have a lot of trauma and anger from a lifetime of being marginalized. So, it's perfectly reasonable for them to express that anger without feeling the need to bottle it up to appear calm and controlled. That would be white supremacy in action

    • So, let's honor that and, at the same time, let's try not to make white people feel ostracized when they're trying their best to learn. Belonging is a core human need, and it can be very easy for a white person to unintentionally say the wrong thing in a workshop and then feel vilified for the rest of it

    • This is an extremely nuanced issue and I know there will be people in the social justice community who disagree with this. But let's please keep remembering that we're all on the same team. We have to be very careful of sectarianism here (i.e., infighting within a group that largely believes the same thing but argues over details instead of rallying against their common foe who believes something very different)

  • Bottom line: We're all against racism, so let's try not to attack people who are 90% on board simply because they're not quite at 100% yet

    • No, we don't want to give up important parts of the work or easily forgive things like toxic masculinity or gaslighting, even if they're done with anti-racism in mind

    • But, we should also do what we can to avoid publicly shaming and punishing people who are truly trying their best. Workshops and other social justice orientated spaces can be scary places, so let's all try to support each other as we try our best