White Fragility and the Question of Trust
“I need to trust that you won’t think I am racist before I can work on my racism.” That’s white fragility in action.
I am a racial justice educator. On a daily basis, I lead primarily white groups in discussions of race and racism.
A significant but challenging aspect of my work is giving white people feedback on our inevitable and often unaware racist patterns. This has led to my identification of what I term white fragility — the inability of white people to handle challenges to our racial worldviews, identities, or positions. Because we live in a society that protects and insulates us from these challenges, we have not had to build the stamina to withstand them. Mainstream culture, schools, media, institutions, and ideologies center us and reinforce a racially limited (and racist) worldview, engendering a deeply internalized sense of racial superiority and entitlement. At the same time, we are taught that to feel racially superior is bad and immoral. This dichotomy results in the need to aggressively deny our internalized superiority to ourselves and others. On the rare occasions in which this denial is confronted, it comes as a kind of a shock to the system; a challenge to our rightful place in the hierarchy and an unfair moral offense, compelling us to defend rather than reflect. These are some of the dynamics racial justice educators must navigate when seeking to raise white consciousness about what racism really is and how it works.
In this piece, I want to speak to one specific aspect of white fragility: the white need to “build trust” in a group before white participants can engage in the work of identifying and challenging racism. These groups come in several forms — sometimes a racially-mixed training or dialogue and sometimes a same-race affinity group. Many who are involved in these various aspects of racial justice work will recognize this white call for racial trust, which surfaces in a variety of ways: facilitators devoting time to exercises intended to build trust; creating ground rules to engender trust, and participant justifications for non-engagement (e.g. “I am not going to share because I don’t feel trust here.”) I have tried unsuccessfully to uncover just exactly what my fellow white people mean by the call for trust — what we need to trust will or won’t happen. I am confident the need for trust does not relate to having your wallet stolen or being physically assaulted, although at a subconscious level that may very well be what is at play when the group is racially mixed, given the power of implicit bias and the relentless racist conditioning whites receive. Still, my observations lead me to believe that what it comes down to is this: I need to trust that you won’t think I am racist before I can work on my racism.
Consider the following common ground rules that have “building trust” at their base:
Don’t judge: This is not humanly possible, so as a ground-rule it cannot be achieved or enforced, so it is functionally meaningless.
Don’t make assumptions: The nature of an assumption is that you don’t know you are making it so again, this ground rule cannot be achieved or enforced and is functionally meaningless.
Assume good intentions: By emphasizing intentions over impact, this ground rule privileges the intentions of the aggressor over the impact of their behavior on the target. In so doing, it protects aggressors, their feelings, and their lack of accountability; as long as there was no intention to cause harm, you need to let go of the hurt and move on. But from a frame that acknowledges social power, intentions are actually irrelevant; it is the impact that matters.
Speak your truth: I have yet to understand why this seems to be a necessary guideline. I am not aware of a pattern of lying in these groups (defensiveness, distancing, not speaking at all — yes — but not speaking your truth? — no.) More importantly, what if your truth is that you are colorblind? Because no one can actually be colorblind in a racist society, this is not a “truth.” Yet this guideline can function to position all perspectives as equally valid. Given that the goal of anti-racist work is to identify and challenge racism and the misinformation that supports it, all perspectives are not equally valid. Some are rooted in racist ideology and need to be uncovered and challenged. We must distinguish between sharing your beliefs so that we can identify how they may be upholding racism, and stating your beliefs as “truths” that cannot be challenged. Please click here to access additional information on this topic.
Respect: This problem with this guideline is that respect is rarely defined, and what feels respectful to white people can be exactly what does not create a respectful environment for people of color. For example, white people often define a context in which there is no conflict, no expression of strong emotion, focusing on intentions over impact, and no challenging of racist patterns as respectful, and this is exactly what creates an inauthentic, white-norm centered and thus hostile environment for people of color.
The unexamined assumption underlying these guidelines is that they can be universally applied. But because they do not account for unequal power relations, they do not function the same way across race; they are primarily driven by white fragility. The very conditions that most white people insist on in order to remain comfortable are those that support the racial status quo (white centrality, dominance and professed innocence). For people of color, the racial status quo is hostile and needs to be interrupted, not reinforced. The essential message of “trust” is be nice. And challenging racism is not “nice” by dominant white norms.
Ground rules such as those above can also be turned against people of color — if you challenge my racial patterns, I can respond that you are making an assumption that what I did was rooted in racism, or you are denying my truth that race has nothing to do with my actions. Now you are the transgressor. These conditions reproduce the weight of racism people of color must constantly carry: holding back rage and centering white needs. A counter to white fragility is to build our stamina to bear witness to the pain of racism that we cause, not to impose conditions that require people of color to continually validate our denial.
Building our stamina also applies when in white affinity groups. Of course, ideally, we would guide each other in this work with compassion; it is much easier to look at something unwanted within ourselves if we don’t feel judged or criticized. But what if someone does literally point their finger and boldly state, “You are racist!” (a deep fear of progressive whites)? A white person who claims to be anti-racist and who positions themselves as above or beyond other whites is being a self-righteous jerk, but that is on them. What is on me is to identify my racist patterns and work to change them. If the point being made is insightful to that goal, then regardless of how carefully or indirectly it is being made, that is what I need to focus on. The method of delivery cannot be used to de-legitimize what is being illuminated or the excuse for not doing my work.
I recognize that to let go of the messenger and focus on the message is an advanced skill and is especially difficult to practice if someone comes at us with a “gotcha” tone. If kindness gets us there faster, I am all for it. But I do not require anything from someone giving me feedback before I can engage with that feedback. Part of my processing of that feedback will be to separate it from its delivery and ascertain the central point and its contribution to my growth. Many of us are not there yet but this is what we need to work towards. I have been in many white affinity groups wherein much energy was expended making sure people were kind and “compassionate” to each other and didn’t “break trust.” So much energy, in fact, that we could no longer help each other see our problematic patterns without breaking the norms of the group. So, unless that kindness is combined with clarity and the courage to name and challenge racism, it functions to protect white fragility and needs to be challenged.
White folks: its time to move forward! All white people raised in Western society are conditioned into a white supremacist worldview because it is the bedrock of our society and its institutions. Regardless of whether a parent told you that everyone was equal, the poster in the hall of your white suburban school proclaimed to value diversity, you have traveled abroad, or have people of color in your workplace or family, the ubiquitous socializing power of white supremacy cannot be avoided. The messages circulate 24/7 and have little to nothing to do with intentions, awareness, or agreement. Entering the conversation with this understanding is incredibly liberating because it allows us to focus on how — rather than if — our racism is manifesting. When we move beyond the good/bad binary (racists are bad so good people cannot participate in racism) we can actually become eager to identify our racist patterns, because interrupting those patterns becomes more important than managing how we think we look to others. I repeat: Stopping our racist patterns becomes more important than working to convince others that we don’t have them. We have them and people of color already know we have them; our efforts to appear otherwise are not convincing. Let’s move on, black and brown people are dying as a result of our inaction!
Given the inevitability that I have unaware racist patterns in thinking and behavior when I put myself in the hands of an anti-racist facilitator the only thing I need to trust is that they have a solid analysis of how racism works and the courage to break with white solidarity and hold me accountable to identifying my collusion. When I am the facilitator, you can trust that I will strive to be in my integrity on the above point. What that means is that I will work to help you see your racism and I will work to be open and receptive to you helping me see mine so that we can divest. That is no small task given the power of white fragility and white solidarity, but it is the goal of anti-racist work. (For a more in-depth discussion and an alternative set of ground-rules that account for power, see http://democracyeducationjournal.org/home/vol22/iss2/1/)
This story was previously published on The Good Men Project.