A Letter to My White Friends: Smashing White Fragility, Fear, and Guilt


Consider this your call-in. A letter to white people, from a white person, on the process of overcoming white fragility.

Two weeks ago, I issued a call for my white friends to really examine our white identities, confront fragility, and help disrupt systemic racism. But the question remained, how do we go about smashing our fragility? To delve into the answer, let’s be thoughtful about what this entails. First, I want to say that the phrase “smashing white fragility” is something of a misnomer. While it sounds powerful (and it is!), it also conveys the idea that this is a one-time thing, a hump you get over, the spell that banishes your fragility forever. It doesn’t work that way. Confronting your fragility is an ongoing, life-long process. Unlearning the supremacy and comfort in our whiteness will be something we can engage with for the rest of your time on Earth. That being said, it is an important, rewarding, and desperately needed process for today’s political moment. Please engage.

Before we smash our fragility, we must identify it and understand why it’s so insidious. Fragility is, as Courtney E. Martin puts it, the “gut emotional pushback” to anything that makes us feel uncomfortable about being white. Anything that calls our identity into question, asks us to shoulder any responsibility for racism, or really just asks us to think about our racial identity at all. In fact, this article itself might be triggering your fragility right now. If it is and you’re still here, awesome. That’s how we smash; we lean into the discomfort.

There are many, many people who have expressed why white fragility is bad. I’ll summarize here by saying this: white fragility is what makes us complicit in actively upholding structures of racist oppression. When we don’t acknowledge our own racial identities, privilege, or even confront the issue of race at all, we continue to oppress others, sometimes without even knowing it. White people are the most racially privileged and therefore powerful group. The Western world favors whiteness to such a degree that if we choose not to look at our power and actively de-construct it, very little will change and everyone will continue to suffer, including us.

Break Through Your Fear and Guilt

I don’t believe it’s good for us to live in such fear and opposition of each other. It’s not good for white people to be so fearful and angry, gripping on to white supremacy the way the right-wing continues to do.  It’s better for us to be humble and open to connection. So, we need to break through the fear and guilt that prevent us from looking at our white privileges and identities. We can pay attention to our gut emotional pushback responses when they occur. This will help us acknowledge the feelings we have, whether they be guilt, fear, or other things. When we are aware of these feelings, we can choose to actively address them by pushing through them and reassuring ourselves. This way, we can forge ahead on our exploration of our own whiteness, and our relationships to other racial identities.

Do Your Work

I really like the phrase Anna Kegler uses to encourage white people to educate ourselves on our identities. We do indeed need to do our work. This means reading up on race issues and looking at perspectives from POC and white authors, learning about micro-aggressions, adopting the appropriate response to getting called out. It means #KnowYourBaldwin, understanding how whiteness manifests in the workplace, and making your feminism intersectional. As white people who haven’t had to think about our race, we have a lot of researching and thinking to do in order to catch up with everyone else, and that is ok! In fact, I think it’s really fun. Learning about whiteness is what helps your deconstruct your own identity and become aware of what it means. To be aware of yourself in that way is a joy and a privilege in itself. Podcast. Blog, and another blog. Honestly y’all I could keep going (seriously I have a Pinterest board where I collect this stuff) but I’ll just let this be the jumping -off point for now.

Strike A Balance and Embrace Discomfort

In my last article, I talked about how uncomfortable I would get in social justice spaces. Here are a few words of advice for myself and people who are experiencing similar things. First, people have a right to be angry at you. If you aren’t well-received in certain situations, the people involved might not be mad at you personally, but angry at racial injustice as a whole. Alternatively, you might actually be doing something offensive or aggressive that you are not aware of. In either situation, it’s important to observe your impact, which is often different than your intention (you can, and will, make mistakes even if you are well meaning). Validate the emotions of people who might call you out. Strike a balance between the understanding that race issues and discussions are not about you, and at the same time being careful to reflect on your actions.

     You will make mistakes! You will get called out! It will feel uncomfortable! I get called out by my friends and partner fairly often and it sucks, but it also means we’re both trying to bridge the gaps in my ignorance. As Saroful says, “If someone tells you what you just did was wrong, it’s because they genuinely believe you are a good person who would do the right thing if you knew what it was.” I apologize, learn what I did wrong, and we move on. In embracing the discomfort and moving through it, I am able to keep learning and de-powering my own identity.

Talk About Your Identity

This is something I think socially aware white people need to do more of. We need spaces to be able to openly, non-confrontationally, and non-competitively (ie there’s no one in the space trying to be “better”/prove they’re less racist than everyone else). I am extremely lucky to have safe spaces with my partner and friends of color where we can reflect on race and whiteness together and talk about our differing identities. I have learned so much from them, and I think looking for these spaces with people of color can be beneficial if both parties are open and willing to talk about these issues.

On the other hand, I also think it would be immensely helpful if these same safe spaces existed for white people to talk to other whites about their identities. My favorite example of this is AWARE-LA’s Saturday Dialogues.  They explain the importance of these spaces in more detail, but I like this: “This is a long, difficult, and sometimes painful process [of examining one’s own whiteness and racism]. It’s helpful to have a space where other white people engaged in this process can support and challenge us, without having to always subject people of color to further undue trauma or pain as we stumble and make mistakes. Having a community of white anti-racist people gives us hope, helps us grow our practice, and gives us strength to stay in it for the long haul.” Creating space for white anti-racists to talk to one another about their journeys, realizations, and experiences can reinforce individual practices and keep us accountable to confronting our identity on a regular basis. It gives us a support group of people who are trying to do what we’re doing too! (For more reading on AWARE’s Dialogues)

Know Where We Are Needed and Speak Up When We Can

In many conversations or demonstrations on racial issues, white people are not the focal point. We have race issues too, as you can see, but unless the event at hand is specifically about whiteness, we need to keep out of the spotlight. This article by Ashleigh Shackleford discusses the presence of white people at Black Lives Matter rallies thusly: “Whiteness operates in a way that means that using your privilege “for good” often requires Black folks to still be a position to be “saved” or “in need.” We don’t need white saviorism. We don’t need white people to speak for us. We don’t even really need white people to show up to rallies. We need our reparations, we need intentional disruption that involves high risk and we need y’all to stop playing.” As white people, we need to be conscious of where we are needed and where we are not. When we are called on for something specifically, then we can show up. In fact, Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ), is a great example of organizing white people when they are needed for race issues. This organization resources organizing led by people of color, often by supplying white supporters for protests when POC-lead organizations ask for them.

This all being said, it is also important to speak up when we can, or when we need to. If we’re in a situation, say, with only other white people present, and something offensive happens, we can say something about that. I’m not suggesting that we dogmatically hoist our anti-racist moral superiority over someone’s subtly racist comments. This doesn’t need to be a callout, instead it can be an opportunity for everyone present to discuss the racialized incident and learn from it. Here’s a really excellent article on how to call someone in by Sian Ferguson. In general, I find responding with genuine curiosity and openness, rather than suspicion and condemnation, will help open up the conversation.

By engaging in these steps, and especially by continuing to educate ourselves, we can smash our fragility and begin to extricate ourselves from the web of fear, guilt, and fragility that makes us cling to our racial privilege. I hope these suggestions have been helpful. For further reading, definitely check out all the links above, all the links in my last letter to my white friends, and also: “When You’re Accustomed to Privilege, Equality Can Feel Like Oppression” by Chris Boeskool, and the Trump Syllabus. Also, watch this clip from the documentary The Color of Fear and watch 13th on Netflix, for more understanding of systemic racism at work today.

If you found this helpful, interesting, problematic, or what have you, let me know! Comment or send me a message. I am happy to take feedback, make suggested edits if I see fit, discuss ideas, and hatch anti-racist plots with you. I am one little human adding my voice to a conversation that has been going on for years and years, so I definitely did not say it all, nor do I profess to know it all. Keep reading, researching, experiencing, and practicing. We can do this.

In solidarity and support,

Madeleine

Edit: If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy my zine on whiteness. It includes the updated version of this essay, along with two others as well as several other thought pieces, quotes, research, personal anecdotes, lots of resources, and interactive questions about dismantling whiteness and engaging in social justice work. It’s $4 (PDF) or $5 (paper) for a copy, and a portion of the proceeds goes to an organization that supports racial justice. For more info and to learn what organization the proceeds are currently going to, click HERE. and you can LIKE on Facebook and also share this post with people in your life, especially your white friends!! Friends don’t let friends keep their white fragility un-smashed. 

Photos: 1,2 <these are good links too!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s