A letter to white people, from a white person, on white fragility and mustering the courage to overcome it.
Disclaimer: I am not writing this to police other white allies and anti-racists. My purpose in writing this series is to create dialogue around the white identity, in hopes of sharing what I know, and helping to further white people’s collective understanding of themselves, with the ultimate goal of promoting racial justice and prison abolition. I hope to spark discussions among/with fellow white activists so that we may better understand our place in this work. I also hope to catalyze new white allies coming to social justice in the wake of recent national events, who may feel scared, confused, or ashamed of their white identities and privilege. My goal is not to chastise whites, nor to claim that I am a “good” white person. I come to this not as an expert, but as one voice in a larger discussion. This is first and foremost a dialogue, and I welcome other perspectives, questions, and comments.
How does it feel to be a white person in social justice work? When I first started out, I felt immensely uncomfortable with my own whiteness. I felt the need to try to hide or minimize it. I rarely spoke in my classes, most of which are focused on racial justice, and generally avoided drawing attention to myself. I felt guilty about my family’s money and wealth, and would rarely bring up that part of my life. I felt the urge to separate myself from my own whiteness, constantly saying aloud “I hate white people.”I really wanted to reject my white privilege. In situations where I was forced to look at my own privilege, I felt so much pain that I had a deep wish to ignore my whiteness, rather than to deconstruct and explore it.
In one of my classes last year, we were instructed to do a privilege walk, where everyone started at the same spot in the room, and moved backward for every symptom of oppression, such as going hungry as a child or growing up near gang activity, and forward for every sign of privilege, such as housing security or having two parents with bachelor’s degrees. Predictably, I ended up in the front, and in tears. Some of my closest friends and my partner, all of whom are people of color, were far in the back of the room. Seeing them there, and seeing myself so far ahead, broke my heart. I was extremely uncomfortable with realizing my privilege was so visible, and that I was so unfairly privileged compared to my loved ones. I felt so guilty about it, I shied away from acknowledging and confronting my privilege.
I’ve seen this type of hesitation in many other fairly liberal white people. One person I know was planning to lead a workshop on Chinese medicine. When the hosting organization approached him with their concerns that the workshop might be culturally appropriative due to his white identity and lack of accrediting sources for Chinese healing traditions, he reacted with tears, guilt, and confusion. He failed to truly confront the issues of being a white individual attempting to teach an ancient healing tradition that was not his own. He hesitated to really own up to the fact that, as a white individual, he didn’t deserve to claim that culture’s knowledge as his own, as he was not a part of it.
Similarly, someone I know recently went on a vacation to Cabo over a break from school. I heard later they were trying to keep it quiet. While this may have partially been done in an attempt to maintain a public persona as an enigma, it also seemed to me to be a strategy of hiding their class status, which is directly related to whiteness and privilege.
This hiding behavior reflects an unwillingness to admit our privilege and acknowledge our identity as a white, upper or middle class person. In all cases, I think the unwillingness to confront whiteness here comes from the guilt and anxiety involved in owning up to privilege: “If I admit that I am privileged/that I have this much/that I benefit in some way from supremacy, what will they think of me? What will I think of myself?”This fear and the resulting pushback against situations which encourage white people to face their privilege are part of white fragility, which Dr. Robin DiAngelo writes about very eloquently when she discusses the reactions white people have to race-based stressors, which include some of the situations I’ve described above. As DiAngelo points out, we, as white people, don’t have to look at our privilege on a regular basis. When we are forced to do so, we get scared, and we get angry.
Facing my own privilege does feel bad sometimes – looking at the privilege whiteness gives me, I feel dirty and gross and overly powerful, even tyrannical. The thing is, for those hesitating to confront their own white privilege, it’s good to remember other people can already see it. The brilliant black writer and scholar James Baldwin, in a letter to his nephew entitled “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to my Nephew on the Hundredth Anniversary of Emancipation”writes about white people thusly:“…if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.” Baldwin demonstrates how obvious white privilege is, and how racism and its related systems of oppression are ultimately perpetuated by white people and their inability – or resistance – to see themselves clearly. Though he writes this suggesting that people of color need to help white people face themselves, let us go further.
White people, especially liberal, radical, and well-educated white people like myself, must take responsibility for facing and accepting our own privilege. We must become aware and be willing and committed to exploring how our privilege affects other groups and how it so greatly benefits us. We must look at our privilege and see ourselves clearly. Only by doing this can we really see all the opportunities we have to step back and make space for people of color, whether this be through relinquishing claims on traditional knowledge belonging to cultures outside of our own, or exposing our class status and using the resources at our disposal to donate to social justice causes.
Facing, exploring, and continually dismantling your white privilege is a doorway to opportunity and an awesome way to deepen your social justice work or practice! Although it is scary, awkward, and embarrassing at times, it can also be very exciting. Courtney E. Martin describes the process by calling it a transformation of “white fragility into courageous imperfection”. She writes:
“If white people want to belong to the beloved community, if we want to be part of the tide that is turning thanks to people of color-led movements like#BlackLivesMatter, then we have to show up as bold and genuine and imperfect. We have to be weary of our fragility. We have to be intolerant of our own forgetfulness.”
Martin’s suggestion of courageous imperfection means that we have to be open to the fact that we and our identities are, and will always be, very privileged and problematic. We will never be comfortable with our racial identities once we accept them for what they truly are. But Martin also writes that engaging in this process “is the beginning of a lot more joy. It’s the beginning of a lot more connection. It’s the beginning of the end of racism.”
As someone actively trying to beat back my own white fragility, I can agree. In my next letter to my white friends and other white anti-racists, I’ll discuss ways of actually going about this process by exploring our white privilege and smashing our fragility. In the meantime, if you’re looking for more on this concept, check out the articles linked above, “The Sugarcoated Language of White Fragility” by Anna Kegler, and WhiteAccomplices.org.
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, and discuss ideas with you. This writing is coming out of a year-long research investigation into whiteness, among other things, so I’m down to talk about whiteness, racism, and the like any time.
In solidarity and support,
If you enjoy what I’ve written here today, and you want to support my future writing, I would really, really, be extremely stoked and appreciative. There are a few ways you can support my blog and help me get my message out. You can DONATE via Paypal to help me pay for toilet paper and such, and you can LIKE on Facebook and also share this post with people in your life, especially your white friends!! Please support the dismantlement of racism 🙂