White Fragility and Me
I’m a sensitive person. The thought of accidentally or callously hurting someone is dreadful to me. I’m an honest person, I try not to lie, but sometimes telling the truth hurts people’s feelings and that upsets me. And empathy? I’ve got that down. I can find a way to relate to almost anyone (almost). I can only think of one time in my life when I was actively mean to someone to be mean, and as an adult I found her on Facebook and apologized (not that that excuses my behavior, I’m just saying that that moment of my life as a senior in high school has made me feel like a crap person for a couple of decades). Granted, these are my memories and impressions of myself, so I could have been a total jerk all the time and just thought I was nice.
Anyway. I think these qualities help make me a good friend, and potentially a good ally. I want to stand with people who are part of a marginalized group. I was born white which means, no matter how much money I have, where I was raised, what kind of job I have or a million other parts of life, I will inherently have an easier time in life than others. Others who? People of color, people with disabilities, LBGQT people, and the list goes on and on. I have sexism against me, but that’s my major man-made obstacle. I want to be an ally to people who don’t have my advantages. I want to use my privilege to amplify their voices to make changes in our world.
I’m working on it. I can tell you the part that is the hardest for me in trying to become an ally. White Fragility. Do you know this phrase? I know the feeling, but until the last few years, I didn’t know it had a label. Participating in White Fragility means that, when a person is confronted by a situation that includes what they perceive as an accusation of racism, that person gets defensive and pissed off. Defensive and pissed off are not good mind-sets for listening and learning.
Here’s how it usually happens for me…Someone proposes something symbolic to show support for a marginalized group and I either think to myself, “Oh, that’s awesome!” or I comment on social media about this new awesome thing. Then it happens. A friend who is more knowledgeable than I am (through life experience, education, or both) points out how that symbol is really condescending, doesn’t help the group for whom it’s supposed to be a symbol, or is somehow problematic. If this has ever happened to you and your first thought is, “I can’t do anything right!” you too might have experienced White Fragility. Seriously, if you get embarrassed or feel shamed by doing something “wrong” when all you were trying to do was be an ally then you’re probably experiencing White Fragility. It’s easy to get defensive and pissed off (again, not good for listening or learning). It’s easy to shout, “I was just trying to help!” But shouting helps nobody. It doesn’t help us grow or learn and it sure as hell doesn’t help the group you were trying to support in the first place.
Here’s how I battle White Fragility. I stop and breathe. I consider the people who are giving me a different viewpoint, and I let my brain process that those people know more than me on that particular subject (again, either because they’ve lived it or have learned it already). This process also has made me slower to jump on trends because it’s forced me to think about the ways I represent myself. I often feel ashamed when I didn’t realize on my own why something was problematic. Usually that shame stems from feeling like it’s a reflection of how seriously I’m taking being a good ally. Have I done the homework? Have I been trying to educate myself? Am I thinking critically? Have I shared what I’ve learned?
Now, the trick to battling White Fragility, for me, is finding people I can trust. I have become friends with some incredibly smart people. I know that those people would not try to shame me. They aren’t trying to teach, but they are sharing their world and want people to pay attention and listen. Listen and learn and act. I’ve sought out these people who are so like me in so many ways, but so different from me in others. I’m so grateful that they are willing to share their lives and their work. I’m so grateful that, when they tell me something, I trust them and think, “I’ve never thought about it that way.”
I still get defensive and pissed off sometimes, but I get over it because it’s nothing compared to fighting with everything you are, ever day you have because of the color of your skin, who you love, where you were born or the myriad other reasons humans choose to hate other humans.
I’m listening, learning, and putting the things I’m learning into practice. I’m probably messing up a lot, I know for sure that I’ve been pissing people off, but it’s important. It’s important for me. But, also? I want my kids to be good friends, good allies, good people. I can tell them to be those things, but showing them how to be those things is so much more impactful. And hard.
What do you do when you feel yourself get defensive? How do you keep yourself from shouting?