Acknowledging White Fragility

You are not responsible for the programming you received as a child. However, as an adult, you are 100% responsible for fixing it.

Ken Keyes Jr.

Last week, I shared a meme on Facebook with a drawing of a young black woman and a message similar to this quote: “You are not responsible for the programming you received as a child. However, as an adult, you are responsible for fixing it.” I went back to read the meme and it was gone. The image had either been deleted by the person who originally posted it or perhaps they decided to make it non-public. I can’t help but wonder if there was too much backlash from white people.

I have been doing some soul searching since the recent racial protests, thinking about the ways we talk about racism, the ways whites continue to deny it, and about the price of silence.

Today, many whites are recognizing that racism isn’t limited to individual acts of discrimination based on race. In her book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo described racism as a social construction, a system of advantage based on race, a system that privileges whites. She said that racism results when cultural prejudice is backed by legal authority and institutional control.

When I shared the meme, one of my sisters said she is grateful we weren’t programmed the wrong way as kids. I can only share my perspective and it is that I received mixed messages about race. We grew up in small towns with no blacks. At home, we were taught that racism is wrong and that we shouldn’t say the ‘n’ word but we obviously heard it somewhere. At church, we were taught that children of all colors are precious in Jesus’s sight. I remember only one lesson at school about prejudice and stereotyping. Although I was taught that racism is wrong, my impressions of blacks were based almost entirely on what I saw on TV and those programs often promoted stereotypes.

When I entered the real world as a young adult, I was uncomfortable and unsure of myself around the few blacks I encountered. I was on my guard around black men because the media too often portrayed them as threatening and aggressive. I worried that the blacks I met would not like me because I am white.

As DiAngelo wrote, segregation makes it hard for whites to see racism and easy for whites to deny that it exists. Whites have a very simplistic understanding of racial issues. Many of us are just plain ignorant about the inequality and injustices experienced by blacks. But we can’t understand racism if we don’t pay attention to group behavior and how it impacts us as individuals.

Unlike blacks, whites are not taught that our race matters. We don’t have to think about our race. Where ever we go, we are in the majority. White is seen as the standard or social norm. We automatically get the benefits of belonging. We automatically get the benefit of the doubt. We don’t have to worry that we won’t get a job because of our race or that people will assume we are up to no good because we are white. We are welcomed in every neighborhood. When a white person is admitted to a prestigious school or holds a prestigious position, no one is surprised.

At a young age, we are taught that it is better to be in one group than in another – male versus female, young versus old, straight versus gay. White children are taught not to mention a person’s race. With a shush from our moms, we learn to pretend that we don’t notice a person’s race just as we are taught to pretend we don’t notice a physical deformity. The subtle message is that there is something undesirable about being black.

I’ve always thought of “white supremacy” as the beliefs of the fringe “alt-right” members of society. But white supremacy is “the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society.” It is an erroneous but pervasive belief in our culture. The concept of white supremacy was created to justify unequal treatment.

White Fragility put a name to the defensiveness that I have been seeing in fellow whites. I see it in the response, all lives matter. I saw it when a childhood friend posted a picture of Aunt Jemima pancake mix and syrup (after Quaker Oats said they would change the name), saying she had the makings of a good breakfast. I saw it when another classmate shared a meme that said, among other things, “I will not apologize for being Caucasian.”

Those of us who were taught that racism is wrong may think that if someone calls you out for your prejudice, they are saying you are a bad person. We are all prejudiced and need to be reminded that we should avoid making generalizations about groups of people.

When Obama was the president, I spoke to my mother on the phone one day. She said that Obama was trying to force the affordable care act into law because that’s what “they” do. I told her, that’s not true. My mom wasn’t a bad person. She taught me that racism is wrong. She was one of the most accepting people I’ve ever known. After she and my father divorced, she dated men of other races. Yet even she needed to be challenged for repeating a racist message that she likely heard on TV.

In DiAngelo’s experiences talking to white people about racism, she sees two types of claims that whites make to exempt themselves from accusations of racism. One type of claim is color blindness. People who claim to be blind to color say things like, I was taught to treat everyone the same or I don’t care what color you are or Focusing on race is what divides us. DiAngelo calls the second kind of claims color-celebrate claims. I have people of color in my family. I work in a diverse environment or I live in a diverse neighborhood. I adopted a child from China.

I think that DiAngelo is a bit harsh on whites who honestly want to learn how to be anti-racist. Statements like the ones above are not equivalent to claiming to be exempt from prejudice nor are they necessarily meant to cut off discussions of race.

Why are whites so defensive about racism? Is it because we don’t want anyone to think we’re a bad person or is it because the system that privileges whites is too comfortable? Whatever the reason, it is hard for white people to talk about racial issues. But there are social consequences to being silent. When someone tells a racist joke or makes generalizations about people of color, silence communicates acceptance. Silence is not the way to stand up for what is right and it is not the way to resist the perpetuation of racial stereotypes and resulting discrimination.

I like to think of myself as open-minded and anti-racist. But I know I still carry around old biases I may not even be aware of having. I have to continually check my thoughts.

Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139:23-24

Lord, we were all created in Your image. We are all precious in Your sight. Search my heart and reveal any thoughts that are not pleasing to You. Give me the humility to face the discomfort of my own racial prejudices. Transform my heart. Give me the courage to speak out for racial justice. Amen.

2 thoughts on “Acknowledging White Fragility

  1. I know I heard the n-word from Mom. Colorful phrases like “Nervous as an n- at election time” that she had heard growing up. I don’t think she intended it to be racist, I think she used it because it was coorful and had meaning when she was growing up, Blacks never knew whether the white man being elected for them was going to be bad or terrible. I remember her telling me that when she was little she’d seen a black man and she’d asked Grandad Pete Tooley what “it” was, and Granddad Pete told her it was an n-. So when she passed that black man she said “Hi n-“. And Granddad Pete told her don’t say that it makes them feel bad. And I guess even at a young age she realized the contradiction of callng people a word behind their backs that you shouldn’t use to their face because it hurt someone’s feelings. I think Mom tried her best not to be racist. She introduced me to my first black friend in Indianapolis in 1968 and I remember she invited his mother and little sisters into our home. I’m sure that was the first time a black person crossed our threshhold.Lord, I remember in Princeton not even being allowed to cross the street to play with the black children there. Mom tried hard to overcome her upbringing. But then when she was older she became anti-Obama from listening to Glenn Beck and all his conspiracy theories, including Obama being Moslem. She and I used to argue about that when we’d talk. I wondered later on whether her liver had already begun failing, and that was why she was vulnerable to things like that. After her liver failed completely she couldn’t think straight. Maybe that was already happening to her by then.

    I think many whites are defensive about racism because they are honestly trying hard not to be racist and they don’t want to admit they are failing. It’s hard to be pure on race. From the time we’re born we see things as same or different. Same face, same smell, same voice…. must be momma. Same, same, same means I know you, you are safe. Similar, similar, similar means you remind me of safe. Different means I don’t know you, different means you might be dangerous. I see it in my customers’ children. Some children see you and “recognize” you I’ve even had some call me dada. Young black children will often hide behind their momma’s legs and stare out trying to see what you are. After awhile they apparently see same, same, different, but not scary different, and then they’re less shy. I think segregation prevents us from us from recognizing the same, same, -. Superficially all we see is the differences, we don’t have the opportunity to recognize the similarities. Who knows, perhaps the next generation will learn to recognize the similarities and ignore the differences. Something to pray for.

    People sometimes mistake my kids for Hispanic. And it drove Chris crazy in Africa, because black chidren would follow him saying “Muzungu” which means white. I’m not in his head, but I can imagine that perhaps in Africa he was different for being white, while in America he was different for being not quite white. He said that being called Muzungu felt racist. Perhaps the problem is majority anything scocieties. Perhaps once we’re majority nothing the similariies between us will matter more than the dirrences.

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    1. Hi David. You always remembered more about our childhood than I did. Your memories reinforce my sense that I received mixed messages about race as a kid – even from the same person. Mom would occasionally say off-color things in a joking kind of way so it is more than likely that I heard the n-word from her but chose to forget it. I hesitated to even write one paragraph about Mom because it is hard to say anything negative about a person who is gone. I thought it was instructive though about the importance of resisting racist comments from people who know better. Mom’s life proves to me that resisting racism is a lifelong struggle.

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