“How would you feel if every time you walked into a meeting, everyone in the room was black?” The question was asked by a black colleague of mine in a meeting where we were tackling the issue of lack of diversity in our group.
I pondered this but not for long. “I’d feel at home.” It was a reflex answer, but true. I would feel at home. I thought back over my long career in community planning and couldn’t recall a single instance of being treated badly by a roomful of black people. I bristled at the assumption that I would be afraid or uncomfortable around black people and I quickly set about explaining myself.
My black colleague looked at me, listened.
The rest of the room was silent, no one really competed with me for floor time so, of course, I elaborated, explained how racism was a huge issue to me, not as huge, of course, as it is to someone who is black, but huge and visible. I told her that everywhere I go, I count. Every board meeting, every setting where policy is being made, I count how many black people, how many women. I explained how having Hispanic children (three of my four children are Nicaraguan) made racism and judging people by color very immediate issues. I wanted to convey to her that I got it, I got what she was saying about her frustration with the endlessness of racism, her complete fatigue with coping with racism every day at every turn, and her growing sense of hopelessness about things ever changing.
My black colleague looked at me, listened. She was still but I could feel her patience wearing thin. I finally stopped talking.
Driving home, it came to me that I had never felt uncomfortable in a room full of black people because they had made it a point to be kind to me. My comfort level wasn’t about my great cultural ease, my ability to easily move from a white environment to a black one. It had nothing to do with me. It had to do with them. In protecting me so well, they spared me from a ‘now the tables are turned’ experience. I didn’t know how it felt to be in the minority. I knew what it felt like to be treated well. And I mistook that for evidence of my own exceptionalism. I’m not like other white people, you see.
Later, the suggestion was gently made that we, as a group, explore the concept of white fragility which I, without having read or heard anything more about it, understood to mean white people being unable to handle any discussion about race – going completely silent, arguing about not being a racist, or leaving the discussion altogether. That wasn’t me. I could hang in there. Hadn’t I just demonstrated that? I could engage. I’m no sissy.
Still, it occurred to me that my reaction to the concept of white fragility ought to be grounded in more than just the two-word phrase. So I went to the source document on the topic: White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, published in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3 (2011) pp 54-70, because that’s what people who always want to have the edge do, get more data. The next time we met, I wanted to be ahead of the curve.
Robin DiAngelo’s opening paragraph defines white fragility:
White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress become intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. (p 54)
I have been living in an “insulated environment of racial protection” for a long time but I am just now sorting out what that means. Oh, I don’t have to sort it out. I would do just fine going along the way I have for these many years. It’s worked well for me. But doing that makes me feel like a coward, like a sissy. And I’m no sissy.
This is Part One in this discussion. There will at least be a Part Two and maybe a Three and Four. We’ll see as it unfolds.