White Fragility

Book 25 of 2020 was White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. I hope you appreciate the sacrifices I make for you, gentle reader. This book was written by a person who runs diversity training for a living. I dream of a world where that job doesn’t exist. I don’t know who needs to hear this besides the author, but anecdotes are not data. There is nothing in this book to back up any of her claims. Nothing. No statistics. No studies. Nothing but personal anecdotes from her own life. Worse than that, she makes counterfactual claims. More on that later.

There’s too much trash opinion to sift through to make a comprehensive review, so I’m just going to quote and give my hot takes. Please enjoy.

She claims there are “forces” that hold the racial hierarchy in place, such as meritocracy and individualism. Let that sink in for a moment. If we break it down, doesn’t this mean that we believe whites have more merit than blacks?

“Individualism claims that there are no intrinsic barriers to individual success and that failure is not a consequence of social structures but comes from individual character.”

Individualism doesn’t claim there are no barriers. Individualism simply attributes value to individual choices and claims that those choices can make a difference in outcome. Social structures aren’t fate. Furthermore, since the nature of social structures is that they are slow to change, outcomes in the present can only be improved through personal choice. It’s detrimental to have the mindset that a racist society is an insurmountable obstacle: it’s called learned helplessness.

“Most of us can acknowledge that we do feel some unease around certain groups of people…. But this feeling doesn’t come naturally. Our unease comes from living separate from a group of people while simultaneously absorbing incomplete or erroneous information about them.”

The feeling comes naturally. When you’re constantly being “called out” or told you shouldn’t say this word, or shouldn’t wear that. When you’re told that every other casual comment you make is hurtful or even violent. You shouldn’t do your hair this way, shouldn’t sing along to songs, shouldn’t wear certain costumes. When saying the wrong thing, or remaining silent at the wrong time can motivate a group to get you fired. When everything’s a microaggression, it is completely natural for people to avoid the groups they perceive as being easily offended, frequently angry, petty and vindictive. It’s unpleasant to deal those people, so it’s natural to wish to stay away from them as much as possible.

She quotes Charles Mills’ book The Racial Contract, mentioning that this contract creates “political states differentially favoring [white] interests” and “an economy structured around the racial exploitation of others.”

No part of our “political state” mentions race explicitly, except to forbid discrimination based on race. At best, this claim is vague. At worst, it’s meant to stir up racial animus without any evidence to back it up. It’s never made clear how white interests are favored or what is meant by “racial exploitation.”

“At the most general level, the racial frame views whites as superior in culture and achievement and views people of color as generally of less social, economic, and political consequence”

Is this a “racial frame” or simply the facts we’re working with? If blacks and whites were equal in achievement and had equal political and economic power, would we be having this conversation? Why would we be complaining about racism?

She asks whites to reflect on the white racial frame by asking leading questions such as “Were the honors or advanced placement classes and the lower-track classes equally racially integrated? If not, why not?
The implication being that the reason for some groups being better represented in honors track is racism. It is clear from her framing and the fact that she doesn’t believe in individualism that the only acceptable answer to her question is “racist policy.”

She later implies that any difference in outcomes between whites and POC is attributable to racism and no other cause. (Sounds familiar… Wasn’t that the faulty basis of Kendi’s entire book on antiracism?) That to think otherwise is to “enact racism.” Again, this assertion is given with no evidence or data. It’s a baseless opinion.

“Because I haven’t been socialized to see myself or to be seen by other whites in racial terms, I don’t carry the psychic weight of race”

It is a good idea then, to not socialize anyone to see themselves in racial terms. Who needs or wants to “carry the psychic weight of race?”

“George Zimmerman would not have stopped me as I walked through a gated suburban neighborhood.”

But why not? Because you are a white woman, and white women were not responsible for a string of burglaries in his gated suburban neighborhood. Let’s take it a step further. Even if he had stopped you to ask what you were doing, you would’ve responded pleasantly that you were visiting your father, and gestured towards his house. If he had followed you, you would’ve gone straight home, and maybe even called the cops on him. You would not end up dead because you chose to show aggression towards an armed man: you would not have shown aggression at all. This is why individualism and choices cannot be dismissed: they can mean the difference between life and death.

“Once hired, I won’t have to deal with my coworkers resentment that I only got the job because I am white”

A great point! We should eliminate any hiring practices that give anyone an advantage based on race. Then no one would have cause to feel or deal with resentment.

“It has not been African Americans who resist integration efforts, it has always been whites.”

Let’s turn on our critical questioning skills here. Unless we assume that whites are irrational, if they resist integration it must be that the costs of integration are perceived to be higher than the benefits. If crime and poverty are higher in black neighborhoods and a white neighborhood is integrated, doesn’t it follow that crime and poverty rates will increase? And what is the corresponding benefit that makes this possibility of higher crime rates worthwhile? If there is a benefit that outweighs the costs, it must not have occurred to enough whites. Maybe there isn’t enough convincing evidence?

“The most profound message of racial segregation may be that the absence of people of color from our lives is no real loss.”

Is there some proof that this would be a real loss? Do we feel this way about isolated tribes that have never met outsiders? What about racially homogenous nations like Japan? Are they experiencing “real loss” from the lack of people who look different from them? How so?

She argues that not only is it impossible for human beings to treat each other the same regardless of race, but that it’s undesirable to do so “because people have different needs.” While I agree with the general sentiment, we should hesitate to assign “needs” to a person based on race.

“Today, we depict blacks as dangerous, a portrayal that perverts the true direction of violence between whites and blacks since the founding of this country.”

This statement ignores present-day facts. Blacks target whites for violent crime at a much higher rate than the reverse. Blacks are also overrepresented in the set of murderers and violent criminals. A cursory glance at the relevant statistics would show these facts. It’s intellectually dishonest to imply otherwise.

She appears to be ignorant even of recent historical facts. She brings up the difference in rhetoric regarding the opioid epidemic versus “the mandatory sentencing perpetrated against those addicted to crack,” conveniently ignoring the fact that black leaders spearheaded and supported these harsher sentencing laws because they saw the destruction that crack brought to their communities.

In an amusing bit of hypocrisy, she calls out whites for their stance of self-defense, and denies they have any reason to feel attacked in discussions about race. But can we deny an individual’s feelings or lived experience? If someone claims to feel attacked, shouldn’t intention automatically not matter? She goes as far as to say “no physical violence has ever occurred in any interracial discussion or training that I am aware of.” This is especially rich, given that “silence is violence” is a very popular rallying cry of social justice warriors and BLM. Well, no physical violence was perpetrated by anyone as a direct result of their silence, as far as I’m aware.

She rejects the idea that we should assume others have good intentions because it “tells victims that as long as there was no intention to cause harm, they need to let go of the hurt and move on.” We can be certain that her idea of “harm” includes being offended by someone’s choice of words. If that counts as harm, then whites being made to feel uncomfortable during a discussion about race counts as an attack! If there needs to be this level of sensitivity towards black feelings, then maybe our discussion should be about black fragility.

She calls a respectful environment with no conflict, no expression of strong emotion, no challenging of racist patterns and a focus on intentions over impact a “hostile environment for people of color.” Again, implying that people of color are so extremely fragile that a respectful environment where they can’t shout or make personal attacks is “hostile.” By the common definition of hostile, allowing shouting / “expression of strong emotions” and challenging others is more hostile than disallowing those things.

She claims that there’s no such thing as a positive white identity because “White identity is inherently racist; white people do not exist outside the system of white supremacy.”

I’m not even sure what this means. Does she mean that “white” as a category wouldn’t exist? She can’t mean that once white supremacy isn’t a thing that all white people just *poof* disappear, right?

“It is white people’s responsibility to be less fragile; people of color don’t need to twist themselves into knots trying to navigate us as painlessly as possible.”

This last is my favorite quote from the book and I would like to leave you with it. But with a small twist. Let’s do a little mad libs to get a much more accurate representation of what the situation in the U.S. really looks like today:

It is black people’s responsibility to be less fragile; white people don’t need to twist themselves into knots trying to navigate blacks as painlessly as possible.

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