Whiteness and White Fragility: Can We Be Real?

We’re fresh off the first of a two-part training on Responsible Whiteness.

The beginning of a learning cycle chart for white fragility.

The goal of “Responsible Whiteness” is to enlarge your perspective on whatever racial dynamics you’re involved in or worried about so that you can access and practice new ways of moving so that the same old problems don’t just keep happening. The way to achieve this enlargement is to get out of a self-focused mindset: find some humility, embrace the opportunity to learn something you don’t already know, and then allow yourself to be changed and grow.

Seeing whiteness — recognizing when it is at work in/through you and racist policies that you participate in (especially those of us with white bodies) seems to be a most difficult task. Probably the only thing harder than seeing whiteness is regularly exercising the muscle to act in antiracist ways with always-increasing frequency and consistency.

This means, as facilitators, our job is to challenge conversation that deflects or deters us from that goal. During this first session, we observed many moves of whiteness — that is, statements, comments, observations, and questions that prevent or distract from the task of understanding how whiteness and racism work in and through us. What white people’s moves share in common, whether they come from an emotional or an intellectual impulse, is their effect in derailing a focus on personal complicity with white supremacy and oppression. Until one comes to recognize the whiteness, these moves are subtle because they are normal ways for white people to talk about race.  Normal meaning common, widespread, typical, accepted and generally unquestioned by people embodied in white skin.

Actions and New Practice

Interrupting the normalcy of whiteness operating in/through white-bodied people is the first step toward becoming responsible for one’s specific and particular self as a human being with a white body.

The second step is accepting and being willing to persist in the discomfort of having one’s sense of normalcy disrupted. To that end, we introduced five tools for interrupting and moving beyond initial reactions.

The best moment of this first session, from our perspective, was the answer from a participant regarding this quote from Dr. Evangelina Holvino, a professional consultant and educator on group relations and multicultural organizational development:

“Simultaneity/intersectionality…are not just models of individual identity, i.e., the simultaneity of identities, but models of processes of social differences and power, which also operate simultaneously at the individual, organizational and societal levels. One of my beliefs is that when we don’t include the organizational-institutional aspects of the “isms”, we leave people alone with their individual USA focus/mythology, which makes them more vulnerable to blame, guilt, defensiveness, etc.”

We had purposely decided not to provide an explanation of any of the parts of this quote up front. We wanted participants to tap into their own capacities and awarenesses of whiteness, privilege and so forth to come up with ‘what it means.’ Earlier in the session we had posed “white stamina” as the antidote to white fragility (following Robin DiAngelo). After reading, writing and talking about the meaning of the quote above from Dr Holvino, this participant said: “The enlarged perspective is where the stamina comes from.

Yes!

Homework

For homework we asked participants to commit to an individual behavior change: to come to the 2nd session with a clear statement on what new action or behavior they will do after this workshop. We had asked this question during the session and received general responses such as to “talk differently” or repair a relationship or have permission to keep doing a thing that has caused pain to people of color. The last one is off the table as it is counter to the goal of taking responsibility for the ways whiteness uses us.

In terms of language, talking, or fixing broken relationships (and avoiding future breaks) we’re asking you to state a positive thing that you will do in that direction. The example we gave was, “Tell someone when I am experiencing [any one of the bizillion forms of] white fragility.” Perhaps there is someone specific to tell, or other things to say about the whiteness in you that is more responsible for you in your situations. In terms of relationships, what are the things you do to fix relationships that are broken or suffering for other reasons? Can you transfer any of those skills? Is there a better focus for your work on whiteness than zeroing in on a particular individual(s) who brought it to your attention? If you let go of them, what would an alternative next responsible step be for you in your regular, everyday life?

To deepen understanding of the systemic nature of whiteness (and thus build stamina and capacity to move out of a self-centered space) we suggest listening to (or reading) these two podcasts:

First, Seeing White by Chenjerai Kumanyika and John Biewen. There are 14 parts, numbered 31-45 as part of a on-going podcast called Scene on Radio. If you don’t have time for all of them in the month before the next session we prioritized the following five episodes.

Second, 1619 by Nikole Hannah-Jones, especially Episode 3: The Birth of American Music (featuring Wesley Moore).  There are four episodes to date, plus an Introduction, but all six will be released before we meet again.

Finally, a short commentary by Dr Evangelina Holvino on Vermont Public Radio: Racist or Racism. When we ask the question, how will your behavior change, we aren’t asking about a single action that you will do, once. We’re asking, what type of action will you start or stop doing every single day?

Comments on this blogpost are welcome. If you are a current participant, please use an alias. Previous participants and others are invited, responsibly, to use your real name (first name only is fine).

Transformation: Design and Engineering Part 3

Transcript:

Violence serves the interests of people in power. If we can reduce and minimize the kinds of motivations that channel people towards violent activities and violent actions, and if we stop sanctioning violence in our international and domestic relations, things will get better. It’s inevitable. That’s how it works. It’s not impossible or somehow precluded as a possible future. It could happen. We have to change some rules. That’s what humanity has done throughout evolution. We learn something, we change the rules. We learn something else, we change the rules.

Now, people have been changing the rules in a particular kind of way for several hundred years, since the industrial revolution and the advent of technology that gave us more control of people’s time, and increasing technology that allowed all of these transactions to occur without barriers, money, transactions, but that’s rules. The rules have been designed to allow money to move more easily than people, and it set up a contest between human beings who want to live in relationship with each other and the natural planet, the systems of the planet, and an artificial, constructed kind of hallucination, really, that endless accumulation, and the notion of continuous progress are somehow preordained as the only way to determine value.

Like, that’s just ridiculous, but we’re so enculturated, it’s so deeply embedded in us to worry about the monetary value of our time, especially those whose use of time has been bankrolled by a system that funnels other people, mostly brown people, plenty of other less-than-perfect white Americans, the image of what it means to be an American, the old image of what it means to be an American. Like, we’re just so steeped in a political economy that gives straight white men all the power, which they have used, in every field, to create a web of interlocking policies, laws, gendered cultural practices, and raced cultural practices, to keep themselves in power.

And those of us who don’t fit that, but are still benefiting from whiteness, like we have to understand that we are just as guilty. Like, there’s a way in which, at this point in time, at this historical epoch, our inaction, our coasting along on the existing fossil fuel infrastructure, and the stock market, and the way they game futures in this or that, our embeddedness in the healthcare insurance industry, all of the insurances. Like, all of those things are ways to extend white privilege, right? The people who get the most of those benefits and advantages are the people who fit into the industrialized corporate structure of big business, or small businesses that are playing by those rules and have a good enough product to be competitive, et cetera, et cetera.

Competition, I think, is still really important, but we can compete on different terms, or on terms that are defined, categorically, at a level that’s beyond a basic quality of life that our technology most definitely enables us to provide for everyone, if we chose to do it. And there’s really no reason not to do it. Our circumstances might shift in terms of… Like, I just think of it as a lateral shift. We’re bringing people up in collective ways, and there should still be a lot of variation. Culture matters tremendously, and we need to make sure that we create systems that enable bridges, and conduits, and spans of interpretation and transition from a setting or a context into another setting or context.

It’s just not undoable. We could really do it. We just need enough people in enough different industries, the various pillars of society, government included and essentially in government, and businesses, especially bigger corporate businesses, to own it, and say, “It’s our turn. It’s our time to be a great generation.” And not just one generation, like only a certain subset of the ages of the generations that are currently alive, but intersectional, across, intergenerationally. Let’s be the people that do this thing.

“Do What’s Right for All of Us”

gardening to grow food….understand the food economy where you live, because then you can identify what staples to produce for yourself and strategize whether and how to fill a specific niche for your community.

Dale gave me instructions for the shopping trip with Soirée-Leone and Master Herdsman.

Pre-packaged deli meat is the freshest it gets.

We went to the large convenience store chain that passes for a grocery in rural Tennessee. “They’re trying to make it look like it’s healthy, but its not,” explained the MasterHerdsman.

Tractor Supply was closed for the Easter holiday, so we rushed over to Home Depot. They were closing in 15 minutes, an hour earlier than usual: task focus commenced.

Actually, there’s been steady task focus all day. And since we arrived yesterday, too. This is one of those skills you need to have to do the work involved with gardening to grow food. Triple and Soirée are experts in steadiness. What’s cool is neither of them convey a sense of pressure. Just ‘this is what we gotta do let’s get at it” energy and action.

The first night we made dinner together and ate, comfortably, talking about the vision that brought us here. Actually we didn’t explicitly talk about the vision, we’ve already done that a few times. We dove directly into the implementation of our workplan: test a design for next year’s inaugural intensive residency.

The first morning we took our time getting up and getting going. Each to their own pace. Eventually we merged into breakfast, agreed upon the tasks for the day, and got to it. Quite satisfying to clear the garden so Soirée can do more than comfrey. For the first two years she and Dale were here, getting the house set up had taken priority over putting in a garden. Now it’s time. We also identified and cut fence posts and took a tour to see where the camping platforms will be made, along with the outdoor privies and shower.

Mission: Acquire Items.

Roxy finally got let loose to mingle—that dog is fast! Me and The MeanGoose (doing his job, protecting the flock) are still facing off every time we’re in proximity, and Guppy trotted around the forest near our workspaces all day.

I hadn’t wanted to leave paradise to go to the store, but Leslie agreed that I needed to “suck it up, Buttercup.” It is critical to understand the food economy where you live, because then you can identify what staples to produce for yourself and strategize whether and how to fill a specific niche for your community.

 

Design “A” is a Success

I thought I’d have a minute to myself at the gate.

Colorfully dressed black woman jumping in the air, surrounded by trees at a driveway.
Soirée met me at the road.

Instead this blur of color materialized into an ecstatically happy  human being.

We waited for MasterHerdsman awhile past his ETA. I mean, I think Soirée-Leone was early, then I snuck up on her, then we waited. I’m not always patient, particularly when I’m hungry…

After arrival and unpacking, we were assigned tasks in the kitchen.

Then Soirée-Leone vanished and me and MasterHerdsman had to figure stuff out.

At some point, I realized Design A is perfect as a guide for next year. With room for on-the-fly adjusting.

“We won!” Soirée-Leone hollered.

“Team B came in second!” Leslie added.

I was still waiting for dinner. Soirée-Leone got on it. “We’re scraping the bottom of the barrel!”

Leslie responded: “We were cleaning out the fridge! Where did the barrel come from? You been hiding it in the fridge all this time?!”