011 The White Body


Steph :                   The white body.

The significance of the White Body — of being embodied within a white body has just … made itself an apparent … notion in my consciousness, in my awareness, just within the last couple of weeks. I’ve been quite aware of white fragility in the couple of years since the 2016 presidential election: observing the urgency and anxious response of many white people, some of whom have had long careers in activism, but most of whom may feel liberal or progressive in their interpersonal relations, but have not ever attempted to change anything in the system, either at their organization, their work, their church, their neighborhood, and certainly not at a political level.

I think that white fragility is … a label for the anxiety manifesting through white bodies. I understand the technical definition that Robin DiAngelo has created, and I agree with it — that because white people have not considered their whiteness, have not considered the being-ness of living through existence in a white body with the privilege that comes from that — that the sensitivity to talking about race and understanding ourselves as white people, as raced, is a correct definition for white fragility.

As the anxiety in society ramps up overall, because of the pressures of climate change, and the advanced stages of exploitative capitalism, white people are more susceptible to a generalized kind of anxiety, which can manifest both through white fragility, and I’m sure many other ways. And probably it’s conflated, like maybe it isn’t always only the fragility of whiteness, but not having had to deal with extreme social pressures, and survival pressures, in the way that people of color have had to. It just means that white people in general, especially from the working middle class, or the working class, and lower middle, and middle class on up have had to deal with difficult things, but not the systemic struggle which does cultivate a certain kind of endurance, and sustainability, and resilience in personality and character.

Figuring out how to navigate through rough periods of social interaction is not necessarily a skill that is widespread in white communities, or even white spaces. I’m hypothesizing. There are, I’m sure, communities out there who have worked through very difficult things. I’m thinking in particular of communities who become activated because of horrific violence through a school shooting or something. People do obviously hold together through tragic illness, all kinds of personal life circumstances. It’s a different kind of thing when holding together is what’s required to address the social pressure: a social pressure that is larger than random chance of what happens in a person’s life.

Communities of color have had to deal with that for generations. There’s a lot of trauma associated with that, and that trauma has to get sorted and healed from, and is going to manifest in interactions with white people as well as within communities of like-identified folk. There’s a difference between the trauma of generational trauma and situational trauma. It’s one of the reasons why the Jewish experience is so tricky, because there’s generational trauma, intergenerational trauma. And, there is a kind of passing of white privilege. Both can be true, and one aspect or the other may be more alive in a given moment than at another moment, but both are always true.

The simultaneity of our identities is … potentially a really powerful place to identify where intersectionality makes its strongest impact. White fragility manifests at that intersection between the institutions that have promoted white people to be in positions of more comfort, even though a white person might be lesbian, gay, queer, transgender, or Deaf, or of a religious minority, of a class background, or some other identity, group identification or experience that is not favored by the institutions, but is targeted by them. That’s the switch when white people switch to one of those target identities when that’s not where the intersectional emphasis is happening.

There’s a lot to tease out there, but I think there’s some coming back to the body, and the white body as the site where the anxiety and the privilege is playing out, both at the individual level and at the social level, and that white fragility is an entry point to transformational capacity. It’s actually kind of exciting. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be fun to be exposed to one’s own vulnerabilities, especially as they manifest through white fragility, because it’s a disjunct. It creates cognitive dissonance, right? If at the interpersonal level there are good relationships with people of color, but at the social level, and the organizational level, and the institutional level, we haven’t done that work, and it becomes apparent when our white fragility shows up. That’s not fun, I mean, it’s tough to go through. But I guess I hypothesize that the sharper or the more acute the white fragility is, or the deeper and the more enduring, whatever, there’s a certain kind of power there, a force intensity that can be transformed. It’s energy.

That energy can become directed in another way that could be very constructive, and productive, and transformative, and contribute to social change in ways that make it grow in momentum and become more real and substantial. So we’ll see how it goes moving ahead in this conversation about the white body.


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