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.



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).

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