White Fragility – No, it is Using Power to Hoard Emotional Attention

white-fragilityI just finished watching the final presidential debate. What was that? I need another beer.

According to one report, Republican candidate Donald Trump had around forty “fleeting interjections.” You know the little jabs, such as “such a nasty woman.” For reference, Secretary Clinton had less than five fleeting interjections. That was even a new record for Trump. I’ll save policy commentary and thoughts about why there is widespread support for Trump as a presidential candidate for another post. Tonight, I want to focus on why just calling his behavior “interruptions” or “fleeting interjections” masks what is really happening. It creates an audience that tolerates and comes to expect that type of behavior as typical, or at the very least see it as acceptable/accepted. What would happen if journalist and media framed that behavior as “rudely mansplaining” or “unpresidential behavior.” Even if Trump doesn’t or won’t stop, we stop sending the message that this is acceptable behavior.

I don’t believe there is “neutral” terminology, especially in the realm of racial equity. By using terms that appear more “neutral” or less triggering, what we are really communicating is we are comfortable for white superiority and white people in power. A racial justice speaker I highly respect said, we need to stop talking about racism, and talk more about “structural racialization” because talking about racism shuts down conversations.”

Who shuts down when we talk about racism?
I’ve started talking about both structural racialization and systems of white supremacy and racism, as a way to have audiences get used to hearing different terms. Participants don’t have to agree or even use the terms white supremacy and racism, but I do ask them to acknowledge and create a space for how others frame these conversations. When we continue to use language or approaches that make white people in power feel comfortable, we uphold the systems we hope to dismantle and continue to (unintentionally) center whiteness.

If we don’t work hard and stay vigilant we default to centering whiteness. Here is one example from my own work I noticed a couple years ago. I work hard to share books and resources that are written by people of color; I want to intentionally raise the narratives of people of color. With books, it is fairly easy to know if the author is a person of color, but with articles, it not as easy and often takes extra time to conduct some internet sleuthing. When I started searching for the authors of recent racial equity articles I was sharing and recommending, I found most of the authors are white. Yes, even in the racial equity field most of the authors are white. If I stop to think about who has access to publishing and media this shouldn’t come as a surprise, even on the topic of racism white people have a louder public platform.

Too Much Emphasis on White Fragility
Recently, I’ve noticed a lot of emphasis on white fragility. I appreciate the term brings an awareness to a phenomenon that is all too common in conversations about racism. Yet, one of the unintended consequences is that this new trendy term has created another way to continue to center whiteness in conversations about racism. Don’t get me wrong, understanding whiteness as a social construction is an important part of understanding racism. The thing is systems default to centering whiteness, and the focus on white fragility has given some white people and white institutions the ability to continue to center whiteness under the banner of racial equity. I’ve heard of numerous organizations that are giddy about the idea of talking about white fragility and happily dedicate a lot of resources to a white facilitator to come talk about it. My question is if your organization is serious about racial equity and dismantling systems of racism, why aren’t you giddy about hearing from people of color, you know the ones most directly impacted by racism? Are you paying consultants of color fair rates or rates that compare to white facilitators? The idea that white people need to hear about racism from another white person is the very system that we are trying to dismantle. I also understand whites need to do their ‘own work,’ but be careful in doing your own work you’re not perpetuating the same system of inequities that got us here.

We need to start talking about concepts like white fragility in terms that more accurately describe how the behavior is upholding racism. White fragility isn’t a state, it actually is a chosen action/reaction. We all realize that white people aren’t really fragile, right? The system just treats white people as if they are fragile. The system is set up to value white folks feelings more than the lives of people of color.

Here are a few draft suggestions to move racial equity concepts that center whiteness to more descriptive terms that move us closer to racial justice.

  • White Fragility = Hoarding of Emotional Attention
  • White Defensiveness = Refusing to Believe People of Color
  • White Guilt = Stalling Until I Feel Better 
  • White Silence = I Don’t Care Enough to Say Something 
  • White Tears = Please Feel Sorry for Me Too

If you tell someone, they are “displaying signs of white fragility” they might just be a little embarrassed and the shrug it off. But if you tell someone, they are using their privilege to “hoard emotional attention” they might pause to reflect on their behavior and make adjustments, especially if they are really a true ally/advocate for racial equity.

Posted by Heidi Schillinger

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