Let’s begin with the assumption that White fragility is real because it is. I’ve displayed it, given into it, defended it, all on the path toward recognizing it in me and in others. I have derailed conversations into being about placating my hurt feelings; I have unknowingly privileged myself in spaces meant to counteract cultural privilege; I have co-opted the experiences of others in order to spit racial malapropisms with righteous indignation; I have shown up to protests and tried to insert myself despite not having been part of the planning. I have had some hard, sometimes harsh truths spoken to me and reacted badly. Getting woke is a journey, yo. Keep showing up and keep learning. That’s my mantra.
The first step toward better allyship for me was disengaging my personal emotions from critiques of systems. I stopped hearing “White people” as “Aaron Maurice Saari.”That meant disentangling myself from the false sense of allegiance society had made me form with my “whiteness.”See above about getting woke. I still feel pangs of discomfort sometimes, but I have learned that it is inappropriate to voice those discomforts in spaces designed to refute the damage of white supremacy. Biting my tongue helps me hear more and speak less. That’s another mantra.
The second step was understanding that there are some spaces in which my presence will be a detriment or a detraction because I am a White man. Yes, it sucks. No, I don’t like it. But I get it. And my dislike of this is not important. People of color are not responsible for making me feel comfortable about their needing space and time in ways they determine. Our response as White people cannot and should not be to decry these spaces and efforts, but rather to work on dismantling the systems that necessitate such spaces. If we don’t like it, let’s create a country in which it is not necessary. Until then, we need to step back and follow the lead of those who suffer the oppression and fear rather than trying to tell them how to react to their trauma. Another mantra: not my trauma, not my timetable.
My third step was shifting the onus of education from persons of color to myself. When I was younger and just beginning to come into my activist identity, I asked a lot of questions of my friends of color in very appropriate ways because we were already incredibly close. One of my dearest friends is Native and Latina, and her work and witness has been an incredible inspiration to me. Half Pint (as we lovingly call her) has been a strong force of education in my life, and also a collaborator on justice work. My mistake was translating that relationship into one I can have with any person of color. I unintentionally asked others to be my bibliography or to educate me at times in which they were focused on other things. Half Pint helped educate me as a friend and as an organic part of our relationship; I blurred the friendship and advocacy line with a couple people in which it was inappropriate to do so. It happens, but when we recognize it we should seek to stop it from happening again. Another mantra: you will make mistakes.
The fourth step was to let go of guilt. Seriously. Most people worth listening to are not interested in guilt. But this also means rejecting narratives that seem to be aimed primarily at creating and stoking guilt. I am a person who lives with bipolar disorder. I am a person who has always been deeply emotional; while I have learned to live with conflict and holy tension (the notion that two persons can hold disparate views but maintain a loving relationship, generally with a belief that this is what God calls us to do), words can cut me deeply. I certainly understand that my education is ongoing, and that being woke doesn’t mean I am not complicit in racism. Final mantra: guilt is garbage.
This brings me to a point that may be hard for some non-Whites to hear, but I need to be honest about my lines and to encourage other Whites to do the same. I will not be called a rapist. I will not be told I engaged in genocide. I will not accept the idea that whiteness is a construct that needs to be torn down, but not before said construct is used to minimize and ridicule me for the sins of people to whom I have no connection other than the fact that I am “White.” Am I part of the system? Yes. Did I go into slave quarters and rape women? No. I didn’t. And saying that I and others did then claiming White fragility when I object will not fly. We aim to grind systems into the dirt, not people.
Granted, these experiences most often arise online any more but they are there. They need to be addressed. Part of dealing with the issue of White fragility is curbing angry, loaded, prejudiced statements on all sides. Dealing with White fragility is understanding that the answer is not expecting people to be completely devoid of emotions or reactions when unproductive things are said. The answer IS calling out false accusations of White fragility.
For Whites, we each need to take responsibility for our own education and seek to help other Whites understand privilege and supremacy culture. What we don’t have to accept are vitriolic, charged statements that reduce people. We get to be experts on what it means to be White in our own contexts, and the ways in which we are able to affect change. I have White friends and colleagues who hold pulpits in Klan country. People who are trying to transition entire communities that have deep, significant ties to entrenched racist culture and structures. We have to trust them to know best how to be a force for change without unduly alienating him- or herself from the community, and thereby losing a place of authority or respect. Sorry, but a 22 year old African-American activist from Detroit is not going to understand how a 47 year old woman from the hills of Georgia should handle teaching her all White congregation about white supremacy culture.
It is important to say that when our feelings get hurt it is not always White fragility. And saying that it is does nothing to help advance true dialogue and understanding. It is important to say that we all are intersectional; we all come with both baggage and experience, ignorance and wisdom. It is important to say that a movement toward transformation cannot be based upon one group always being told what to do and how to do it. Certainly, White persons (as I noted above) have work to do as individuals, and I am doing what I can to help facilitate that, but I urge non-Whites to be pointed and careful with the charges of White fragility. I am seeing it used to diminish and dismiss the legitimate feelings of others.
I’m going to remain fragile. Because I am broken. We all are; we all have fissures and cracks. We all want our heads stroked and to be told that it is okay, even when we know that it is not. My fragility is wedded to my compassion and my sense of justice. My fragility is born of lament. Of pain. What I won’t do, though, is bring my fragility into discussions and spaces where it is not playing a role. I will continuously check myself, analyze my behavior, be aware of my body, of the loudness of my voice, of the ways in which I comport myself, especially in spaces where I am a guest or there simply to show support.
I think a vital necessity of the movement that is happening now is that we remember no one is an expert on someone else’s life and experiences. We have complicated, multifaceted factors that shape people’s lives, from race and gender to religion and sexuality; from bodily ability to mental health; from environment to education. Many of us had little to no control over many of these for our formative years. We are now witnessing extraordinary events that require multiple generations to work together. A times, I see incredible hubris from Millennials and regretful patronizing from Boomers and Xers. But I also see collaboration and cooperation, a resistance to that which seeks to divide us. I have much more hope than I do pessimism.
As always, I write this out of love and a desire to make the world a better place. And I might be wrong about a few things. Chances are, I’m wrong about a lot. But I think I am right about some things, too. And this fragile person is doing everything he can to remain strong. Let’s all help one another in that journey.