Usually, when I write and/or speak about racism/white fragility/power & privilege/oppression, I receive pushback. As someone whom attempts to remain vocal about womanism, systemic and institutionalized racism, I expect this.
I expect to get angry emails, texts and messages. I expect to be interrupted, denied and/or reported on Social Media. I expect that someone will accuse me of that bullshit notion of “playing the race card.”
In white, Christian circles, I expect that someone will say “You’re not really a Christian.” Or, “Jesus doesn’t see color, and neither should we…” Or, one of my favorites:“Jesus just wants us all to be happy…and you are just way too angry about racism.”
I expect all of this because interrupting white spaces of privilege and power too often triggers a response that results in white gatekeeping, white fragility and white tears, all of which are critical tenets of white supremacy.
I am writing this because I am exhausted, bewildered and angry about how white violence manifests as white fragility. I am writing this because too often the idea of white violence is relegated to blatant acts of physical violence like the Klan and the attack in Charlottesville.
Let’s commit to digging deeper.
White violence can be Sarah. Sarah works as a Registrar at a prestigious university She heads a D&I training course and denies admission to all people with “ghetto” sounding names.
White violence can be Mark. Mark is a real estate agent and loves “diverse” neighborhoods. Mark boasts about all the amazing food to his clients. Mark makes sure to show all his white client’s homes near the “good” schools. He refers out all his clients of color.
White violence can be Tasha. Tasha is PTO president. Tasha pushes for Black History Month art projects and Chinese New Year. Last year she started an International Day festival and a Girls STEM program. Tasha has been PTO President for three years and has never admitted membership to a POC. Instead, Tasha has allowed POC to volunteer for “diverse” events.
White violence can be Todd. Todd is a pastor of a white church with around 400 members. And, they all love mission work. In fact, every year, Todd hosts a community food drive for “local minority communities living in poverty.” Todd has never asked to partner with the local minority owned and run organizations which have already invested in these communities.
Last year, I had an incident with a close relative I will refer to as Steve. Steve is a white, cisgender, heterosexual, male. Steve was wearing an American Flag t-shirt and we were discussing racism. He began to raise his voice.
He said, “everything you say is exaggerated…you always play the race card…why can’t you just be happy…Jesus just wants us to be happy…racism really doesn’t happen as frequently as you think it does…” We argued for approximately seven minutes. He stood over me while I sat down.
When I pointed out to Steve that he was reproducing the actions of white violence, he demanded that I prove and explain racist events.
Questions like: How did I know they were racist? Did the racist person tell me that they were racist? Is it possible that the person I ‘assumed’ was racist could have just been having a bad day…Steve said, “when I see someone cut me off, I just assume that they are having a bad day and pray for them rather than assume it was because I am white…”
Steve spoke louder and louder and exerted his right to an opinion and “fact.”
I ended the conversation early. I took a walk and sobbed.
That Steve was so comfortable that he could believe that it was his right to take up as much space as he wanted, to center whiteness and to demand my cooperation is not uncommon. That Steve refused to consider the historical implications, effects or realities of racism not only troubles me but terrifies me. That Steve believed that he held the “unbiased” truth on all things race related is not uncommon.
“From our vantage point in the margins, POC understand this situation as a reproduction of colonial weaponization” and a function of white supremacy. Steve could deny my reality/experiences because the source of proof for it was me, a black woman: societally erasable and valueless. It was a very visceral and ironic replication of our erasure and the erasure of our history, existence and knowledge.
Here was Steve in the middle of the woods wearing an American Flag t-shirt yelling at a black woman about racism.
White relatives watched the incident go down in varying degrees of silence and unhelpful comments.
This is white violence. I hold this event with me almost a year later, and I struggle to heal it or know how to speak into it.
A few months ago, I was at a family gathering. A close relative, Tina (not her real name), approached me to say that they had been approached by someone to talk about the dangers of my blog and how un-Christian it was and what did they think of my morality? The relative went on to say that this was not an isolated incident and that they have been approached by people multiple times. What did I want them to say to these people?
I still cringe when I recall this event.
Perhaps you can relate?
It was clear, and rather ironic, to me that the situation relied on and centered white fragility. And, to be clear, white fragility is the weaponization of white supremacy and the erasure of POC experiences. Although, for a more technical term, I refer to Robin DiAngelo, acclaimed author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism:
White people in North American live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate the white equilibrium.”
Tina was coming to me for advice about a situation which was steeped in white fragility.
Someone was offended and therefore I couldn’t possibly be Christian.
Someone was offended and therefore my writing was dangerous.
Note how this “offense” triggered a response reliant on white gatekeeping and fragility.
This situation is also a form of white violence.
As I reflect upon these scenarios, I do a body check. I ground myself. Even now, I am taking a deep breath and reminding myself of my own “enough-ness.” Of intersectionality. So many other POC’s as well as LGBTQIA folks experience instances like this and so much worse every day.
When I reflect, I find myself wondering about the responses from other people that were there. Why didn’t the other white relatives intervene with Steve? What were they thinking? Why did Tina tell me about the situation? Why did people talk to Tina instead of me?
With Steve, I often question myself. Why didn’t I cut the conversation off earlier? Why didn’t I say x,y,z. Why did I give space for him to talk in such dehumanizing and violent ways to me, only to explain why it hurt me? And, why do we often give space for persons to speak in dehumanizing and violent ways?
It reminds me how easy it is to fall trap to social responses and conditions. I, and we, have been conditioned to answer white men in certain ways. To not upset them. To ignore and reject the space and labor those whom question our humanity, experience, knowledge, validity, visibility, take up.
Whiteness takes up space. White violence takes up space. Each of these elements takes space from someone else. And, each of these elements takes power and privilege from someone else.
I like Representative’s Maxine Waters demand, (and now viral meme), to reclaim our time. Reclaim our space. Reclaim our voice.
As I write this reflection, I am reminded of a series of events this week where a few of my girlfriends texted me to lament various acts of white violence in the forms of gatekeeping and fragility. During the emotional and mental exhaustion, they each found it important to connect with other safe spaces. To borrow from an article on The Brown Hijabi, ‘Reflections on a panel talk: the violence of white fragility and the erasure of its victims,”
[t]hat our being in spaces like that together, witnessing such violence together, having each others’ backs and validating each other’s truths is the most powerful thing we can do. It is not just survival but also recovery. To heal a wound you have to first acknowledge it. In a world which denies it is hurting us we sometimes forget we are wounded. And thus I feel an automatic love for women of colour who look at me and tell me they see my wounds, and they share them. Even such small acknowledgement is the difference between suffocating and breathing.”
Let’s commit to digging deeper. Let’s commit to seeing each other’s wounds. Let’s commit to the gritty work of loving one another deeply and fully.
I am here if you need to breathe.