My 11-year-old son and his friends always call each other out for being racist. They do this to others too, including me and our friends and family. Recently, one of his teachers held back a group of them in class for being naughty, all of whom are Black or mixed race. He got into further trouble for playfully pointing out the racism of the situation. My white friends and family sometimes tell him he is in danger of ‘crying wolf’ or overusing the accusation of racism. I disagree. I think his and his friend’s exploration of racism is crucial to us all learning and opening up conversations that have been, and continue to be shut down.
As white people, we benefit from unearned privilege. I know there may be white people reading this thinking they were not born with as much unearned privilege as me, and you are right. This may be through class, economic status, gender, sexuality, and health – to name a few. This is where viewing the world through an intersectional lens is essential. (‘Intersectionality’ is a term coined by Kimberley Crenshaw).
However, if you are white, you have unearned privilege that affords you unearned power over and above Black and Brown people, in a system that supports and upholds white power and privilege. Understanding and accepting this doesn’t lessen the significance of any other form of oppression you may experience.
My ongoing journey from fragility to allyship has required me to be willing to see where I have racist behaviors and to learn to listen when I am called out. Something that gets in the way of this is ‘fragility’ – a term coined by Robin D’Angelo in her book White Fragility.
Fragility cuts across all forms of oppression but in this context it is a defensiveness and refusal to see where we may be being racist. It’s the act of shutting down any conversation and taking on the role of a victim having been accused of something you feel you’re innocent of.
Fragility not only stops any progress against racism, but it causes harm. Being accused of racism might feel hard, but experiencing racism is harder. In fact, experiencing racism is scientifically proven to cause ill health and psychological trauma, and it can ultimately cause death.
Fragility can come in many forms. For me, as a white liberal-thinking British woman, it has and can appear as follows:
- Anger and disbelief that I could be accused of being racist – how can I be? I have a Black son? I deliver anti-racist workshops so how can I be racist?
- Tears – my intention is never to be mean or hurt anyone, and seeing that I have upsets me! (Robin D’Angelo has a whole chapter in her book on white women’s tears which is worth reading and understanding as a white woman)
- Using humour to hide the embarrassment – taking the mickey out of someone for being so serious and not seeing the funny side
- Niceness – grinning and accepting the accusation and even apologising, and then going away and quietly holding it against that person.
There are many other ways, all of which move the conversation away from being accused of racism, and instead turn the person accusing into the wrongdoer. The term for this is ‘gaslighting’. Whether done consciously or unconsciously, it is a form of racism and stops any progress of anti-racism.
I have been on a journey to address and accept these behaviours in myself. It’s been challenging, and still is. If addressed, and when I take action to apologise and manage my fragility, I see the difference in the conversations I can now have and the relief when people feel heard. I do it as a practice as it sits within my values, but I don’t expect gratitude or reward.
The definition of humility is to have a ‘low or modest view of one’s own importance’. As a white British woman I have been conditioned to believe that I am pretty important. Representations of people who look like me are abundant in the media, whether white people are leads in books, TV dramas, or news stories portraying us as ‘the good ones’.
Humility is something I need to constantly work on.
As a liberal-thinker I have assumed racists to be members of the English Defense League or the National Front or the rich or the Tories – or whatever the enemy of the liberals were at the time. So, for years, I have avoided the need to address my own racism. But as I show humility and listen to the stories of racism, it is clear that racism shapes my life too, and I too can and do have racist behaviours that I must address.
Another trait of the liberals is guilt. Guilt is different from humility, and can be another tactic in avoiding taking responsibility and sometimes further gaslighting. To me, taking responsibility and being humble is about acceptance of a situation that happened that I may or may not have been responsible for, and then taking action to progress it either by apologising and listening, and/or by working step-by-step each day to check my behaviours and actions are anti-racist. To read more about apologising or apologising well, read this blog by Mia Mingus.
Allyship is not a destination. Crucially as white people, allyship is about holding each other to account and that’s not just the explicitly racist crew, but also the nice white liberals who do a good job of discussing racism. I can’t claim to be an ally without doing this work. I don’t have it nailed by any means, and have alienated friends and colleagues while trying, but I won’t give up. Any tips and stories I have I will include in any workshops I deliver.
Acknowledgment and context:
Please see the reading list below from where much of my knowledge and understanding has come. I would also like to acknowledge my Black and Brown family, friends, and colleagues who generously and courageously call me out and/or share stories of oppression and the trauma it causes.
These words are written because of the work that has been done for hundreds of years. I’m not attempting to write anything new. I’m writing it as a woman with multiple unearned privileges. I talk mainly of racism, but through my work, I try to consider all forms of oppression through an intersectional lens.
- Allostatic Load Burden and Racial Disparities in Mortality – PMC (nih.gov)
- Angela Davis – Freedom is a constant struggle, and all her other books or talks, especially Women, Race and Class
- Reni Eddo Lodge – her book, blog and podcasts on ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’ provides essential context.
- Anita Kirpal – head of diversity at YSC. Some of her articles include:
- ‘Unleashing the potential of diversity’, in People Matters, volume VII, issue 1, January 2016
- ‘From unconscious bias to conscious inclusion’, in People Matters – cover story May 2016
- For an article that brilliantly defines ‘white privilege’: My White Friend Asked Me on Facebook to Explain White Privilege. I Decided to Be Honest (Sept 2018), written by Lori Lakin Hutchison in Yes! Journalism for people building a better world.
- Whitney Iles has also written a great blog on privilege and prejudice that is no longer available, but you can find out more about her here.
- Another useful read in book form: Inclusive Leadership, by Charlotte Sweeney and Fleur Bothwick
- Article in the Guardian by Robin diAngelo (2019): White people assume niceness is the answer to racial inequality. It’s not.
- She also discusses white fragility in this interview.
- Robin deAngelo’s ‘White Fragility’ and ‘Nice Racism’
- Why Sophie Walker quit as leader of the Women’s Equality Party (2019).
- The podcast from Pioneers Post of Dr Pragya Agarwal the key note speaker at their NatWest Wise100 celebration discussing the exclusivity of social enterprise: https://www.pioneerspost.com/podcasts/20190219/social-enterprise-unconsciously-biased-against-bame-women
- This Toni Morrison interview.
- Nice White Parents (google.com) – podcast
- Weathering Is One More Thing That’s Killing Black People | SELF
- Here’s How Obama’s Female Staffers Made Their Voices Heard (thecut.com)
- When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs – The Washington Post
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