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Authors: Robin DiAngelo

White Fragility (6 page)

BOOK: White Fragility

While racism in other cultures exists based on different ideas of which racial group is superior to another, the United States is a global power, and through movies and mass media, corporate culture, advertising, US-owned manufacturing, military presence, historical colonial relations, missionary work, and other means, white supremacy is circulated globally. This powerful ideology promotes the idea of whiteness as the ideal for humanity well beyond the West. White supremacy is especially relevant in countries that have a history of colonialism by Western nations.

In his book
The Racial Contract,
Charles W. Mills argues that the racial contract is a tacit and sometimes explicit agreement among members of the peoples of Europe to assert, promote, and maintain the ideal of white supremacy in relation to all other people of the world. This agreement is an intentional and integral characteristic of the social contract, underwriting all other social contracts. White supremacy has shaped a system of global European domination: it brings into existence whites and nonwhites, full persons and subpersons. It influences white moral theory and moral psychology and is imposed on nonwhites through ideological conditioning and violence. Mills says that “what has usually been taken . . . as the racist ‘exception' has really been the rule; what has been taken as the ‘rule' . . . [racial equality] . . . has really been the exception.”

Mills describes white supremacy as “the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today.”
He notes that although white supremacy has shaped Western political thought for hundreds of years, it is never named. In this way, white supremacy is rendered invisible while other political systems—socialism, capitalism, fascism—are identified and studied. In fact, much of white supremacy's power is drawn from its invisibility, the taken-for-granted aspects that underwrite all other political and social contracts.

Mills makes two points that are critical to our understanding of white fragility. First, white supremacy is never acknowledged. Second, we cannot study any sociopolitical system without addressing how that
system is mediated by race. The failure to acknowledge white supremacy protects it from examination and holds it in place.

In Ta-Nehisi Coates's essay “The Case for Reparations,” he makes a similar point:

To ignore the fact that one of the oldest republics in the world was erected on a foundation of white supremacy, to pretend that the problems of a dual society are the same as the problems of unregulated capitalism, is to cover the sin of national plunder with the sin of national lying. The lie ignores the fact that reducing American poverty and ending white supremacy are not the same. . . . [W]hite supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it.

In light of the reality of historical and continual white supremacy, white complaints about “reverse” racism by programs intended to ameliorate the most basic levels of discrimination are profoundly petty and delusional. As Mills summarizes:

Both globally and within particular nation states, then, white people, Europeans and their descendants, continue to benefit from the Racial Contract, which creates a world in their cultural image, political states differentially favoring their interests, an economy structured around the racial exploitation of others, and a moral psychology . . . skewed consciously or unconsciously toward privileging them, taking the status quo of differing racial entitlement as normatively legitimate, and not to be investigated further.

Race scholars use the term
white supremacy
to describe a sociopolitical economic system of domination based on racial categories that benefits those defined and perceived as white. This system of structural power privileges, centralizes, and elevates white people as a group. If,
for example, we look at the racial breakdown of the people who control our institutions, we see telling numbers in 2016–2017:

• Ten richest Americans: 100 percent white (seven of whom are among the ten richest in the world)

• US Congress: 90 percent white

• US governors: 96 percent white

• Top military advisers: 100 percent white

• President and vice president: 100 percent white

• US House Freedom Caucus: 99 percent white

• Current US presidential cabinet: 91 percent white

• People who decide which TV shows we see: 93 percent white

• People who decide which books we read: 90 percent white

• People who decide which news is covered: 85 percent white

• People who decide which music is produced: 95 percent white

• People who directed the one hundred top-grossing films of all time, worldwide: 95 percent white

• Teachers: 82 percent white

• Full-time college professors: 84 percent white

• Owners of men's professional football teams: 97 percent white

These numbers are not describing minor organizations. Nor are these institutions special-interest groups. The groups listed above are the most powerful in the country. These numbers are not a matter of “good people” versus “bad people.” They represent power and control by a racial group that is in the position to disseminate and protect its own self-image, worldview, and interests across the entire society.

One of the most potent ways white supremacy is disseminated is through media representations, which have a profound impact on how we see the world. Those who write and direct films are our cultural narrators; the stories they tell shape our worldviews. Given that the majority of white people live in racial isolation from people of color (and black people in particular) and have very few authentic cross-racial
relationships, white people are deeply influenced by the racial messages in films. Consider one statistic from the preceding list: of the hundred top-grossing films worldwide in 2016, ninety-five were directed by white Americans (ninety-nine of them by men). That is an incredibly homogenous group of directors. Because these men are most likely at the top of the social hierarchy in terms of race, class, and gender, they are the least likely to have a wide variety of authentic egalitarian cross-racial relationships. Yet they are in the position to represent the racial “other.” Their representations of the “other” are thereby extremely narrow and problematic, and yet they are reinforced over and over. Further, these biased representations have been disseminated worldwide; while white supremacy originated in the West, it circulates globally.

White resistance to the term
white supremacy
prevents us from examining how these messages shape us. Explicit white supremacists understand this. Christian Picciolini, a former white nationalist, explains that white nationalists recognized that they had to distance themselves from the terms
white supremacy
to gain broader appeal. He describes the “alt-right” and white nationalist movements as the culmination of a thirty-year effort to massage the white supremacist message: “We recognized back then that we were turning away the average American white racists and that we needed to look and speak more like our neighbors. The idea we had was to blend in, normalize, make the message more palatable.”
Derek Black, godson of David Duke and former key youth leader in the white nationalist movement, explains: “My whole talk was the fact that you could run as Republicans, and say things like we need to shut down immigration, we need to fight affirmative action, we need to end globalism, and you could win these positions, maybe as long as you didn't get outed as a white nationalist and get all the controversy that comes along with it.”

Today's white nationalists are not the first to recognize the importance of distancing oneself from more-explicit expressions of white supremacy. In a 1981 interview, Lee Atwater, Republican political strategist and adviser to presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, explained what came to be known as “the Southern strategy”—how
to appeal to the racism of white Southern voters without pronouncing it openly:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can't say “nigger”—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. . . . But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

Our umbrage at the term
white supremacy
only serves to protect the processes it describes and obscure the mechanisms of racial inequality. Still, I understand that the term is very charged for many white people, especially older white people who associate the term with extreme hate groups. However, I hope to have made clear that white supremacy is something much more pervasive and subtle than the actions of explicit white nationalists. White supremacy describes the culture we live in, a culture that positions white people and all that is associated with them (whiteness) as ideal. White supremacy is more than the idea that whites are superior to people of color; it is the deeper premise that supports this idea—the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation from that norm.

Naming white supremacy changes the conversation in two key ways: It makes the system visible and shifts the locus of change onto white people, where it belongs. It also points us in the direction of the lifelong work that is uniquely ours, challenging our complicity with and investment in racism. This does not mean that people of color do not play a part but that the full weight of responsibility rests with those who control the institutions.


Sociologist Joe Feagin coined the term “white racial frame” to describe how whites circulate and reinforce racial messages that position whites as superior.
In this way, the white racial frame rests on, and is a key mechanism of, white supremacy. The frame is deep and extensive, with thousands of stored “bits.” These bits are pieces of cultural information—images, stories, interpretations, omissions, silences—that are passed along from one person and group to the next, and from one generation to the next. The bits circulate both explicitly and implicitly, for example, through movies, television, news, and other media and stories told to us by family and friends. By constantly using the white racial frame to interpret social relations and integrating new bits, whites reinscribe the frame ever deeper.

At the most general level, the racial frame views whites as superior in culture and achievement and views people of color as generally of less social, economic, and political consequence; people of color are seen as inferior to whites in the making and keeping of the nation. At the next level of framing, because social institutions (education, medicine, law, government, finance, and the military) are controlled by whites, white dominance is unremarkable and taken for granted. That whites are disproportionately enriched and privileged via these institutions is also taken for granted; we are entitled to more privileges and resources because we are “better” people. At the deepest level of the white frame, negative stereotypes and images of racial others as inferior are reinforced and accepted. At this level, corresponding emotions such as fear, contempt, and resentment are also stored.

The frame includes both negative understandings of people of color and positive understandings of whites and white institutions. It is so internalized, so submerged, that it is never consciously considered or challenged by most whites. To get a sense of the white racial frame below the surface of your conscious awareness, think back to the earliest time that you were aware that people from racial groups other than your own existed. People of color recall a sense of always having been aware, while most white people recall being aware by at least
age five. If you lived in a primarily white environment and are having trouble remembering, think about Disney movies, music videos, sports heroes, Chinese food, Aunt Jemima syrup, Uncle Ben's rice, the Taco Bell Chihuahua, Columbus Day, Apu from
The Simpsons,
and the donkey from

Reflect on these representations and ask yourself, Did your parents tell you that race didn't matter and that everyone was equal? Did they have many friends of color? If people of color did not live in your neighborhood, why didn't they? Where did they live? What images, sounds, and smells did you associate with these other neighborhoods? What kind of activities did you think went on there? Were you encouraged to visit these neighborhoods, or were you discouraged from visiting these neighborhoods?

What about schools? What made a school good? Who went to good schools? Who went to bad schools? If the schools in your area were racially segregated (as most schools in the United States are), why didn't you attend school together? If this is because you lived in different neighborhoods, why did you live in different neighborhoods? Were “their” schools considered equal to, better than, or worse than, yours? If there was busing in your town, in which direction did it go; who was bused into whose schools? Why did the busing go in one direction and not the other?

If you went to school together, did you all sit together in the cafeteria? If not, why not? Were the honors or advanced placement classes and the lower-track classes equally racially integrated? If not, why not?

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