Second, this request requires nothing of us and reinforces unequal power relations by asking people of color to do our work. There are copious resources available on the subject generated by people of color who are willing to share the information; why haven't we sought it out before this conversation?
Third, the request ignores the historical dimensions of race relations. It disregards how often people of color have indeed tried to tell us what racism is like for them and how often they have been dismissed. To ask people of color to tell us how they experience racism without first building a trusting relationship and being willing to meet them
halfway by also being vulnerable shows that we are not racially aware and that this exchange will probably be invalidating for them.
On a television talk show in 1965, James Baldwin responded passionately to a Yale professor's argument that Baldwin always concentrated on color:
I don't know if white Christians hate Negros or not, but I know that we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church which is black. I know that the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. .Â .Â . I don't know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me .Â .Â . but I know I am not in their unions. I don't know if the real estate lobby is against black people but I know that the real estate lobbyists keep me in the ghetto. I don't know if the Board of Education hates Black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools that we have to go to. Now this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith risking .Â .Â . my life .Â .Â . on some idealism which you assure me exists in America which I have never seen.
Life in the United States is deeply shaped by racial segregation. Of all racial groups, whites are the most likely to choose segregation and are the group most likely to be in the social and economic position to do so.
Growing up in segregation (our schools, workplaces, neighborhoods, shopping districts, places of worship, entertainment, social gatherings, and elsewhere) reinforces the message that our experiences and perspectives are the only ones that matter. We don't see people of color around us, and few if any adults acknowledge a lack of racial diversity as a problem. In fact, the classification of which neighborhoods are good and which are bad is always based on race. These assessments may also be based on economic divisions among whites, but if black and Latinx students attend a school in significant numbers
(significant in the white mind), whites will perceive the school as bad. If there
people of color around us, we are seldom encouraged to build cross-racial friendships.
Segregation is often lessened somewhat for poor urban whites who may live near and have friendships with people of color on the local level because white poverty brings white people into proximity with people of color in a way that suburban and middle-class life does not (except during gentrification, when the mixing is temporary). Urban whites from the lower classes may have more integrated lives on the micro level, but we still receive the message that achievement means moving away from the neighborhoods and schools that illuminate our poverty. Upward mobility is the great class goal in the United States, and the social environment gets tangibly whiter the higher up you climb. Whiter environments, in turn, are seen as the most desirable.
For upwardly mobile whites from the lower classes, reaching toward the most valuable places in society usually means leaving friends and neighbors of color behind. For example, I grew up urban and poor and lived in apartment buildings in crowded rental-based neighborhoods. In my childhood, there were many people of color around me. But I knew that if I was to improve my life, I would not stay in these neighborhoods; upward mobility would take me to whiter spaces, and it has. I did not maintain those early relationships with people of color, and no one who guided me encouraged me to do so. Segregation was still operating in my life at the wider societal level: it dictated what I learned in school, read in books, saw on TV, and learned to value if I wanted to improve my life.
Meritocracy is a precious ideology in the United States, but neighborhoods and schools are demonstrably not equal; they are separate and unequal. Tax bases, school resources, curricula, textbooks, opportunities for extracurricular activities, and the quality of the teaching staff differ widely between school districts. Who is not aware that schools in the United States are vastly unequal? Without white people's interest or effort invested in changing a system that serves them at the expense of others, advantage is passed down from generation to generation. Rather
than change these conditions so that public education is equal for all, we allow other people's children to endure conditions that would be unacceptable for our own.
A 2009 study published in the
American Journal of Education
found that while suburban parents, who are mostly white, say they are selecting schools on the basis of test scores, the racial makeup of a school actually plays a larger role in their school decisions. Amy Stuart Wells, a professor of sociology and education at Columbia University's Teachers College, found the same coded language when she studied how white parents choose schools in New York City. She writes, “In a postracial era, we don't have to say it's about race or the color of the kids in the building. .Â .Â . We can concentrate poverty and kids of color and then fail to provide the resources to support and sustain those schools, and then we can see a school full of black kids and say, âOh, look at their test scores.' It's all very tidy now, this whole system.”
Readers have no doubt heard schools and neighborhoods discussed in these terms and know that this talk is racially coded; “urban” and “low test scores” are code for “not white” and therefore less desirable.
While many whites see spaces inhabited by more than a few people of color as undesirable and even dangerous, consider another perspective. I have heard countless people of color describe how painful an experience it was to be one of only a few people of color in their schools and neighborhoods. Although many parents of color want the advantages granted by attending predominantly white schools, they also worry about the stress and even the danger they are putting their children in. These parents understand that the predominantly white teaching force has little if any authentic knowledge about children of color and has been socialized (often unconsciously) to see children of color as inferior and even to fear them. Imagine how unsafe white schools, which are so precious to white parents, might appear to parents of color.
The most profound message of racial segregation may be that the absence of people of color from our lives is no real loss. Not one person who loved me, guided me, or taught me ever conveyed that segregation deprived me of anything of value. I could live my entire life without a
friend or loved one of color and not see that as a diminishment of my life. In fact, my life trajectory would almost certainly ensure that I had few, if any, people of color in my life. I might meet a few people of color if I played certain sports in school, or if there happened to be one or two persons of color in my class, but when I was outside of that context, I had no proximity to people of color, much less any authentic relationships. Most whites who recall having a friend of color in childhood rarely keep these friendships into adulthood. Yet if my parents had thought it was valuable to have cross-racial relationships, they would have ensured that I had them, even if it took effortâthe same effort so many white parents expend to send their children across town so they can attend a better (whiter) school.
Pause for a moment and consider the profundity of this message: we are taught that we lose nothing of value through racial segregation. Consider the message we send to our childrenâas well as to children of colorâwhen we describe white segregation as good.
In summary, our socialization engenders a common set of racial patterns. These patterns are the foundation of white fragility:
â¢ Preference for racial segregation, and a lack of a sense of loss about segregation
â¢ Lack of understanding about what racism is
â¢ Seeing ourselves as individuals, exempt from the forces of racial socialization
â¢ Failure to understand that we bring our group's history with us, that history matters
â¢ Assuming everyone is having or can have our experience
â¢ Lack of racial humility, and unwillingness to listen
â¢ Dismissing what we don't understand
â¢ Lack of authentic interest in the perspectives of people of color
â¢ Wanting to jump over the hard, personal work and get to “solutions”
â¢ Confusing disagreement with not understanding
â¢ Need to maintain white solidarity, to save face, to look good
â¢ Guilt that paralyzes or allows inaction
â¢ Defensiveness about any suggestion that we are connected to racism
â¢ A focus on intentions over impact
My psychosocial development was inculcated in a white supremacist culture in which I am in the superior group. Telling me to treat everyone the same is not enough to override this socialization; nor is it humanly possible. I was raised in a society that taught me that there was no loss in the absence of people of colorâthat their absence was a good and desirable thing to be sought and maintainedâwhile simutaneously denying that fact. This attitude has shaped every aspect of my self-identity: my interests and investments, what I care about or don't care about, what I see or don't see, what I am drawn to and what I am repelled by, what I can take for granted, where I can go, how others respond to me, and what I can ignore. Most of us would not choose to be socialized into racism and white supremacy. Unfortunately, we didn't have that choice. While there is variation in how these messages are conveyed and how much we internalize them, nothing could have exempted us from these messages completely. Now it is our responsibility to grapple with how this socialization manifests itself in our daily lives and how it shapes our responses when it is challenged.