WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
The equity team has been invited to a meeting with the company's new web developer. The team consists of two women, both of whom are black, and me. The new web developer, who is also black, wants to interview us so that she can build our page. She starts the meeting by giving us a survey to fill out. Many questions on the survey inquire about our intended audience, methods, goals, and objectives. I find the questions tedious and feel irritated by them. Pushing the survey aside, I try to explain verbally. I tell the web developer that we go out into the satellite offices to facilitate antiracism training. I add that the training is not always well received; in fact, one member of our team was told not to come back. I make a joke: “The white people were scared by Deborah's hair” (Deborah is black and has long locked braids). The meeting ends and we move on.
A few days later, one of my team members lets me know that the web developerâwho I will call Angelaâwas offended by my hair comment. While I wasn't paying attention at the time, once I am informed, I quickly realize why that comment was off. I seek out a friend who is white and has a solid understanding of cross-racial dynamics. We discuss my feelings (embarrassment, shame, guilt) and then she helps me identify the various ways my racism was revealed in that interaction. After this processing, I feel ready to repair the relationship. I ask Angela to meet with me, and she accepts.
I open by asking Angela, “Would you be willing to grant me the opportunity to repair the racism I perpetrated toward you in that meeting?” When she agrees, I continue. “I realize that my comment about Deborah's hair was inappropriate.”
Angela nods and explains that she did not know me and did not want to be joking about black women's hair (a sensitive issue for many black women) with a white woman whom she did not have a trusting relationship with, much less in a professional work meeting.
I apologize and ask her if I have missed anything else problematic in the meeting.
“Yes,” she replies. “That survey? I wrote that survey. And I have spent my life justifying my intelligence to white people.”
My chest constricts as I immediately realize the impact of my glib dismissal of the survey. I acknowledge this impact and apologize.
She accepts my apology. I ask Angela if there is anything else that needs to be said or heard so that we may move forward.
She replies that yes, there is. “The next time you do something like this, would you like feedback publicly or privately?” she asks.
I answer that given my role as an educator, I would appreciate receiving the feedback publicly as it is important for white people to see that I am also engaged in a lifelong process of learning and growth. And I could model for other white people how to receive feedback openly and without defensiveness.
She tells me that although these dynamics occur daily between white people and people of color, my willingness to repair doesn't, and that she appreciates this. We move on.
, I identified the common emotions, behaviors, claims, and underlying assumptions of white fragility. In this chapter, we'll see how those elements would change if we transformed our racial paradigm.
It is difficult for me to imagine that my aforementioned interaction with Angela would have been as constructive if it had occurred before I began this work. I simply could not and would not have responded well if I had been operating from the dominant paradigm. When my coworker let me know that Angela was offended, I would have been filled with anxiety and immediately explained my intentions to my coworker, seeking her understanding and absolution. I would have felt unfairly accused and seen myself as the victim of Angela's unfairness. In responding this way, I would have lost any potential relationship with her, protected my limited worldview, and stunted my emotional and intellectual growth. Yet day in and day out, this defensive reaction is what people of color get from white people, and it explains why they more often than not don't even try talking to us.
However, from a transformed paradigm, when we are given feedback on our inevitable but unaware racist patterns, we might have very different feelings:
|â¢ Gratitude||â¢ Motivation|
|â¢ Excitement||â¢ Humility|
|â¢ Discomfort||â¢ Compassion|
|â¢ Guilt||â¢ Interest|
When we have these feelings, we might engage in the following behaviors:
|â¢ Reflection||â¢ Seeking more understanding|
|â¢ Apology||â¢ Grappling|
|â¢ Listening||â¢ Engaging|
|â¢ Processing||â¢ Believing|
What claims might we make when we have these feelings and engage in these behaviors? Notice that none of the following claims
characterize us as falsely accused or as beyond the discussion; these claims suggest openness and humility.
â¢ I appreciate this feedback.
â¢ This is very helpful.
â¢ It's my responsibility to resist defensiveness and complacency.
â¢ This is hard, but also stimulating and important.
â¢ It is inevitable that I have this pattern. I want to change it.
â¢ It's personal but not strictly personal.
â¢ I will focus on the message and not the messenger.
â¢ I need to build my capacity to endure discomfort and bear witness to the pain of racism.
â¢ I have some work to do.
These feelings, behaviors, and claims will probably be less familiar to readers, as they are all too rare. But when our fundamental understanding of racism is transformed, so are our assumptions and resultant behaviors. Imagine the difference in our environment, interactions, norms, and policies if the following list described our assumptions:
â¢ Being good or bad is not relevant.
â¢ Racism is a multilayered system embedded in our culture.
â¢ All of us are socialized into the system of racism.
â¢ Racism cannot be avoided.
â¢ Whites have blind spots on racism, and I have blind spots on racism.
â¢ Racism is complex, and I don't have to understand every nuance of the feedback to validate that feedback.
â¢ Whites are / I am unconsciously invested in racism.
â¢ Bias is implicit and unconscious; I don't expect to be aware of mine without a lot of ongoing effort.
â¢ Giving us white people feedback on our racism is risky for people of color, so we can consider the feedback a sign of trust.
â¢ Feedback on white racism is difficult to give; how I am given the feedback is not as relevant as the feedback itself.
â¢ Authentic antiracism is rarely comfortable. Discomfort is key to my growth and thus desirable.
â¢ White comfort maintains the racial status quo, so discomfort is necessary and important.
â¢ I must not confuse comfort with safety; as a white person, I am safe in discussions of racism.
â¢ The antidote to guilt is action.
â¢ It takes courage to break with white solidarity; how can I support those who do?
â¢ I bring my group's history with me; history matters.
â¢ Given my socialization, it is much more likely that I am the one who doesn't understand the issue.
â¢ Nothing exempts me from the forces of racism.
â¢ My analysis must be intersectional (a recognition that my other social identitiesâclass, gender, abilityâinform how I was socialized into the racial system).
â¢ Racism hurts (even kills) people of color 24-7. Interrupting it is more important than my feelings, ego, or self-image.
These assumptions might interrupt racism in various ways, such as the following:
â¢ Minimize our defensiveness.
â¢ Demonstrate our vulnerability.
â¢ Demonstrate our curiosity and humility.
â¢ Allow for growth.
â¢ Stretch our worldview.
â¢ Ensure action.
â¢ Demonstrate that we practice what we profess to value.
â¢ Build authentic relationships and trust.
â¢ Interrupt privilege-protecting comfort.
â¢ Interrupt internalized superiority.
When white people ask me what to do about racism and white fragility, the first thing I ask is, “What has enabled you to be a full, educated, professional adult and not know what to do about racism?” It is a sincere question. How have we managed not to know, when the information is all around us? When people of color have been telling us for years? If we take that question seriously and map out all the ways we have come to not know what to do, we will have our guide before us. For example, if my answer is that I was not educated about racism, I know that I will have to get educated. If my answer is that I don't know people of color, I will need to build relationships. If it is because there are no people of color in my environment, I will need to get out of my comfort zone and change my environment; addressing racism is not without effort.
Next, I say, “Do whatever it takes for you to internalize the above assumptions.” I believe that if we white people were truly coming from these assumptions, not only would our interpersonal relationships change, but so would our institutions. Our institutions would change because we would see to it that they did. But we simply cannot end racism from the current paradigm.
The final advice I offer is this: “Take the initiative and find out on your own.” To break with the conditioning of whitenessâthe conditioning that makes us apathetic about racism and prevents us from developing the skills we need to interrupt itâwhite people need to find out for themselves what they can do. There is so much excellent advice out there todayâwritten by both people of color and white people. Search it out. Break with the apathy of whiteness, and demonstrate that you care enough to put in the effort.
As an analogy, imagine you go to the doctor, who tells you that you have an acoustic neuroma. Just as she is about to explain what that is and what your options are, she gets an emergency call and must rush off, abruptly ending your visit. What would you do? You would very likely go home, get on the internet, and read everything you could find on the subject. You might join a discussion group with people who had experience with the condition. Even if the doctor wasn't called
away and she explained the condition and gave you some advice, you would probably still go home and do the research so that you would have more than one opinion on such an importantâperhaps even a life-and-deathâcondition. Bottom line: you would care enough to get informed. So consider racism a matter of life and death (as it is for people of color), and do your homework.
Returning to the example of the racism I perpetrated toward my coworker, we can see that I followed a series of steps. These steps are based on the preceding list of assumptions and behaviors (reflection, apology, etc.) presented above. First, once I was aware that I had behaved problematically, I took the time to process my reaction with another white person. It was not Angela's duty to take care of my feelings or feel pressure to reassure me. I was also careful to choose someone who I knew would hold me accountable, not someone who would insist that Angela was too sensitive. After I vented my feelings (embarrassment, guilt, shame, and regret), we did our best to identify how I had reinforced racism. I was then ready to return to Angela. I was clear and open about why I wanted to meet with her, and asked her if she would be willing to meet. I was prepared for her to say no; if I could not accept no for an answer, then I would not have been ready to make an authentic apology.
When Angela and I met, I owned my racism. I did not focus on my intentions but focused on the impact of my behavior and apologized for that impact. Nor did I use passive framing such as “
you were offended.” (Apologies that start this way are subtle efforts to put the onus on the recipients of our racism. Indirectly, we are saying that the breach was not inherently offensiveâmany would not find it offensive at allâbut if you were offended because of your extreme sensitivity, then we are sorry.) I simply admitted that my behavior was offensive. Recognizing that I, as a white person, as well as my white friend who had helped me process my feelings, would most likely not understand all the dynamics, I asked Angela what I had missed. She was willing to
enlighten me further, and I accepted this additional feedback and apologized. I made a commitment to do better, and I closed by asking her if there was anything else that needed to be said or heard so that we might move forward.
We then did move forward. Today, we have more trustânot lessâin our relationship than we did before this incident. While I regret that it came at a cost to Angela, it wasn't the end of the world. Many people of color have assured me that they will not give up on me despite my racist patterns; they expect that I will have racist behavior given the society that socialized me. What they are looking for is not perfection but the ability to talk about what happened, the ability to repair. Unfortunately, it is rare for white people to own and repair our inevitable patterns of racism. Thus, relationships with white people tend to be less authentic for people of color.
, I warned readers not to depend on people of color for our racial education and explained why this dependency is problematic. Readers may have been left wondering how we would get this information if we don't ask people of color to give it to us. We can get it in several interconnected ways. We can seek out the information from books, websites, films, and other available sources. Many people of color
committed to teaching whites about racism (on their own terms) and have been offering this information to us for decades, if not centuries. It is our own lack of interest or motivation that has prevented us from receiving it.