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What is white fragility?

Talk to a group of white people today about their complicity in institutional racism and the sad reality is that you are likely to be met with defensiveness, and attempts to shut down the conversation. The mere mention of white privilege – the inherent advantages possessed by a white person on the basis of their race in a society characterised by racial inequality and injustice – can evoke hostile reactions and claims of being personally attacked. So commonplace is this response that it now has a name: White fragility.

White fragility is defined as ‘discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice’. The term was coined by writer and lecturer Robin DiAngelo after her experiences when facilitating diversity workshops in the US.

So why is it that so many well-meaning white people are unable to recognise their privilege and use that knowledge and acceptance as a force to fight the inequalities in our society? 

Every day, people of colour are forced to placate white people after calling out racism they have encountered or witnessed. This fragility is a form of policing POC into not raising issues of racism in any format and instead adds to the breakdown of their mental wellbeing and resolve to be part of change. The danger that white people will never be able to understand how they can have a positive impact on dismantling institutional racism if they don’t recognise the issues and their privilege first.

Accepting your privilege and letting go of white fragility

It’s not only verbally and physically abusive people who benefit from or contribute to a racist society. In her book White Fragility, DiAngelo explains that because we are taught that racism is the weapon of 'bad' individuals not the system it really is, the suggestion that ‘good’ people can unintentionally be racist comes as a shock. But accepting your white privilege is essential for social change. Here are some ideas that can help:

Listen, it’s nothing personal

When people of colour share their experiences of oppression, listen. It might be easy to compare your own anecdotes or suggest alternative explanations for that person’s incident, but this does not show support or well-meaning. A white person cannot truly understand a black or brown person’s experience because they will never be exposed to the same inequalities. This in fact demoralises them and their reality.

Have uncomfortable discussions

It’s also easy to disengage and completely opt out when you feel uncomfortable with the hard truths you’re hearing, but this can be just as harmful. “Remaining silent when given the opportunity to discuss race supports the status quo,” says DiAngelo. Be open to discussion and avoid common responses like ‘I’m not racist’ - ‘my best friend is black’ or ‘I was taught to treat everyone the same’. These responses shut down the conversation. Instead, engage positively in the discussion. Rather than reassuring yourself that you’re not racist and that the issue doesn’t concern you, think about what you can do to help. 

Educate yourself and others

People of colour should not be expected to speak out against racism, or to educate you on the topic. Asking questions of people who show willingness to answer them is important, but you are responsible for your own learning and understanding. Seeking out books and articles on the race discussion by people of colour, studying documentaries that expose the realities of an unjust system, and listening to podcasts on race, is a great way to open your eyes to inequalities you never realised existed. Share what you’ve learnt with white people. Challenge your peers’ discomfort and avoidance, and engage in conversations that will help them question their preconceptions.

Broaden your social circle

If we are really going to challenge our biases and learn about other cultures, diversifying our social circles is a great start. Living an integrated life fosters empathy and encourages safe and authentic conversations about race. It’s important to remember though, that widening your friendship group cannot take the place of confronting white privilege, addressing internalised guilt, or responding to the biases of other white people.

Speak out against racial inequality

Whether it’s pointing out your boss’ bias or scrutinising a fellow educator’s treatment of someone because of their racial identity, take a stand whenever you can. Try advocating for equal pay and opportunities, be an active witness when a black or brown person is being harassed by a racist person or organisation, or introduce diverse and inclusive practices into your place of business/school/community. Speak up and out about issues of injustice and help other white people get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

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