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White Fragility: An uncomfortable truth we have to confront

I am not racist. Racists are flag-waving, right-wing extremists, aren’t they? They spout hate slogans and demand their country back. They take to the streets with their banners and racist chants. They start riots. They storm mosques.  But not me. I’m white, but I’m not racist. Am I?

I was raised colourblind. With the best of intentions, my parents taught me that the colour of someone’s skin was not important, and that we are all the same, whatever our ethnicity. As far as I was aware, acts of racism were normally explicit and recognisable, the kind of thing I could easily call out if I observed it.

It is only now, on the wrong side of 25, and with a daughter of my own, that I realise how naive my fundamental schooling in racism was. This well-intentioned but clumsy approach to race relations has left me and a generation of white people ill-equipped to confront systematic racism that we ultimately don’t want to believe in. We have been taught that racism is the weapon of individuals, not the complex social system it actually is.

Like many of my white, middle-class peers, I was raised with advantages I wasn’t really aware of. Part of confronting systemic racism is to accept this. But this very first step has been problematic within the wider white community.

A recent example brought this point home for me. While reporting on a pro-Brexit demo on the 29th March 2019, white journalist and newsreader Jon Snow commented he ‘had never seen so many white people in one place’. At my time of writing, broadcasting watchdog Ofcom have received 2,644 complaints and Channel 4 have issued an apology suggesting that his ‘unscripted observation’ came ‘at the very end of a long week’.

In contrast, Ofcom received only two complaints in 2014 when former Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson openly used the derogatory term ‘slope’ – a racist reference to the shape of an Asian person’s eyes. Surveying his handiwork on a makeshift bridge, the presenter remarked: ‘That is a proud moment ... but there is a slope on it,” while an Asian man approached them on the bridge

That this sly, racist comment on one of the BBC’s most popular programmes could be broadcast to thousands with barely any response – or even recognition of the term (and I am guilty here) – shows how disconnected white people are from racism – unless it is assumed to be against us. So why does even an observation of whiteness draw such a backlash?

Robin DiAngelo, US Academic, race educator (and white person), coined the term ‘white fragility’ after years of experiencing the same reaction from her workshops aiming to open up conversation about diversity and racism. She defines it as ‘discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice.’

In her book of the same title, DiAngelo describes experiencing the same defensive, angry reactions time and time again when she discusses race dynamics in the workplace. She writes: ‘I began to see what I think of as the pillars of whiteness - the unexamined beliefs that prop up our racial responses. I could see the power of the belief that only bad people were racist, as well as how individualism allowed white people to exempt themselves from the forces of socialization. I could see how we are taught to think about racism as discrete acts committed by individual people, rather than as a complex, interconnected system.

‘And in light of so many white expressions of resentment towards people of color, I realised that we see ourselves as entitled to, and deserving of, more than people of color deserve; I saw our investment in a system that serves us. I saw how hard we worked to deny all this and how defensive we became when these dynamics were named. And in turn, I saw how our defensiveness maintained the racial status quo.’

Questioning the validity of your achievements puts many of us on the defensive. There’s no denying that accepting your own privilege at the expense of someone else’s is hard to swallow. Didn’t I work hard at school? Didn’t I ace that interview because of my hard work not because I’m white? Perhaps you can name numerous hardships you’ve had to endure, or times you’ve risen against seemingly insurmountable odds.

But getting over this defensiveness and discomfort is essential to confronting an unfair system. Whiteness does not always equal success. It does not mean that your life has been easy. But it is a step up in a difficult world that still operates in relation to race. If you worked hard to get to where you are, how much harder would you have had to work if you were a person of colour? If our first response is to shut down conversations by taking valid points about white privilege personally, is it any wonder that our friends and colleagues of colour feel silenced?

Racism isn’t always as easy to pinpoint as explicit comments or attacks. Judgements we make based on our personal experience, cultural context and background can be just as harmful in the long term. These unconscious biases are deeply entrenched within our psyche.

They can make you gravitate towards a group of people who look or sound like you when you go to a party. Or they can make you feel uneasy about sitting next to someone in traditional Muslim dress on the Tube with a big rucksack. If you are an employer, they can make you choose John Smith over Mohammed Abbasi for that interview. And frequently they do.

Everyone, regardless of colour, holds unconscious bias and prejudice, despite how vehemently they may deny it. But only white people are in enough positions of power to make these prejudices affect entire communities, not just individuals.

In the last five years, The Guardian reports  that 38% of people identifying as an ethnic minority were wrongly suspected of shoplifting compared to 14% of white people. They were also three times as likely to have been thrown out of or denied entrance to a restaurant, bar or club.

Black Caribbean pupils are permanently excluded from school three times more often than white British pupils. Black men are more likely to be found guilty at crown court, with 112 sentenced to custody for every 100 white men. 57% of ethnic minority respondents feel they have to work harder to succeed in Britain because of their ethnicity, and 40% say they earn less or have worse employment prospects for the same reason. Most tellingly, half of the respondents from an ethnic minority background believe people sometimes did not realise they were treating them differently because of their ethnicity.

Whiteness is synonymous with racism because to be white is to be part of a system built around you. And until we acknowledge that, we will contribute to it rather than break it down.

My daughter is one year old. She is clever and funny, not to mention incredibly stubborn. At the moment, she is one of a generation of children learning about the world and their role in it. But at some point, children of the same age but not the same colour, will learn that the world isn’t quite as bright and shiny as they thought. That they need to work harder than my daughter to come close to her privilege as a white person. That she is more likely to succeed in life.

I don’t want my daughter to grow up oblivious to this. I owe it to her to educate her to the best of my ability about the complex, deeply entrenched racist systems in the world she will inherit. That sadly prejudice is learned and we need to be active in combating it. How will I do this? I’m not sure yet. That is part of my responsibility as a parent and my journey as white person. I am a novice, confronting my own role in a racist system. But what I do know is that her peers deserve the same chance as she does. And she deserves to succeed on her own merit, not her whiteness.

Once you acknowledge that whiteness means power, you can also use your power for good. I'm aware that I'm a white person talking about a problem that is not my own but writing this, and being open to learning is a small step I can take to be an ally. If your voice is more likely to be heard, you can use it to acknowledge the ugly truths in our society and to be a force for good. Perhaps then white people can finally be proud of what we have achieved.

Friends and colleagues of colour are helping me to educate myself on racism. These books have also been invaluable starting points. For more see here.

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Comments (2)
2 Comments

about 2 months ago

A very interesting read. As a child, in 40s and 50s I was brought up in Wolverhampton and other parts of the Midlands in a community of many races and I do not remember any animosity due to colour or race particularly amongst the younger generation, in fact my first boy friend was of indian origin and well accepted by the families. We had an international club that everyone could join. I do not think that the colour of a person's skin should matter, it is their attitude (and yours) , opportunities that should be available for all with more community integration and not segregation

John Tierney

about 3 months ago

Thank you for writing this. A really good read for all white people to recognise privilege. Further reading of Robin DiAngelo is a must! It is time for white people to educate ourselves, it is not the job of our black colleagues and friends to raise awareness of their oppression. It is not their job to disprove misconceptions of their race. Wake up white people and realise what comes with being white