In honor of Black History Month, I would like to share the beginning of my anti-racism journey.
It was June of 2020, three months into lockdown. It was very shortly after the murder of George Floyd.
My patient Mindy came into my office for a quick blood draw. If I made you uncomfortable at the thought of a blood draw, buckle up because if you’re white, I intend to get you way more uncomfortable.
Somehow the conversation of our feelings of stress came around to the nationwide protests against police brutality. Mindy said: “Well, they wouldn’t get unwanted treatment from the police if they would just behave.” I was dumbfounded; I had the excuse of concentrating on her blood draw to keep quiet. By the time she left the office a few minutes later, I still had not come up with a good reply to her comment.
My anti-racism journey started in my office that day.
Spend the next few minutes with me as I unpack the racism both in Mindy’s comment AND in my lack of response.
Here are two of the concepts I have learned so far:
Number 1: White fragility helps keeps the structure of racism in place, and
Number 2: Racism is a structure, not an event.
White fragility refers to the reactions of white people when faced with an open discussion of racism. White fragility includes many reactions, including silence, defensiveness, upset emotions, or claims of already being aware.
These reactions keep racism in place because they close the discussion instead of opening it. By claiming to already be aware, people close the door to further self-exploration.
When I was first writing this, I put the phrase “white fragility” in quotation marks. This is an example of distancing myself from the whole idea that any of this applies to me.
Let’s unpack this short interaction I had with Mindy. I invite you to do more than just hear what I have learned; map this onto your own experience and see what you notice.
First, I did not tell you that Mindy is white; you probably assumed that, and you are correct. When former Vice President Pence gave his speech at the Republican National Convention last year, he referred to the Black Lives Matter protesters as “our neighbors”, implying that the “you” and the “me” in “our” are white, and the protesters are the “other”. This assumption is insidious and damaging when it goes unexamined. What assumptions do you make without even realizing it?
Next, was the actual content of Mindy’s comment. She never actually said she was talking about black people when she said “they” would not get mistreated by police if they “would just behave”. She assumed, correctly, that I would know who she meant.
She also implied what many people believe, which is that the greatly increased chance that a black person will get stopped, beaten or shot by police, as compared to a white person, is deserved. It ignores what Robin Diangelo, author of the book “White Fragility” refers to as the “protective pillows” that have surrounded each and every one of those of us who are white since before our birth.
White people in the U.S. express fear of violence against them perpetrated by black people, when in fact the direction of racial danger has been the other way since the founding of this country.
Last, for now, my lack of response came from my own unexamined racism. I unconsciously showed white solidarity, leaving her assumptions unchallenged.
You probably don’t think of me as a racist, but as a white person in the United States, I benefit in many ways from the racism inherent in our society.
This brings us to:
Redefining racism as a structure, not an event:
In this much more useful definition of racism, we have to move away from the dichotomy that we have been taught all our lives:
Racist = bad, and non-racist = good.
In racism as an event, a racist person does and says bad things, while a non-racist person does not.
This dichotomy sets up white people to be fragile when it comes to talking about racism. Because I have good intentions, if you point out something I say or do as racist, then you are impugning my moral character. Of course I will defend myself! (as in, get defensive)
Instead, consider racism as a system of inequality. The American values of individualism and meritocracy (where your advancement is entirely due to your effort and innate qualities) hide and protect racism, and keep it firmly in place. Racism is in place from the beginning of life, when black maternal mortality is greater than for white women, and many forms of advantages for whites to continue through all stages of life.
To dive much more deeply into this, read Diangelo’s book, or one of many other resources.
We are taught that it is not polite or politically correct to openly discuss racism. I am learning that it is precisely this silence that helps to hold the system of racism in place.
In my office that day with Mindy, I decided to start addressing my own white fragility and get to work developing some agility so I can do my part in helping bring an overdue end to racism.
If I made you uncomfortable with this article, then I did my job. Learning to tolerate discomfort is at the core of growing up. I hope you will be motivated to action as I was when Mindy’s passing comment left me speechless, unable to be the effective change agent that I am committed to being.
I invite you to join me in turning white fragility into agility, so we can do more than give lip service to the American promise of liberty and justice for all.