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14 February 2015 @ 10:12 am
on white fragility  
Apparently my post here has recently turned up on Making Light, BoingBoing, and Metafilter.

(Which of course makes me wish I'd written it better! And as one commenter on BoingBoing TOTALLY correctly points out, I left out college-educated in my listing of what makes the prototype. Which is not a coincidence at all; we tend not to think about the ways in which we ourselves are prototypical/default.)

But it also means I'm filtering non-friend comments now. Because we get gems like this: [edit to add: so far this is the only one. It's just of a type I've seen frequently elsewhere.]

"As a non-academic cis white male of 54 who knows he's benefitted from this subconscious categorical thinking but who - I SWEAR - has always been a skinny long-haired "weirdo" not accepted by authority figures and who has followed closely the work and books by Boroditsky, Lakoff, and Feldman, I read this and sigh: what can I possibly say, except I AM A FUCKING ASSHOLE whose made everyone's live worse by being who I look like?

Nice work."

To which I replied:
White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. This paper explicates the dynamics of White Fragility. - Robin DiAngelo

I did not bother noting on the comment that this sort of defensive response is a form of oppressive behavior - an attempt to silence the speaker of unpalatable things. But I will note it here, as a thing not to do.

I won't be unfiltering any other such comments; this one can stand in as a token for the lot. If I get too many for my spoon level, I'll just close comments. But I would prefer not to be silenced - and to have worthwhile conversations in comments silenced - by oppressive behaviors.
Becca Stareyesbeccastareyes on February 14th, 2015 06:52 pm (UTC)
[content note: mental illness]

You know, I have an anxiety disorder, so I can imagine all the ways that my tendency to turn every source of stress into CATASTROPHE! can intersect with the axes where I'm privileged or pass as privileged.

But part of learning to cope with my brain weasels is learning how to accept that I sometimes screw up and I can still choose how I handle my mistakes. Since I'm making a start as a physics teacher, learning how to accept that anyone learning a new skill* will make mistakes, and what matters is what you do when you make a mistake.

I guess it seems like the defensive people don't seem to understand that it's not directly about their background, but the biases they picked up. One can't change one's background, but one can learn (or un-learn) to cope with the biases, like any skill. (Complete with the fact a lot of skills are 'use it or lose it'.)

* Or in the case of various cultural biases, un-learning an old skill.
shweta_narayan: authorpic1shweta_narayan on February 14th, 2015 07:00 pm (UTC)
I think there's wilful misunderstanding involved tbh. It's a deep unwillingness to admit that anything about one's behavior is an issue.

Saying "Oh you hate me because of how I look/what my ancestors did" rather than "Oh wow I screw up in these ways", removes any burden of doing better.

Cause I think unfortunately not everyone is at all interested in learning or un-learning. They're comfortable as they are & defending that comfort.

Edited at 2015-02-14 07:01 pm (UTC)
Becca Stareyesbeccastareyes on February 14th, 2015 07:21 pm (UTC)
Yes, thank you for the correction. It's a lot easier to assume there's nothing that can be done than that there is something one can change about one's self. (And that one should change.)
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on February 14th, 2015 07:36 pm (UTC)
Not so much a correction as a note that you're probably being too nice :)
Marissa Lingenmrissa on February 14th, 2015 07:22 pm (UTC)
"You hate me" is a deflection behavior in so many circumstances.

When the medical assistant who had twice given my grandfather medication he was allergic to heard from another of the staff that he was not expected to make it, she wailed, "Oh my GOD, the family must HATE me!"

And we did not. We did not hate her, because us liking her or not liking her was not the point. The point was that we wanted her to do better at her job. And that's not something that can be resolved with "they hate me!"/"There there, pat pat, no they don't."

And I think we see this individual interaction writ large with social issues. Sometimes we try to refocus by saying, "It's not about you!", but sometimes it is about you (/me/whoever): it's about you (/me/whoever) doing a better job at a specific thing as regards other people, whether that's giving them medication or treating them as valid examples of fellow human beings.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on February 14th, 2015 07:39 pm (UTC)
Tangent based on stuff that's happened over the last couple of weeks: this goes double for authors who pull this behavior, when, as you say, fans are just asking them (us) to do a better job.
isimsizskelody on February 14th, 2015 07:02 pm (UTC)
Checking out those comments (...I know, I know), I can't help but be struck/amused by the person who took it upon themselves to inform you that they were ~a linguist~ and thus endowed/excused to nitpick spelling. I wonder if they had any idea what your academic background was.

-a fellow linguist
(seriously, what the hell does being a linguist have to do with being a stickler for orthography?)
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on February 14th, 2015 07:12 pm (UTC)
oh whups I think I remembered a different person. Unless there were two of them in that comment thread.

To be fair, the person who commented on my typo of Eve Sweetser's name did a good thing, because you can't find people's work unless the name's spelled right! But, by virtue of commenting, they made it impossible for me to edit my post & fix it. *facepalm*

edit again: OH no it's the same person twice that's it. My original comment stands about their main comment: it's like they don't know what descriptive vs prescriptive is. But the name fix was helpful.

Edited at 2015-02-14 07:13 pm (UTC)
Cat Sitting Stillcatsittingstill on February 14th, 2015 07:13 pm (UTC)
I thought this was an excellent piece when I first read it, it has informed a lot of my subsequent thinking on the subject, and I'm glad it is getting wider notice.

I'm sorry people are being jerks to you about it.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on February 14th, 2015 07:22 pm (UTC)
Thank you! It's only the one new jerk so far (there were a few in initial comments), I just figured it follows a pattern I've seen often enough that it should be addressed.
Sovay: Rotwangsovay on February 14th, 2015 07:19 pm (UTC)
Well, I'm sorry you're getting gemlike defensive pseudo-apologies, but I'm glad the post is being seen!

Thanks for the link to DiAngelo's paper; I had not heard the term before and it is useful to have a name for it.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on February 14th, 2015 07:34 pm (UTC)
I should edit & clarify that it's only the one so far, this round :)

I haven't read all of DiAngelo's paper, but what I have read of it is really eye-opening yeah. Not that I expect that poster to read it. It's more the sort of response that exists for people reading along.
Nathanielelsmi on February 15th, 2015 06:01 am (UTC)
This is somewhat tangential, but I wanted to share: for me an exciting moment spurred by that paper was the realization that this kind of fragility is the single unifying force behind all the weirdly disparate groups and policy ideas that the come together in the modern Republican party. Suddenly it makes sense why rich white people, poor white Southerners, evangelical Christians, etc. can find common cause in oppressing women and so forth, even though they seem like in many ways they ought to have totally contradictory goals. The dominant middle-class white liberal analysis of this is that ugh, poor white Americans are inexplicably unable to understand their own self-interest, or maybe they're just vindictive and nasty enough that they don't care about their own self-interest so long as someone else is even worse off. But this is wrong -- it's the very specific, widespread, explicable kind of threatened-fragility reaction that DiAngelo describes, that's grounded in the dynamics of privilege and oppression. Which is why the dominant white liberal perspective finds it inexplicable -- it doesn't like thinking about privilege and oppression (which is another fragility reaction!). Similarly, commentators bemoan how congress used to be adversarial-but-collegial but now has become gratuitously dysfunctional; the dysfunction is the same that DiAngelo describes in that paper on a smaller scale.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on February 15th, 2015 07:51 am (UTC)
right & the collegial of course was the result of mutual agreement to continue full steam ahead with the kyriarchy, esp the antiblack racism. Which comes back to the fragility once that assumption falls apart even the tiny bit it has.

was that a sentence IDK what is grammar it are bedtime
Nathanielelsmi on February 15th, 2015 08:08 am (UTC)
Yeah, and the antiblack racism in particular was VERY DIRECTLY the genesis of the whole modern Republican party. I kinda knew this (something something "Southern strategy"), but this article gives a good description of how incredibly sharp and deep the change was, and how it was exactly in response to the Civil Rights Act (the 1956/1964 maps are amazing):

Part of what I find so neat about the fragility analysis though is that it captures the racist part, and also the evangelical Christian fragility at having their religious privilege challenged, and also the rich businesspeople fragility at having their class privilege challenged. Of course racism is woven into all these things too in complicated ways, privilege is intersectional just like marginalization. But part of what frustrated me about the analyses I'd seen before is that it didn't seem like racism *alone* could really explain all the weird things about how the politics worked out.

Probably this was obvious to other people before me but :-)
TGStoneButchtgstonebutch on February 15th, 2015 01:15 am (UTC)
My experience gels with your read of willful misunderstanding. In my experience (and I've definitely been similarly jerky at points in my life), it is often willful and rather intensely (and emotionally) entrenched misreading that's main aim is to once again center the privileged self, to make it all about me again because it is too damn scary/uncomfortable to be challenged.

I'm glad to have a link to the paper on white fragility (a term that resonates but with which I was not familiar); it's now at the top my to-read list.

I found the original post very useful myself, and am also glad others are seeing it. It sucks that this jerk has sucked some of your spoons and that you are (rightly) anticipating more of the same as the post gets shared more widely.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on February 15th, 2015 02:04 am (UTC)
Yeah that sounds exactly right to me, and that's how I have felt when being similarly jerky myself. It's not necessarily consciously wilful misunderstanding but responding to deep discomfort without being willing to face/deconstruct it.

So far it's been just the one jerk & most of the conversations have happened in those other spaces. For which, yay.
beroliberoli on February 15th, 2015 02:04 am (UTC)
You know, I've been pretty unthinking in my time--as you might remember. But I think it takes a special (albeit weirdly common) kind of self-absorption for a cis, white, male person to read a post like the one you wrote on category structure and oppression and, without denying that sexism, racism, and transphobia exist, make the post /all about him/.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on February 15th, 2015 02:09 am (UTC)
I dunno I was unthinking at the same time so it's not like I'd have noticed if you were :)

But yeah it's... something, all right. Also this person makes a point of telling me he's been reading related literature, because... why? Is that even relevant? Except to highlight the extent to which he's read this stuff and not realized how it applied to him before I guess?
redbird on February 15th, 2015 03:37 am (UTC)
He hasn't figured out, or is willfully ignoring, that this isn't an entirely theoretical subject, and doing the reading is not enough.

Edited at 2015-02-15 03:37 am (UTC)
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on February 15th, 2015 04:20 am (UTC)
And I think resents this thing becoming other than a theoretical subject. Feels some sort of claim to it because he's read some things, so how dare I make it about someone other than him.
Lenora Roselenora_rose on February 15th, 2015 04:47 am (UTC)
I have to say, as a very white person, I *don't get* why any reference to the fact that white people have some rather obvious advantages in society must immediately be responded to by knee-jerk defensiveness and some version of "You hate us all!"

(And I see it all the time from the other side, from men who insist that ANY reference to a behavior practiced almost wholly by males, no matter how small a minority of males, is obvious tarring all men. You can darn well write "If you don't commit the behaviour, you're not being referred to" across the sky and some men will still feel they're somehow included.)

I HAVE at times found some discussions of race by certain PoCs to be uncomfortable for me. I can't say I was always this smart, but my reaction now is to do 2 things. 1: Breathe, say "If I don't commit the behaviour, it's not about me. If I do commit the behaviour, I should look at why this is hurtful even more closely." 2: Breathe. Think, "Is my uncomfortable feeling half what hers* is likely to be dealing with this issue from the other side?"

So far, these two thoughts have meant I almost always come away with less discomfort in what I'm reading, and a lot less immediate defensiveness. The times I feel more uncomfortable, it's because I went, "Oh, crap. I do that." And I usually consider that a worthy discomfort, and not something to get defensive about.

*Or his, or theirs, or pronoun of choice, but so far it seems most of the people I've seen waxing wise on racial issues identify themselves as women of colour.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on February 15th, 2015 05:03 am (UTC)
Well, I hope you're ready to deal with some more discomfort, because what you just did is a problem.

What use is it coming into a post about something bad that a white person did to go "I don't understand HOW white people do that, I a good white person NEVER do that"? Who is that for?

What do you want in response? Because what you're pressuring me to provide is a cookie. And that is not cool.

It *is* a useful guide for other white people to go by; please note that my issue is not with the content but with the placement. Because if it's for white people, surely the place to put it is somewhere other than a POC's personal space.
Lenora Roselenora_rose on February 15th, 2015 05:25 am (UTC)
Er. Yeah. Good point. I'm sorry.

I actually meant the main paragraph to be a suggestion how other people might choose to react instead of leaping to "You all hate me" but I started off entirely the wrong way, and yes, put WAY too much of myself into the "Good" side.

I'll have to think hard about how to phrase the useful tidbits amid the dross I DID say for next time.

If you want me to remove it, I will, but I think I should let it stand as something worth calling out.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on February 15th, 2015 05:34 am (UTC)
I really don't think the problem is the content, it's the placement. These are fine and important suggestions for other white people, possibly in an independent blog post that (optionally) links back.

But having said that - in this case it's fine to leave it - I'm mainly pointing this out so you (& others) will know better than to do it again, especially in a more marginalized POC's space.
Lenora Roselenora_rose on February 15th, 2015 04:19 pm (UTC)
having reread, I still do think the content is also far too self-congratulatory to get the point across even if posted elsewhere. But yes, it being in your space is indeed the worst of it. Again, apology.
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on February 15th, 2015 08:05 pm (UTC)
Fair enough, and thank you.

Kari Sperringla_marquise_de_ on February 16th, 2015 04:45 pm (UTC)