Discussing white fragility in the current political climate is not an easy task. Emotions run high, racial animus can rear its head and those involved can walk away with no benefit. When the Critical Theory club on campus hosted a discussion on white fragility last Wednesday, the discussion went as well as could be expected.
White fragility is defined as a state in which a small amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, to white people, triggering a display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, as well as argumentative behavior, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.
With about 25 to 30 people in attendance, club member Stephanie Martin started off the discussion by asking the group if they knew what white fragility meant. Professor Shane Underwood, advisor for the club, powered the discussion forward, interjecting at times with thought-provoking questions, which caused some to examine their inherent biases and fragility from being considered the “default” in society.
Dean Wyrzykowski, an interclub council representative, posed the question, “You mentioned that discussions of white privilege forces people to become self-aware, but what’s wrong with that? Isn’t that good?”
Underwood responded that he didn’t believe that these discussions made people self-aware, but made them instead disconnect.
“I think it makes people recalcitrant, it doesn’t make them want to enter a dialogue and self -forget and then come out changed with a new perspective,” he said. “That includes considering somebody else’s perspective. It’s something that challenges everything that we know to be certain and secure, and questions the validity of the ethics of it.”
Underwood’s supposition is backed up by an article published in the “International Journal of Critical Pedagogy” by Robin DiAngelo.
“If and when an educational program does directly address racism and the privileging of whites, common white responses include anger, withdrawal, emotional incapacitation, guilt, argumentation, and cognitive dissonance (all of which reinforce the pressure on facilitators to avoid directly addressing racism) and so-called progressive whites may not respond with anger, but may still insulate themselves.”
White fragility also causes white Americans to shroud themselves in a status of being victimized due to being white, despite their privilege.
The Huffington Post reported on this phenomenon with statistics from the Pew Research Center.
“White fragility is evident in the incessant claims of victim status by white people (usually men). A recent Pew study found that 50 percent of white evangelical Christians believe they face more discrimination than Blacks, Latinos, Jews, or Muslims,” the article stated.
The rest of the discussion on Wednesday night also addressed concerns from minority students about issues of cultural appropriation, the model minority myth (which deals with the negative stereotypes against Asians), misogynoir, (which is anti-black misogyny in which race and gender are a factor in the hatred of black women) and issues with on-campus diversity programs that also play to negative racial stereotypes.
“I think bringing up race relations within minority groups is very interesting because there is a lot of anti-blackness in those cultures,” student Alicia Watts said. “When black people bring up anti-blackness, it sounds like a victimizing thing but in most cultures across the world, dark skin is considered a problem and in a lot of Latin and Asian cultures, blackness is also deemed inferior.”
Martin followed up this comment with a story about an article she read in which an American politician asked an Argentinian politician where all of their black people were at. Martin said the Argentinian politician responded, “We don’t have that problem here, that’s Brazil’s issue.”
Despite the positive discussion that was had, it was clear as Martin wrapped up the proceedings that one discussion was not going to be the cure-all, and she encouraged the students to continue to have these discussions with their friends, in their homes and in their community.
The Critical Theory Club will meet again for a discussion about anger and forgiveness next Wednesday evening from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.