Whiteness: Deconstructed

Part Four: White Fragility and Anti-Racism

In part four of these essays on whiteness, contemporary understandings of white privilege and white fragility are explored. The ways that white people can take on an antiracist white position through which to mediate racism in the lives of those around them and a suggestion for a national British antiracism project are put forward.

The defensiveness of white people when confronted with accusations of white privilege has been termed ‘white fragility’ by Robin DiAngelo (2011). It is defined as the inability to deal with race-based stress because of a history of insulation from the realities of racism that non-white people continue to face. It is clearly a complex area that can be challenging for some white people to comprehend. Terms such as white privilege, referring to the numerous unearned advantages conferred on white people due to their white skin, and white fragility, referring to the refusal to acknowledge this, have become popularised and are used mercilessly on social media by non-whites to pinpoint acts that indicate many white people’s inability to confront the continued inequalities that represent the reality of race relations between whites and non-whites.

White fragility inculcates an entitlement to racial comfort which, when challenged, can trigger discomfort in whites and lead to a socially-sanctioned array of defensive moves against non-whites, such as penalisation, retaliation, isolation and ostracism, thereby preventing racism from being acknowledged. This conflation of comfort with safety negates and perverts the history of brutality of whites towards non-whites. For example, to legally substantiate a claim of racism intent must be proven, which institutionally reinforces white privilege by putting the onus on non-whites to prove intent. Whites are also often socialised to be racially arrogant, enabling them to see themselves as intellectually and morally superior through this self-perpetuating sense of entitlement, as well as enjoying the privilege of racial belonging embedded in the larger culture in which their own racial images are reflected through the tools of that culture: media, history, religious iconography, standards of beauty, role models, teachers, textbooks and literature, which can become internalised (see part one).

In an essay entitled What Makes Racism So Hard for Whites to See?, DiAngelo (2012) places a binary of ‘racist people as bad’ and ‘non-racist people as good’ at the centre of white fragility, because it obscures the structural basis of racism by positioning racism as individual acts of malicious intent rather than a structure of oppression. White fragility can enable whites to protect their moral positions, through resistance to accusations of complicity and the denial of their privilege, thereby neither recognising nor changing the structure. Segregation, for example, ensures whites are insulated from the reality of racism in schools, neighbourhoods and workplaces and within media imagery and historical perspectives. Discourses of ‘good’ neighbourhoods and schools are positioned around an absence of non-whites; ‘good’ being coded language for ‘white’. This is a function of socialisation which exerts insidious messages about what is desirable and undesirable, breeding comfort with segregated spaces, thereby reinforcing racism: ‘Segregation is not neutral; it is lived and as such, is socialising us at every moment’, DiAngelo states.

The question remains as to how and through what means white identities can be rehabilitated to dismantle this structure of racism. What is required is a process of corrective socialisation to enable white people who have yet to do so to accept their complicity in the history of white racial domination, via the development of racial literacy (an antiracist act of ‘waking up’ to the realities of racism). White attitudes and structural forces must be challenged simultaneously, because structural change is the desired outcome, and the most crucial. Given that whites are often inheritors rather than the instigators of oppression, what is necessary is the existence of an antiracism project with which white people and non-white people are in solidarity. This requires pragmatism, humility, solidarity and compassion rather than anxiety, guilt, evasion or demands for leadership from whites.

© Johny Pitts

However, the assumption that by becoming critical and self-conscious about whiteness is necessarily a guarantee of antiracism may merely sustain the narcissism of the white subject. The notion that antiracism projects must refrain from making white people feel guilty about being white functions as a form of self-centredness, positing guilt as a performance rather than an ‘undoing’ of whiteness. Therefore, whites must acknowledge their own privilege but in doing so not allow white guilt to become an existential crisis, clearly a non-productive distraction from political struggle that can produce moral paralysis.

However, the ‘race traitor’ paradigm that positions antiracist whites as required to defect from whiteness and be disloyal to their racial identity serves to reproduce white privilege, because it assumes an evasion of the responsibilities that come with being in the racially dominant group. As Jack Niemonen (2010) points out, encouraging whites ‘to become race traitors as a matter of choice’ is unlikely to ensure relinquishment of their privilege. Moreover, there is also the danger of reifying blackness, for example, in the case of Rachel Dolezal.

This framework positions those whites who fail to admit their complicity in the racial order as being in denial and lacking in racial literacy. However, treating whiteness as immutable and cohesive posits a privileged but unaware generic white subject, negating the realities of oppositional and hybridised white identities, of which there are many. Whilst the postmodern emphasis on hybridity is neither necessarily transgressive nor antiracist, it is nevertheless a challenge to the concept of a generic and universal white identity, which positions all white people as racist, which is clearly not the case.

Moreover, although the burden of dismantling the racial structure of oppression clearly lies with white people, there are concerns that the concept of racism can be conceptually inflated to position all practices, policies and behaviours as potentially racist, which positions non-whites as perpetual victims; western epistemology as reduced to a reductive and monolithic Eurocentrism (despite long histories of contestation and debate by non-whites); as well as positioning non-whites as solely responsible for white redemption.

For Frankenberg, reconceptualising and transforming whiteness through the lens of history is a political act that can reframe antiracism and generate new directions for antiracist practice. Therefore, a more complex analysis of the ways in which class and race interact is required to build solidarity in what is clearly a multiracial British working class (as well as in the North American context). An effective national antiracism project in the UK cannot exclude the white working class, therefore a historical approach to the nature of the politics of whiteness is required that encapsulates both working class solidarity and antiracism.

The British inability to acknowledge or mourn the loss of empire is termed by Paul Gilroy (2005) as ‘postcolonial melancholia’ and Gilroy argues that white British antiracism must be predicated on an acknowledgement of Britain’s brutal history of empire, which requires political, cultural and academic work to build a multicultural British national identity via the British education system. If the white working class can come to realise that their oppressors are elites rather than other working class ethnic minorities, then perhaps they can let go of the insidious mantle of whiteness in solidarity with ethnic minorities, in opposition to those whom do control their life chances – the white elites in power who are of a separate class to both the majority of white people and ethnic minorities.

White fragility is the term used to refer to the failure of whites to acknowledge their privilege is a form of complicity in the racial structure of oppression. The development of racial literacy and corrective socialisation through education can help develop national antiracism projects that serve to build coalitions across racial divides. In the British context, creating solidarity amongst whites and non-whites, particularly in what is clearly a multiracial working class, can contribute to dismantling the racial structure of oppression and redivert energy into fighting those in power, for whom racial divisions actually serve.

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