When whales and porpoises beach themselves en masse, people react and mobilize in response to the tragedy. The sight of cetaceans dying from dehydration or drowning, and the inevitability of their slow, suffering death can lead to outrage. Some people arrive to pour water on the whales and provide relief. Some coordinate an effort to drag them back into the surf, but then the whales beach themselves again. Marine biologists take blood and tissue samples (why waste such an opportunity?) yet after generations of deaths of innumerable pods, science still offers no more than theories for the event.
And while news and media outlets document the beach strandings, many beachgoers—people incidentally nearby—accept the preordained outcome and stand idly by. They talk, point at the whales and exclaim. Some take pictures and record videos for YouTube. The whole scene of bystanders playing witness to a tragedy reminds me of another phenomenon—one that is an omnipresent tradition in my country: the helplessness of white folks to generate systemic change and improve measurably the lives of black people in America.
It is Tuesday night, and once again I participate in a recurring video conference about race and racism. The ongoing discussions alternate between evenings of white-only attendees and mixed attendees (both white and non-white together.) Tonight’s conference is a mixed evening, and before the discussion can advance, the two co-facilitators try to assemble a list of topics that will generate interest for the evening. During this preliminary round, the topic of white fragility is introduced.
The phrase, if you don’t know, was coined by Robin DiAngelo and refers to the discomfort, defensiveness and fear that white people experience in discussing racism in America—particularly the fear that such a discussion will implicate self as part of the white supremacy. One of the co-facilitators in my conference call states that he finds the phrase condescending, and I can’t help but think it is a projection of his own insecurity. He is male, so perhaps he dislikes the characterization of being weak. To me, white fragility accurately and dispassionately describes the phenomenon as I have observed it. Fragile means easily broken. Yes, that’s what I have observed among white people in these discussions.
Several people joining the video call are first timers, and they have little idea of what to expect from such a conference. Perhaps they are disappointed, or even relieved, that no black folk have joined the discussion this night. One white man speaks up, “I’m not really sure why I’m here or what I hope to accomplish by joining this conversation.” A facilitator leaps at the sentiment and spikes it over the net, “That’s a great question. Why are you here? What do you want from this evening’s call?” And so the participants all take turns answering.
This question—what can I accomplish just talking about racism—I’ve heard it expressed by white people before, in many variations, and it cuts straight to the sense of helplessness white people feel when confronted by oppressive American systems and racist culture. What can any single person do to combat systemic racism? What can a person accomplish by attending a two and a half hour video call about race relations?
Surely the question acknowledges a truth: our criminal justice system won’t be transformed because we meet and discuss racism. The public schools won’t suddenly provide equitable education for black students at predominantly black schools. Moreover, most people that join a dialogue on racism don’t identify themselves as racist, so it seems unlikely that any change will result by attending.
What can you do from where you are to disrupt? Whatever you can do is where we start
I’m reminded of a discussion I watched between Baltimore public school teachers, mostly black, wherein a black educator responded to a variant of the above question. A white educator asked what he could do to make a difference, and the black man replied, “What can you do from where you are to disrupt? Whatever you can do is where we start.” The teacher explained that it was necessary to cultivate a spirit of disruption and ask challenging questions about school practice and policy. The current system needs to be disrupted. “Transformed. Not reformed.”
A few weeks prior to the Tuesday night conference, I had observed another example of white helplessness unfold before me. I was assisting a friend, Rebecca, relocate from a tiny apartment in a multi-unit housing facility, and after loading her furniture onto a moving truck, she and another friend, Pamela, took a short cigarette break on a bench in a designated smoking area. The three of us were white, but two black residents were also passing time in front of the building. One of them, a man, was acquainted with my friend Rebecca, and he started reminiscing about their difficult life in the apartment complex—like the time a rainstorm broke a hole in the roof and flooded the hallways.
However, he quickly pivoted from sharing memories to providing a long list of grievances against the property managers and owners. He began what I call a “canned rant” (a well-practiced, frequently employed rant) and asserted that the owners’ behavior was racist. Their neglect of the property and the lack of cleanliness on the grounds was a sign of low regard for the predominantly black population of residents. He pointed out that the owners held other multi-unit properties, and those properties were better maintained.
I cut my eyes to my two white friends to gauge their reaction. They were being quietly polite, but they had finished smoking, and the man’s shambling rant was now an unwanted imposition. So my friend, Pamela, interjected, “Oh, if you keep talking, you’ll make me cry.” She was, in fact, conjuring some tears in her eyes. “It’s unfair, and…I just don’t know what to do. May I give you a hug?” Her weepy embrace (when are people ever allowed to refuse a hug from a crying white lady?) concluded the scene; but my anger remained unresolved.
I regarded my friend coolly. She’d slipped effortlessly into the social role of comforter and told a full-grown man his story was so sad that she just needed to cry. But he wasn’t crying; he was outraged, not sad. Her trick of offering him a hug had interrupted his rant and closed the space between them, but nothing about Pamela’s action would change the racist behavior of the property owners. Worse, she had reinforced her own powerlessness to combat racism. What does it mean when a white person says they don’t know what to do? Does it mean actually that they know what should be done but choose not to engage? To remain apathetic?
Just a few weeks earlier, I had spoken with Pamela about ways we could make our spiritual group more welcoming to people of color. Our small, tight-knit community is almost exclusively white, and I explained that making black people feel welcome is as simple as asking them what they want or need and then providing it without deliberation or hesitation. You listen, and then you follow through. Easy, yes? But she resisted my proposal.
First, there was the existence of two established members who post racist memes on their social media feed—what do we do with them? Pamela sputtered at the idea of rebuking them and potentially losing them as friends and members. After that, she evaded any semblance of personal responsibility and said, “Look, I can’t learn everything that all these different people need to feel comfortable.”
I debated silently how to respond to her. I wanted to confront her fallacy and state the obvious, “No, you can learn how to make all those people comfortable. The truth is, you choose not to do that because you don’t want to.” That’s what I intended to say even though I was afraid of hurting her feelings, but I decided to bookmark the argument and return to it later. My friend was emotionally overwhelmed and unreceptive to my argument. In my judgment, if I pushed her further, she might even break. White fragility.
Back to those whales…
At some point, after people have tried to save the whales and dragged them feebly flailing into the surf, the whales on the beach will be euthanized and nature allowed to take its course. This is an appropriate, humane response to their needless suffering. Meanwhile, white people cannot end racism in America with a single bullet. We can’t overthrow whole systems of oppression in one conversation about race, and we should avoid that expectation in the first place. Conversations on racism require courage from white folk. That’s the starting point: courage. And that’s all I have to say about it for now.
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