Cepeda column: White fragility cripples America’s ability to heal its racism
CHICAGO — After a recent reading of Robin J. DiAngelo’s urgently needed book “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” I vowed to wait for a clear-cut example of white fragility before writing about it.
My wait lasted all of two weeks. That’s when white students at Georgia Southern University burned the books of a different author who discussed the dangers of white privilege.
The crux of DiAngelo’s book is that discussing white racism is threatening to white people, because the topic has typically been broached in terms of how racism impacts people of color.
Instead, DiAngelo, a white social-justice professor at Washington University, illustrates all the ways in which the system of racism undergirds, enhances and benefits every aspect of whites’ lives without them even realizing it.
It’s an understandably jarring, infuriating, painful and necessary revelation — even for people of color who are light-skinned enough to “pass” for white in many situations.
DiAngelo explains that the discomfort white people feel when they recognize their economic and social advantages is the key to dismantling the system of white supremacy over brown and black people that our country’s economy was founded on.
Because racism is often couched in terms of good morals vs. bad morals — i.e., nice people can’t be racist — DiAngelo says that some whites “perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable — the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear and guilt along with behaviors such as argumentation, silence and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy.”
Meanwhile, on Oct. 9, I was finishing Jennine Capó Crucet’s haunting new collection of essays, “My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education.” On that same day, Capó Crucet, who is Latina, was essentially reliving — to an even worse degree — an anecdote she shared in her book about a white college student reacting negatively to a speech. In her book, Capó Crucet recounts speaking “at a predominantly white college in the American South.” The student first heckled the author, calling her racist, then burst into tears because she was so upset at the idea of preferential faculty-hiring practices for diversifying the college’s teaching staff.
Last week, after Capó Crucet gave a speech and discussed white privilege at Georgia Southern University’s campus in Statesboro, students burned copies of her book.
According to the school’s student newspaper, a student asked the author during the question-and-answer section of the talk, “What makes you believe that it’s OK to come to a college campus, like this, when we are supposed to be promoting diversity on this campus, which is what we’re taught? I don’t understand what the purpose of this was.”
Capó Crucet reportedly responded, “I came here because I was invited, and I talked about white privilege because it’s a real thing that you are actually benefiting from right now in even asking this question.”
Hostile shouting ensued. After the talk ended, some people crowded outside the hotel where the university had put up Capó Crucet, so the author was moved to another location for her safety. Later, a video of white students giggling and cheering as copies of her book were fed into a fire gained traction on social media.
The author’s scheduled speech at Georgia Southern’s Savannah campus was subsequently canceled because the school, in a state where college students are allowed to carry concealed weapons on certain parts of campus, couldn’t guarantee her safety.
Capó Crucet lamented that her book began as “an act of love and an attempt at deeper understanding.” But white fragility has derailed that attempt and reinforced the stress and fear that students of color on predominantly white campuses experience daily.
Incidents like these breed a sense of despair in people of color who understand white fragility all too well from their constant interactions with it.
Our only hope is that white allies, colleagues, friends and even family take the time to learn about white fragility — DiAngelo’s book and Capó Crucet’s books are excellent starting points — and confront their own reactions when faced with racism’s realities.
Until we all admit to ourselves that entrenched racism pervades nearly every aspect of our lives, we’ll never get past just being angry that it exists at all.
Esther Cepeda’s email address is email@example.com, or follow her on Twitter: @estherjcepeda.
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