The Democratic Party needs to have tough conversations about race. But we can’t, because white people are too sensitive.
“Not all white people are racist.” “When you stereotype white people, you cause division.” “Blaming all white people is not productive, we need to come TOGETHER.” “I’m not racist.”
Hey, white people. Have you ever said or thought any of these things? Probably. Unless you were born into the most fantastically woke family of all time, you most likely have some issues with white fragility. White fragility is when white people make conversations about race about their own feelings. If a person of color is talking about her experience being stereotyped, she doesn’t need to hear from you that you would never do that. Because now you’re making it about you. White fragility is when your sensitiveness about being white gets in the way of your ability to be an effective ally. White fragility is when you would rather be seen as not racist than actually be not racist.
The evidence is overwhelming that white working class voters broke for Trump this election not because of the economy, but largely because of race. People of color are under threat from the Trump administration – Latinx families will get separated through deportations, Muslims could be forced to register with the government, Black Lives Matter could be designated a terrorist organization.
At this terrifying time in our nation’s history, the left needs to live and die for each other’s civil rights. The only way to protect each other is to take on each other’s struggles as our own. But we can’t do that if we can’t even talk about them. We can’t “come together” if we can’t discuss openly how our lived experiences are different. The Democratic Party is the party of diversity. It’s time we acted like it.
I understand getting defensive, I do. I am white. I grew up surrounded by diversity and my family is of mixed ethnicities, but I grew up in Southern Indiana where the accepted mindset among liberals (we exist there, I swear) was that we were supposed to be colorblind, “post-race.” When I moved to LA and immersed myself in the world of activism (and spent hundreds of hours reading the work of feminists of color), I sometimes felt defensive when someone would complain about white people. I felt a little sting when a person of color, feeling the pain of their existence I do not live and don’t understand, said that they hate white people. Sometimes I found myself thinking that if only they were nicer, more people would listen. I let my feelings get in the way.
Writers whose work I respected wrote that when white people say they aren’t racist, they’re making a conversation about race about their own feelings. The more I read these criticisms and really let them in, the more I saw the truth of them. I was thinking about myself and my own feelings instead of thinking how I could best be a constructive ally to people who need it. White fragility isn’t unique – there’s often a defensiveness when a person in a position of privilege is challenged on the realities of that privilege. Fragile masculinity, fragile heterosexuality – they’re all a form of defensiveness that put a stop to any meaningful conversation.
People of color need allies right now. They won’t have them in the White House. They won’t have them in powerful positions in Congress. So everyone else needs to step it up. White people have to be able to listen to people of color about their struggles and needs without diverting the conversation or making it about ourselves. We have to decide that someone can say, “I hate white people,” and we are still on their side, because allyship is not conditional upon how nice marginalized people are to you.
Something that helped me is I started to see Whiteness as a construct as something separate from myself. I am a person who happens to be white, because society sees me that way. It gives me certain privileges I did not earn. But if Whiteness as a concept is destroyed, I will still exist. I will be OK. I am not my whiteness. Whiteness as a concept was created in contrast to people of color, to create a system of supremacy. White People as a group are responsible for oppressing people of color. That doesn’t mean that I, Erika, am an oppressor.
But it does mean that I live in a system that oppresses, and unless I am actively fighting to dismantle it, I am just letting it benefit me. I can have a conversation about the horrible things white people do without getting my feelings hurt. Because honestly, when it comes to the racism people of color experience, my feelings are irrelevant. Black people don’t get murdered less often by police because I feel bad. Asian-Americans don’t get more representation in Congress because I feel guilty. I don’t have white guilt. I never feel guilty or bad for being white. I would never feel guilty for the body I was born into.
But I do feel my responsibility. I feel my complicity. I know that I am part of a system that benefits me unfairly and discriminates against others. I know that I can set racial justice down for the day when a person of color never can. I have racist family members, and I could choose to spend holidays with them and never say a word. But I won’t do that. Because I have a responsibility. People of color have been made ambassadors for their entire race for ages. I know white people don’t like to be grouped together, we don’t like to be responsible for the actions of our race, we don’t even like to be called white people. We are used to being individuals who aren’t defined by our race. But again, that’s white privilege. We have to be willing to take responsibility for the racist system that unfairly benefits us. Not being racist is not enough – we must be anti-racist. Not wanting your white privilege does nothing – you have to work to use your privilege to benefit others. If you do not actively work to destroy white supremacy, you are just benefiting from it.
Let your white fragility go. It’s hard. Read the work of people of color who will challenge you. Listen to people who are so exhausted by white allies that they don’t believe in us anymore. Then don’t try to convince them you’re a good ally, just be one. The Democratic Party needs to truly fight for civil rights like we have never done before. To do that, we have to get over our white fragility. It’s literally a matter of life and death.
Photo: Johnny Silvercloud/Creative Commons