Are we that fragile? White people talking about racism.
White Fragility. Even before Robin DiAngelo’s book of that name came out “white fragility” was phrase that one could hear in academic discussions and in the #Black Lives Matter uprising in the streets ever since the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It is ubiquitous. It means that we white people have difficulty talking about race and racism. It means we fear we will “shatter” if we hear uncomfortable truths about how racism is pervasive racism in the United States. This fear of shattering or “fragility” is seen as a major obstacle to the efforts to end racism.
We need to ask, “Is it true”? Does talking about racism really make us that uncomfortable? If it does not- then why has this idea become so pervasive: does it help us to understand the past and does it help move the struggles against racism today forward?
I want to consider this from both a personal and historical perspective. I am now an “old white guy” a few years younger than that quintessential progressive “old white guy”- Bernie Sanders.
In my experience, white people have been talking about racism for as long as I can remember. My parents were raised in left-wing, New York, immigrant Jewish immigrant families. They supported the Civil Rights movement as soon as it emerged in the 1950s and 1960s.
My first exposure to white people talking about racism was in 1964 when I was eleven years old. My mother along with other white suburban women, worked with African American SNCC sympathizers in Boston to organize Freedom schools. These schools met on alternate weekends in suburban churches and Black urban churches. Here white children from the suburbs would meet with African American children. We would learn about the struggles in the South, sing freedom songs, and socialized and played together. My first experience of racist violence was when I had to intervene when in suburban Newton; a white teenager attacked one of the African American kids at the Freedom School. I took the hits. I attended the protest on Boston Common after Martin Luther King was shot, for the first time, on my own.. In those four years between 1964 and 1968, conversations about race and racism were all around me in my mostly white world. I learned that the movements of African Americans for equality were existential for us as a country, similar as the Holocaust had been for my parents’ generation. They taught me, “because they did it to us, we must stand with all other oppressed people.”
I became a political activist myself. While my focus was organizing against the war in Vietnam, we continued to talk about racism. I learned that the war in Vietnam and “war” against Black Americans here at home were two sides of the same coin. As a high school student I hitchhiked from suburban Newton to the Black Panther office in Cambridge. I became active in building support for imprisoned Panthers, and then in the campaigns to free Angela Davis. While at college, we organized students to support the fight against the segregation of Boston’s schools-most students at the University of Massachusetts were from the Boston area- and spent a number of nights standing guard at the homes of Black families who were in danger of attack by racist terrorists. My childhood, my adolescence and young adulthood, and now as an “elder” (as the local Black Lives Matter group calls us), the role of white people in this struggle has been a constant discussion. Participation in these discussions did not make me fearful; racists did. If I felt “fragile” it was due to racism, not the struggle against it.
Is this story unique? Was I, and my small circle of friends, the only ones?
I became a historian and began to study the history of social justice activism in the US. I understood that anti-racism among whites was always a minority position. For most white Americans was common, “natural” and unquestioned. BUT it turns out there was always white discussion. It was often undeveloped and reflected the “naturalness” of racism. It certainly would not pass muster today. Abolitionists, both Black and white, forced the issue into the American consciousness. Abolitionism became an integrated militant movement which drew men and women from the military John Brown to the pacifist William Lloyd Garrison to Sarah and Angelina Grimke-themselves daughters of slave-owners. By 1861, there was so much “white” talk about slavery and racism that the slave states left the country leading to the bloody war that eventually ended slavery. By the 20th century, the founding of the NAACP included many white people who engaged in the anti-lynching campaigns. In the 1930s the Communists taught their largely immigrant, working class supporters that anti-racism was the WAY to become Americans.
That these efforts were in the minority and their histories often lost or suppressed, their voices are critical for understanding the relationship between white voices and anti-racism in our history.
However, the question remained-why were most white Americans so committed to and enmeshed in racism and why did they continue develop new forms of post-slavery racism. What was there about America that racism seemed so intractable. The intellectual beginning of this was W.E.B. Dubois’ analysis in his 1935 Black Reconstruction in America in which he notes that part of the failure of unity between Southern Black and white workers in the post-emancipation South was due to a “psychological wage” white people received from the white supremacist social structure. For the purposes of this essay, it is important to emphasize that this was a “psychological” wage not a not a general “privilege.
Here we are today. We are facing two strategies to deal with endemic racism. One that is reflected in books like White Fragility and many others is that racism is a personal problem living deep in the hearts and souls of whites. It is based on the theory that because white people benefit from racism we need to search deeply to understand our “privilege” and to, through reflection, root it out. The industry of “anti-racism training” is dedicated to this process. We know this process of self-reflection and self-exploration is critical to working through our own failures, our weaknesses, and the causes of our unhappiness. It is the job of therapy. It is not politics; it is not about challenging the structures that maintain inequality and injustice. Author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich wrote in one of her least popular books, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America that Americans look to individual psychological solutions to social problems. She examined how unemployed white-collar workers had been seduced by self-improvement and “positive thinking” in an attempt to deal with structural unemployment; an effort doomed to failure. If racism is fundamentally an internal problem, those of us interested in undermining its power, will also not succeed.
The alternative is to all work together to change the structures that maintain inequality. We white people, by virtue of growing up in this society, all hold attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that reflect the racism of our world. However, to change this we need to look outward. We need to work as hard as we can, in concert with African Americans, to change the structural constraints that have maintained racism. We can only change our internal racist demons, even the best -intentioned of us, through this confrontation.
We don’t need to understand how white people benefit from racism. What we really need to understand is that we don’t. Every bit of oppression and suffering experienced by African Americans exists in tandem with suffering of white people. White people the states of the Confederacy remain poorer, die earlier, have higher rates of illness and infant mortality than white people elsewhere. Police given license to kill young Black people, also have license to kill young white people, which they do. When the conservatives undermined the New Deal social programs, they mobilized racism to gain support, even if the vast majority of people thrown off public assistance, who lack health care and work for minimum wage, are white. Trump is the most grievous, vulgar, and unpretentious expression of this. On the other hand, the victories of the African American freedom struggle have helped us all-it has made us a more democratic, more equal, and more just society. It saved white lives and promoted white opportunity. African Americans forced open the doors of exclusion, and let many others walk through as well. The defeat of racism will not remove our “privileges”. It will be to the benefit of all of us.
Paul Mishler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a historian and professor of Labor Studies at Indiana University. He has been an organizer and activist since the struggle against the war in Vietnam. He lives in South Bend Indiana after living many years in New York City. For better or worse, he seems to have become a midwesterner; at least a little bit. He has written about Labor History and the history of radicalism in the US, including his book, Raising Reds: Young Pioneers, Radical Summer Camps and Communist Political Culture in the US. His interest in summer camps comes from his own summer camp experience, where he met Miriam Sagan.