“Why did you paint yourself dark brown?” a white child teasingly asked me during my time in primary school. Of course, while growing up, I was fooled, misled and sometimes utterly oblivious about what such comments meant. I panicked at the idea of arguing over it, because I didn’t want to lose a friend. But it was hard and I felt the pain.
Talking about race and skin colour is sensitive, and yes, even messy. But for everyone, it’s an incredibly important conversation that shouldn’t be avoided. Research backs up this idea. “Kids are learning and hearing about race regardless of whether parents are talking to them about it,” observed Dr Margaret Hagerman, a sociologist and author of White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America. The researcher spent two years studying 30 affluent white families in a Midwestern community, discovering the value in unfolding conversations from early years.
White fragility is the defensiveness, clumsiness and anger that white people display when confronted with matters of race. It's a state of mind that captures how little it takes to upset white people. Those who are being called out to tackle such conversations and confront the criticism feel outraged at the insinuation of racism. What we must remember is that accusing one of white fragility isn’t character assassination, but an opportunity to address behavioural concerns. However, due to socialisation, white people haven’t had to think about race as much as Black people, because they simply haven’t needed to.
“I don’t see the difference in races or the problem with people of different provenance,” says the London-based, Polish-born creative Julia Porazewska. As a Black man, ‘not seeing race’ is not an option for me. I have often felt a loathing towards the colour of my skin and have been judged or discriminated against because of it. These experiences go back to my formative years when at choir group; I was never picked for a main role because, why would a 10-year-old play “Black Jesus” in a school recital?
It’s difficult to imagine how one could get away with using the same phrase in relation to any other ethnic group in society. No one talks of “Black fragility”, “Chinese fragility”, or “queer fragility” in a comparably judgmental context of social objection. For me, the phrase in itself is racist. It might be used as an arguably derogatory way of explaining the sensitivity of white people in relation to race, but using the word ‘fragile’ could profess more harm than good. If something is fragile, we tend to be careful with it and to handle it with delicacy and sensitivity. In this instance, the term – without full explanation – amplifies the idea that Black people can’t discuss race with white people because they’re afraid to cause offence or discomfort. It doesn’t facilitate the problem, it defies it.
The author and academic Robin DiAngelo firstly coined the term in her 2011 article “White Fragility” in the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy. She defines it as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves”. These behaviours, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.
From having conversations with close friends and acquaintances, it’s fair to say white fragility is the lack of backbone and respect required to take issues “out of the box”, when framing a conversation. In spite of what one says, and the approach it’s said in, any white person can be blamed of white fragility if they respond to racial discussions with defensiveness, denial and/or histrionics. The only way to escape it is to identify the problem and unfold through productive discussions.
Does white fragility begin as a child? Let’s be clear, this discussion sets an example that could galvanise efforts to overcome systemic racism. Books which tackle white supremacy by authors including Reni Eddo-Lodge, Ibram x Kendi and DiAngelo are selling out on both sides of the Atlantic in the wake of protests in the US (and far beyond) over George Floyd’s death.
Why is it so hard to talk about racism? It’s a question that is as timely as it ever could be, and has been gaining traction since DiAngelo’s book White Fragility was released in 2018. She explains that the solution is about understanding the different levels of racism, but asserts that the concept of white fragility holds no room for denial. “I like to push back on that urgency that white people have and the arrogance that there could be some simple, concise answer that could be handed to white people who have never thought about this before,” she says. “As soon as they start asking what they’re supposed to do, there’s some sarcasm there. That’s not a genuine question, and, in my experience, they won’t do what I offer anyway.”
The main point is this: white fragility creates fear and discomfort among the oppressed race who don’t want to trigger unease, nor to have to find a way of reassuring and creating a peaceful equilibrium again. The white community needs to build the stamina to handle the discomfort, which in this case derives from white privilege.
For me, after experiencing this fragility with friends and family members, it’s about being more tactful without having to centre the feelings of complicity or maintaining racial prejudice. While these issues need to be handled with sensitivity, paper-thin white fragility negatively weaponises collective emotions of angst, fear and outrage, deterring BAME communities from speaking out.
Sometimes, it feels as if being accused of racism causes an even bigger problem than the racism itself, as white-washed society doesn’t want to be held accountable for the brunt. “It is imperative that we stop the refusal to see, listen and hear; in the fear of feeling discomfort and defensiveness,” says the Newcastle-based photographer and creative director Reece James Morrison. “For me, white fragility is the assumption that we're already doing our best, and so muting is a form of complicity towards society’s institutional racism. To learn and accept that, we can support and encourage racial equality and justice.”
It is, of course, not easy for a white man or woman to tackle a form of pain he or she has never endured, but they must try. “I took on cultural studies while at university,” says the Italian-born, Salerno-based journalist Federica Caiazzo. “I’ve always had a deep interest in social issues of various ethnicities and sexual genders. And yet, in this specific moment in history, I feel with my heart that I want and need to deepen my understanding of what the Black community is experiencing. Remaining on the pedestal weaponising one's ‘feeling of hurt’ leads nowhere: this is what I would like white people to understand. I wonder if it would not be better to channel the sense of inadequacy that makes some remain silent into the study, reading, understanding and reflecting on issues related to Black culture. I want to take action, and I know that my part has to start with the study.”
Similarly to all manifestations of racism, the lack of research makes white people disadvantaged by not knowing what racism truly means. “I think no one really understands what racism is until it touches you,” says the Milan-based reporter and editor Giorgia Cantarini. “Dismantling racism with words is not enough, talking about it is not enough, and even talking about race is not enough. I think we lack an education of respect towards what each one of us considers different, wrong, not understandable. I would like governments, institutions, intellectuals, creatives, the education systems and everyone to embrace a culture of humanity and to lecture others to respect everyone. Protests must be heard and turned into actions, or they will vanish just like words do.”
As the ephemeral rises, white fragility presents a subconscious issue, shutting down constructive conversations of all levels. “Destroying the dark walls of our castle gives an opportunity to build a brighter fortress,” says the Milan-based stylist Marco Costa. “That’s exciting. An opportunity, undeniably, to critically reflect on the power of thought to condemn biased conversations.
Critical thinking encourages awareness, and the best strategy is to keep amplifying the stifled conversations. White people must acknowledge and admit to their privilege, and that unconsciously they have benefited from racism. Now and for ever, these are important debates to be had.
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