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White fragility is a cause of anxiety

As a socialist I have always taken it for granted that I should oppose all forms of oppression. I’ve marched against racism, against South African apartheid, against Israeli apartheid, against homophobia and for Irish independence amongst many others. I’ve moved motions at union meetings supporting the rights of various so-called minority groups and been prepared to be in a minority (sometimes of one) in supporting oppressed peoples wherever they may be.

I don’t say this so that anybody will say, “Wow look at you, aren’t you wonderful”. Most socialists I know have done the same and in some cases at risk to themselves far greater than any I’ve taken. When the Nazis built their prototype death camps in the 1930s, it was communists and trade unionists who were among the first in them, alongside Jews and other so-called social undesirables. In the McCarthyite witch hunts of the 1950s it was communists who were driven out of the creative industries and blacklisted. To date I haven’t been arrested or hospitalised as a result of my beliefs. Many of my comrades have. 

But, and this is the point, I have done the things I have done consciously and as a personal choice. I take it for granted that being socialist means both empathising with others suffering and taking collective action to try to end that suffering. Many people become engaged in a struggle of one kind or another because of their personal situation. They don’t so much choose the struggle as have it thrust upon them. Many of these people fight their corner but there is nothing automatic about being able to generalise from the particular problem. Socialists support these struggles because they see them as unjust but also because they believe they are part of a wider pattern located in the social relations of capitalist society.

Lived experience

Equally importantly I cannot say that I have lived any experience but my own. I was born white in a council house to a working class family. I was lucky enough to be brought up in the 1960s, an era in which progressive change was in the air. I was certainly aware of the existence of racism and homophobia (and, if I’m being honest, as a youngster was surrounded by casual racism and homophobic remarks which I rarely questioned). But, somewhere along the way, I became convinced that racism, sexism, and homophobia were wrong and needed to be challenged. Perhaps it was reading ‘Black Like Me’ by John Howard Griffin as a teenager that finally convinced me that the treatment of black people was simply unjust. The book concerned America but it was pretty obvious to me that the same was true in the U.K.

This is all by way of a prologue to discussing the current state of affairs in America and Britain where a number of writers have reignited an ongoing debate about whether all white people are inherently racist. In the seventies a similar debate raged about whether all men were inherently sexist and according to Susan Brownmiller all were potential rapists.

It is articulated by Isaac Chotiner in an interview with Slate magazine. His argument essentially comes down to this: “All white people have internalized a racist worldview.” The implication is that all white people are, by definition, racist. Those who deny that to be the case are experiencing what Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility.

White fragility

According to DiAngelo’s analysis: “White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviours such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviours, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.” DiAngelo sees whiteness as a theoretical construct of universality. She defines this as: “White people are just people. Within this construction, whites can represent humanity, while people of colour, who are never just people but always most particularly black people, Asian people, etc., can only represent their own racialized experiences.” 

DiAngelo claims that whites, as a group, enjoy a cultural and political hegemony which she describes, although with very little actual evidence, as leading to “racial arrogance”. So, whilst on the one hand, whites are unable to articulate whiteness, on the other, they are defensive about it. This is partly, at least, because white people do not have to explain themselves in the same way as what DiAngelo calls ‘people of colour‘. In addition to failing to see their own privileged position, white people also fail to see the racism that is a feature of their own dominance.

Because of white social, economic and political power within a white dominant culture, whites are positioned to legitimize people of colours’ assertions of racism. Yet whites are the least likely to see, understand, or be invested in validating those assertions and being honest about their consequences, which leads whites to claim that they disagree with perspectives that challenge their worldview, when in fact, they don’t understand the perspective.Thus, they confuse not understanding with not agreeing. This racial arrogance, coupled with the need for racial comfort, also has whites insisting that people of colour explain white racism in the “right” way. The right way is generally politely and rationally, without any show of emotional upset.

White supremacy

DiAngelo, a white woman incidentally, does appear to recognise a difference between what she terms “white supremacists” and “white liberals”, but still insists: “At the same time that it is ubiquitous, white superiority also remains unnamed and explicitly denied by most whites. If white children become adults who explicitly oppose racism, as do many, they often organize their identity around a denial of the racially based privileges they hold that reinforce racist disadvantage for others.”

There is a huge difficulty with this view despite its internal logic. If all white people are racist, and therefore cannot recognise that racism, because of their upbringing, it means that a person who opposes racism is the same as a person who promotes it. The white left are then open to accusations of racism the minute they talk about race. On the other hand, if they do not talk about race, then that is because they are racist. Which means white people are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Many white leftists have taken the arguments about white privilege to heart. They recognise the hurt done to black people and are content to accept their own and others guilt. That is their personal choice, but it is hard to see where all this public angst is leading. How, in short, does it help to overcome the racism it is supposedly confronting?

Black linguistics professor John McWhorter is far from convinced by the white privilege argument. He describes the book White Fragility as “the prayer book for what can only be described as a cult.” Of course, those convinced by the “white privilege” argument will dismiss this as irrelevant, and possibly even racist. But the point McWhorter makes, which socialists might take note of, is that this line of argument is big on blame but low on inspiration for change. Whilst DiAngelo is an advocate of racial awareness training from her description of them her purpose is to ensure white people are made to feel as uncomfortable as possible. This then produces the very reactions – anger, distress, victimisation – that prevent those white participants from being able to recognise the structural effects of racial privilege that DiAngelo claims she wants to change. 

McWhorter says: “DiAngelo does not see fit to address why all of this agonizing soul-searching is necessary to forging change in society. One might ask just how a people can be poised for making change when they have been taught that pretty much anything they say or think is racist and thus antithetical to the good. What end does all this self-mortification serve? Impatient with such questions, DiAngelo insists that “wanting to jump over the hard, personal work and get to ‘solutions’” is a “foundation of white fragility.” In other words, for DiAngelo, the whole point is the suffering.

Soul searching

Racism is very real. Of that there can be no doubt. White people, especially those calling themselves socialists, have to take it into account. That means treating black, brown, yellow, red coloured people as equals. Most white people in America or the U.K., unless Hispanic, Irish or travellers, won’t experience racism. Racists have moved on from daubing graffiti (though they still do that) to attacking people online. In a poll commissioned by Amnesty International in 2017 some 23% of women reported experiencing online abuse or harassment. Diane Abbott MP was found to have received the most abuse of any MP in the British Parliament. Yet, interestingly, she probably complains less about it than some others. She was reported as saying: “People sent us hundreds of emails using the word nigg*r — that’s the sort of response we get. It’s highly racialised and it’s also gendered … they talk about my physical appearance in a way they wouldn’t talk about a man. I’m abused as a female politician and I’m abused as a black politician.”

Online racism and harassment is one aspect of the modern manifestation of racism. It is, however, by no means the only one. Black Lives Matter founder Patrisse Cullors, who knows a thing or two about harassment, says “I mostly block and delete and keep it pushing. It’s, like, way too much energy. I’m trying to fight much greater things than a troll on Twitter.” Arielle Newton, the editor-in-chief and founder of Black Millennials, also advises against getting too wrapped up in what trolls are saying. She advises: “Use the block button if necessary. Ignore with all your might, unless there’s a direct threat to life. Then report.”

According to the Crown Prosecution Service 86% of cases brought to court as hate crimes were convicted. Those convicted can be sentenced to up to 2 years in prison. In treating the far right white supremacists as in essence no different to the liberal left, DiAngelo overlooks the fact that the worst racism is almost exclusively the preserve of the right. There is no evidence that those convicted of hate crimes are more likely to be from the left. Indeed, a comprehensive literature review conducted by researchers at Cardiff University found that those convicted of hate crimes were likely to hold right wing views and a significant minority (16%) were members of far right groups. DiAngelo seems more interested in making white liberals uncomfortable than taking on the emerging far right. Whilst I can certainly understand the frustration with liberals who won’t discuss racism it strikes me as a tactical error to treat them as equivalent to those who openly espouse white supremacism as a creed.

Black Lives Matter

The statistics show that racism is alive and kicking in the U.K. And, for a personal view read Julian Okechukwu in this issue of Critical Mass. And, you don’t need a statistical analysis to tell you that it is very alive in America. That there is a very real need for Black Lives Matter says all we need to know about the failure of our social system to eradicate racism. The changes needed are structural, simply making white people feel bad about themselves has a very real danger. Far from winning people to the anti-racist cause it could well encourage racism in people who feel personally affronted and adopt the defensive posturing DiAngelo reports. For DiAngelo and her supporters this may well be a desirable outcome for it proves their point. But, what it also proves is that there really is nothing that we can do about racism. That seems to me to be a very defeatist attitude.

I think DiAngelo and others make an important point. It is easy as a white person in a predominantly white environment to ignore the racist experiences that are others everyday experience. Even if you are not a racist, even if you consciously oppose racism, you benefit from the accident of birth of being white. That is just a fact. However, what you choose to do with that fact is precisely that. One aspect of the white fragility” debate that is overlooked is that far from opening up a debate it is closing it down.

In choosing to write about this topic I admit to a certain nervousness. It is far easier in a hostile environment to avoid controversial topics. I worry that black people reading this will dismiss this as the defensive ramblings of somebody who simply refuses to accept their own role in their oppression. I worry that as a white man I have no right to talk about racism. But, as a socialist I feel that if white people do not talk about racism, if we do not acknowledge it’s existence, if we feel intimidated by the possibility of being criticised by trying to be honest about racism, then the only victors are the racists and white supremacists.

The socialist response

Socialists need to take racism seriously, we need to understand the lived experiences of people who do not feel safe driving a car because they are likely to get pulled over by the police. But, we also need to understand these personal experiences as part of a wider society. Yes, it is one we are all a part of and yes, we have all to some extent imbibed from the racist fountain. But socialists should be seeking answers to societies problems that go beyond making people feel bad about themselves. Whilst it is clearly not enough to say “society is to blame” as if racism could not possibly exist in a post-capitalist society it is important that we recognise that the struggle to overcome capitalism is one place where that discussion can take place. 

There must always be room for debate about the society we live in and its foundational ideas. Racism is at the heart of capitalism and needs to be confronted. Making a few white people feel bad about themselves and driving them away from social media will not, ultimately, change society. Indeed it is unlikely to change social media much. It may be a cliche but we need to see what we have in common not concentrate on what divides us. If that involves some awkward or painful conversations then so be it, but what strikes me about the current debates on racism is that far from seeking to unite people there is a whole group determined to divide us even further.

Note: In an earlier version of this article the book White Fragility was erroneously called White Privilege. That error has now been corrected.

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