This post is in response to discussions I’ve seen about Hillary Clinton’s recent responses to Black Lives Matter activists.
I’ve posted about this and written about it briefly in other spaces before, and I think it’s about time that I actually fully explain myself when I say that white fragility is not just about white people.
I have no interest in trying to argue that people of color versus white people are more or less affected by white fragility. I wouldn’t normally take any issue with discussions about white fragility that don’t focus on the toll it takes on people of color except for the fact that (1) I feel like these discussions often, still, call on people of color to challenge white people while (2) ignoring how white fragility isn’t healthy for any of the parties involved.
For anyone who doesn’t already know, “white fragility” generally describes the psychological stress and often resulting negative reactions exhibited by many white people when confronted with questions about white privilege. These responses include things like, most notoriously, “I have black friends” or, more exhaustingly, “I marched with Martin Luther King.” (Honestly, people, stop using that as a shield.)
To sum it up, while there are certainly a lot of good pieces on white fragility out there, I find that a lot of them tend to focus on the way that white fragility hampers progress, how it makes it hard for white people to grow, and how it pervades white liberal discourse.
The narrative that I think it critically missing, however, is how white fragility has the real potential to make activist (or even just casual) spaces unsafe for people of color. (Yes, some of this may also apply to white activists, but I’m talking about people of color here, being a person of color myself.) This is my experience, I have discussed this with other people of color as well. Just take a moment and try to feel where I’m coming from.
Selfishly, when I hesitate to discuss white privilege, this isn’t because I worry about white people’s feelings. It’s because I worry about mine. It’s because I worry about having to expend all of my brain power to word what I am saying in a way that will be received. It’s because I worry that this is going to brand me as some white-hating person of color who doesn’t care about others’ struggles. It’s because I worry that somehow, miraculously, I’ll become the bad person in this conversation and that it’s going to make all of my future interactions with this white person dangerous for my own mental health.
It’s for this reason that while I appreciate the “brave space” (as opposed to “safe place”) language as progress for recognizing the real challenges of discussing race, I wish people would acknowledge that the bravery is not only on the part of those confronting their own privileges, but also on the part of those forced to confront others’ privileges.
I consider myself a fairly reserved person to the extent that I’m not prone to outpourings of emotion, and as such, it’s continuously a shock when I make what I feel are completely mild comments on white privilege, only to be met with a kind of non-coherent indignation that blindsides me, like being T-boned in a car accident. I’m not saying I’m a totally rational person, but I do feel like I’m being yelled at while I’m just trying to do what every white activist blog tells me to do: confront privilege when I see it. As much as I can try to breathe through it and protect myself, there’s no helping the swelling frustration I feel throughout the conversation. It’s fast, and it’s intense, like the kind of spike that you feel when someone tells you to “just calm down” when you were, in fact, totally calm in the first place. Then I have to suffer through a thousand explanations about your struggles and your work with racism and your critiques of black activist movements. After that, I feel like I now have to either (a) completely dismantle your argument, which could take hours and make us truly enemies or (b) sacrifice honesty in the name of maintaining a relationship or at the least, not creating a contentious relationship that will eat away at my soul for weeks on end. Either way, I’ve left this conversation with no motivation to do anything but go home, eat my feelings, and watch Netflix, while you get to go home feeling righteous, complaining to all of the other people I know that I’m unreasonable and a bad activist. There have been rare occasions where I’ve come out with any measure of emotional success.
Just because I advocate for open discussion doesn’t mean I enjoy having these discussions. I advocate because I want to live in a world where I shouldn’t have to fight to have these discussions. Because that’s what it is: a fight. It’s like pulling teeth. So while I can sympathize and even agree with some of Hillary Clinton’s thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement, I also have to acknowledge the deep sense of pure tiredness that I felt when I read about it.
Someone has to take responsibility for addressing white fragility. I think people of color can and do play a huge role in that. But don’t look at us like the weak ones when we don’t call people out on their privilege. Sometimes, we’re just tired. And you need to be okay with that.