That phrase: white fragility. For a white liberal dude like me, it cuts to the quick. Shields up! Engage defensive counter-attack!
Here’s the deal though. White fragility exists, and it is toxic. When a person of color declares that black lives matter, white fragility insists that all lives matter. When a person of color makes a statement about the murderous abuse of power of a police officer, white fragility insists that blue lives matter, most cops are not like that, etc. A response given from a place of white fragility silences the messenger and the message that we need so desperately to hear and absorb.
Here’s my opinion: white fragility keeps white people from going through an honestly painful but necessary phase toward wholeness and racial reconciliation. This necessary phase is the inner work one must do in order to get past the fragility and the defensiveness and the toxicity. To put it simply, we need to identify and address our white shame.
Don’t misunderstand. I am not advocating that we combat this shame with denial or uplifting pop psychology. Quite the opposite. It requires courage, clear eyes, open ears, and a commitment to change. Dragons don’t go away; they must be slain.
Brene Brown, a Ph.D. and an extensive researcher on shame, has said that one can’t talk about privilege without talking about shame. Most human beings have some measure of privilege, but white people in North America and Europe are born with a lot of it. White privilege and shame are similar in this important way: we have white privilege and we have shame not a result of something we’ve done. In a sense, shame is the shadow-side of privilege.
In its most negative usage, shame is associated with wrong that has been done to us. We feel shame because we’ve been abused, neglected, mocked, or otherwise traumatized. This kind of a shame is only a distant relation to white shame (or any shame borne of privilege), but it does help shed light on why it stings and why it must be overcome.
When we get defensive about someone calling out injustice and respond accordingly, we are denying our shame and surrendering to white fragility. We close our ears and harden our hearts. Interestingly, Brown’s extensive research has shown that this type of response is the opposite of what is needed in order to overcome shame.
What is required is vulnerability.
It means stopping a minute and feeling whatever it is you are feeling. It means taking in the horror of the murder of a fellow human being. It means reaching for empathy. It mean facing the injustice of it all and truly and bitterly mourning its reality. And yes, it means feeling culpability for being white. Notice: the fact that you are white does not mean you are culpable in the death of black men and women. But until you admit the shame exists, you’ll never get past it. You’ll be stuck in a shame cycle, incapable of nothing but navel-gazing.
Also? I can’t stress enough that I believe this is a (necessary) phase on the journey to wholeness and racial reconciliation, but not somewhere to dwell. And like the hero’s journey, it’s often one we have to walk alone. We can’t rely on people of color to educate us, to tell us “you’re one of the good guys!” and to comfort us when we’re in the midst of our inner work. They are too busy trying to navigate a hostile world. The sooner we can abandon our coping mechanism of white fragility and courageously face our shame, the sooner we can effectively join the effort to end systemic racism.