The Fragile Oppressor

Image courtesy of EverydayFeminism.com

An aspect of my work that has been the bane of my existence an educative experience in recent years has been the time I’ve spent around a group of variously conservative, middle aged white men, many of whom teach history and with whom I regularly debate the foundational intersections of liberal and conservatism found in the socials curricula.

A running thread in our conversations over the past many years has been a frustrated effort on my part to explore the implicit ways in which (mostly) unconscious biases perpetuate the white supremacism North Americans have struggled with since the time of European colonization and settlement. As news cycles in recent years have become increasingly concerned with issues of racial violence in the United States, aboriginal activism and protest against racial inequality in Canada, and the root causes of white privilege and racism on either side of the 49th parallel, these conversations have taken on an ever-more vital (and heated) tone, often resulting in either they or I admitting that dialogue around these topics is impossible.

I often seek to poke fun at what strikes me as remarkable insensitivity, greeting these moments of terse debate with sarcastic interjections to the tune of, “Don’t worry, one day the world will understand the White Man’s burden.” But I have also tried to follow these sorts of barbs with what I hope are more nuanced explanations of what might be witnessed in the headlines by my colleagues or the demographic they represent as senseless racial outbursts.

Last year, when violence erupted around a Mik’maq blockade in rural New Brunswick, I replied to an email thread characterizing the results of police contact with the protest as “anarchic” by pointing out the nature of resistance in such a context:

“The land that the oil and gas exploration is happening on is Mik’maq land; it is to be held in trust by the Government of Canada for the benefit of those people (not balancing the New Brunswick provincial debt). The Mik’maq have asked that environmental (chiefly water), and human impacts (cancer incidents) associated with fracking be measured before exploration proceeds. The government refused to engage in any such research, and started planning the drill, after which the Mik’maq created a blockade on their own Treaty-guaranteed land to prevent furthering the project until such investigations could take place.

“The government using the threat of snipers and indiscriminate spraying of tear gas to enforce the injunction against the blockade is violence too, isn’t it?”

As a sample, the replies to this sort of argument represent the nature of the difficulty of engaging many white people in even beginning to hear opposing views on topics related to race in North America. The original addressee to my reply ignored any of this attending context, focusing instead on a semantic query: “Even if all of what you just said was true,” he began:

“How is burning a vehicle with a Molotov cocktail (a clear tool constructed to inflict harm, chaos, or injury) not anarchic?”

Another’s defence swerved further into dismissive hyperbole, offering that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms entitles Canadian First Nations to engage in violent acts against police “because they’ve been victims of a genocide by us white guys all these years.”

This sort of condescending reaction is par for the course when engaging on racial issues with a group of people who tend to perceive the march of modernity as one bent specifically toward confiscating advantages and rewards they have rightfully earned. Even as contradictory data washes ashore in an empirical tsunami, calling into question the logic of meritocracy whereby their demographic has overwhelmingly succeeded is a non-starter here.

To even identify the ways in which white males are advantaged in society is, to certain among this group, racism itself:

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As I described at some length a while back, my life and career represent a shining example of the benefits of white male privilege, as do those of my friends and colleagues described here. But these interactions present me with genuine confusion that struggles to explain how vehemently the prospect of acknowledging such privilege is attacked when raised, either in the media or our conversations.

To a man, my colleagues own homes and recreational properties. They are gainfully employed and enjoy regular leisure activities and vacations.

And yet a common theme in our discussion of modern social issues remains the sentiment that “the most prominent form of racism in the world” is practiced against white people.

Which is astonishing, really.

African Americans are murdered in the streets by police with impunity.

Indigenous Canadians overcrowd our prisons as well as lists of murdered and missing women.

Poverty, a lack of access to clean water, health and education services, and positive opportunities run rampant in these communities.

And yet somehow white peoplelet alone white men, manage to believe that they are society’s most persecuted group. Whether at the hands of indigenous peoples, French Canadians, women, or other minorities, the cost of greater equality to history’s oppressive class is at best an unrealistic venture they are reluctant to embrace. At worst it is what they decry as “social engineering,” a sort of social blasphemy, or “liberal fascism.”

Surely this would be something of an amazing feat if it weren’t such a destructive and tragic sentiment.

Much to my relief, however, Robin DiAngelo presents an aspect of whiteness that helps shed light on my experience in recent years, introducing the notion of “White Fragility.”

Plainly, this fragility represents an “[inability] to tolerate racial stress… triggering a range of defensive moves… which reinstate the racial equilibrium.”

“White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. Fine (1997) identifies this insulation when she observes “… how Whiteness accrues privilege and status; gets itself surrounded by protective pillows of resources and/or benefits of the doubt; how Whiteness repels gossip and voyeurism and instead demands dignity” (p. 57). Whites are rarely without these “protective pillows,” and when they are it is usually temporary and by choice. This insulated environment of racial privilege builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress.”

Thus as these sorts of issues are raised – whether in current events, casual conversation, or professional development sessions addressing minority concerns (around race, gender identity, immigrant populations, etc) – “stress results from an interruption to what is racially familiar,” triggering what DiAngelo calls a “range of defensive moves.”

Challenging whites’ objective-viewpoint or entitlement to racial comfort, acknowledging inequality of opportunity between racial groups or disrupting an expectation of white solidarity each becomes exceptional in the white dominant environment, and “in turn, whites are often at a loss for how to respond in constructive ways.”

“When any of the above triggers (challenges in the habitus) occur, the resulting disequilibrium becomes intolerable. Because White Fragility finds its support in and is a function of white privilege, fragility and privilege result in responses that function to restore equilibrium and return the resources “lost” via the challenge – resistance toward the trigger, shutting down and/or tuning out, indulgence in emotional incapacitation such as guilt or “hurt feelings,” exiting, or a combination of these responses.”

All of which would more or less account for the range of “defensive moves” any challenges that various encounters have brought about in these interactions over the years (Even if all of what you just said was true…”), and seeks to uphold a racial inequality that will continue to benefit a particular class – and race – of people. After all, “if whites cannot engage with an exploration of alternate racial perspectives, they can only reinscribe white perspectives as universal.”

DiAngelo asserts that

“The continual retreat from the discomfort of authentic racial engagement in a culture infused with racial disparity limits the ability to form authentic connections across racial lines, and results in a perpetual cycle that works to hold racism in place.”

After all, it isn’t a cycle of oppression unless those who oppress never change, never let new ideas in, go to bed with the same worldview they woke up with. Which is where my years of banging my rhetorical head against a wall often leaves me frustrated and abandoning my efforts, however vital I see them to the progress of our schools and broader community.

But DiAngelo concludes with a few ideas that have compelled me to write and publish this post. Citing the collection of Derman-Sparks & Phillips, hooks, and Wise, she notes that “White racism is ultimately a white problem and the burden for interrupting it belongs to white people.” 

This can be problematic, as “Many white people have never been given direct or complex information about racism before, and often cannot explicitly see, feel, or understand it” (Terpagnier, 2006; Weber 2001). But in this light, the lens of White Fragility is helpful in framing the problem “as an issue of stamina-building.”

“Starting with the individual and moving outward to the ultimate framework for racism – Whiteness – allows for the pacing that is necessary for many white people for approaching the challenging study of race.”

In this view, “talking directly about white power and privilege, in addition to providing much needed information and shared definitions, is also in itself a powerful interruption of common (and oppressive) discursive patterns around race.”

“At the same time, white people often need to reflect upon racial information and be allowed to make connections between the information and their own lives. Educators can encourage and support white participants in making their engagement a point of analysis.”

Hopefully, in time, even if those participants are other educators.