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.

Teaching in the Patriarchy

PATRIARCHAL EDUCATION 2014

Image courtesy of Christopher Dombres

Even as we might strive to discuss Herstory and the silencing of minority voices in our curriculum, it is startlingly easy to perpetuate and recreate the same inequalities we strive to combat in our work as educators. While we may have the best of intentions in our explicit messages about the nature of equality and justice in our classrooms, each of us brings myriad complexities of unconscious privilege and inequality into our work with young people just by way of inhabiting a culture which is composed of them.

For instance, I am a thirty three year old, caucasian, Canadian male, living in an affluent suburb of one of the world’s most livable cities. I work with gifted youngsters in a program that gets them out of doors and into the curriculum in ways that are intended to engage their voice and agency in a responsive and authentic learning community. And I was even in a similar program back in my own highschool days before riding an athletic scholarship to the states, where I competed in the NCAA.

All of which is to say that I can acknowledge that nearly everything about my life presents a near perfect model of white male privilege.

My whole life has offered a continual reassurance that my voice and contributions were worthwhile and valued by others; that my opinion and interpretation of events can be offered with authority and will be respectfully received has been reinforced at nearly every juncture in my life, which doesn’t necessarily make me a self-centered egomaniac, but  does remind me to be aware that not everyone has been on the receiving end of a lifetime of attaboys for a range of choices and behaviours that have vacillated between the stellar and foolhardy as much as anyone.

Such an acknowledgement is a first step in addressing the myriad inequalities from which I have (and continue to) benefit, but then only begins an exploration of the ways in which I reproduce and witness the perpetuation of these inequalities in my countless daily interactions with students, teachers, and the culture beyond my school.In my travels

As when the hands that invariably leap up to offer opinions in class discussions are those that are white / upper-class / extroverted / etc…

As when a colleague asks an administrator why they haven’t hired any young goodlookin’ contract teachers this year or last…

As when an established teacher monopolizes the agenda at a union or staff meeting with their interpretation of “What’s in our interest” without seeking to represent the views of younger teachers or colleagues from minority populations…

That we are swimming in layers of unrecognized privilege and yet exist as the stewards of a system which organizes itself around meritocratic principles presents a contradiction our public schools ought confront in an effort to prepare young people to better realize the values of multicultural democracy that truly

“promote[s] the full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins in the continuing evolution and shaping of all aspects of Canadian society and assist[s] them in the elimination of any barrier to that participation.”

Moving beyond the acknowledgement of this contradiction, however, is where such affluent experiences and classrooms such as mine struggle to create more equal and democratic experiences. Observing and reacting to overt manifestations of discrimination is something that comforts us, as do signs of solidarity such as awareness campaigns like the Anti-Bullying Day or Me to We Fundraising initiatives.

But these efforts are largely organized by privileged kids in privileged schools: do they really bring us any closer to creating a truly inclusive society?

Or do they further alienate and separate the haves from the have nots (whatever those possessions may be)?

Leveraging our collective privilege to ‘rescue’ those who are disadvantaged by systemic oppression is a hollow aim unless our gaze is fixed upon a critical view of the sources of our own advantages, and we seek and strive to make these advantages visible to others who would unknowingly perpetuate them to the detriment of others.

What this means is difficult for many of us who enjoy various privilege to envision; but what it does not mean is retreating into silence.

It doesn’t mean that the kids whose hands shoot up at the beginning of a class discussion need to sit on them.

It doesn’t mean the principal isn’t allowed to share a joke with a colleague.

And it doesn’t mean that those of us who don’t mind speaking our minds at staff or union meetings ought not take those opportunities to cultivate dialogue with our peers.

But it does mean recognizing that some of these activities and modes of participation – by which success and membership in our communities are judged – are easier for some of us than others, and that this ease has little or nothing to do with any of our respective effort or merit. By extension this means that the ability to include marginalized voices in our collective discussions demands that we employ these privileges in the greater inclusion of others in them, and toward the elimination of barriers that keep others from that “full and equitable participation.”

Which in the very first place involves listening, rather than speaking. Hearing what life is like, and how the existence of our privileges effects others.

But we need not take what we hear as personal idictments: after all, if we did nothing to earn the privileges that have led to our successes and power, we likely are not conscious participants in the oppression of others.

However, we become agents of injustice if in gaining an awareness of our own privilege and good fortune, we do nothing to increase the justice and opportunity afforded others.