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.

Conversations I'm following

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Photo from Al Jazeera English on Flickr

As the Talons class moves forward with its discussion of ongoing media coverage and context behind recent events in Egypt and across the Middle East, the conversation has ranged from an investigation of the realities of an emerging media landscape, to the nature of Truth, violence, and power. Views have been researched, expressed, challenged, and adapted. And we’re just getting started.

Here are four branches of the conversation I’m following:

Mahalia on Sara’s post:

“…residential camps consisted of young native children that had been forced to leave their homes, were not allowed to speak their language and were treated very cruelly( they were beaten). And Canada SHOULD be ashamed of what happened but they can’t just hide these facts from us. Being a little bit native myself I already knew about residential camps, I was so shocked when almost all our class had never heard of this. I noticed that in textbooks they make it seem like Europeans and Natives were “working together”. Not really. It seems that the textbooks given to us in school are trying to create the image of Canada where things are peaceful and always have been.”

Richard on Kelsey’s post:

The United States is flip-flopping between its support for Mubarak and its support for the Egyptian people. This is primarily caused by the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood will most likely take power of Egypt if Hosni Mubarak steps down from the presidency. According to many Egyptian people, the Muslim Brotherhood is an extremist group who are very much opposing the U.S. influence in Egypt. Due to the geographical location of Egypt in relation to other countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. is most likely afraid that these countries will eventually ally against them. This provides a major threat to the U.S., and the government there is unsure of which side to support. It is true that they have given a lot of funding towards Hosni Mubarak and have been in a political relationship with his government for many years now. This has been one of the main reasons why Mubarak has stayed in power for so long, fulfilling the United States’ goal to maintain Egypt as an ally. However, the strength of the people in Egypt is growing in these riots that have been occurring, while that also shows that a new leader needs to step into place very soon. Despite this, having Egypt in the control of the Muslim Brotherhood is not a very good idea, so a new party with different representatives is the key in Egypt. However, Egypt’s first true democratic election in almost thirty years will obviously be decided by its people, who will now have the right to elect anyone. The rioting in Egypt will end as soon as Mubarak steps down, but the problems created from this crisis on a national (for Egypt) and global scale are unlikely to end stop soon. As for what will happen to the bond between Egypt and the United States, it will most likely be severed if the Muslim Brotherhood takes power.

Liam on Nick’s post:

It may seem an odd thing, considering that Egypt and Israel have fought four wars since 1948, their people are generally opposed to each other, and until the Camp David Accords, Egypt did not recognize Israel’s right to exist. But the flow of American money is meant to stabilize Egypt and that it has – for thirty years Egypt has fought no war, and indeed has not even had a regime change. As Mubarak, a former military man, receives all this monetary aid, he has channeled the money into the military, which certainly contributed to stability. But how did it do this? Money can create stability in two ways: through investment in the economy and social programs to keep the people happy and self-sufficient, or through investment in the military and other security forces to keep order for a discontented people. There are times when the second option is preferable – like, say, Israel in 1948 – but generally, the first option is the best thing to do. Egypt was not really particularly threatened by any of its neighbours, and even Israel, the most controversial power in the region, is very unlikely to attack a major Arab power, for obvious reasons. So the question then must be asked, should the American aid go to buy tear gas canisters, used only to suppress protesters, or should it go to create jobs and a livelihood for thousands of people? What do you think?

Jen on Sepehr’s post:

I just don’t understand your views about how the Egyptian government “is fair and righteous”. As Mr.J pointed out, Amnesty International says “The most pressing human rights concerns that Amnesty International has documented are the use of emergency legislation to arrest and detain people without charge or trial; the widespread use of torture and other ill-treatment; grossly unfair trials of civilians before military and emergency courts; restrictions on the peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly…” An article in The New York Times states “The government [of Egypt] has maintained what it calls an Emergency Law, passed first in 1981 to combat terrorism after the assassination of Mr. Sadat. The law allows police to arrest people without charge, detain prisoners indefinitely, limit freedom of expression and assembly, and maintain a special security court.” Next, the police, who you said “are present to stop the people from blowing themselves up or setting each other on fire in anger; they are not Mubarak’s bloody torturers.”, are torturing and raping people all over the place. You have Mr.J’s example from Amnesty International “In addition, government security forces have harassed and intimidated people engaged in public displays of support for victims of the bombing.” You also have a variety of examples of police brutality from The New York Times, “The Egyptian police have a long and notorious track record of torture and cruelty to average citizens. One case that drew widespread international condemnation involved a cellphone video of the police sodomizing a driver with a broomstick. In June 2010, Alexandria erupted in protests over the fatal beating by police of beating Khaled Said, 28. The authorities said he died choking on a clump of marijuana, until a photograph emerged of his bloodied face. In December 2010, a suspect being questioned in connection with a bombing was beaten to death while in police custody.”