What Did You Just Call Me?

What Did You Just Call Me?

Fellow White people, can we face our fear?

I’ve been thinking a lot about fragile things recently. When we were packing for our move a few months ago, I was surprised at how many of my boxes needed a “FRAGILE” label. Fortunately the movers were good at their jobs. The only item that broke was a hand-blown glass teapot, which cracked in spite of being enveloped in bubble wrap and cradled in packing peanuts.

The glass was remarkably thin, especially where the handle was attached. I don’t think I ever used it for tea; I was afraid it would break from the heat. It sat on a shelf in my china cabinet and never had a chance to fulfill its purpose. I was a little sad to see it go, but there was no room in my new home for a china cabinet anyway.

. . .

In 2013, I wrote an article entitled “Fragile White People Syndrome.” I know, it’s not a very elegant title. The SEO results were abysmal. But Robin DiAngelo had already coined the term White Fragility a couple years earlier, so I had to find a different way to say it. Back then I thought it was clever.

My article was about White folks’ fear of discussing race. Now here we are, nine years later, and I’m still writing about the same thing.

I’ve been talking with individuals and groups about race for several decades. Sometimes the conversations are frustrating or emotional, but I always learn something. I never hesitate to engage, even when passions are running high. Maybe that’s because I’ve been called a racist by a Black person — more than once — and lived to tell the story.

Assuming for a moment that there won’t be an actual brawl, what are we afraid of? Is it really that someone will call us a racist? Are we White people so fragile that being called racist utterly destroys our self-esteem? Is the word so devastating that it completely undermines our ability to engage in conversations about race?

Personally, I find this excuse embarrassing. Certainly we’re resilient enough to face this possibility without crumbling.

What if we had the courage to start with a given: If we’re White and living in this country, then our minds, attitudes, and behaviors have been molded by racist conditioning. That’s an inescapable fact, regardless of what word we use to describe it.

We didn’t ask for this conditioning, but if we pretend it doesn’t exist, we have no hope of freeing ourselves from its power to jerk us around. As with any other unconscious pattern of thought, recognition is the first step in reclaiming our freedom. So let’s say we agree to come to the table acknowledging that we bring our conditioning with us.

We have so much to gain by participating honestly and vulnerably in the conversation about race — from becoming more authentic versions of ourselves, to creating solid cross-racial relationships, to contributing to systemic justice.

When we don’t participate, we lose out on the those opportunities. We also reinforce the belief — both in our own minds and in the minds of others — that we’re simply too afraid, too fragile. And I’d like to be better than that. Better and braver.

What I know, from my own experience, is that at some point we will likely say something insensitive, clueless, or downright offensive. And a Black person might call us racist. We will not melt or implode or fall apart.

We will lose face only if we become defensive. We can best maintain our dignity by responding with something like, “I hear what you’re saying. Are you willing to talk with me about it?” This kind of response engenders respect and trust, both of ourselves and our conversation partners, and creates the possibility for something real to happen.

What might happen if we change the stories we’re telling ourselves as White people about what we’re capable of? What if we reject White fragility as an undignified attitude that prevents us from expressing our inherent human nobility?

I believe we are perfectly capable of staying present in difficult conversations. We can acknowledge any fear or discomfort we’re feeling and then move ahead. We have enough strength of character to resist feeling defensive or falling apart, even if we are called that awful word. I know we can do it.

I want to end with a disclaimer and a couple observations.

I know there are many White people who are deeply committed to anti-racism and constantly engaged in difficult conversations about race. Much has happened since I wrote that original article. People of all backgrounds have arisen in response to incidents of racial violence. I honor you and I thank you. Please know that this article was not written for you. Feel free to ignore it, or pass it along to someone who needs to read it.

Also, you may wonder why I write only about interactions between Black and White people. It’s because that’s what I know. I hope you will seek out authors who write about racial dynamics among other groups of our human family.

Finally, sometimes it’s a fellow White person who wants to call us a racist. That’s a whole nother story. I need to build up more grit before I tackle that one.

. . .

Photo by Dylan Hunter on Unsplash

1 Comment
  • Nancy
    Posted at 20:08h, 14 September Reply

    Have you tackled that other story yet? I’ll be looking for it! Love to you!!

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