For a while now, I’ve been thinking about how terms like “white privilege,” “inclusion” and “unconscious bias” all sound just… too nice. Don’t they seem a little on the pleasant side for words used to address a system of racist oppression? It reminds me of how, in Minnesota in January, the meteorologists will say it’s going to be a “cool evening” as they stand in front of a map showing temperatures that will literally freeze your nostrils together when you take a breath.
Something’s definitely up.
I’m reminded of how, in the novel 1984, the creepy futuristic government acts as if it’s “Opposite Day” all the time, using the Ministries of Love, Peace, Plenty and Truth to handle fear, war, rationing, and propaganda. The deliberate distortion of words is called doublespeak and we actually see it frequently in real-life politics (for example, the Clear Skies Act makes it easier to pollute the air and “enhanced interrogation“ means old-fashioned torture). Words are powerful.
The language we use to talk about racism is obviously distorted, a big clue that something is being hidden. It’s pretty easy to pinpoint the source: most White people can’t handle talking about racism. We flail. We don’t understand the subject, we get really uncomfortable, and we either clam up because we don’t want to say the wrong thing, or we bust out the whitesplaining (FYI, this is a best-case scenario. It can be much worse).
To mitigate our shortcomings, we surround ourselves with comforting words. Words that feel neutral. Words that don’t point fingers (at us). Words that center Whiteness, while erasing the harshness of discrimination and segregation. We reject words that we feel are too direct, that might reveal complicity on our part.
Let’s be clear that these linguistic gymnastics are only fooling White people. People of color have been aware that corporate pushes for “diversity” are often flimsy CYA efforts to mask sustained homogeneity, and “inclusion” is often code for tokenism. Scholars of color have been writing about the nuances of privilege and oppression for a long, longtime while watching White people invent different ways to either wriggle out of, dominate, or shut down the conversation. These same scholars have also been watching White writers and educators whisper the same exact thing they’ve been shouting, and magically draw a crowd.
I am writing this piece with the understanding that some White people will be more likely to listen to me because I am White. This is part of the underlying problem of White Fragility. White Fragility is the thing that restricts our knowledge, shuts down conversations before they start, and invites us to lie to ourselves. I’ll get into it more in the next section.
Finally, while I do want to nerd out a little dissecting some of the words we use, this piece is not about proposing new language. Our language is just a symptom. The underlying White Fragility is the problem we need to fix.
White Fragility: Living in a Bubble and Also Being in Everyone’s Business
Dr. Robin DiAngelo, a White critical racial and social justice educator who created the term “White Fragility,” breaks it down like this:
White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.
Here is a list of things that cause White people racial stress, and why:
As an illustration of the above, let’s look at Donald Trump. Trump is known for speaking in vague generalities and declaring simplistic solutions for complex problems. He avoids policy and fact-based conversations, and gets angry and disgusted at the drop of a hat. Now imagine that when it comes to conversations on race, White people in America act a lot like Donald Trump. We generally lack knowledge, but we always have an opinion. We lack the skill set for nuanced conversations, so we pretend they aren’t necessary. When we can’t avoid, we deflect, or we get upset. We’re thin-skinned.
There are a lot of reasons White people have such a low threshold for discomfort. For one, we tend to lead segregated lives, and we think of ourselves as individuals as opposed to members of a group. We receive constant messages that Whiteness is valuable, and we’re used to feeling a sense of belonging in most spaces. All of this leads to a huge sense of entitlement to being not only comfortable, but correct, at all times. And even once we get exposed to the existence of these dynamics, we are often at a loss as to how to talk about it. We do everything to avoid talking about race in any real way, including saying nonsense like “Mohammad Ali transcended race” when we really mean “was retroactively deemed safe by fragile white people.”
Linguistic Tricks to Outsmart Racial Stress Triggers
Terms like “inclusion” and “white privilege” are designed to sneak past the racial stress triggers of White Fragility. They center Whiteness in a way that makes White people comfortable, while deflecting from the stressful realities of the racist harm that Whiteness causes. Imagine how many racial stress trigger alarm bells would go off if we were using words like “discrimination awareness” and “white undeserved advantages” instead.
Our overly-pleasant terms are the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. When you’re sick, do you still need a spoonful of sugar? Probably not, because you understand how medicine works. You’ll expect some bitterness, and be fine with it, because you want to get better.
The person who needs a spoonful of sugar doesn’t even know they need it. They have not developed an understanding of why they feel bad or what will fix it. If the medicine doesn’t taste good, they’ll spit it out. They’ll wonder, “why are you punishing me with this terrible tasting thing?” And then the next time, you better be really slick with the sugar, because if they suspect you’re trying to hide bitterness, even if they really, really want to feel better, they’ll clamp their teeth shut. Once they’re on to you, oops, it’s time to be more creative.
I’m going to run through a few terms and briefly outline some thoughts on the relative “sweetness” of the terminology, and the degree to which White audiences have caught on to the sleight of hand. While I might throw out some examples of alternate terms for the purpose of contrast, I’m not seriously trying to propose new terms here. White Fragility has to shift before the language can shift. To start effecting that shift, we can think more critically about what words we’re using now, and why.
The word “diversity” is really common when people are talking about hiring. It started out as a neutral word meaning “variety” that’s supposed to describe a group, but somewhere along the way people started referring to individual people as “diverse”, like “we’re looking for a diverse candidate for this role.” So “diverse” is now code for “person of color” or “woman.” It’s been really distorted and linked to a destructive binary related to ability: “diversity” is associated with “lowering the bar.” So “diverse = person of color/woman = low ability” and “not diverse = White man = high ability.”
This word is really a mess. Ava Duvernay was just talking about how much she hates it because it’s a “medicinal word with no emotional resonance.” It’s interesting that she uses the word “medicinal” because this word has been around long enough that there’s not enough sweetness to fool anybody anymore.
Things we call “supreme”: The most delicious desserts. The most well-known and glamorous Motown singers. The highest court in the land. Um… God.
It has bothered me for years that linguistically, white supremacy sounds kind of great. Almost holy. It would sound more appropriately scary if it were called something actively negative, like “White domination” or “White oppressorship.” Once again, imagine the White stress level skyrocketing.
Some disambiguation is necessary with this term. “White supremacy” is a system that prioritizes whiteness regardless of the presence or absence of racial hatred, but a “white supremacist” is a person who embraces overt racial hatred. It’s like a spectrum. By default, all White people are on the spectrum of complicity in upholding a system of White supremacy, but we only give the negative label of “White supremacists” to the really hateful people at the far end. This allows the rest of us to say “we’re not them.”
White privilege is a term popularized by Peggy McIntosh, a White women’s studies professor at Wellesley in the late 1980s. While “white privilege” is the term that stuck, many scholars and feminists of color – bell hooks, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins – had been discussing the same ideas, particularly in the context of intersectionality. The discussion also goes back to Sojourner Truth and Anna Julia Cooper, who were discussing racism and sexism as two separate kinds of oppression in the late 1800s. When we ask ourselves why “white privilege” was so catchy among White people, it’s pretty obvious. As Ta-Nehisi Coates said in a recent interview, it’s “a word that we have created to make white people comfortable.”
Hua Hsu, Vassar College professor of English, has a great way of describing this: “Like the robot in a movie slowly discovering that it is, indeed, a robot, it feels as though we are living in the moment when white people, on a generational scale, have become self-aware.” The term “white privilege” is an extremely gentle way of easing White people into awareness. The use of the word “privilege” conjures up images of wealth, something Americans typically associate with merit. As I mentioned earlier, the term easily could have been something like “White undeserved advantages” but that would only serve to shut down conversation if the listener is a fragile White person.
As attorney, educator, and nationally recognized expert Vernā Meyers says, “diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.” So “diversity” is the hiring part, and “inclusion” is the “making sure your employees don’t find themselves in a hostile environment and leave“ part (companies are now pairing “inclusion” with “diversity” and calling it “D&I”). The thing that bugs me about “inclusion” is that it sounds like a neutral word but it’s not. It begs the question: “Who is including who? Who does this space belong to?” It sounds like an act of welcoming instead of everyone being on equal footing. And I guess that is what’s happening: predominantly White spaces are trying to be more welcoming, without having to relinquish White ownership of the space. “Inclusion” sounds a lot like a cousin of “All Lives Matter.”
Unconscious or implicit bias
“Unconscious bias” and “implicit bias” trainings are very popular now, and it’s easy to see why. When we frame the problem as one where White people are participating in a system of oppression unconsciously, without malice, it absolves all blame and affirms a state of racial innocence: “We’re not bad people, we’re just powerfully-socialized good people.” Articles and podcasts around the invisible psychological forces that shape our behavior are all the rage, so it makes sense that this term speaks to us in a really sweetened-up way. “Unconscious bias” says “you are good. It is not the conscious part of you that is to blame.”
“White Fragility” is the newest of these terms, and I chose to frame this piece around it because while it’s new and flashy, it’s not so sweet. It positions whiteness as weak and lacking instead of “privileged” or “supreme” while acknowledging the damage and violence this “fragility” has the power to cause.
To explain why she came up with this new term, Dr. DiAngelo said:
I think we get tired of certain terms. What I do used to be called “diversity training,” then “cultural competency” and now, “anti-racism.” These terms are really useful for periods of time, but then they get coopted, and people build all this baggage around them, and you have to come up with new terms or else people won’t engage. And I think “white privilege” has reached that point. It rocked my world when I first really got it, when I came across Peggy McIntosh. It’s a really powerful start for people. But unfortunately it’s been played so much now that it turns people off.
This so perfectly describes the “we see the medicine coming, so the sweetness loses its power” phenomenon. But while I think the term “White Fragility” is less sweet than some of the former terms, I’m not letting it off the hook. It is still a term invented by a White person for other White people, and it has quite a hefty dose of innocence built into it. What things are fragile? Newborn babies, fine china, snowflakes. Fragile things are usually valuable, and they need protection. Here we go again.
The good thing about the word “fragility” is that it pisses people off to be called “fragile” instead of “strong” or “resilient.” It pokes at insecurity, revealing something that has real destructive power to be built on a house of cards. As we’ve seen with the concept of “fragile masculinity,” the act of calling out something as weak can put some serious cracks in the foundation and lead to productive conversations.
The Lie at the Root of White Fragility
Imagine that people of color start learning about race and racism from childhood, and go on to earn the equivalent of advanced degrees in the subject just to get through everyday life. But most White people are given a pat on the head in 2nd grade, a fake diploma, and told we can skip all the other classes, because this subject doesn’t really apply to us. What’s written on our diploma? “Racists are bad people. But you are good.”
The “diploma” language is important because our brains just love a nice crisp binary. There’s something so satisfying and certain about good/bad, right/wrong, up/down.
When I was talking about White supremacy earlier, I mentioned that we can think about our participation as part of a spectrum. This can be very uncomfortable. When you’re on a spectrum, there’s always some ambiguity. A spectrum forces you to deal with the ways in which you are participating in a racist system. It doesn’t let you just opt out. But a binary lets you! A binary says, “Don’t worry about it, you are a Good Person. Nothing bad is associated with you, definitely not racism. End of conversation!” No wonder we love binaries so much.
When we learn that “racists are bad people”, we automatically put ourselves into the opposite category: non-racists who are well-meaning, good people. Here’s how it organizes our world view:
This good/bad binary is designed to prevent conversations. It keeps us focused on racism as an individual problem that “bad” people have, as opposed to a system of social control that implicates us. And it sets in place a hair trigger by which we experience any challenge to our racial worldview as a challenge to very our identities as good, moral people. Our lizard brains cannot handle contradictions to our goodness as people.
The truth is that “good” White people do and say racist things all the time. They appropriate black hairstyles like cornrows, baby hair, and bantu knots and rebrand them as “boxer braids”, “slicked-down tendrils”, and “mini-buns.” They dress up as stereotyped members of other cultures for Halloween, and argue the Redskins name is tradition. They say things like “I don’t even see color” and “All Lives Matter.”
Because these racist things don’t rise to the level of overt malice, they don’t trigger the good/bad binary. We can fall back on “good intentions” or “well-meaning” and presto: we’ve killed all potential for productive conversations about racism, and we’ve given ourselves permission to keep doing and saying a wide range of racist things without feeling bad about it.
Dr. DiAngelo asserts that “the most effective adaptation of racism over time is the idea that racism is conscious bias held by mean people.” Key word here is “adaptation.” Racism today doesn’t look the way it did in 1865, 1965, or 2000. It stays alive by shape-shifting over time, and the good/bad binary is just part of its insidious current form. The only way forward is to step outside of it.
If the occasional college workshop or workplace diversity training were enough to address all the insidious ways racism persists, white supremacy would already be over. And it’s not. As Assata Shakur said, “No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them.”
To that, I would like to add “the education White people need will make us uncomfortable.” Our choices are to stick with the binary, or to leave it behind and pursue knowledge that will challenge our worldview and bring discomfort. We have to build up our ability to feel uncomfortable without allowing the Chicken Little of our self-identity to squawk that the sky is falling.
We’re a long way away from that right now. The words we use to talk about race are very revealing of our investment in our own comfort, even when we’re trying to learn and to do better.
We Already Have Everything We Need
We’ve had all the basic ideas we’ve needed to understand racism for a long time. The only reason to pay attention to the packaging is to observe that it’s pointing to the real problem: the idea that we as White people are entitled to be lazy. We expect to be served knowledge about race and racism in palatable doses. We expect to rest in our fragility.
The solution: Put in work. We are not newborn babies or fancy teacups. We have the ability to actively seek knowledge and understanding.
As Vernā Meyers says, “not enough White people have done their work”:
After all the resources spent and goodwill extended, many white people, in exasperation, ask me why we haven’t gotten further in racial understanding or increasing the diversity in our workplaces and lives. Sometimes, they don’t like my response. I tell them what I have come to believe. Not enough white people have done their work: the work of seeing the barriers to true meritocracy, the work of putting themselves in the shoes of black people to learn more about their experiences and perceptions, the work of understanding how being white has shaped their worldview and self-perceptions, and the work of gaining the skills of deciphering and managing cross-racial and cultural dynamics. That’s a lot of work, but without it you cannot create fundamental change in your sphere of influence.
She leaves us with this: “Stop trying to be good people. And start trying to be real people.”
What will your next step be? Here are some ideas: Books. Blogs. Podcasts. YouTube channels.