As I write the most challenging and complex chapter of my dissertation (the one that explores how teacher training programs approach issues of race, racism, and privilege), I feel the need to take a step back and reflect on what I have observed about race more broadly over the course of this work.[i]
It feels important to frame this in light of current events. During the two years of my study (2014-2016), a series of widely-publicized events shed light upon deep social divisions in this country (which seem worse with each passing day). It began with numerous (and ongoing) examples of police brutality against Black men and women, including Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and Sandra Bland. These Black people died unjustly at the hands of those who are tasked with protecting us, and rarely was an officer held accountable for their role in these deaths. While this was likely distressing but not surprising to Black people and many other people of color, the continued coverage of these events exposed white people in particular to some of the realities of enduring racism in society. Many did not see this coming – perhaps because they had never been trained to truly recognize the experiences of different racial and cultural groups in society – and many more continued to deny the existence of racism in the United States, citing President Barack Obama’s election as evidence of “a post-racial America,” and insisting that “All Lives Matter.”
This response to being forced to confront racism is unsurprising. And in truth, it mirrored some of the responses of the white teachers in my study to coursework on structural racism and white privilege. As white Americans, we have been raised with the illusion that race doesn’t matter because we do not see its effects on a daily basis. This fact in and of itself is evidence of our own privilege, though. For unlike every other racial group in the United States, white people don’t have to think about race.[ii] In public, we are rarely looked upon as representatives of the white racial group; we just get to be individuals, everyday people, who can go shopping without being suspected of theft, drive cars without being pulled over for no reason, party without worry and often without being arrested for noise/alcohol/drug violations, walk around in affluent communities without neighbors calling the cops (or worse, attempting “vigilante justice”) against us. We also get to move through life with the idea that every one of our advantages and accomplishments has been fairly earned, that every good fortune is evidence of our hard work and aptitude. We do not have to question any of this, and we can live with the comfortable idea that we are all just good people trying to do our best in life. If we think of “racism” at all, it is only as a dirty word that applies to rare bigoted individuals, not the broader system that reproduces social inequality generation after generation.[iii]
But this insulation from the realities of systemic and institutionalized racism predisposes us to what DiAngelo calls “white fragility.”[iv] Because we white Americans have never had to think deeply about race at all, many of us react quite negatively when we are faced with glaring evidence of racism and confronted with the benefits accorded to us because of our whiteness. We have never seen evidence of race being an issue, so it must not be. Or we feel affronted because we are individuals, dammit, so much more than representatives of a race. Or we insist that everyone has to deal with shit in their lives, and being white doesn’t shelter us from that. Or we feel unjustly implicated in racism, or worse yet, personally labeled racist. Or we feel guilty, because we take a brief look at all the advantages we have – wealth, education, security, healthcare, housing – and realize that maybe some of that was easier to get because we are white, and that makes us feel bad. Or we feel like we already know all about racism because we took a course on it and so we’re “woke” and do not have to think about it or process it anymore. These emotional responses of denial, self-righteousness, anger, defensiveness, guilt, and complacence allow us justification to return to our comfortable isolation, to cease thinking about race. Because let’s be honest, it’s exhausting to think about race.[v]
This white fragility was perhaps never more evident in society than with the Presidential election of 2016. After being bombarded with media around “Black Lives Matter,” terrorist attacks, and the need for political correctness amidst all of this, white Americans began to bristle under what felt like an attack on their sense of everyday comfort, their racial isolation. Feeling criticized by “liberal elites,” harmed or neglected by particular government policies and regulations, and somewhat resentful of or anxious about people of color and immigrants, a broad section of American society – made up almost entirely of white Americans – voted for a man they felt would stand up for their rights, which included their right to remain isolated from racial awareness. His voters were simply more comfortable with his blatantly racist and sexist rhetoric (which society has normalized for centuries) than challenging and perhaps even threatening conversations about racism and privilege (which have never been normalized). I am not trying to harp on individuals here, this really is a social problem.
As white people, we have never had to practice conversations about race, to grapple with these sensitive realities. And just as we are taught to believe that there is no class system in America, most of us are able to continue believing that there is no racial hierarchy here either. We think the American Dream is available to anyone, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, because this is what we learn in schools. And it’s really hard to abandon the comfortable reality that we have been programmed to think our whole lives. But we owe it to ourselves and our society to try to understand the reality, to try to see the world through the eyes of those who appear different from us, and to work alongside people of color to change it. As John F. Kennedy said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
And some of this work must begin in our schools. Although schools are often thought to be what makes the American Dream possible, the “great equalizer,”[vi] they are not doing their job, in part because they are not teaching students about reality. For schools to indeed serve as vehicles of social change, they must first acknowledge the need for such change. They must acknowledge that racism is real and recalcitrant, systemic but also, like a disease, can infect individuals. This of course means that teachers – and especially white teachers, who make up 82% of the teaching force – must learn to escape their own racial isolation, confront racism head-on, and teach their students to do the same. We need to start somewhere, and soon, before we become irreparably divided from our fellow citizens.
[i] I do not proclaim to be an expert on race or racism in the U.S. or elsewhere. Instead, I am writing this blog as a way to process my own thoughts on this in light of my research and what I have observed in the field and in the society that surrounds my research context. I also want to acknowledge that as a white woman, my understanding of the way race influences the experiences of people of color is limited to what I have read, observed, and heard. I do, however, feel more authority to speak to the experience of “white fragility.”
[ii] Wise, Tim. (2005). White Like Me. New York: Soft Skull Press.
[iii] Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. (2006). Racism without Racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of inequality in America. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
[iv] DiAngelo, Robin. (2011). “White Fragility.” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 3(3), pp. 54-70.
[v] But just as a reminder: people of color do not have the luxury of isolating themselves from the realities of race for one moment, for avoiding the common assumption that each of them is representative of their race as a whole, or escaping demonization by media or others for some alleged deficit or offense.
[vi] In 1848, Horace Mann said the following in his twelfth annual report to the Massachusetts State Board of Education: “Education then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men—the balance wheel of the social machinery.” (see Life and Works of Horace Mann, Ed. Mrs, Mary Mann, vol. 3, p.669, published in 1868).