Discomfort with confronting whiteness, and a fear of being labelled as ‘racist’, is preventing White people from engaging in important conversations about race.
The last year has seen the explosion of a global conversation about race, with an increased focus on the importance of being anti-racist. However, conversations about racism can often find themselves shut down by White people who refuse to properly cooperate with them.
Sociologist Robin DiAngelo famously describes this phenomenon as ‘white fragility’, the “disbelieving defensiveness that white people exhibit when their ideas about race and racism are challenged”. It’s easy to want to defend yourself when discussions about racism arise, or your own inadvertently racist actions are challenged. “But I don’t see colour!” you may cry. “I don’t have a racist bone in my body!”. “My friend/sister-in-law/postman is a person of colour!”. I think I can safely speak for the entire White community when I say that we’ve all been there.
This discomfort with discussions about race and racism is understandable. Our society, which is grounded in White privilege, has shielded White people from having to think about our race and the role that it plays in our lives, the lives of others, and society as a whole. Whiteness is treated as the default, the norm for human beings. To be White is to, ironically, be raceless. If anything, the idea of “not seeing colour” applies more to whiteness than to any other race — ‘race’ is seen as something possessed by people of colour, not White people.
As White people, we usually don’t ‘see’ our own race, and our position of privilege means that we don’t have to. We exist in a space of comfort that people of colour are unable to inhabit — the impact of race is felt in every area of their lives from a young age, and is something that constantly has to be navigated. People of colour cannot be ignorant to their own race, but White people can. As a result, conversations about racism in which we are required to confront our whiteness and its negative connotations can be incredibly uncomfortable because we aren’t used to having to do this kind of work. We lack the “racial stamina”.
Having to confront our place at the top of a racial hierarchy can also be difficult because it’s easy to feel like you’re being implicated with white supremacy. As DiAngelo points out, much of this comes down to how we define ‘racism’. As a 2020 study demonstrated, the majority of the British public see racism as a matter of ‘personal prejudice’. Racism is seen as a good/bad binary — people are either bad, mean racists, or good, compassionate non-racists.
Seeing racism in this way makes it easy for White progressives, like myself, to detach ourselves from it. If racism is purely about the N-word, or hate crime, or far-right extremist groups, then I am not racist. I can happily argue that discussions about race and racism are completely irrelevant to me, and secure my status as a good, non-racist White person.
Obviously, it isn’t this easy. Racism is not just about extreme, individual prejudice, and I am not free from discussions about it just because I’m not a member of National Action. Individual cases of discrimination and violence are ultimately grounded in a systemic mishmash of hierarchical power dynamics, institutionalised prejudice, and structural barriers — this is what anti-racism is about confronting, with cases of far-right extremism and white supremacy an obvious part of that. Conversations about race are not about forcing White people to throw our hands in the air and shout “yes, you got me, I’m a horrible racist!”. Instead, they are about making us acknowledge how the system is designed to benefit us at the expense of others; recognise how we contribute to this system; check our own privilege; and unpack the deep-seated prejudice and biases that we may not be aware of.
The central issue with white fragility is that it shuts down important conversations: silencing the challenge, delegitimising important points of discussion, and instead operating to maintain the current racial hierarchy. For White people trying to become effective anti-racist allies, a continuous process of unpacking and overcoming this fragility is a critical first step. We cannot effectively tackle racism when we refuse to acknowledge the system that we both benefit from and contribute to. Racism is a White problem that White people benefit from, and it is our responsibility as White people to try and fix it. Recognising this is not the same as admitting to being a neo-Nazi. It’s just being a good ally.
At JAN Trust, our advocacy work encourages women and girls to be anti-racist, with our Another Way Forward™ programme, in particular, empowering young women to lead their own online campaigns.