White people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality. As a result, we are insulated from racial stress, at the same time that we come to feel entitled to and deserving of our advantage. Given how seldom we experience racial discomfort in a society we dominate, we haven’t had to build our racial stamina. Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race. We consider a challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable—the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. I conceptualize this process as white fragility. Though white fragility is triggered by discomfort and anxiety, it is born of superiority and entitlement. White fragility is not weakness per se. In fact, it is a powerful means of white racial control and the protection of white advantage.
I began to see what I think of as the pillars of whiteness—the unexamined beliefs that prop up our racial responses. I could see the power of the belief that only bad people were racist, as well as how individualism allowed white people to exempt themselves from the forces of socialization. I could see how we are taught to think about racism only as discrete acts committed by individual people, rather than as a complex, interconnected system. And in light of so many white expressions of resentment toward people of color, I realized that we see ourselves as entitled to, and deserving of, more than people of color deserve; I saw our investment in a system that serves us. I also saw how hard we worked to deny all this and how defensive we became when these dynamics were named. In turn, I saw how our defensiveness maintained the racial status quo.
Specifically, the idea that civility is more important than justice. The demand that we allow the powerful to eat in comfort, to never be disturbed, is nothing short of respectability politics. It’s a moving goalpost, historically used to shame, frame, and exhaust people who, despite being brutalized and terrorized, wanted not revenge, but equity. I have no patience for it.
Whiteness and power call for civility while hanging black bodies from trees.
Whiteness and power call for civility while locking children in camps.
Whiteness moves the goalposts FOR BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS while demanding that the powerful and the power-hungry, not be the least bit disturbed or discomforted.
For nonwhite people, freedoms are granted conditionally, and could be revoked at any time for any reason. They are negotiable, temporary, dependent on whatever chemical cocktail happens to be occurring a white person’s brain when they pass us on the street.
White Americans, especially land-owning white men, have been allowed to use literally every available option to secure their freedom, including asymmetrical warfare, which is just a fancy term for terrorism.
Every available tool employed by white Americans has been deemed noble, patriotic, morally just, and necessary.
Everyone who wasn’t white? Well our actions had to meet the muster of the moral code whiteness (ostensibly) aspired to but consistently and staggeringly failed to meet. The self-evident rights to life, liberty, equality, and pursuing happiness were considered more like suggestions for the rest of us. It is the difference between sitting down at the table for a wonderful meal, and sitting down with a hungry, crying toddler, your own belly growling, and making a vision board with pictures of food. The difference a plate of food and picture of food. You are allowed to view, but you are not allowed to taste or touch. In the American context white freedom and all “other” freedom do not exist in the same moral universe.
As always, this story demands historical context. Historical context is, as we know, something whiteness exists to shield white people from entirely. Whiteness protects and defends ignorance, but you don’t know what you don’t know so we will endeavor to learn together.
Whiteness is a social construct, created to protect and preserve power, that insulates and protects white people from having to understand anything outside the realm of their own experience. It protects the ignorance of white people and allows them to announce their ignorance loudly and confidently, often with no pushback (because no one else in their circle knows any better either).
Whiteness is law, legitimacy, citizenship, the benefit of the doubt. Not-white is doubt. Not-white has to prove, not just once but over and over: 52 traffic stops. Can a white person even imagine? For 52 times Philando Castile had to stop and show his papers, keep his cool, say yes sir, no sir. Had to check the fury that surely rose in him with every stop, every new harassment and humiliation. This remarkable record of self-control should properly be called superhuman. A certain kind of gasbag politician loves to yatter at minorities for their alleged dearths of “personal responsibility,” yet these pols remain blind to a form of strenuous personal responsibility that’s enacted in some fashion several million times a day by people of color in America.
We’ve gone so far as to organize our gods around misogyny. The evangelical South’s support for Roy Moore has drawn shocked, breathless comment. But the white South’s Christian faith has always been malleable, bending to accommodate the power of white men.
Masculinity operates like whiteness: It demands control over any space it enters. It plants itself in the center and shoves anything coded as feminine to the edges. In a man’s world, decisive is better than deliberate. Bold is strong; cautious consideration is weak. Reflection invites regret, and that’s weak, too. Ditto collectivity-the rugged individual only joins a group in which he can be the reigning hero. And he keeps his emotions in check. Better to strike out in rage than sit in your sadness. I spent far too many years accepting these falsities as obvious truths, wearing them like a straitjacket around my own humanity.
And just as these ideas confine the minds and hearts of men, they corrode public life. They are at least part of the reason that we have an economy organized around greed, a culture that frames collectivity as a threat to individuality, and a politics that approaches nuanced problems with rigid yes/no debates.