Saturday, March 11, 2017

On White Fragility

On Nov 18th of 2016, Vice President-Elect Pence attended the hit Broadway show Hamilton. 

At the end, one of the cast members, Brandon Victor Dixon, spoke to the audience and said these words,
"You know, we have a guest in the audience this evening. Vice President-elect Pence, I see you walking out but I hope you hear just a few more moments. There's nothing to boo, ladies and gentlemen. There's nothing to boo. We're all here sharing a story of love. We have a message for you, sir. We hope that you will hear us out. And I encourage everybody to pull out your phones and tweet and post, because this message needs to be spread far and wide, OK? Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us here at Hamilton: An American Musical. We really do. We sir, we, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us — our planet, our children, our parents — or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us. Again, we truly thank you for sharing this show, this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds, and orientations."
President-elect Donald Trump, early the next morning, got on twitter and said, 
"Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing.This should not happen! The Theater must always be a safe and special place.The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!"
As of today, #boycotthamilton is one of the top trending hashtags on twitter (hilariously miscalculated as a political action as the show is sold out for the next two years).

And then Betty White won the internet by saying, "It wasn't harrasment. That's just 'dressing room talk.'"

But let's break this down. 

First of all, he is literally saying, "Your appeals for safety have me feel unsafe." So, just let that roll around in your boggled mind for a while.

Second of all, he is, functionally, saying, "The theatre should be safe. That's important. The rest of America? Well..." This is underlined by the fact that he speaks up here but not against all of the acts of racism and vandalism that are carried out in his name. If white men are critiques, he speaks up. If people of colour are harassed or attacked he says nothing. 

Third, he's saying, "Your experience of being unsafe doesn't matter and has no merit of basis to it. My experience of being unsafe does."

Fourth, the intensity of his emotional reaction seems to saying that the words said on stage are equal to or worse than the very real things Dixon referenced in his words. In other words, being called out gently from the stage is the same as the fear of being pulled over and killed by a white police officer. Black people being harassed by police is made equivalent to Pence being spoken to from the stage. This is important to get. Women being harassed by men and being scared that they will be raped or killed is being made equivalent to Pence being spoken to from the stage. LGBTQ people being harassed and fearing for their safety and very lives is made equivalent to Pence being spoken to from the stage. I saw one commenter describe what happened onstage as 'hysteria'. Go find and watch the video yourself. When a white man can see what actually happened and call it hysteria... there's something fragile going on. 

Fifth, we have to dig directly into this reality of White Fragility. 

I have written about this before but this is too good a case study to miss.

This is what happens all too often with white men when conversations about race emerge. This moment is not strange or unusual to people of colour. This is not the first time they've seen it. They deal with it enough that a term for it was coined by Dr. Robin DiAngelo: white fragility. 

White fragility is "a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.”

Sarah Watts, in her article White Fragility Is Real, writes, "most white people “live in a social environment that insulates them from race-based stress,” due to their privilege as part of the cultural majority. In turn, says DiAngelo, whites are infrequently challenged and have less of a tolerance to race-based stress, causing them to be hostile, guilty, defensive, or fearful when confronted. This phenomenon is white fragility. In the end, white fragility ensures that conversations about race are derailed, and the status quo of white supremacy is upheld."

I've seen this so many times with my own eyes. A person of colour expresses 1% of the rage they feel is the most courteous of words and in the kindest of tones and a white person becomes devastated or angry.

"Why were they so angry and vicious?" they say.

And I shake my head. I know how they feel. I've felt it myself. But what they can't see is the incredible restraint and generosity. 

And to be very clear: white men will complain about being labled or talked about as a group but that's a sham. They love it when they're talked about as victims or heroes. That's not considered racist. But anything in the neighbourhood of critique? Reverse-racism! 

But in a culture so deeply steeped in punitive justice, it's understandable that any analysis might be seen as the seed of punishment to come rather than just being a sustained and faithful gaze at the way things are and an attempt to discern and name patterns. And I'm not saying that shaming isn't in the tone of voice of some but most suggestions that white men might carry some unique constellation of responsibilities, privileges, poverties, responsibilities or that we might hold some unique and important role in the work of social justice are often met with this fragile defensiveness. 

Any attempt to name any general patterns by which white men are known by women and people of colour are met with cries of 'racist' or 'sexist'. 

That Trump would call this courteous and impassioned plea to be heard 'harassment' says everything about his sense that he is entitled to always feel safe and comfortable no matter what. And it says everything about his lack of capacity to empathize with others who do not feel safe. Though to be fair, he finally understands what a safe space is so, that may be progress.

To be in a position of power and to imagine that no one should ever publicly express their concerns about you to you is to reveal yourself as the boy king you are.

To say that the eloquent and respectful expression of pain and fear is 'rude' is to say that pain and fear about one's self must never be expressed by others.

I heard of a tribe, and I wish I could remember which it was, in which leaders were prepared for their roles. When they were chosen, by a community who could vote them out in a second, they were taken to a hut at the edge of the town. Over the next two days, they were told to stay awake and listen to what people came to tell them. Over those two days, people from the village appeared and told them, as they sit listening in the hut, every blind spot they saw in them, every weakness, every selfish tendency. They laid it bare for them. The message? 'You are about to be in a position of great power. A small slip from you will have a big consequence for everyone.' They saw that being in such a position asked a great deal of the person and that the person had to be prepared and, perhaps like a metal smith tempering iron, the weakness had to be taken out of them with the tough, loving blows of their words. Fragility had consequences. And it still does today.

It is, perhaps, no coincidence that Trump, an untempered man, has such a temper. 

I remember a friend of mine who, at age 25 was the Chief of his Gwitch'in village in Alaska describing to me how the first year of his term involved him being constantly yelled at by the grandmothers in the village for all of the mistakes he was making. That was just part of the process.

If you are in a position of great privilege, and as white men, we are, and you can't hear the expressions of pain, heartbreak, anger and fear without defending, changing the topic, or complaining about focusing on the negative, then that says more about you than it does about the people expressing their pain.

If you don't want to fragile as a white man, then know it is these blows that will temper you, it is the hard winds of hearing this pain that will make the trunk of your tree stronger, lifting the heavy weight of hearing the fears that seem so foreign to you that will build you muscle. And then rest for a while, reflect and breathe. That's when the muscle grows most. But a muscle has the opportunity to grow when it is asked to work, when it is asked to do something more than it normally would, when it is asked to do bear a burden greater than its current capacity to hold. 

You don't lose your fragility by avoiding conflict but by engaging it with an open heart and a deep willingness to learn unwelcome things. 

The problem is not in the appearance of the consternation of others. The problem is in our thought that it shouldn't be there - that we are entitled to a life free of the challenges of other people and the consequences of our actions and the actions of those who came before us.

In the end, what's fragile is not us but the story we hold of the world that doesn't match up to the new information we're getting. What's fragile is the fiction that the dominant culture is just, that racism is a thing of the past, that everyone loves us, that we totally get what it's like to be a person of colour or indigenous, that they feel totally gotten by us, and that everyone is happy and as well off as we are. That story is fragile because it's untrue. We are not fragile.

It's a story born of privilege and all that this doesn't allow us to see.

And so here it is: privilege, that great swaddling blanket of entitlement, is the father of fragility and the cold, unexpected winds of reality blowing in through the seams of this tightly woven garment? Well, that is that child's initiation into adulthood.

Fantasies are fragile. Let them shatter, that you might be tempered.

These are the hard yards. 

Additional Reading: