This is the 14th issue in the study of the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Today I am commenting on her 7th chapter, “Racial Triggers for White People”. “Most white people have limited information about what racism is and how it works,” she says. Many have taken an isolated multicultural course in college or required cultural training in their workplace, but these may not even touch on racism let alone white privilege. This reminded me of the courses I took at the end of my education for parent education. The two classes I took were intended to increase our awareness of differences between cultures in practices and beliefs. I don’t want to diminish the value of these but DiAngelo is right. It wasn’t until later, in situations outside of the school setting, that I learned about racism and white privilege. It was a deliberate action on the part of social concerns communities that education was sought through speakers and inter-cultural dialogue and experiences.
DiAngelo says that when courses and training do address racism, white responses tend to include anger, withdrawal, emotional incapacitation, guilt, argumentation, and cognitive dissonance. Progressive whites may not respond with anger but “they still insulate themselves via claims that they are beyond the need for engaging with the content because ‘they already had a class on this’, or ‘they already know this’.”
Being so quick to react at the suggestion that one might be racist is the basis of DiAngelo’s book title, White Fragility. She closed the chapter with the story of a teacher addressing two female students as “Girl”. One of the students reacted. “Did you just call me girl?” she asked. The other student said it was OK because the teacher calls all of her students girl.
The teacher later shared the story complaining that he had to be “so careful” and “can’t say anything anymore.” He thought the student was being oversensitive and the other student’s statement confirmed his belief. DiAngelo said that his reaction was a typical white narrative. As I was first reading the story I was tending to agree with the teacher, until I read this: “The teacher never considered that in not understanding the student’s reaction, they might be lacking some knowledge or context. They demonstrated no curiosity about the student’s perspective or why she might have taken offense. Nor did they show any concern about the student’s feelings.” In other words, it was all about him.
This is one of those moments when I have to take stock. If I say or do something that offends another person, rather than assume they are being to sensitive, I need to be curious about why my action was offensive to them. It may be a door into a deeper understanding of another person or, perhaps, of a whole community of people.