Disarming White Fragility & White Grief
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a former police officer who’s now been charged with 2nd Degree Murder, we’ve seen protests for justice in cities across this nation and the world on our behalf. This type of solidarity hasn’t been seen in this nation for many years, and it brings hope that perhaps there is some change coming.
I’ve noticed in the wake of this movement, another predictable phenomenon has taken place among my white friends on social media: the rise of white fragility.
As white people, when we hear from BIPOC voices who try to explain to us what we’re missing, it’s normal to feel defensive if we haven’t heard from them very often in our lives. Persons of color represent a very different perspective from our own. We get defensive because if we aren’t accustomed to dealing with our own racism, hearing the truth about how a person of color perceives us will often cause us to get anxious and angry in response.
This unreflected emotional response is called “white fragility”, which is the tendency of white folks to lose their minds when someone tells us that the racist thing we just said is, in fact, a racist thing we just said. The responses range from white rage, which is the angry explosion at the person who dared to question our good intentions, to white guilt, which is the unhealthy bargaining and begging forgiveness inappropriately. It’s inappropriate because the person experiencing this guilt often doesn’t understand why they need to be sorry in the first place, or are obviously really more sorry they got caught.
I’m looking at you, Dog Park Karen.
When someone says something like “I can hear your fragility coming through”, what they’re trying to say is something like, “Your reaction gave me the realization that your own experience might not have prepared you to hear the truth about what that means in a context that allows you to understand it. I invite you to disengage and reflect on this moment so you don’t mess this whole place up when your head explodes.” Honestly, the first several times someone mentioned this to me I had a natural response to it, guilt and shame.
As I reflected, I realized that these feelings of guilt and shame are actually responses of grief. The work of becoming open produces grief responses because this work represents a huge shift in perspective. Grief isn’t about death or loss, but change. The closer something is to our core identity or our own self-understanding, the harder it is to change, and the more grief it produces.
Part of disarming white fragility, white guilt, and white rage is facing the grief of changing our perspectives about who we are and what makes us good and bad people. Racists aren’t bad people, racists are just people. Racist behaviors are bad behaviors in the same way that justice oriented behaviors are good behaviors. The worst people can do the best things and the best people can do the worst things.
Luther expressed this with the phrase, “Simultaneously saint and sinner”. We’re all everything. That just has to be okay because we don’t get a choice in that. What we can choose is how we cope with that fact.
White Grief and the Shattering of White Fragility
What follows is rooted in the Kübler-Ross model for 7 Stages of Grief for a dying person. Though this is my own original construction, I feel certain I can’t be the first person to say it. These aren’t necessarily in order, and this is the first time I’ve attempted to describe it this way, but I think it works.
Denial: They can’t mean me, I don’t have a racist bone in my body.
Anger: I can’t believe they’d say that about me! How DARE they call me racist!
White Rage: Embarrassed Eric SMASH!
Depressed Self-Victimization: Everyone’s trying to tell me what a bad person I am, why are they being so mean and rude to me?
Bargaining: But certainly there must be some way you can see it my way. Whatabout….
Guilt / Shame: What if this is true? People with racist thoughts / tendencies / actions are bad people, OMG I’m bad! I can’t be bad!
Hyper Vigilant White Savior: I have to stomp out all forms of racism I ever encounter, call people racist, adopt phrases of the movement, call myself an ally, and overtly do all the things! LOVE IS COLORBLIND!!!!!!!!
These may follow the above, but I cycled through a lot of different iterations of these stages before I began to experience my own healing.
Acceptance: I have racist thoughts, I’ve said racist things, I’ve done things that are harmful to persons of color because I didn’t understand these things about myself. Sometimes I’ve done these things with full understanding.
Healing: I can’t do it all, it’s not my responsibility to “save” “them”. It’s my responsibility to do less harm through my actions
Synthesis: I am not my thoughts, actions, or past — but all of these are a part of me. My core identity is that of a person who has their own worth, and my race, religion, and personal experiences. Others have their own worth, and my race, religion, and personal experiences. My identity isn’t threatened by another person’s identity, and by fully seeing who they are and loving them where they are, I grow and my experience is enriched.
White Power & Privilege Used to Dismantle White Power & Privilege: I will exercise my power and privilege to amplify BIPOC voices, to do the work of educating my white siblings so that my BIPOC siblings don’t have to wear themselves out by being expected to do all the heavy lifting, and figure out ways that my own efforts can make the world around me a more equitable place.
Reconciliation & Reparation: When I recognize that my words, actions, or perceptions have given a person cause to offer correction, I’m comfortable enough in my own skin to listen and reflect on the feedback rather than respond with defensive anxiety.
I asked my friend Francisco Herrera what this model is missing, and he said “Radical Action”. He continued that radical action means, “that you will literally put EVERYTHING on the line, your body, your reputation, to defend people of color. It is hard at the beginning, but later you won’t even blink. And people will see that and keep their distance and not infringe on your or the space of others.
“To be honest? That kind of action is a decent, healthy outlet for white guilt, too. It is one of THE things that transforms white guilt into actual solidarity because there is a sincere desire to do something, but there is a tension of losing privilege or getting in “too deep.”
“Well, once they realize the immensity of the problem, it gives them a kind of resignation that not only engages full commitment but also makes white guilt obsolete. And this is something that is so powerful, a conversion so obvious, people of color don’t even have to talk to the people to know they’ve made that tranformation. We’ll just feel it, know it.
“Also make sure that folks know that this isn’t something they SHOULD do. Their salvation or the state of their soul is (likely) not dependent on it. Christ took care of that (though maybe not, too, as Jesus hates hypocrites, but I digress). Let them know that by taking up this burden on behalf of their black brothers and sisters and kindred they are in deed taking up a cross and that Jesus will help them shoulder that burden. And that power and love in kind will come to them. Teach this not as an obligation, not as a tool but, as a CALL.”
So I say to you now as instructed by my friend, this work isn’t an obligation but a CALL. It’s the living out of the love that God pours into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that’s been given to us. It’s the solidarity in suffering to which we are called by bearing the cross of Christ upon our brows. It’s the gift of all we have to offer without holding anything back, because this is what it means to live in Christ.
This is a hard teaching, but the time for milk has ended. It’s time to eat the meat.