White Fragility in Colorado

As a member of the board of trustees at Jefferson Unitarian Church, I have been assigned homework. I am reading the book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo. It has been eye-opening, to say the least. 

One little taste of lesson-learning for me was this: When did women get the right to vote in the U.S.? It was in 1920, right? Isn’t that what I learned in history class? Nope. White women got the right to vote in 1920. Black women could not vote until 1965. Perhaps that was covered later, during lessons on the Civil Rights Movement, but I know for damn sure that I was not explicitly taught that “white women” got the right to vote in 1920, just “women.” When people talk about women getting the right to vote, they speak of the white experience as though it were the whole experience.

This was the beginning of exploring throughout the book all the ways our society has been set up from the outset to be advantageous to whites and disadvantageous to blacks. And because our society was/is set up to be white supremacist, as a white kid, it was impossible for me not to grow up racist. True, I was raised in a home where my white mother washed my white brother’s mouth out with soap for repeating the n-word after another kid used it. I was told that everyone was equal, and consciously, I believed that.

But until last Saturday’s reading, if someone had asked me when women got the right to vote, I would have earnestly said 1920 and believed I was right. I mean, if someone had said, “What about black women?” I might have said something stupid, like “Oh, yeah. That.” But my first response would have said a whole lot.

The book talks a lot about how we have been taught that being racist makes us bad people, and obviously, when you’re talking about discriminatory and violent racism, it does. Closer examination shows that we are all racist, and that whites, having been raised in a white supremacist society, have been utterly inculcated in white supremacy–not in that we all consciously believe that whites are superior, but we believe our experience is the universal experience in America. It’s the only experience worth talking about. When we are confronted with the unconscious manifestations of our racism, we become defensive. In our rush to deny our racism (because being racist makes us bad and we want to be good), we push away every opportunity to grow and become less racist.

This incident at Colorado State University is a perfect example. A group of white students at CSU started out putting a charcoal mud mask on their faces, just being silly. (I almost just wrote “students,” because “white” is the default, right? I had to correct that; I’ve got a lot of learning to do.) Then they posted a picture on Instagram with a caption that said “Wakanda forevaa” with the crossed-arm salute from Marvel’s Black Panther. Poof! What was a charcoal mask was transformed into blackface.

The father of one of the students had this to say: “She has been so persecuted over this (that) her life at CSU has become almost intolerable…In the course of her being labeled this white racist, she has become a victim herself.”

That student, Leana Kaplan, wrote, “The damage done to me is way out of proportion to an act of poor judgment during a moment of silliness.

“Again, this is not to compare this damage to the life-long impact of racial prejudice. I’d like to say to those who have been offended, it is unfair to conclude that an awful photo is evidence of an awful person. If progress is to be made in the battle against racism, the full spectrum of sensitivity must include not creating any more victims.”

Here’s the thing: Her participation shows that she is a white racist. I’m a white racist. If you’re white, I’m 99.9 percent sure you are, too. How can we not be when we have, despite whatever our parents have said and done, grown up in a society based upon an erroneous belief in our supremacy?

What if, instead of being awful to Leana, all us white folk looked at her “act of poor judgment” as evidence that we still have a lot of work to do? You know, stuff like teaching that white women got the vote in 1920 and black women in 1965. It’s just history. It’s not about judging. It’s just about acknowledging that white history is not universal history. Then, what the heck, we can include every aspect of the black experience in history lessons chronologically, like we do the white experience, instead of isolating it as if it wasn’t an integral part of American history. It’s one of a million ways we can acknowledge that America was and still is structured to benefit white people. 

Don’t believe it still is? Look at these two pictures of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. 

All those white folks you see were steeped in the idea that the white experience is the universal experience. The intentional codification of white supremacy was not a particular focus of their education, though its influence is significantly woven into every moment of U.S. history. Without this perspective, how clearly can they even see white supremacy in the laws and structures of our country, much less feel intensely motivated to dismantle it? After all, they are busily taking care of white folks’ issues, which must be everyone’s issues, right? Because if it’s a white concern, it must be a universal concern…

What if we could step back and agree that Leana is not an awful person? She is a person showing the influences of an awful system. Maybe if she and her father weren’t so busy trying to prove that she’s a good person (I imagine she probably is), they could help us see how all “good white people” can still be racist. Then we white folks could really start doing the hard work of dismantling racism. (I almost wrote, “Then we all could start doing the hard work of dismantling racism.” I’m pretty sure black folk and other people of color have been working on this a good, long time. Like I said, I’ve got a lot of learning to do. Do you?)

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Paula is an author of historical fiction as well as a wife, mom, and teacher.
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