White Fragility: The Need for Creating Psychosocial Stamina in Interracial Relationships

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by Eric D. Peterson

Why is it so difficult for so many White people to honestly, and interracially, talk about race and racism in America? Why does the term “White privilege” cause so much turmoil within many White people? How can a White person ethically claim they do not identify as being “White” in a Nation torn apart from racial inequality (health & socioeconomic), injustice, racism, and White Supremacy? How can a White person honestly state they have not earned their wealth and social status in a historical network of sociocultural, socioeconomic, and sociopolitical systems all rigged to their advantage? What is White Fragility and what does it have to do with The Work That Reconnects? As White people practicing The Work That Reconnects, how can we truly reconnect anything without first facing our own fragile racial positionalities in relationship to White Supremacy?

As White people practicing The Work That Reconnects, how can we truly reconnect anything without first facing our own fragile racial positionalities in relationship to White Supremacy?


In The World is made of Stories, David Loy helps the reader find more self-awareness around the process of storying—meaning making—and one’s relationship to one’s personal story as well as to the collective narratives we all co-create and share. Loy notes:

Like the proverbial fish that cannot see the water they swim in, we do not notice the medium we dwell within. Unaware that our stories are stories, we experience them as the world.

But we can change the water. When our accounts of the world become different, the world becomes different. (2010, p. 5)

What is your story of being White? What is your relationship to the story of Whiteness? How do you reconcile your Whiteness within the myth that is “America the Great”? How do you position yourself with the dominant narrative of White Supremacy?

This article is intended to help us “see the water” we are individually and collectively swimming within, as well as to help with the vital need to “change the water” we White people see ourselves within. This article invites you, as a White person, to find more spaciousness and humility within the stories of race, racism, White Supremacy, and the Colonial Legacy of the Western World. We are working to Reconnect a fragmented consciousness and worldview, but as White people doing this work, we must start very close to home and be willing to do some very uncomfortable Work of our own Reconnecting to the deeper racial realities of America and the Western World’s colonial consciousness.

Gratitude. I’m filled with gratitude for the self-awareness of being a White male. I’m grateful for understanding that my ability to identify with, or without, Whiteness is actually an exercise of my White privilege and my complacency within our racist society. I acknowledge I have personally, and systemically, benefitted from living in a sociocultural context of White Supremacy and Patriarchy, which breed racism and misogyny, and both are at the heart of the multitude of relational crises (e.g., social and ecological) we are currently facing. I’m grateful for my recent education in Anthropology, Psychology, Native American Studies, and Transformative Leadership, which all have helped (missing information flows) with the needed psychosocial education for me to more accurately see myself as a racially positioned member of our society, culture, and world. I’m grateful for how this specific educational pathway is helping me to understand my personal relationship to White Fragility and the need to do the personal Work of creating more racial self-awareness and psychosocial stamina. What is White Fragility? According to Robin DiAngelo (2011), the scholar who coined the term:

White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. Racial stress results from an interruption to what is racially familiar. These interruptions can take a variety of forms and come from a range of sources… (p. 57)

If we, as White people, are going to ethically do The Work That Reconnects, we must simultaneously do the personal Work of understanding what White Fragility is and how we create more psychosocial stamina within our interracial interactions.To accomplish this uncomfortable task, we must be willing to face the deeper truths, and myths, about White Supremacy, race, racism, and the privilege of being able to view one’s self as transcending race through some sort of New Age, or socially disconnected, universalism. We must find gratitude for the awareness that being able to view one’s self as somehow existing outside of race and racism is actually an act of privilege usually afforded exclusively to White people. We must find gratitude for the disturbing emotions of White Fragility, and see them as vital forms of feedback from our critically out of balance humanly constructed social systems (e.g., cultural, economic, political).

If we, as White people, are going to ethically do The Work That Reconnects, we must simultaneously do the personal Work of understanding what White Fragility is and how we create more psychosocial stamina within our interracial interactions.

Honoring our pain. I’m honoring our pain, and especially the pain of people of color, whom have been harmed (sometimes fatally) and systemically oppressed by White privilege, by my White privilege, and the institutionalized racism of White privilege. I’m speaking truth to White power, and to truly honor “our” pain, we all, as White people, must find the awareness and courage to speak truth to the White power that has granted us our White privilege.

It took nearly forty years for me to learn that there is no biological basis to race, and that race and racism are stories we have been told and then we pass them along to be retold by those who will come after us. These stories were created in America to keep the masses divided to protect the elite power holders, and they still serve that insidious purpose. “Race” is a social construction, which has no biological basis, but as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out “[r]ace clearly has no biological element- because we have awarded it one…Race does not need biology. Race only requires some good guys with big guns looking for a reason” (2015). This is a critical point here! Because to claim there is no biological basis of race, and therefore, if we only educated everyone to this “fact”, then racism would no longer exist, is a form of side-stepping one’s own responsibility and accountability to our humanly constructed racist systems, which have caused so much pain in our world. This type of logic definitely does not honor the pain of the millions of people of color who have been subject to slavery, genocide, systemic oppression, racism, and unjust mass incarceration. So how do we, White people, truly honor the pain of the “others” within this sociocultural context of White Supremacy and Patriarchy? How do we truly honor the pain of our world, if we continue to benefit from the systemic pain caused by our society of White Supremacy?

In Patriarchy, the System: An It, Not a He, a Them, or an Us, Johnson notes, “[t]he problem isn’t society and it isn’t us. It’s the relationship between the two… the nature of the thing we participate in and how we choose to participate in it and how both are shaped in the process” (2003, p. 32). As White people choosing to do The Work That Reconnects, we must face the true consequences of how we are choosing to participate in the dialectical nature of the shaping of our self and society, and how this is interrelated with the perpetuation of our system of White Supremacy.

Seeing with new eyes. I’m seeing with new eyes through a lens constructed from actively seeking out racial information (missing from the dominant discourse on race), which allows one to more accurately see the complexities of the social disequilibrium that America and the Western World was built upon and is perpetuated through. Our institutionalized story of education is missing vital racial information, which could help White people to develop more psychosocial stamina as well as become more racially literate. With respect to the role of missing information within system’s functionality, Meadows notes, “[m]issing information flows is one of the most common causes of system malfunction. Adding or restoring information can be a powerful intervention….” (2008, p. 157). How would you know what is missing within the racial information flows that have informed your racial literacy? Our social (racial) systems are obviously malfunctioning for “others”, but they are functioning quite well for the normative, which is being White.As White people practicing The Work That Reconnects, are we ready to see our Whiteness with new eyes? Are we ready to see White power and privilege with new eyes?

As White people practicing The Work That Reconnects, are we ready to see our Whiteness with new eyes? Are we ready to see White power and privilege with new eyes?

 

Talking directly about white power and privilege, in addition to providing much needed information and shared definitions, is also in itself a powerful interruption of common (and oppressive) discursive patterns around race.

Talking directly about white power and privilege, in addition to providing much needed information and shared definitions, is also in itself a powerful interruption of common (and oppressive) discursive patterns around race.At the same time, white people often need to reflect upon racial information and be allowed to make connections between the information and their own lives. (DiAngelo, 2011, p. 67)

If we are truly working to see with new eyes, White people have to be able to honestly face the power differential (e.g., social, political, economic) that White privilege necessarily, and systemically, creates, becausethe eyes of White Supremacy have been shaping the story of the Western World for hundreds of years.

the eyes of White Supremacy have been shaping the story of the Western World for hundreds of years.

As Jonson points out, “[o]n some level, most people are familiar with the idea that social life involves us in something lager than ourselves, but few seem to know what to do with that idea” (2003, p. 26). A vital piece of missing information within the stories we collectively tell ourselves is the interdependent relationship between self-creation and world-creation, because there is no society “out there”, there is no culture that we are conveniently separate from. Our humanly constructed systems do take on a life of their own, but we are the one’s who continue to breathe life into these living systems (intentionally or not), and if we are going to transform these systems, then we will need to see ourselves more honestly embedded within all of these systems, which includes the system of White Supremacy.

Going forth. I’m humbly going forth into the world with an intention of becoming more mindful of my own experience with White Fragility, and a sincere hope to help other White people become more racially informed and less psychosocially fragile. Just as our sociocultural context is constantly changing in some way, and represents a “work in progress”, so too is the personal Work of being White in a system of White Supremacy. In other words, dealing with our White Fragility is not something we check off the to-do list after reading some articles or books, and/or attending some workshop meant to bring more self-awareness to our racial understandings and racial/social positionality. Being a White person who most likely experiences some level of White Fragility, our personal Work, which is ongoing, is a vital part of our life’s pathway

dealing with our White Fragility is not something we check off the to-do list after reading some articles or books, and/or attending some workshop meant to bring more self-awareness to our racial understandings and racial/social positionality… our personal Work, which is ongoing, is a vital part of our life’s pathway

, and this is especially true if we identify with being agents of change through The Work That Reconnects.

While anti-racist efforts ultimately seek to transform institutionalized racism, anti-racist education may be most effective by starting at the micro level. The goal is to generate the development of perspectives and skills that enable all people, regardless of racial location, to be active initiators of change. Since all individuals who live within a racist system are enmeshed in its relations, this means that all are responsible for either perpetuating or transforming that system. However, although all individuals play a role in keeping the system active, the responsibility for change is not equally shared. (DiAngelo, 2011, p. 66)

The responsibility to transform our racist systems of White Supremacy is “not equally shared”! Racism stemming from White Supremacy is a White peoples’ problem. White Fragility is vital feedback from our imbalanced social/racial systems, and if we can find gratitude for its disturbing nature, then we can use it as a creative force of disrupting the system of White Supremacy and racism.

References

American Anthropological Association (1998). http://www.americananthro.org/ConnectWithAAA/Content.aspx?ItemNumber=2583

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. (2013). What we mean when we say: Race is a social construct. The Atlantic.

DiAngelo, R. (2011). White fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3), 54-70.

Johnson, A. (2003). Patriarchy, the system. ftp://ftp.ucss.ge/Gender%20Studies%202013-2014%20exam%20reader/13.pdf

Loy, D. (2010). The world is made of stories. Somerville, MA: Wisdom.

Meadows, D. H. (2008). Thinking in systems: A primer. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.


Over twenty-five years ago, Eric started working as an outdoor adventure leader. At the age of forty, he returned to Southern Oregon University (SOU) where he earned Bachelor of Science degrees in anthropology, psychology, and a minor in Native American Studies (2012). Recently, Eric graduated from California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) with a MA in Transformative Leadership. Eric is continuing his inquiry at CIIS in the Transformative Studies program (PhD, 2020). Eric is of Norwegian, German, and British descent, and lives in the Mount Shasta area of northern California with his partner Angelah, who is Filipina. Eric teaches Adventure Therapy at SOU, and is creating a career in teaching Transformative Leadership in academia as well as in the private sector.

Eric asks that any monetary appreciation for his article be directed to the Highlander Center: https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/1417777 Donations are tax deductible.

2 thoughts on “White Fragility: The Need for Creating Psychosocial Stamina in Interracial Relationships

  1. For me, living in a foreign country as a minority/immigrant for nearly 15 years as a white male taught me the truth of what Eric is saying. I felt racism and native privilege directed towards me that I had never imagined. I think more than “White Privilege,” it is “Native Privilege” and it festers and exists in a natural state in all cultures, including ours in the US, propogated naturally by the dominant socio-economic group that created the society and limits/controls/dominates/excludes other non-native groups trying to impinge on the main group. It is not just about race either, including gender, sexual-orientation, etc. If you are different, you suffer to make your presence known and somewhat accepted because for most people being different is uncomfortable until they learn about diversity, which is a difficult viewpoint for most people. Live in another culture trully and discover Native Privilege. Be careful to label it merely White Privilege as that narrows the true concept un-fairly. The true test is whether you are self-aware, as Eric is, and you attempt to struggle against your native group and point this out, resisting, for right or wrong, the nature of things in a closed, normal culture, as thet are around our planet. Go live abroad for years and years and immerse yourself completely and learn this universal truth in person.

    • For a White privileged male to deny that White Privilege exists is the epitome of what this article is trying to help people work through, and that being White Fragility and the complacency with the systemic perpetuation of our culture of White Supremacy. I appreciate your engagement, but please take another look at the literature on what White Supremacy and White Fragility really mean. This “Native Privilege” you write about here is a distraction strategy that People of Color, as well as White people working towards allyship, are tired of White males, like you, trying to deflect the relational responsibility that we all share. In fact, you and I, White privileged males, share more of the burden of this social responsibility to name these injustices as they are and to work to deconstruct the very unjust power-differential that has granted us unearned social, political, economical, and historical advantages. Exploring the “Native Privilege” is a worthy cause, but not at the expense and denial of White Privilege, which is very real.

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