This past Thursday, I was at a professional event with my black colleague, nerding out about planning and data. At lunch we were joined by a handful of white colleagues who, harmlessly enough, wanted to chat with us about what we we working on. This conversation rapidly degenerated into a case study on white fragility.
At Decipher City, we talk a lot about race and perceptions of race in cities and how this shapes effects for citizens of all colors. This is a topic people often don’t want to get into, and watching our well meaning affiliates stumble into this and try to extricate themselves was an interesting case study in how white people often respond to the call to engage on racial issues–not with malice or ill intent, but with a set of (seemingly completely automated) subconscious, hair-trigger responses aimed at bringing the conversation anywhere else but there. Below is a loose reconstruction of portions of the conversation at every stage of its slow, awkward, occasionally funny disintegration.
Stage 1: Ignoring the Race Conversation
White Affiliate: (Trying to be encouraging about a recent project we discussed) It seems to me you guys just need more exposure for the work you do.
Black Friend: Perhaps, but often we find that people don’t want to talk about race and racism in cities and how this is perpetuated through municipal laws.
White Affiliate: I think you should just profile 10 zoning laws and explain why they don’t work anymore.
Here the white affiliate attempts a hard pivot away from a discussion about race by ignoring the content of my friend’s initial statement and substituting a safer item of discussion, back on a subject she is comfortable with and knowledgable about.
Stage 2: Misinterpreting the Power Dynamic
Black Friend: Sometimes the issue is simply that I am a black woman and people don’t listen to me.
White Affiliate: No, don’t say that! I feel like you can use that experience and it is just part of how you sell it. You speak really well, and I believe that you can use your outgoing personality as an asset!
Our white affiliate here seems to be confusing the statement ‘there is still racism in the world and it applies to me personally and affects my work’ as ‘I am down on myself for being black and need to be talked up by the white person to feel self esteem and to feel value in the things that I do.’ As white people, we are trained to hear any conversation about race initiated by a black person as an apology for being black. The white affiliate is operating under the assumption that she controls the tone and direction of the conversation and that her authority is being sought on this issue (despite many cues to the contrary).
Stage 3: Denial (And Recommendations!)
Black Friend: (In reference to concern over a particular law and how one goes about changing it) Look, we’ve done the work and read the history, and its very clear that activist groups of color approached the city many times over and their concerns were not heard. So we know from experience that this pathway hasn’t been effective for those citizens. And I myself go to a lot of public meetings and am very active and haven’t been able to receive direct engagement.
White Affiliate: But I think if you would just work directly with the departments you would get some traction on those issues.
My friend often calls the “but if you would just” moment, and it applies to both the struggle of black individuals and of entire black communities. “But if you would just apply to more jobs.” “But if you would just fix your resume”. “But if they would just organize and go to more public meetings”. “But if they would just…” My friend is here pointing out that there is a double standard for black and white people. The affiliate understands that this is the implication, but responds in a way that diminishes the importance of that point, suggesting subtly that whatever racism still exists in the world, there are solutions or workarounds my friend can use to get past them. In this way, the white affiliate makes overcoming racism the the responsibility of black people (ignore the haters and deal with it) rather than white people.
Stage 4: Confrontation and Dismissal
White Affiliate: (throwing money on the table) I will bet you $20 right now that if you write your content in a more approachable way and do (x,y,z and a few other strategic suggestions) you will have good readership for your blog.
Black Friend: (slightly amused) I would be really interested to see the demographic information on who reads the content YOU produce, because I think its a really different subset of people than the folks that engage on our stuff.
White Affiliate: (insistent) Well I think a good story is a good story and it could be relatable to anybody.
Black Friend: That just isn’t the case in our experience, and its not as simple as getting better marketing or following a formula.
White Affiliate: Well, I just think that’s a negative attitude.
Here the gloves come off. This stage involved a lot of back and forth as the white affiliate, becoming angrier, attempted to talk over my friend to end the conversation. She also expressed frustration that what she perceived to be her valuable expertise (opinions on solutions, interpretation of problems) was being rejected as irrelevant, untrue, or both. The white affiliate was now fed up with the conversation, having failed to win the perceived argument or establish her authority. She closed up, not wanting to engage in any further conversation on the topic.
Robin DiAngelo in her text White Fragility argues that we have reduced “the racist” quite narrowly to: 1. an individual (not a system) 2. an individual that is conscious of and explicit in their hatred for people of color and 3. An individual that has the intention to act on these beliefs. This leaves no room to discuss institutional racism or to hold well-meaning people accountable for implicit bias. The subtle ways that racial dynamics charge even polite professional conversation are unable to be discussed because our definition of racism is narrow. We also have no incentive to widen it, because we are comfortable in our own privilege and enjoy environments that accommodate our knowledge and attitudes.
How could this have been avoided? I talked this through with my black friend after we paid for our food and awkwardly left the restaurant. If the white affiliate had simply acknowledged that 1. Institutional Racism is Real 2. It is a factor in the issues my friend is constantly affected by in the work she does, the conversation could have proceeded on to other things (ie, in spite of that, what are some technical or creative ways to build a web presence). But it was so uncomfortable for this woman to even acknowledge the issue, let alone talk about race, that the conversation got stuck in place. (This is all both very ironic and very meta, given that the original topic of conversation–the work we do together–is explicitly and directly about how challenging it is to have the race conversation).
The takeaway here, white people, is this: You are going to have to have the race conversation at some point. If it makes you feel weird about your own accomplishments, you have to deal that. If it makes you realize there are huge gaps between your experience and that of a PoC, you have to deal with that. If it conjures up a memory of a time when you acted badly on the basis of an implicit bias you didn’t know you had…you are going to have to deal with that, too. The point is not to agree with everything that is said–the point is to make room for someone to say it, even when it’s not convenient for you.
So if you find yourself with your hairs standing on end, wondering what socially dangerous thing that black person is going to say that might potentially disrupt the harmony of the room, ask yourself: What am I so worried about, and is eliminating my discomfort more important than hearing what this person has to say? (I guarantee you the answer is likely to be No).