White Fragility and Addressing Privilege

After my high school feminism class and I presented an assembly focusing on violence against women, I heard from many of my peers of color that a few white students felt attacked by sections that discussed #SayHerName, which highlights the ways in which Black women and girls are victims of state violence. After hearing this, I was not surprised that they were expressing what many now call white fragility and/or white guilt.  

As I was listening to my classmates’ frustrations about the responses towards their pieces highlighting violence against women of color, I realized that the idea of checking privilege and white fragility is something that we, as a school community, have yet to grasp, despite the fact that it has been the pinnacle of many discussions.

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My high school feminism class hosted an International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women 2016 assembly at our school  (photo credit: Steve Neiman)

In order to be able to address the issue of white fragility, we must understand the idea of privilege. In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, privilege is defined as “a special advantage that is granted to a group of people.” These “advantages” are given to each one of us at birth, through the color of our skin, the country we are born in, our socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Through the privileges we are given, one can choose to opt out of some discussions because we do not experience that element of discrimination and/or marginalization. This behavior can sometimes be prevalent when white feminists fail to recognize their white privilege.

When Gloria Steinem visited our feminism class, she described privilege using the example of a moving sidewalk.  She explained that those with privilege are walking on a moving sidewalk and those without these privileges walk on pavement. Although both groups of people are walking, one group can get to their destination faster due to the use of the moving sidewalk.

When one is born white, it is as if they are born on a moving sidewalk because white people do not need to endure the systems of oppression that come with being a person of color, so their “walk” is easier due to white privilege. This is why intersectional feminism is important to understand differences of experiences within larger systems of power and domination, such as racism and sexism. If we fail to recognize that each woman is going through different forms of oppression, we are failing to understand that women can experience other forms of marginalization in addition to sexism.

 

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Gloria Steinem visited our high school feminism class in the fall of 2016 (photo credit: Peter Martin)

A video that has helped me address the idea of my privilege is called “What Is Privilege?.” This video, made by BuzzFeed, addresses privilege through an exercise where the participants must either step forward, back, or stand still depending on whether they have experienced a certain privilege or not.  Watching this video helped me realize that I have many more privileges than I am aware of.

White fragility is a byproduct of privilege that is not acknowledged. White fragility is when white people feel attacked or left out of a discussion regarding an issue, particularly race. An example of this, is the idea of #BlackLivesMatter or #SayHerName versus #AllLivesMatter.  Although all lives do matter, the issue is that as a white privileged society, we do not value Black lives, which is why #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName are relevant and necessary. Despite this fact, many white people are still offended by these hashtags because they believe that they are too exclusive.

White fragility can also occur in many other types of situations, for example, the writer Luvvie Ayaji addresses in “Dealing with White Fragility on the Internet,” that she gets many comments from white readers, who feel that she is anti-white.  She then goes to explain how even though she is very pro-Black, she is not meaning to be anti-white, as she is only trying to advocate for herself and her community.  White people need to realize that just because people of color are discussing an issue that has been perpetuated by white people, does not mean that they are targeting you as a person, and neither is it their responsibility or duty to explain that to you.

 

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This quote exemplifies the idea that when Black people are pro-Black, many white people can take it to mean that they are anti-white because they are “excluded” from the conversation (photo credit: Afropunk)

 

As white people, it is very important for us to acknowledge privilege because that is when we can help dismantle racism. Once we acknowledge our privilege, there are a few things we must do. We must listen, educate ourselves, educate others and reflect on our own actions.

As white people, we must first learn how to listen, because during discussions on race, as a group, we tend to dominate the conversation, even though we have not experienced racism. In the discussion with Gloria Steinem, she stated that as a white person, one must listen as much as one talks. By doing this, it will help us become more aware as a group, about the issues around us.

In addition, because we haven’t experienced racism, we must listen to other people’s experiences to understand what it really is. When Alexis Pauline Gumbs, a Black feminist poet, visited our feminism class via Skype, we also discussed this idea. Alexis Pauline Gumbs explained that, “we must share our interests and experiences because they will help empower us in the future.” She then continues to analyze the idea that each person is an expert in their own experience. To be able to have a diverse and open community we must all share our experiences, so that we can break down systems of oppression.

Audre Lorde, also a Black queer feminist poet, also explores this idea in her writing. In an essay titled, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” Lorde explores how silence further perpetuates violence, she says, “the fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence.  And there are so many silences to be broken.”  

In saying this, Lorde addresses how by speaking up one is advocating for themselves and for a group of people.  By remaining silent, one is choosing to further perpetuate their own oppression.  In addition to this we must learn to listen as well, because by not listening we are further silencing a group of people. Through listening, we can begin to empower the people around us, which in the future, will help all movements grow.  

Secondly, we must educate ourselves as white people. Due to the fact we have the privilege to opt out of certain discussions, we must make an effort to educate ourselves because by not doing so, we are validating systems of oppression. As the famous Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, once said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” By choosing to not educate oneself, one is choosing to further silence an issue, which in consequence will silence a group of people.

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Audre Lorde reiterates that those who are oppressed are expected to teach the privileged about their own oppression.  This further perpetuates the marginalization of these groups (photo credit: Alim Collins)

Third, when we educate ourselves as white folks, we must also educate other white people as well.  In her book of essays, Sister Outsider, Lorde writes, “In academic feminist circles, the answer to these questions is often, ‘We did not know who to ask.’ But that is the same evasion of responsibility, the same cop-out, that keeps Black women’s art out of women’s exhibitions, Black women’s work out of most feminist publications.”  

She addresses that by white feminists not educating ourselves and others about the racism that women of color and all people of color experience, we are further perpetuating systems of oppression because the oppressed are forced to teach those who are ignorant.

In the same essay, Lorde writes, “This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.” If those of us who are in the position of the “master” educated others, then we will begin to break down the prominence of the “master’s concerns” and instead centralize those who are marginalized.  

Lastly, we must all reflect. If you feel targeted by a comment that highlights racism, perhaps it is because you have perpetuated that idea yourself, either consciously or subconsciously. Instead of being defensive and not listening to a person of color’s experience, reflect on your own discomfort, because through that you will be able to educate yourself and your community.

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