American society has long valued white people’s comfort above protecting the safety, livelihood, and equal rights of Black people. Changing this means confronting white fragility, a self-victimizing defensiveness white people assume when race is brought up. “Being fragile when entering a conversation about race, and any topic for that matter, can easily re-center the conversation on your own feelings,” says Michelle Saahene, activist, coach, and co-founder of anti-racist movement From Privilege to Progress. “These feelings become your main focus” rather than the topic at hand.
In order to dismantle institutionalized racism, white people need to be aware of how their own white fragility is damaging to that mission. Below, learn other terms and actions that, along with white fragility, move the focus away from anti-racism and toward protecting the feelings of those whose livelihood doesn’t depend on fighting for it. Once you are aware of these white fragility examples and are accountable for yourself, you can call out (and call in) others to strike real progress.
Your anti-racist glossary of white fragility examples and actions
Definition: Centering is when a white person prioritizes their feelings and experiences over the lives of Black individuals. According to Saahene, centering phrases may include, “I’m trying, and it never seems good enough,” “If Black people weren’t so angry, the message could be heard better,” and “I always seem to say the wrong thing, so I’m just going to shut up.”
“[White guilt] prevents you from centering what should be centered: the insurmountable fact that Black people have faced racism and violence in this country for hundreds of years, and the necessity for white people to move through these feelings to take action to end systemic oppression,” she says.
IRL Example: One recent example is the “I Take Responsibility” PSA from June, where 14 white entertainers declared via a short black-and-white video clip that they, well, “take responsibility” for their role in societal racism.
The PSA may have been created with good intentions, but its impact missed the mark because it centered the celebrities and the actions they claimed to be taking rather than simply doing those actions or side-stepping the white A-listers and amplifying Black voices instead.
Definition: Erasure is the act of erasing, co-opting, stealing, and appropriating the ideas of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) folks, and it often happens without attribution or credit to the original concept. For example, it’s reported that Betty Boop was originally based on Esther Jones, a Black singer with a signature “boo-oop-a-doo.” However, white actress Helen Kane is more popularly recognized as the model for the famous cartoon character.
IRL Example: During a Well+Good TALKS panel in collaboration with inclusive wellness organization Dive in Well, racial-justice educator, spiritual activist, and Well+Good Changemaker Rachel Ricketts relayed an incident of erasure. Back in June, a few white people who work in the wellness community announced plans to host a virtual retreat focused on how to be anti-racist, which they billed as a “Black Lives Matter” edition. This spurred multiple comments on social media from Black women, including Ricketts, who pointed out how this was co-opting, backpacking, and profiteering from the BLM movement with white women educating, which is unhelpful and not an act of support. Despite the time and emotional energy spent trying to educate the organizers of this event with such comments, the event ultimately moved forward without any acknowledgement, apology, or credit to where credit was due.
“They proceeded with that event, and basically just silenced the [Black women],” Ricketts said during the TALKS. “They did take some of our suggestions, but without crediting any of us or making any statement about what had happened or addressing the harm in any way, shape, or form—mostly just doing the bare minimum so that they could get away with what it as they wanted to, and then silencing the rest of us.”
Definition: Gaslighting is a manipulation technique in which one party psychologically undermines another by making them question their own sanity and reality. Racial gaslighting, in particular, underplays and belittles the reactions, responses, and feelings of BIPOC. It might sound like, “It’s just a joke, you’re being too sensitive,” or “Not everything is about color,” or “You’re overreacting—what I said isn’t racist.”
IRL Example: At the height of the uprisings following George Floyd’s murder, activist, energy healer and Dive in Well founder Maryam Ajayi experienced gaslighting. Two white women in the wellness community asked her to participate in an Instagram Live without compensation to educate their audience. When Ajayi inquired about a mutual exchange for her labor, they said they didn’t have the budget to pay her, and said they “respected her boundaries” if she didn’t want to do it. Ajayi clarified that this wasn’t about boundaries or money, but an equal exchange for her labor as a Black woman undergoing so much trauma. After she offered a few ideas for mutual exchanges, they decided to shut her down and not support her work.
When she called them out on Instagram (anonymously) as a lesson on how brands should not approach Black educators for their labor, they responded with a video exhibiting gaslighting behavior.
“They mischaracterized the situation [and] villainized me, they used words like ‘angry,'” said Ajayi during the TALKS. “They used my name with complete disgust. And they said that their Black friends told them that they didn’t do anything wrong, [when] anti-Blackness lives within everybody and it’s our work to dismantle it.”
Definition: Plainly put, silence is violence. It is complacency and inaction when witnessing racism, sometimes compounded by feeling that a white person isn’t qualified to speak out about what’s racist.
“By opting to ‘let the experts’ take on this fight for humanity, you are opting out and essentially co-signing off on whatever happens to other humans,” says Saahene. “The more people working together, the more we can get done and faster. The reason systemic oppression still exists is because of mass white comfort and complicity.”
IRL Example: Dive in Well was founded after Ajayi very publicly called out “manifestation expert” and To Be Magnetic (formerly Free and Native) founder Lacy Phillips. Ajayi had joined a Facebook group led by Phillips, and when the conversations turned to matters of racial inequity, Phillips started to remove from the group those who were speaking out. Ajayi then wrote an article on Medium calling her out, which essentially went ignored. “So many people in wellness saw it, it went viral,” Ajayi said during the Well+Good TALKS. “No one did anything. That’s how Dive In Well was born.”
While the negative experience was able to spark a healing community, it also left Ajayi emotionally and physically bereft. She relayed her experience at the TALKS: “It took so much energy out of me to the point where like, I couldn’t even walk for a couple of days, and then I experienced so much harm and retaliation from wellness folks,” said Ajayi. “I had Black and Brown women that were close to me that continued to support this person’s work, which is violence on its own.”
People even came forward to acknowledge that they had seen the article in question, didn’t care, and were going to continue working with that person. “And then they experienced harm and wanted me to come and save them,” she said.
Definition: White tears refer to when white people use crying or complaining as a defense mechanism to avoid talking about their role in racism, or racism in general, says Saahene. It stems from a lack of emotional resilience when talking about tough issues, particularly race, resulting from the privilege of not having to confront it. And it can appear in A multitude of different ways.
“For instance, when The Little Mermaid was to be cast as a Black mermaid, white girls lost it—the internet backlash, tears, and outrage were clearly indicative of their privilege of representation in every facet of life being threatened,” says Saahene. “When they were called out for their racism, they doubled down with more tears. Rather than empathize with the fact that there had been only one Black Disney princess ever, they chose tears over empathy. They wanted their privilege protected, while Black girls just wanted a bit more representation.”
IRL Example: According to Saahene, white tears may show up with a “well-intentioned” white person as well. She experienced this firsthand with her white friends when she became an activist.
“When I started talking about systemic racism and ways white people are complicit in a particular conversation, a friend of 26 years stopped talking to me for three weeks,” Saahene says. “This was a friend I spoke to almost daily. When I asked to talk about the silence and the deep pain it had caused me given that I had done nothing to her, she broke down in tears. I, on the other hand was tearless, even though I was the one who experiences racism, and who had been ghosted by a close friend.”
While Saahene finds her friend’s shame and guilt understandable, it refocused the conversation on herself. “In those situations, the Black or other non-white person is left to coddle the white person shedding the tears, essentially centering their feelings rather than the issue,” says Saahene. “This type of fragility will not stop at not wanting to talk about race and will undoubtedly permeate through other parts of a person’s life,” says Saahene. “It should not be taken lightly. The next time someone gives you ‘white tears,’ remind them of their privilege, and that they are not the ones who have to experience actual racism.”
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