What does racism look like?
This past week, the news cycle has been chewing on a racist photo that Virginia governor Ralph Northam included on his med school yearbook page: two people in costume, one in blackface, and one dressed as a Klansman. Unsurprisingly, there are both numerous calls for Northam’s resignation, as well as protestations by Northam and others trying to minimize the fallout. Debating the racism of an racist photo is not the purpose of this post — but it provides an illustrative example of how many people think of racism as being exemplified by cartoonishly obvious acts such as, you know, selecting an image of literal racism to feature as your parting visual legacy from an advanced degree. But as we’ve written about before, we are steeped in a white supremacist society– racism is embedded in our everyday lives, at all scales.
Much of the daily racism that Black and brown people experience can be invisible to white people, as white people are encouraged to think of themselves as “neutral”, or without race. One of the ways white people avoid discussing whiteness is by using history as a parry: if you ask a white person in the United States about their race, they’re likely to recount their family’s ethnic origin, e.g. Irish-American, English, Polish, Italian. In short, many white Americans will adhere themselves to an immigrant narrative that allows them nuance and wiggle room away from being identified as just “white.” The privilege that white people have in being able to offer their family’s specific origins is denied to many Black Americans*, because of being kidnapped and forced into chattel slavery — but furthermore, it makes race something that white people can put on and take off at will.
Many times, white people wishing to do better will offer an acknowledgement of their privilege as a kind of mea culpa for the ways in which they benefit in white supremacist society. OK, so you are privileged — now what? To offer one of our favorite quotes here at BlackLight:
In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist.”
— Angela Davis
In previous years, we’ve offer lots of educational resources– readings, movies, even comics. This month, we’ll be working on building antiracism as a practice, a way of being in the world that seeks to dismantle white supremacy. The first step in that practice will be in actively working against white fragility. In her 2011 paper, Robin DiAngelo offers a framework for seeing how White Fragility provides a retreat, bringing with it responses that allow white people to evade grappling with racism in daily life.
“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, including:
- Suggesting that a white person’s viewpoint comes from a racialized
frame of reference (challenge to objectivity);
- People of color talking directly about their racial perspectives (challenge
to white racial codes);
- People of color choosing not to protect the racial feelings of white people
in regards to race (challenge to white racial expectations and need/entitlement
to racial comfort);
- People of color not being willing to tell their stories or answer questions
about their racial experiences (challenge to colonialist relations);
- A fellow white not providing agreement with one’s interpretations (challenge
to white solidarity);
- Receiving feedback that one’s behavior had a racist impact (challenge to
- Suggesting that group membership is significant (challenge to individualism);
- An acknowledgment that access is unequal between racial groups (challenge to meritocracy);
- Being presented with a person of color in a position of leadership (challenge to white authority);
- Being presented with information about other racial groups through, for example, movies in which people of color drive the action but are not in stereotypical roles, or multicultural education (challenge to white centrality).
In a white dominant environment, each of these challenges becomes exceptional.
In turn, whites are often at a loss for how to respond in constructive ways.”
In the coming weeks, we’ll be asking our readers (hey that’s you!) to start noticing racial coding — get a notebook to carry with you, and while you’re at it, grab a friend or two to share your thoughts with.
Header image from 2017 Webby honoree, “White Fragility Workplace Training“.
*while we haven’t written about it here, it is worth mentioning that this information is often unavailable to indigenous people, whose histories and cultures (including language) were purposefully erased by European colonization in the Americas.