WHITE FRAGILITY DECODED
How our defensiveness undermines our racism efforts
Rev. Kit Ketcham, PUUF, Jan. 13, 2019
During these last months of my being your minister, I’ve discovered in myself a need to speak about some of the most important issues of our current world situation. I’ve spoken with you about the post-election trauma syndrome that has affected us for the past two years, the growth of hate rhetoric and how antisemitism has burgeoned and has infected American culture with even more virulent forms of racism, sexism, homophobia, and the anger directed toward “the Other”, the persons who are different, who stand out for some perceived characteristic, be it religion, skin color, gender, disability, sexual orientation, whatever the hater has learned to fear, to hate, to condemn, to avoid, to oppress.
I’ve been reading quite a bit lately in preparation for writing this message: “Centering”---a book of essays by UUs of color about Antiracism specifically written for UU ministers; “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo; and “Becoming” by Michelle Obama. And I sat down for a conversation with a personal friend of mine, to learn about his experience as a man of color in almost totally lily-white Clatsop County.
This journey into up-to-date writings about racism and white supremacy has made me think hard about my attitudes toward race and whiteness, where my attitudes were shaped, and how they affect me today. Your mileage, of course, may vary.
I don’t remember noticing people of color in my earliest years. There may have been an elderly black man in my dad’s Portland congregation, but I don’t remember for sure.
When we moved to eastern Oregon though, I went to school for eight years with Cayuse and Umatilla Native students and only thought of them as exotic---and somehow just kids
at the same time.
Exotic because of their tribal connections, the finery the girls wore in local festivals, especially the Pendleton RoundUp, and the amazing athletic skills of the boys whose parochial high school competed with our high school in various sports. I knew they weren’t white, exactly, but I didn’t think of Natives as being “other”. They were just my friends Belva and Joyce Hoptowit and the high school basketball stars, Peter and Paul Quaempts, pretty ordinary except for the special attributes of being Native.
It wasn’t till years later that I began to wonder what it must have meant to these friends to be small islands of color in a slightly larger pond of white students. I once googled the names of these friends I had known fairly well and discovered that several of them had not lived past middle age; no cause of death given, but I had learned by then that alcoholism and chronic illnesses had plagued Native tribes for centuries.
It was at about this time that I learned, also, that the famed Whitman Mission National Historic site near Walla Walla had not had its true story widely told. This was the place where the Native people came to believe that poisoned medicines had killed many of the native peoples who had sought help from the Whitman missionaries, inciting the Cayuse people to rise up and murder their providers.
The version of the story told to schoolkids was varnished to place most blame upon the ungrateful and ignorant Cayuse people who killed the blameless Protestant missionaries in cold blood, but there are indications that disease swept the Native camps, disease brought in by white settlers and others, not poisoned medicines.
At Linfield College, I found several new friends of African, African-American, and Asian heritage. Though there were only a few on campus, those few were well-known and accepted, as far as I remember.
In my senior year, I roomed with a black girl named Millie. Millie and another girl, Judy, had planned to room together, but Judy’s parents put the kibosh on that plan because of Millie’s black skin and the dean of women asked me to be Millie’s roomie, which I was glad to do. I could not imagine my parents telling me I shouldn’t room with a black girl.
I had not previously realized that racism was alive and well in some Linfield parents. I was shocked and was glad to accept Millie as my roommate, which turned out to be a good situation for both of us, from my point of view. But the shame of being shunned by her friend’s parents seemed to linger in Millie and she never seemed to be truly comfortable with our situation.
As an aside, decades after graduation, I had a chance to catch up with a black friend who had sung with our Linfield a cappella choir, Archie Smith, who had gone to seminary after his graduation, gotten his Ph D in religious studies and came to my seminary, Iliff, in Denver, to teach a summer course.
In a conversation with him during that summer, I learned that Archie and Millie and Rick and Bernie and Emmons and all the black students I knew had been afraid to walk downtown in McMinnville because of the harassment on the street and by cars passing by. Mounting evidence of my ignorance about racism became a cause for me. (McMinnville still harbors its racist component, if you’ve recently read the newspapers.)
My first job out of college was with welfare clients in Klickitat and Skamania counties in the Columbia River Gorge where I learned first hand of the poverty Native clients endured.
My second job was as a home missionary at the Denver Christian Center, offering after-school and evening programs for kids of all ages and assistance for their parents, almost all black and Hispanic. My third experience was as a student teacher in a Denver junior high during April of 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and the city erupted.
Ironically, my first job as a Spanish teacher was in the lily-white junior high school in Evergreen, Colorado, a ritzy but rustic town in the Front Range of Colorado, a wealthy suburb of Denver.
From that point on, my career moves landed me in white school after white school---all junior highs, if that gets me any points for diversity and challenge. And my UU congregation, in Golden, CO was about as white as they come, with maybe one black family and a few multi-racial kids who had been adopted by white families or the product of one white and one black parent.
It wasn’t until seminary, 25 years later, that my environment changed and I was able to connect with many fellow students of color. I began to be aware of the insidious system which prevented many, perhaps most, people of color from achieving the same success as their white peers.
Mainline denominations hesitated to bring a black or Hispanic or Asian or Native minister into their leadership positions. Even Unitarian Universalists have struggled to overcome the systemic conditions which keep qualified candidates of color from achieving at the same levels as their peers, from being selected for ministerial or other leadership positions because search committees are afraid of creating conflict in their congregations or agencies, choosing white candidates (and often male) instead of a candidate of color, particularly women of color. Search committee members, consider this in your search.
Let’s look at some of the terminology of racism, the terms that are frequently reported in our news media: White supremacy, white superiority, white fragility, all have separate meanings, though the constant factor is whiteness. I hope to flesh out their meanings in such a way to help us see what each of them means in terms of our own lives.
Before I talk about these terms, I’d like to ask you to think about your own experiences with people of color. (Nod or otherwise indicate your response, if you wish.) Did you have black or brown or Asian friends when you were a kid growing up? How much contact with people of color have you generally had in your life? Have you had conversations with these folks about race and racial differences? In conversations about race, do you ever find yourself being somewhat defensive?
Two terms I’m using today---white supremacy and white superiority---are not synonyms, not similar words for the same concept. White supremacy means that systems and practices and policies are generally based on the preferences of the white majority or power group. In other words, white preferences are supreme because they outnumber others’ preferences.
This means that minority folks are widely prevented or discouraged, either actively or passively, from having the same benefits that white folks have, simply from the difference in numbers. This is what we know as systemic racism and it does NOT mean that white people are bad, but that we are mostly unaware of the unspoken privilege we have and the sheer weight of the difference in numbers.
White superiority is the attitude of many individuals and groups that minority folks are second class citizens and do not deserve the same benefits as majority folks. This group tends to harbor neo-Nazis and white nationalists. This is what we know as racial bigotry and it too can be passive or active.
White fragility is the discomfort that many, perhaps most, of us white folks experience when challenged to talk about racism and which makes it difficult for us to listen deeply to the experiences of our friends of color. Our friends of color may find it difficult to talk to us about their experience of racism if we are uncomfortable listening.
So often listening to someone else’s opinion or experience causes us to feel as though our opinion or experience is being criticized. And in a situation where we are listening to someone whose experience is different from ours because of the racial differences between us, we are apt to feel defensive and want to minimize the situation to make ourselves feel less uncomfortable.
Robin DiAngelo recounts this experience when she was leading a workshop about white fragility:
I am a white woman. I am standing beside a black woman. We are facing a group of white people who are seated in front of us. We are in their workplace, and have been hired by their employer to lead them in a dialogue about race. The room is filled with tension and charged with hostility. I have just presented a definition of racism that includes the acknowledgment that whites hold social and institutional power over people of color.
A white man is pounding his fist on the table. His face is red and he is furious. As he pounds he yells, “White people have been discriminated against for 25 years! A white person can’t get a job anymore!” I look around the room and see 40 employed people, all white. There are no people of color in this workplace. Something is happening here, and it isn’t based in the racial reality of the workplace. I am feeling unnerved by this man’s disconnection with that reality, and his lack of sensitivity to the impact this is having on my co- facilitator, the only person of color in the room.
Why is this white man so angry? Why is he being so careless about the impact of his anger? Why are all the other white people either sitting in silent agreement with him or tuning out? We have, after all, only articulated a definition of racism.
I’m guessing that most of us have seen and heard this kind of complaint from other white people. Perhaps we’ve stepped in and tried to calm the person down. Perhaps we’ve felt so bothered by the reaction we’re seeing that we tune out or leave the room. Perhaps we silently agree to some extent.
There have been efforts to improve the playing field for people of color (and women) over the decades since the Civil Rights Movement. One of the most controversial has been Affirmative Action which emerged from the Equal Opportunity Act.
Affirmative action policies often focus on employment and education. In institutions of higher education, affirmative action refers to admission policies that provide equal access to education for those groups that have been historically excluded or underrepresented, generally minorities.
But because we lack an understanding of the magnitude of the systemic racism in white society, we often react defensively if we feel we are going to lose out, that someone else, maybe someone we believe is not as qualified as we are, is going to receive something we feel we deserve. We are pretty attached to our white privilege and it’s scary to think of losing any of it!
There are 3 levels to the negative feelings we may harbor that are relevant to our understanding of racism. The lowest level Is prejudice. Prejudice is not necessarily a bad thing. We all have it. It helps us sort out our values and make choices about our behaviors. We have both negative and positive prejudices. We speak occasionally of being prejudiced in behalf of a person we like a great deal. That’s a pretty normal feeling.
Negative prejudice is the feeling of distaste we may have for a person or a value or an item that we are uncomfortable with. When we act on that negative prejudice, we are discriminating which is the second level of negative feelings against the object of the prejudice.
Now it’s one thing to discriminate against intolerance or a food we don’t like, but it’s another to discriminate against a person for whom we have a negative prejudice. In a successful society, we do not discriminate against persons we may not like but who are entitled to the same rights we have.
Outright racism (the 3rd level) is the end result of collective negative prejudice which is backed up by the power of legal authority and institutional control. This power and control are so entrenched as to escape our own perception and cloud our self-image.
In other words, we can be blind to the systemic racism that excludes certain humans and denies them the advantages we have. If we white people lived in a society that was dominated by another culture or racial group, we could experience the same exclusion and denial of advantages that belong to the dominant group. We too could struggle to succeed in that milieu.
A very pointed Tweet by Jim Rossignol, a frequent contributor to memes that cut right to the heart of a matter: “I’m always fascinated by the line ‘we don’t want to become minorities in our own country’. Why not? Are they treated badly or something?”
And from Francheska Ramsey, “Privilege does not mean you’re rich, a bad person, have had everything handed to you or have never had challenges or struggles. Privilege just means there are some challenges and struggles you won’t experience because of who you are.”
So how might we as Unitarian Universalists improve our understanding of and approach to the challenges of systemic racism and the white culture in which we live?
One of the most valuable things I experienced in my research for this sermon was the timeline of my life, in which I took a close look at how my own attitudes about race and “the Other” have developed. I didn’t grow up in a bigoted environment and I had several experiences with people of color in early life, but I still was blind to the effects of hidden racism.
It took 25 years in white junior high schools, a long period of time in which I had almost no contact with any person of color, followed by immersion in an educational setting (seminary) where I was able to hear the first-person stories of new friends and colleagues, to open my eyes to what I had not seen before.
When we ask “What can we do?”, I would suggest that it might be useful to create a personal timeline of our own knowledge of and interaction with people of color. As I created mine, I included all the memories I could come up with about my feelings from fear to joy---including the home environment I grew up in. It helped me link my early experiences to the surprises and shocking learnings I had found, things I had not seen about myself and my life and our society.
I became aware that, though I had had several positive and joyful childhood and early adulthood experiences with friends of color, by the end of my junior high school teaching and counseling career, I had lost contact with all my friends of color, rarely saw a peer or colleague of color, and had distanced myself from the conflicts over race that appeared in the news.
Now I’m making up for that lost time. I am practicing carefully listening to people of color, as well as those others whose lives are different from mine. It’s an education and a life-changing experience. I wish it for you as well.
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
BENEDICTION: As David extinguishes our chalice, let us close with our benediction.
Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering to listen to those who are different, to let go of our natural defensiveness, and to vow to observe the ways in which our culture fosters white supremacy and denies opportunity to our friends and neighbors who are not white. May we resist and oppose those systems which are discriminatory and may we speak up when we hear and see unfair treatment. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.