In my 11 years leading anti-racist discourse and education in diverse settings, I have recognized a variety of reactions that commonly arise from white folks who are new to (1) our shared history that has not been watered down to minimize white violence; (2) assertive, confident, and direct facilitation of discourse by a Black woman; and (3) the notion of white accountability for mitigating their own racism, and dismantling systems of oppression that provide them unearned privilege at the expense of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). These reactions function to derail conversation, center the discourse around their feelings and their (typically poorly educated and under-researched) perspective or opinion, and undermine the authority and expertise of the facilitator.
Here's an outline of the 6D's I often encounter:
Disagree to be Disagreeable
"...Whites are the least likely to see, understand, or be invested in validating those
assertions and being honest about their consequences, which leads whites to claim that
they disagree with perspectives that challenge their worldview, when in fact, they don’t
understand the perspective. Thus, they confuse not understanding with not
agreeing...Yet dominance leads to racial arrogance, and in this racial arrogance, whites
have no compunction about debating the knowledge of people who have thought
complexly about race. Whites generally feel free to dismiss these informed perspectives
rather than have the humility to acknowledge that they are unfamiliar, reflect on them
further, or seek more information."
Despite (usually) being the least educated or experienced in racial awareness, white
people, particularly men (in my experience) fully feel entitled to disagree with my years
of lived experience, academic study, and professional experience.
What you can do: If you are going to be in anti-racist discourse, enter with humility. If you hear information that does not sit well within you, or competes with your preexisting beliefs, write it down. Research it later. Ask the facilitator for an opportunity to discuss (not debate) outside of the session. Question yourself what is driving your feelings of discomfort? What is the source of information that is being challenged? Is the source of your preexisting belief based in anti-racism, or the status quo?
Anti-racism spaces, safe and brave spaces, and allyship development
opportunities are not debate team. They are not settings in which the humanity,
dehumanization, structural oppression, or historical trauma of people in the room or
people you work with can be debated, labeled "fake news", or invalidated as significant
to their daily lives. The extent to which BIPOC experience meaningful harm and trauma
from witnessing police brutality, lynchings, and structural violence is not up for debate. If
you really want to be an ally to marginalized people, you should not DESIRE to debate
the realities of oppression they are forced to navigate.
What you can do: If you are seeking to be an ally, practice doing the following each time you are exposed to discourse with BIPOC that triggers a desire to debate. First, be quiet, then (1) listen to what is being said, (2) receive what is being shared with you, and (3) validate that what has been shared is real and meaningful.
I have had white leaders admit that they know nothing about the topic at
hand, yet still attempt to reference articles, books, or citations that can refute the cited
historical facts and statistics I have presented. Oftentimes this comes up when I present
content that is researched and written by BIPOC leaders and thinkers, and a
contradictory citation is referenced, which usually has been written by a white man is
referenced as evidence that my claims are incorrect. Key to the attempt to debunk is
that if white people say it, it must be (more) true; if BIPOC say it, it is inherently
questionable, and arguable.
If you have never researched the historical context of the disparities and inequities that
plague BIPOC communities; experienced the structural violence and barriers presented
by poverty; had deep conversations with BIPOC about their lived experiences of racism;
or sought out the teaching of leaders, thinkers, scholars, or activists of color, please
trust you are not in a position to debunk the lived experiences of BIPOC. Further, if you
are in the space in order to learn and/or have a desire to be an ally to marginalized
people, you should not WANT to debunk what is being presented.
What you can do: If you want to have a deeper or better understanding of the information being presented, of if you have encountered statistics or suggestions that contradict what is being presented: (1) look for citations, if they are present, look those sources up on your own; (2) thank the presenter/facilitator for sharing content that you had not seen before, and embrace the learning opportunity; (3) research your sources and the sources presented to you. Are they written by BIPOC? Are they centering the voices and experiences of marginalized people? Center the discourse that centers the oppressed. (4) Show some respect to the facilitator/presenter. Do not disrespect their education, research, ability to stand up in front of a group of people and talk about what our ancestors were murdered for even dreaming of: equity, freedom, liberation, empowerment. If you need further dialogue or clarity, check in with any white folks around who are more "woke" than you and let them help you, or ask (and pay) for the facilitators time outside the learning space.
White fragility plays out in diversity, equity, and anti-racism dialogues as a
variety of defensive moves that attempt to distance white individuals from racism, and
center the conversation around them and the harm done to their feelings, rather than on
the harm done to marginalized communities for over 400 years. These moves can
include: "patterns of confusion, defensiveness and righteous indignation...feelings of
being victimized, slammed, blamed, [and] attacked." As DiAngelo suggests, "Whites
have not had to build the cognitive or affective skills or develop the stamina that would
allow for constructive engagement across racial divides."
While it is understandable that people who have been socialized to believe they are
racially neutral, that they are 'good' people who are 'not racist', while having little to
know actual knowledge about what racism is or how one would identify it within their
lives and behaviors, would respond strongly to being made aware of their racial identity
and the unearned privileges it delivers to their life. However, to allow those feelings to
disrupt a healing, learning space for BIPOC and white folks seeking to grow in allyship,
is to attempt to consciously or unconsciously maintain the white supremacist status
quo. By disrupting conversations and strategies for equity, you are promoting inequity.
What you can do: Learn more about white fragility and white identify formation and socialization. Seek out what aspects of white supremacy culture have been ingrained in you. Learn about how white supremacy has worked in your favor, and framed the development of your sense of self. Increase your self-reflection in order to identify triggers of your fragility, and develop skills and tools for mitigating those triggers. I offer coaching that can assist in these processes, as well as courses that will be launching soon. White people must understand, BIPOC have been living our suffering, as well as researching it, advocating about it, working to eliminate it, since all this began. We are doing our work. The time is NOW for white folks to do the work of understanding how we got where we are and what white folks can contribute to the solutions needed to create the equitable world we need. Do not come to our spaces to disrupt the healing and transformation processes that are upon us.
Taking over anti-bias and anti-racist discourse with white fragility can manifest
through disrupting with aggression, white tears, checking out in a visible and distracting
way. In addition, attempting it may include: moves to equate racism with other forms of
oppression that white people may experience, forcing dialogue about our similarities in
an effort to stop discussion about our differences, telling long stories about acts of
allyship or evidence that one is not racist, or otherwise bogarting the discourse and
making it difficult to center marginalized voices, or anti-oppression.
Whether I am in a corporate setting, institution of higher learning, medical education/training setting, or other professional settings, I often have to remind people
of this: there has never been a time when our ancestors could all sit in a diverse group,
and talk openly about racism, as part of our professional development or paid time to
learn. Historically, my ancestors would not have been in the position I am in to be paid
to teach you about the systems of racism we have inherited. And never before were so
many people of all races positioned and ready to make change to eliminate those
It is time for white people, individually and collectively, to do MORE for justice and
equity than their ancestors ever did. It is time to really take stock of the damage done
by white ancestors, and COMMIT to fully dismantling those institutionalized forms of
violence. That cannot be done, if white folks are in spaces trying to talk about other
What you can do: Pay attention to how much you speak in mixed group spaces, write your thoughts down and look for time in break out discussions to share. This is not because your voice doesn't matter, but because BIPOC who so often can't speak up, should be heard first, and know that what they say will be held and received safely. Look for all-white, anti-racist spaces to unpack your white fragility and propensity to make it about you. Our segregated lives make it such that many white folks have never had deep conversations with BIPOC about their lived experiences and how they experience our racialized world, if the opportunity is in front of you, realize you can't hear and receive the gift of that insight, if you're TALKING.
One of the ways I see resistant white folks devaluing anti-racist spaces and
discourse is through the protected anonymity of evaluations. Here's the scenario I've
seen: white student/participant enters the space not open to reflect or grow, resisting
the whole way, then fills out the evaluation with extremely poor reviews and says they
didn't learn anything. This is particularly violent in spaces like higher education, when
BIPOC faculty, who are disproportionately not tenured, have their contracts largely
assessed based on feedback from students. In any case, do not risk others not having
the opportunity to learn because you are not ready to do the work. If you didn't pay
attention, if you brought any of the 6Ds into the space, if you chose not to participate or
grow, don't project that onto the facilitator or the content.
I once had a healthcare leader, whose institution was filled with reports of bias, and
unethical and illegal practices, that "you can educate people forever, and you'll never
end racism." This attempt to devalue the ability of education to actually decrease bias,
increase empathic care and patient outcomes, served to permit this person not to invest
in educating the workforce. They were not ready to make the financial, cultural, or moral
investment in equity, and they blamed education for that decision.
What you can do: Take responsibility for your own contribution to your learning, reflection, and growth. Consider the possibility that you may need additional fundamental tools in order to take away the intended learning objectives. Granted, some trainings may not be well designed, and some facilitators may leave much to be desired, but before jumping to that assertion, critically assess your role in contributing to the learning opportunity.
Avoiding the 6Ds is easier when one is grounded in humility and an open mind and heart. Knowing that you don't know everything, and you likely don't know what you need to know about racism. Racism is does not reside solely in our minds, but in our hearts, spirits, habits, and environment, so we must be open to learning and unlearning. Be open to learning what has been kept from you, and prepare to take action to create the world all our great-grandchildren will want and deserve.