If It’s Not About You, It’s Not About You – But It’s Really Not About You (On White Fragility)

When I wrote The Intellectual Condescension of White Liberals in response to white liberal response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement, the post generated hundreds of comments (256), many of which took me to task for the title of the piece. It confused people. What did I mean? Did I really mean that?

Yes, I meant precisely that. I meant it as a challenge to white liberals who distance themselves from the harrowing reality of systemic racism and their place in those beneficial systems of oppression by intellectual opining.  Several white people pointedly wrote, “I don’t get it. You must mean conservatives. All of my friends are devastated by what happened in Ferguson.”

Well, okay, then I’m not talking about you and your friends then. Do we have to stop the conversation, or can white people learn that not everything applies to them personally?

Part of white privilege, if I may jump right into the point of this post, is that white people expect to be treated as unique individuals while people of color endure being treated as a collective, anonymous stereotype and threat.

What this means is that white people easily take offense at any generalizations about their race — however fair and accurate — and divert the conversation when they hear critiques that might erroneously include them in the broader analysis of white (in this case, liberal) failure. It’s a diversion we can no longer afford and should not oblige.

My good friend the Rev. Tom Schade says no white leaders have the authority to be angry at white folks who aren’t caught up on Racism 101.  I disagree.  Emotions do not require authority — and who would get to grant that authority, anyway? At any rate, white people tone-policing each other doesn’t seem like a particularly productive approach, although it certainly is a popular one among liberals, whose lexicon for such conversations is sophisticated and complex. So complex that when we descend into the spiral of bickering amongst ourselves about tone and emotional style, we may actually feel we’re accomplishing something.

(My own observations about tone policing, concern trolling and emotional control among Unitarian Universalists would require another separate post on WASP Emotional Culture, but I won’t write that here!)

There are some things that shouldn’t have to be carefully spelled out, and one of them is that white folks shouldn’t need attention paid to their wounded pride while black lives are being threatened and extinguished around them. White people — many of them self-identified as liberal and progressive or simpley “not-racist” — still too often hear the conversation about race in entirely personal terms, and we have to grow up and grow out of that.

On Black Twitter, I believe the hashtag would be #WhiteTears or #NotAllWhitePeople. White liberals need to keep up. Part of doing our work is to be grown-ups who do not protest at every generalization we read and hear about white people and to need hand-holding because conversations about white privilege and racism make us feel defensive or uncomfortable.

For white folks who still don’t have a basic working definition of White Privilege, it would be good to start here with Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 seminal essay explaining what it is.

Rev. Jake Morrill just published this article called “Racism 101 For White People.”  It repeats the salient points of McIntosh’s essay and also includes resources for anti-racism activism.

Unitarian Universalists are gathering in Portland, Oregon this week for our General Assembly.  Do we assume that this space is safe for African-Americans at this precise moment in America? I think a lot of UUs assume it is. I think we may be very wrong about that.

It is very hard to talk about this because white UUs pride ourselves on being welcoming, affirming of everyone’s inherent worth and dignity, color-blind, anti-racist and supportive of people of color. We pride ourselves on our willingness to listen and include all voices in our movement.

We have a lot of pride.

What we don’t have is a whole lot of humility. We don’t really do humility. We do not have a confession tradition in our liturgy. We do not have an assurance of pardon — too Calvinist.

Okay, so that is what it is. I admit that I am far more Calvinistic than the vast majority of UUs. But we can reject a guilt and sin-centric theology and still acknowledge that we have a lot of work to do on humility and non-defensiveness.

In “The Intellectual Condescension of White Liberals,” I wrote about the Unitarian Univeralist tendency to engage in “analysis paralysis” as a way of distancing from the harrowing emotional reality of what is happening in America and has been happening for over 200 years. That was about six months ago and of course we haven’t solved that problem yet.

We could start, though, with setting down our heavy burden of needing everything to be accurate about us personally when engaging in anti-racism work.

We could stop constantly referencing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as though he was the only black voice worth hearing fifty years after his death.

We could stop using African-American spirituals in our worship services only when tragedy strikes the Black community.

We could think harder about how it sounds when white people say, “I’m sorry that that sick man did that horrible thing in one of your churches”  and stop there. We could probably more actively and aggressively challenge the narrative of the “lone wolf with mental illness” that the media has used again and again to frame the violent acting out of enraged white men and name how it fails to locate the violence within the context of threatened white supremacy and male privilege. We could probably be braver and more vocal about making these points.

We could refrain from commenting on full-bodied, emotive, praise-centered forms of African-American worship in sociological wonderment, as if the Black church was a tribe to be studied by white academic observers — and turn that analytical, sociological lens back on ourselves. How does it feel to be put under a microscope and treated as an exotic “other?”

We could stop interrupting Black Americans who need to express grief and pain by assuring them that we understand or that they are “safe” with us, in predominantly white spaces. White people anxiety around the need to be seen as non-racist does not belong in Black spaces of mourning. There isn’t room. White people have already demanded too much space and accommodation.  White people need to stop expecting Black people minister to us in our pain about racism.

We could just listen more.

But most of all, we could recognize that white fragility is a real thing among even white liberals, and be loving enough when confronted with it to say, “C’mon. We don’t have time for that. If this doesn’t apply to you, please just abide with your objection and understand that we don’t have time to stop and take a personal inventory of everyone here in order to be able to speak about systems of racism and our obligaion to dismantle them.”

There’s a lot to learn, a lot to catch up on, a lot to process. A lot of emotion. A lot of very uncomfortable and upsetting revelations about how deep-seated and widespread white supremacy really is. We have a lot of systems and infrastructures to examine that contribute to and support racism. We cannot do that work in America if those committed to justice have to stop and attend to white bruised feelings every step of the way.

Come along. We have all been witness to such breathtaking examples of resilience in the past weeks and months. Let us walk on with courage, clarity and a handy stack of invisible cards that read “If it’s not about you, it’s not about you — but it’s definitely NOT ABOUT YOU.”

It’s about all of us. Freed from the Calvinist reproach that comes with that statement, we can freely work toward truth, solidarity, and justice. The blazing, righteous, transformative rage and joy that can come with this work toward social change can only come to those whose hearts are open to honesty and whose minds are free from constant, defensive self-reference.








2 Replies to “If It’s Not About You, It’s Not About You – But It’s Really Not About You (On White Fragility)”

  1. Beautiful, Vicki. That really needed to be said. Thank you.
    Now let’s get out there and get stuff done.

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