OPINION: Race Conversation 101: What is White Fragility


Elle Love 

It’s time we start having honest and open dialogues about racism. Graphic by Mars Nevada/the Gateway

During Black History Month, it’s important to learn about how far we have come in history. However, it can be a little challenging to develop ourselves better than ever if we can’t have an honest conversation about race without fear of tension and hostility.

When speaking about experiences as a woman of color, I’m careful to watch what I say about my experiences in order to keep a certain level of peace and comfort with other students around me.

However, watching what I say can invalidate my experience, creating a lack of understanding between me and another student – all because the conversation of race becomes uncomfortable to talk about.

The stress from racial dialogue can trigger a range of emotions including fear and anger, and it’s defined as “white fragility.”

“White fragility stops conversation in its tracks,” said UNO sociology professor Alecia Anderson, Ph.D. “An individual can’t hope to understand the perspectives of others if they refuse to recognize the validity of those perspectives.”

Robin DiAngelo, Ph.D., author of the New York Times best-selling book, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” defines white fragility as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include 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 and prevent any meaningful cross-racial dialogue,” DiAngelo said in her book.

UNO sociology professor Thomas Sanchez, Ph. D., recalled a student dropping out of his class due to his usage of the term “white people.”

“I try to be careful in classes in speaking with people and talking about ‘who has the most power in the United States?’ You go ‘well white males have the most power in the United States’ but that doesn’t mean that white males have all the power, and that doesn’t mean that every white male has power,” Sanchez said.

With college campuses being held as a place for dialogue and thought, how can we have meaningful conversations about race without the fear of hostility and dismissiveness?

“As a society, we absolutely should be working toward rectifying past wrongs and dismantling the racial and ethnic hierarchy. If people are serious about doing the work to create a just and equal society, they must reconcile the continuing systems of oppression,” Anderson said. “And that certainly will require self-reflection on the part of white people rather than abstinence as it pertains to recognizing the role that everyone plays in maintaining the structures of society.”

“I think it does nonwhite people and white people a disservice to say, ‘I’m going to have this race class and it’s all going to be about black people and Latinos.’ There are no black people or Latinos without white people,” Sanchez said. “Those definitions and concepts aren’t created in a vacuum, and that’s how whiteness became defined. When going back to the history of the United States, when they defined ‘blackness,’ they, by definition, defined whiteness.”

Sanchez said ‘white privilege’ is another term that can make many students feel uneasy.

“I could see this, especially somebody who’s very poor would say ‘What privilege? I don’t have any privilege.” You do have that privilege. And it’s not something that you ask for. It’s not something you have to apologize for. It’s not something that’s racist. It just is,” Sanchez said.

Anderson said there are two meaningful methods to understand racial issues in another perspective. She said the first step is to read the experiences of people of color that are published publicly.

“I say this is the first step because these folks have already done the work of sharing their experiences and perspectives, and if they made it available for public consumption, that must have been purposeful,” Anderson said.

Anderson said it’s best to reach out to organizations or attend events on campus as the next step.

“In Omaha, there are many of these opportunities. Organizations like Inclusive Communities have regular ‘Table Talks’ and other community organizations have similar types of events,” Anderson said.

Anderson said there are several groups on campus for students, such as Intertribal Student Council, Black Excellence and others that regularly develop programming and events to share experiences and information.

“Anyone wanting to learn more about people of color should engage in these opportunities with an open heart and open mind,” Anderson said.

Race conversations can be very difficult to talk about, especially when we learn about history that many people are not proud of. However, it shouldn’t stop you from engaging in these conversations so that we can learn about each other as individuals—after all, college is a place to share ideas and thoughts based on our experiences and what we learn.

Anderson said the most important thing as an educator and a person who holds a marginalized racial identity is for people to address and dismantle systems of racial oppression.

“There’s no way that can happen until we start listening to each other. You can’t work toward a solution until you’ve properly addressed the problem,” Anderson said. “People of color are uniquely situated to understand the problems that they face, and they need allies to support them in working toward the solutions.”

“White fragility stands in the way of that work and in the way of creating the equal society that we all deserve,” Anderson said.