Several times in the last week alone I have had encounters with white women who identify as liberal who have gotten upset when I address someone in the group about the casually racist or sexist thing they said. In one instance, I gave a very gentle mention to the person who said the casually racist statement. Because we are adults and we should be able to speak plainly about these things, we moved on. Everything seemed fine. As the night went on, a casually sexist thing was said, and then another casually racist thing was said. I interrupted both times with the intention to engage in conversation about it.
By the end of the night, one of the women got so upset with me to the point of tears. She said, “I feel like I need to protect my friends because I’m the host and I want to have a nice girls night, and I want everyone to be comfortable.” I pointed out that this was white fragility in action. White supremacy doesn’t serve any of us. It makes us uncomfortable, and clearly, incapable of having conversations about racism and sexism. Our comfort comes at the cost of perpetuating racist thoughts and behaviors. This woman wanted me to remain in white solidarity. She didn’t want me to break from white apathy. She wanted me to scroll past the racist thing, let it wash over, maintain the white peace.
“So, to the degree that our identities are very attached to this idea of being free of racism, we’re actually going to resist any of the critical examination that we need to be engaged in for our entire lives. Because every moment that I push against the socialization that I’ve received into a white supremacist culture, that culture is pushing right back at me. And that pressure is seductive. It’s comfortable. There are social rewards for not challenging racism. [White] people perceive you as easier to get along with when you maintain white solidarity.”
We can’t keep acting like claiming that we are liberal is enough. Being liberal is not the “lesser of two evils” — it is an evil. Liberalism sits in complicity and silence. This is a quiet kind of violence, one that enables the violence of white nationalists and the alt-right — the violence we like to point our fingers at and say, “See, those are the bad guys. I’m not the bad guy.” But we need to look at ourselves and examine our own supremacist conditioning.
How are we enacting white violence by keeping the peace? By not talking it out when something racist occurs in our white women circles? How are we tip-toeing around each other for decorum’s sake at the expense of our authentic selves? This kind of polite white protocol and white etiquette, the unspoken rules of existing in whiteness that instruct us to stay silent when something racist has been said or done, keeps the status quo of white supremacy in tact. This is how people like Trump are in office. This is how work cultures stay unwelcoming and toxic. This is how white people access opportunities and are seen as “culture fits.” If you break that silence, suddenly you are not a fit.
We are obsessed with perception. Perceptions are shallow. Perceptions are inactive. Perceptions are illusions. But we worry about perceptions and how we are perceived by others, more so than actually aligning what we say and what we do. We are more worried about how someone feels or thinks about us, rather than ensuring that our values and intentions line up with our behaviors, actions, and impact. This kind of selfish narcissism is a product of living in a white supremacy where we are taught that we are inherently better and superior for doing nothing — no work beneath the surface is required of us ever. We are so accustomed to being granted unearned awards for our apparitions of gentleness, compassion, goodness. We are expert conjurers of fake humility and care. We enter this world entitled to our perceptions of ourselves. It greatly offends us when someone dares question our benevolence, our implied innocence all granted us for having white skin.
This facade is so toxic and unhealthy, but because it’s so taboo to talk about we keep ourselves from our own healing when we refuse to call it out. We are too afraid to talk to each other, too afraid to interrupt one another, too afraid to break codes of white conduct, and for what? We need to ask ourselves what are we so fearful of? What is the fear behind this? Why do we freeze? Why do we want to hide and cower? What turns us into false victims and why do we feel threatened or like we need to protect the “peace”?
There are consequences for interrupting the codes. Discomfort arises in us and others. We lose friends. There is friction and probably backlash. We may be punished by losing a connection or opportunity. But this is what it will take to heal from our internalized white supremacy. It may not happen right away, but that ripple you create when you interrupt that violent white silence may one day grow bigger. It may sit with someone and they may look at the situation differently later. They may change their actions and behavior.
Malcolm X talked about the complicity of white folks and how dangerous it is. In 1964, he spoke about how white people will use proximity to Blackness to assuage their white guilt, but that this helps no one:
“By visibly hovering near us, they are ‘proving’ that they are ‘with us.’ But the hard truth is this isn’t helping to solve America’s racist problem. The Negroes aren’t the racists. Where the really sincere white people have got to do their ‘proving’ of themselves is not among the black victims, but out on the battle lines of where America’s racism really is — and that’s in their own home communities; America’s racism is among their own fellow whites. That’s where sincere whites who really mean to accomplish something have got to work.”
Taking action oftentimes means it’s internal work or behind the scenes in community with other white people. It’s not in front of a podium at a women’s march. It may not be pretty or Instagram worthy. And it probably won’t feel the best all of the time. There will probably be tears, pain, confrontation, and arguments.
I have been addressed about my racism too many times to count. There are times that I have been defensive and violent in my response to being called out. And though I feel deep regret and shame for that behavior, I am always reflecting on these situations and thinking about how I can receive information with less guilt, shame, and anger the next time. I ask myself, what do I need to heal in myself in order to respond with more reception, true humility, and less ego? It’s never comfortable to receive how I have been racist. I feel a surge of embarrassment and desperation. I want to find a way to deny it, a way to rationalize my way out of it, a way to make myself feel better. This is my whiteness centering me. I focus on my feelings instead of my impact.
This is a specific phenomenon of white guilt. When we accidentally step on someone’s foot and they say, “ouch!” we don’t immediately turn on them and say, “well, why was your foot there? I didn’t mean to, I’m a good person and here’s a list of all the ways I’m a good person doing good things.” White guilt triggers us and it keeps us from humanizing the person we harmed. It keeps us distanced from empathy and connection. It keeps us protecting whiteness and our perception of benevolence. Processing this wave of guilt, embarrassment, or anger we are experiencing will allow us to change the internal conditioning we are running on.
Strong feelings like this arise when we are afraid of losing something. What are you afraid of losing? How can we shift from a place of fear and anxiety, to a place of reception of critical feedback that will help us improve and become better versions of ourselves? How can we be better at interrupting our own selves when we say, do, or think something racist? Instead of burying it deep down, how can we bring it to light, examine it, and figure out where that came from and why? This way we can shore up the lies and false narratives we have carried with us in our bodies, passed down from our ancestors, and heal that part of us that keeps us in a dehumanizing, disconnected reality.
In a tweet on August 25, 2018 Chani Nicholas said, “Deconstructing privilege might feel harsh at first. But that’s just a conditioned response to keeping an injustice functioning. Deconstructing your privilege is actually the most gentle thing you can do for the world around you, which includes you.”
White supremacy negatively impacts all of us by the way we keep up our facades and our decorum. We aren’t our authentic selves and we worry more about keeping up with white codes of conduct than actually connecting with one another. Healing and deep connection are on the other side of interrupting white supremacy. The more you practice, the better you will get at sitting in the discomfort of it. And you might even get to a place of feeling less discomfort when interrupting white silence because you see clearly that the silence is what is truly uncomfortable and unbearable.