Academic

Racism, White Privilege, and White Fragility by Kelly Brakefield

White society has no racial stamina. We are born into a hierarchical societal structure that is deeply rooted by separate and unequal practices based solely on the color of our skin. We are conditioned to believe that our gender, skin color, sexual identity, age, and able bodies are part of the natural order of things (Smith). The truth is that these are social constructs from the dominant power, which is white, and he is male. All white people benefit from this inequality in numerous ways ranging from subtle to glaringly overt (Smith). These benefits are known as white privilege. We do not see ourselves in racial terms and have been socialized to believe that racism is a black or brown issue (Smith). With this lack of understanding of racism combined with insulation from racial stressors, the white psyche has become fragile, unable to discuss race and privilege without becoming defensive, morally outraged, and resentful (DiAngelo). 

Race and privilege are arguably two of the most challenging topics to discuss as a society. However, every day the news tells us another story of the death of a person of color during a routine traffic stop or for merely being a black man jogging through a white neighborhood. Human life is worth far more than any discomfort we may feel at recognizing how we have benefitted from our skin color. For the record, race is not a real scientific concept; there is no biological evidence to support that race exists. 

On the contrary, race is an evolving notion invented to protect white advantage (DiAngelo). The genetic differences we see in eye color, hair color and texture, and skin color are superficial traits that emerge based on our geographic locations (DiAngelo). What we do have, however, is an economic system built upon slavery. Historian Ibram Kendi states in his national award-winning book, Stamped from the Beginning, “The beneficiaries of slavery, segregation, and mass incarceration have produced racist ideas of Black people being best suited for or deserving of the confines of slavery, segregation or the jail cell.” (DiAngelo, 16-17) In short, white society has been conditioned to believe in white superiority. Whether we know it or not, we are complicit in the subjugation of people of color (DiAngelo). 

The majority of white society does not identify with hate crimes and acts of racism. Morality and racism have become mutually exclusive and created a false dichotomy and led to the idea that only bad people are racist (DiAngelo). Hooded Klan members and white supremacists? Those are bad people. Therefore, to suggest that good people are, at best, holding up the structures of racism, or at worst, actively engaging in racist acts puts into question the moral compass of ourselves, our friends, and neighbors (DiAngelo). In the quest to prove our moral character as a righteous person, we become defensive, shut down, become angry or full of indignation, withdrawn, argumentative, or cry (DiAngelo). The conversation then devolves because our fragile white ego cannot tolerate any deep reflection regarding the personal and social accountability of racial relationships. We are too busy proving we are not racist and make the discussion about ourselves, which shuts off any meaningful cross-racial dialogue (DiAngelo). Moreover, we have unwittingly reinforced the white narrative and status quo. 

Although race is a social construct, the impacts of race are real and have profound effects. One of these effects in modern society is known as the Prison Industrial Complex. Statistically, the United States has approximately five percent of the world’s population, yet our nation holds 25 percent of its prison inmates (DuVernay). How is this possible? And more importantly, why? 

After the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, it paved the way for convict leasing in which prison labor was leased out to private organizations (DuVernay). Prison labor post-Civil War primarily consisted of black men. Convict leasing led to Jim Crow laws of segregation that lasted through 1965 and then gave way to political wars on poverty, crime, and drugs (DuVernay). 

The war on drugs in the 1970s was particularly harsh to black communities and illustrated the continuing racial divide between white crimes and black crimes in terms of sentencing and prison time (DuVernay). Add in diminished parole opportunities and mandatory sentences, prison populations exploded in the 1990s (DuVernay). If you are white and wealthy, you have the privilege of shaping the outcome of your judicial experience (DuVernay). You can afford bail and can hire great attorneys to exploit the loopholes in the legal system. However, if you are poor and black, what are the odds you are going to get a fair shake in our judicial system when you are automatically criminalized (DuVernay)? You sit in prison awaiting trial because you cannot afford bail, and you hope your overworked and underpaid public defender can navigate our biased judicial system. A whopping 97 percent of prison inmates accept plea bargains instead of going to trial regardless of innocence or guilt because of the fear of our legal system (DuVernay). Has slavery really been eradicated, or has it been reframed to meet the needs of each generation (DuVernay)? 

The poverty to prison pipeline is real, and it affects our most vulnerable at-risk population. As someone working in Colorado’s public school system at the middle school level, my colleagues and I look at low grades in conjunction with behavioral trends. It is easy to see the disparities between our student body in terms of color and affluence. Despite every effort made to provide our students with equal educational opportunities and social, emotional learning to problem solve and move past individual circumstances, we bear witness to the poverty to prison pipeline that targets black male youths at a very young age. 

If you are unfamiliar with the poverty to prison pipeline, state and federal governments have allowed for the privatization of the prison system by companies owned by wealthy lobbyists with a great deal of political influence. Corporate prisons need to make money, which means they need to fill the prison beds with lockup quotas to have the workforce to perform labor for the military contracts prisons have received from the government (DuVernay). Not only is this a massive conflict of interest, but this practice exploits our legal system. Furthermore, and most crucially, this creates a system that sounds remarkably similar to convict leasing, which we have learned is another name for slavery (DuVernay).  

When former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel during the National Anthem to protest police brutality and the oppression of people of color, white people lost their minds. Kaepernick was demonized as was every other black athlete who participated in this peaceful protest. Whites called Kaepernick’s actions unpatriotic and spewed vitriol, hate, and racial epithets towards a man who simply was exercising his constitutional rights. How can we demand respect for our country’s symbols and institutions while simultaneously denying that same respect for our fellow citizens? If it is your right to wave a Confederate flag, it is Mr. Kaepernick’s right to protest his beliefs peacefully. This example perfectly demonstrates the hypocritical and fragile nature of the white ego.  

White privilege is not about wealth or lack thereof. Poor white folks have argued against privilege because they feel their skin color did not prevent them from experiencing hardship and poverty (Crossley-Corcoran). Framing white privilege in economic terms avoids deeper reflection on the many ways whites are privileged. This is known as intersectionality. Intersectionality recognizes that privilege comes in many forms, and you can have one advantage or several advantages while not having others (Crossley-Corcoran). For example, being born in the United States offers certain privileges that non-citizens will never have. Being born a male provides the privilege of a life without the threat of rape around every corner. There are many privileges outside of the scope of social class and net worth. If you are lucky enough to be born a cis-gendered, non-disabled, white male, congratulations, you have just won the lottery (Crossley-Corcoran).

Race relations are profoundly complex. No matter how “woke” we believe we are, no matter how we have evolved, how we have suffered, advocated and marched for equality, have black friends or lovers, we walk through the world that has been shaped by a white establishment as a white-skinned person (Fugate). Racism is not merely an attitude, but a structuralized system in which whites have benefited from the day whites landed on American soil (Fugate). When a person belongs to the dominant culture, social networks work in their favor, and the majority of daily experiences of the dominant culture are taken for granted (McIntosh). Whites do not worry about interactions with the police. Whites have the luxury of being oblivious to the language and customs of persons of color without penalty (McIntosh). Whites are represented in the media (McIntosh). Whites can take a job without colleagues suspecting affirmative action as the reason for hire (McIntosh). Whites can use checks, credit cards, or cash for purchases without anyone assuming your financial reliability (McIntosh). Whites can criticize the dominant culture without fear of repercussions. (This is a privilege I recognize and frequently engage in.) These are just a few examples of white privilege that we experience every single day.

In 2002, The Journal of Black Studies published an intriguing article addressing ethnic prejudices. It sought to challenge the prevailing ethnocentric attitudes of white students who had little to no social interaction with people of color (Vora et al.). Over five years, 510 students participated in an immersive intercultural experience in which small groups of white students visited a black congregation (Vora et al.). The students actively engaged with the black community and church services for several hours and then returned home. After their experience, the students were required to respond to a scale questionnaire to determine if the students had any changes in attitudes, knowledge, and behavior after their experiences (Vora et al.). The results of the study indicated that the majority of the participants strongly agreed that their attitudes shifted positively and most expressed shame in their prior stereotypes of black people (Vora et al.). This study strongly suggests that by tempering our ethnocentricity and actively seeking interactions with people of color, we can reduce stereotyping and consciously engage in positive ways, which has the potential to break down racial barriers. However, we must first step outside of our own, unaware privilege. 

White Americans have been brought up to believe in a meritocracy (McIntosh). Middle-class, educated people work under the assumption that hard work equates to achieving goals while those impoverished rarely see farther than making the rent on their trailers (Crossley-Corcoran). To face the myth of meritocracy and embrace the concepts of white privilege is to accept that America is not a free country (McIntosh). Opportunities are not always earned, and doors are opened or closed, depending on your skin color (McIntosh). 

Racism, privilege, and white fragility are insidious with far-reaching tentacles. We must come to understand that the white experience is not the universal human experience (McIntosh). The white normative is not the standard for all races and should not be the median to which all things are measured (McIntosh). Authentic dialogues and hard conversations free of fragile egos must happen between races. White people must face our inherent racism and bias to learn how to be a good ally and help break apart the systems of oppression by stepping back and following the lead of people of color. The first step is acknowledging these systems exist. The next step is to shut up and start listening. If we truly believe in equal representation, we have to have uncomfortable conversations and toughen up. We can no longer tolerate the disparity between people of color and whites (Utt). 

In a letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963, after his arrest for his participation in a peaceful protest Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (King). Black lives matter. I need my children to understand their privilege and speak out that black lives matter. I need my students to know that their lives matter. There is no gray area here, folks. You are either part of the solution or part of the problem. And you have the privilege to decide which side you are on. 

Works Cited

Burgis, Ben. “The Problem With ‘Privilege’ Talk.” Medium, Arc Digital, 9 Apr. 2020, arcdigital.media/the-problem-with-privilege-talk-740eea1dd06d.

Crossley-Corcoran, Gina. “Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person.” Medium, Equality Includes You, 13 Mar. 2020, medium.com/equality-includes-you/explaining-white-privilege-to-a-broke-white-person-2239d9d2470b.

DiAngelo, Robin J.. White Fragility: Why Its so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Allen Lane, 2019.

DuVernay, Ava, director. 13TH. Netflix, 2016, www.netflix.com. 

DuVernay, Ava, director. 13TH: A Conversation with Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay. Netflix, Netflix, 2016, www.netflix.com.

Fugate, Katherine. “White People Are Broken.” Medium, Medium, 1 Sept. 2018, medium.com/@katstory/white-people-are-broken-ab0fe873e5d3.

King, Martin Luther. Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.], African Studies Center, Pennsylvania University, 16 Apr. 1963, www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.

McIntosh, Peggy. “’White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack’ and ‘Some Notes for Facilitators.” National SEED Project, Peace and Freedom, 1989, nationalseedproject.org/Key-SEED-Texts/white-privilege-unpacking-the-invisible-knapsack.

Smith, S.E. “7 Reasons Why Reverse Racism Doesn’t Exist.” The Daily Dot, 1 Mar. 2020, www.dailydot.com/unclick/reverse-racism-doesnt-exist/.

Utt, Jamie. “8 Things White People Really Need to Understand About Race.” Everyday Feminism, 13 Sept. 2016, everydayfeminism.com/2014/07/8-things-white-people-race/.

Vora, Erika A., and Jay A. Vora. “Undoing Racism in America.”

     Journal of Black Studies, vol. 32, no. 4, 2002, pp. 389–

     404., doi:10.1177/002193470203200402.