Fragility, civility, and whiteness

I just mused aloud, shouted really, “what are you doing with your life,” whilst reading Robin DiAngelo’s essay White Fragility . Why? Because I’m sitting in an office outlining programming for the academic year instead of sitting in a PhD program somewhere and theorizing about stuff like this, writing about stuff like this, and using stuff like this to further engage with the work of the many Black women writers that I love.

Sidebar: whilst isn’t used nearly enough in the US.

I’m not having an identity crisis as much as I’m having a “I like and am good at many things, but there aren’t enough hours in the day to do everything, so what do I prioritize?” crisis. I’m not struggling professionally, but I’m not thriving either. So I keep circling around the same question – what are you doing with your life?

Not a got damned thing, apparently.

I am, at least, reading up on whiteness, whiteness informed civility, and emergent strategies to prepare for the day when I finally wear my boss down enough to allow me to design, implement, and facilitate whiteness workshops or training that considers civility, but not the kind that allows white folks to get away with not talking about race at all. You know, the kind of so-called civility that takes up entirely too much space in your workplace or res-ed space or [whatever] space diversity 101 trainings? The kind that floods the room with its disapproval and its feelings and its tears and results in everyone leaving without ever having actually reckoned with the impact of racism on the bodies and lives of women of color and men of color? Yeah…

One of the articles I’m still pondering over – Civility and White Institutional Presence: An Exploration of White Students’ Understanding of Race-Talk at a Traditionally White Institution – gets right to the core of why it’s so hard to have productive conversations about not just racism or oppression in their many forms, but anything even remotely racialized. At all. Ever. Unless it’s racialized as white. And thereby universal. In which case, white students (or staff, or faculty, or whomever) wouldn’t view it as racial because white isn’t a race – duh. C’mon. We know this.

The undergraduate students interviewed in this article helped me win white civility bingo. Winning numbers included:

  • I just want people to know how nice I am.
  • I don’t want people to think I’m racist.
  • I just try to focus on the positive.
  • I just want them to know what a good white person I am, so I try to talk like them.
  • I just want to be able to have an intelligent conversation.

Every last bit of this is coded racist language. (For those of us who have had to hear it time and again, not-so-coded.) It confirms what many others have written and what some of us live every day – basically that so much of this diversity and inclusion work isn’t making inroads because folks have to spend so much time dealing with white feelings about systems of oppression, racism in particular, that they don’t even want to overtly acknowledge. And, let’s not get it even a little bit twisted, they know that it’s there. They communicate this throughout the article in their constant maneuvering around the topic. They’re just hoping it’ll go away if we all just ignore it. You know, like an abscess.

I’ve only been working in a diversity & inclusion field as a professional for 2 years now, but that says nothing of the 3 years of work I did in graduate school, and the 2-ish years I did as an undergrad at that same school. So, for 7-ish years I’ve been wondering why it’s taking so long for the Power People to make choices that include my Black ass body and don’t make every accommodation to whiteness possible.

Yet here I sit, frustrated that I have to do so much work to accommodate such racism so that my students can thrive in an environment that was never built with them in mind. And why do I have to do this? Because my students aren’t (often) complaining about displays of racism or racist aggression that even the most civil of white folks would have to acknowledge as racist – aka racist slurs, being terrorized by roommates, etc. They’re upset about people touching their hair. Or people assuming that what they know about themselves and their communities isn’t worthy of exploration. Like the student who wanted to write about Black Panther. Or the other student that wanted to write about Black women’s experiences with their hair. They don’t want to have to confront the “oh my, you’re so articulate” statements every other day, or the varying ways in which they are erased from academic spaces. It’s either they’re thought about in all of these stereotypical ways or they aren’t thought about at all. And it’s incredibly difficult, to put it extremely mildly, to function every day in a community like that.

So I will continue reading about whiteness informed civility and white fragility and strategies for engaging with these things effectively so that everyone on this college campus can thrive. At least I’m going to try. Because, let me tell you, I am tired. And trying is all I can do in this moment. But I am hopeful for a world in which a student reaches out to touch a student’s hair but snatches their hand back because they remembered that such things are inappropriate. Or, better yet, a world where that doesn’t happen at all. I am hopeful for a campus community in which my students can talk freely about their experiences as POC without having the conversation shut down. Where folks don’t assume you’re Mexican because you’re brown and (maybe) speak Spanish. A place where my students don’t feel so alone and isolated all the damned time.

I don’t know how we get to that point, but envisioning it is a good start.


Things I’m reading:

  1. Robin DiAngelo. White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3, 2011.
  2. C. Kyle Rudick and Kathryn B. Golsan. Civility and White Institutional Presence: An Exploration of White Students’ Understanding of Race-Talk at a Traditionally White Institution. Howard Journal of Communication, Vol 0, 2017.
  3. adrienne maree brown. Emergent Strategy. AK Press, 2017.
  4. Ursula K. Le Guin. Steering the Craft: A 21st Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story. Mariner Books, 2015.

Things I just finished:

  1. Tayari Jones. An American Marriage. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2018.
  2. Rivers Solomon. An Unkindness of Ghosts. Akashic Books, 2017

Things I’ll be starting soon:

  1. James Baldwin. If Beale Street Could Talk.
  2. Robin DiAngelo. White Fragility (the book)
  3. Rebecca Roanhorse. Trail of Lightning.
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Fragility, civility, and whiteness

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