Anti-Racism Reading Group #4: White Fragility

In an effort to hold myself accountable to better anti-racism theory and practice, I’ve started hosting an anti-racism reading group for health care practitioners in the Seattle area. In this series, I’d like to share both these readings and some of the discussion. You can read part one here, part two here, and part three here.

For the third reading of the anti-racism reading group we focused on White Fragility. Our reading was the article White Fragility from the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy which you can download here. Supplementary materials were Dr. DiAngelo’s White Fragility and Rules of Engagement and this comedic White Fragility Workplace Training Video.

What is White Fragility? In Dr. DiAngelo’s words:

White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress be- comes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the 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.

She then delineates common triggers of White Fragility including:

  • Suggesting that a white person’s viewpoint comes from a racialized frame of reference (challenge to objectivity);
  • People of color talking directly about their racial perspectives (challenge to white racial codes);
  • People of color choosing not to protect the racial feelings of white people in regards to race (challenge to white racial expectations and need/entitlement to racial comfort);
  • People of color not being willing to tell their stories or answer questions about their racial experiences (challenge to colonialist relations);
  • A fellow white not providing agreement with one’s interpretations (challenge to white solidarity);
  • Receiving feedback that one’s behavior had a racist impact (challenge to white liberalism);
  • Suggesting that group membership is significant (challenge to individualism);
  • An acknowledgment that access is unequal between racial groups (challenge to meritocracy);
  • Being presented with a person of color in a position of leadership (challenge to white authority);
  • Being presented with information about other racial groups through, for example, movies in which people of color drive the action but are not in stereotypical roles, or multicultural education (challenge to white centrality).

When doing this reading, I asked participants to consider the following questions

  1. Have you ever received feedback that your words or actions were racist or microaggressive? What did you feel when receiving that feedback?
  2. Have you ever given someone else feedback that their words or actions were racist or microaggressive? How did they respond?
  3. Have you ever wanted to give this feedback but held back because you were afraid of how the person would respond? What were you afraid might happen?
  4. Do you think that people avoid giving you feedback on racist or microaggressive words or actions because they are afraid of your response? If you are open to this feedback, how will you let people know? How can you respond to this feedback to encourage further feedback.
  5. It is natural to feel guilty when you find out that your words or actions were hurtful. What is a healthy way of processing that guilt?
  6. What steps are necessary to create a culture in which feedback on racism or microaggression is welcomed and integrated into everyday practices?

Discussion

In our group, we had to good fortune to be joined by practicing clinical psychologists who pointed out the parallels between White Fragility and maladaptive avoidance behaviors seen in anxiety disorders. In anxiety disorders, avoidance of stressors prevents anxiety in the short-term, but over time serves to increase the anticipatory distress that people experience. Likewise, the more that White people avoid racial stress the more that fear of racial stress dictates behavior.

This analysis lead to a palpable tension in our group. On one hand, as health care providers we are committed to empathetic understanding of our patient’s distress, meeting them where they are, and providing care with unconditional positive regard. However, as opposed to something like generalized anxiety disorder where the patient is the primary victim of their own behavior, in White Fragility, these maladaptive behaviors have significant negative consequences for people of color. For example, as White people avoid racial distress by segregating schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods, they actively harm people of color in material ways.

Keeping in mind that people of color are the primary victims of White Fragility, we considered Prochaska and DiClemente’s Transtheoretical Model. This model classifies people into five different “states of change” with regard to their behavior:

  1. Pre-contemplation: The person has not yet understood their behavior to be problematic and are not considering changing their behavior.
  2. Contemplation: The person has started to recognize the negative consequences of their behavior and are considering changing the behavior, but are ambivalent about that change.
  3. Preparation: The person has decided to change the behavior and are considering how they might accomplish that change.
  4. Action: The person is taking concrete steps to change the behavior.
  5. Maintenance: The person has changed their behavior and are working to maintain the new behavior.

The purpose of this model is to help adjust behavior change interventions to their person’s state of change. For example, interventions that are helpful for someone in the maintenance phase of behavior change are unlikely to be helpful for someone in the contemplation phase.

Those in our group identified themselves as somewhere between preparation and action. Because of we recognized intolerance of racial distress as in conflict with our broader personal goals, the language of White Fragility was helpful for resolving this conflict. However, we recognized that most people experiencing White Fragility are pre-contemplative about it. In this phase, people do not see the ways in which their behavior is in conflict with their broader goals, and the most effective interventions are focused on highlighting this conflict in ways that feel authentic (for example, through motivational interviewing). This line of dialogue will naturally center on the person experiencing White Fragility, so engaging it without furthering victimization narrative that White people often have is a tricky proposition.

With all of this in mind, we began to brainstorm strategies we might use to address our own White Fragility, specifically when receiving negative feedback about racist behavior.

Strategies for addressing our own fragility in response to negative feedback

  • Pausing after receiving feedback: Pausing is a common technique use to prevent strong negative emotions from dictating behavior. Recognizing that receiving negative feedback that our actions have had racist consequences will trigger defensiveness, pausing to acknowledge that emotion and let it pass is a helpful technique to avoid reactivity.
  • Having a practiced response: Having a practiced response is a common technique to create space for a pause. We often do this when someone tells us bad news (e.g. “I’m so sorry to hear that”). Something like “Thank you for that feedback, I know it’s not always easy to give” may be sufficient. Importantly, the point of this response must be to give us a second to collect our thoughts to further engage in receiving feedback (if the person wants to engage further), not to cut off the feedback with a canned response.
  • Role playing: Exposure therapy is a common technique to overcome avoidance behaviors. To engage this without further harming people of color, role-playing sessions can be helpful. In Seattle, there have been Theater of the Oppressed workshops specifically focussed on this type of role-playing.
  • Recognizing that everyone is an expert on their own feelings: One of the impulses of White Fragility is to prove to the other person that your intentions were not negative. Arguing against feedback however is counter-productive and only serves to shut down further feedback. However, recognizing that the person who felt hurt by an action they perceived as racist are an expert on their own feelings and are such are correct regardless of your intentions can help quiet this argumentative reflex.
  • Self-compassion: It is possible to both hold yourself accountable to the consequences of your actions and to view yourself with self-compassion, recognizing that White Fragility is something that has been taught to you by White culture. A mantra such as “I am a product of my environment” can be helpful here.
  • Positive framing: Viewing feedback as a positive opportunity for improvement rather than a punishment for failure is easier said than done, but it is an important mentality to develop
  • Cultivate humility and curiosity

We then discussed how we might help others who are experiencing White Fragility.

Strategies for helping others demonstrating fragile behaviors

  • Identify state of change: Recognizing where the person is in terms of their state of change can guide you toward more effective strategies for that particular individual.
  • Focus on positive identity: Most people on some level think of themselves as a good person wish to treat others well. Affirming this positive identity and framing changes as opportunities to bring behavior into line with a positive identity can be helpful in developing and maintaining rapport.
  • De-escalate negative emotions: In a state of heightening negative emotions, people are more likely to be defensive and reject change. Steps to help the person cool down from a heightened emotional state, can help bring them to a position of safety in which they may be more open to change.
  • Validate feelings without validating behavior: The strong negative feelings triggered by White Fragility are real and valid, and should be acknowledged as such. However, care must be taken to not validate negative behaviors driven by these feelings.

As one group member pointed out, if you are in a situation in white a person has gotten negative feedback on racist behavior and is having a fragile response, our primary responsibility is to the injured party and so they should be supported primarily. Additionally, we came back to the difficulty in threading the needle in maintaining a state of “productive discomfort” lest we be agents of avoidance.

We ended the discussion with a focus on culture change. Some ideas for how to help shift culture included:

  • Teaching children to be more skillful in social-emotional communication (which one of the teacher’s in our group pointed out is already happening at some Seattle public schools).
  • Talking openly about power and privilege
  • Making a point to give and receive feedback well in public to help model these behaviors
  • Making sure key leaders in workplaces place a high value on this work

If you have thoughts on how to address White Fragility, please leave them in the comments below!

Author: Harrison Kalodimos

I'm a family medicine resident at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle.

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