Sunday, May 07, 2017

Facing White Fragility

I am nervous basically every time a person of color tells me they have read or will read my book. That's not fair, of course, as that kind of generalization is never fair, but I am aware enough of my white privilege to know that it probably comes out in my book at some point, as hard as I tried to be aware. Because white privilege is that ingrained.

I was very careful in my book, asking former students and Black and Latino/a friends if certain phrases were acceptable, and having these same friends read chapters or read the whole book. I did my best, and I took suggestions and criticism.

But here's the thing. I'm white*, and the world looks different with privilege. No matter how aware I am, I'm still going to stumble. And that hurts people. And that is really uncomfortable to face.

I was recently called out on something I had said that had an unintended but real impact on a Facebok friend who is a person of color. I'm not going to share any details, because it was a private conversation, but I want to share my reaction in hopes that it will help other white people to be willing to accept correction. Because let's face it, no human likes to face correction, and white people seem to be especially fragile in our reactions.

As I've written about before, my first reaction when I am confronted with my privilege is to be really, really defensive. Although I think they're totally wrong, I do understand the knee-jerk reaction of white people who claim that they have no privilege because they grew up poor/didn't go to a good school/don't see color/whatever. It's uncomfortable to face privilege and easier to convince yourself you don't have it.

So when this person very thoughtfully and respectfully pointed out what I had said and how that showed my privilege, I immediately felt defensive, and embarrassed. Really embarrassed. After all, I wrote a book about teaching kids in East Oakland! I'm not prejudiced.

But of course I am. We all are, because we're human. We all have biases and white people have more power to hurt others with those biases.

I went through various responses in my head, discarding them one by one. I thought about saying that the person was wrong; that they didn't know my whole story and I couldn't be racist if I was a teacher in that school. I thought about saying that they were oversensitive. I thought about getting angry or about ignoring it.

But if I had done any of those, I would be in the wrong, and I would be doing what I'm so often angry about -- discounting the truth about white privilege and how it hurts others because I was uncomfortable. And you know what? White people have to deal with this discomfort much much less than anyone else in this country.

I suspect my response was inadequate. After all, I don't really know what to say. White people have generations and centuries of harm to apologize for and make right. And I can't do all that. But I do hope that I can become less defensive each time this happens, and that I can set aside my discomfort to listen and learn. I hope I can clean up my mistakes to the best of my ability.

*I struggled with whether or not to capitalize Black and White throughout this piece and I suspect I am very inconsistent in my writing. Here is more food for thought on the disparity of the capitals. 

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