Paradox of White Fragility and Institutional Power

‘Race talk,’ as Daryl Wing Sue describes it, by itself violates many of the standards and norms that society fights to uphold. Race talk invites emotions into the space and it invites topics deemed too impolite for small talk into a conversation. As a result, race talk is consistently pushed into designated spaces.

Aside from society, a key influence on the success of race talk is the awareness of power and privilege that those in the space holds…specifically I would argue, the white people. White people have immense privilege, which grants them unearned power in many situations, that People of Color do not get to hold. That power allows white people to control the dynamic of the conversation, especially when white people are the majority in the space. Due to the societal power dynamic at play, in theory then, it is the white person’s responsibility to keep any feelings they may have from ending the conversation.

However, white fragility can act as an unconscious, or even conscious barrier of that responsibility. White people, when confronted with their privilege can often react in ways that shut down the conversation and preserve white supremacy. Examples of such are crying, leaving the room, accusing, or qualifying their own behavior. These behaviors stem from the feelings of discomfort that may arise when white people are forced to reconcile with their own role in the systemic oppression of people of color.

image of broken egg shells

White fragility makes itself known in any situation that could threaten white supremacy, which of course includes race talk. As such, it is especially visible in conversations in which a white person is directly called out for beliefs they hold or behaviors they exhibit. As Robin Diangelo writes in her book White Fragility, the way to avoid it is as indirect as possible and to make sure the white person feels “safe” (meaning comfortable) in the space.

The paradox enters when we consider the relationship between the precautions that must be taken to make white people feel “safe” enough to not end the conversation, and the power they hold in the space. That power should align with responsibility, but Diangelo points out that steps must be taken to keep the white people from feeling attacked. This suggests that the responsibility falls on the people of color in the space to censor their conversation topics and dilute their experiences.

Whose responsibility to direct and keep the conversation in check is it? Is it the responsibility of the people of color, whose life experiences have historically been silenced and ignored? Or is it the responsibility of white people, who, in some cases, cannot hear the word racism without shutting down and putting up a defensive wall. Or should there be a moderator (or ally) present for any and all race related conversations?

There is not a singular simple answer, as while the white person should hold the responsibility, white fragility exists to force that responsibility elsewhere. It shouldn’t be the responsibility of the people of color, as they should not be forced to dilute their lived experience in its severity to cater to those who have the privilege of ignoring it. And finally, there cannot logistically be a moderator in every single conversation about race to ever exist.