Why do conversations about race fall apart when we have them with white people?
I have been thinking about this for the last few weeks, ever since I attempted to speak with Grey’s Anatomy actress Ellen Pompeo about it on Twitter. As with many conversations I’ve had on race with white people, that one quickly devolved from an exchange of ideas into me being accused of being a racist who was attacking her. She tweeted those accusations to her more than 1 million followers, and as I type this three weeks later, people are still responding to my tweets, agreeing with her and attacking me in the process.
It’s not so much you using the black emojis as it is your response to people who expressed concern about it, @EllenPompeo
— Monique Judge (@thejournalista) December 24, 2016
When George Ciccariello-Maher, a political philosopher and theorist at Drexel University, dared to mock racists who were using a #WhiteGenocide hashtag to express their displeasure with a State Farm Twitter ad that in their eyes was promoting miscegenation, he was attacked by racists who called for him to be fired from his job. His employer bowed to the pressure, publicly rebuking his comments.
These two incidents and the many others I witness on Twitter every single day lead me to conclude that the reason conversations about race with white people fail is that white fragility leads to white violence, and not even other white people are immune to it.
To understand how white fragility and white violence work in tandem, we need to have a working definition of whiteness itself.
Ciccariello-Maher points out that whiteness is not a race in a biological sense; it is a political category.
“It just so happens that the political category of whiteness means nothing but ‘I am better than something else,’” he told me in a recent conversation on racism. “What whiteness means is that I’m not black and I’m not nonwhite, and therefore I deserve extra privileges.”
What those privileges mean is being above reproach and critique and being able to feel safe and comfortable in all spaces, wrapped within a bubble of whiteness. And because that hold on whiteness and white supremacy is so important, the unpleasant side effect of white fragility often rears its ugly head.
“What is important to remember about white fragility and white discomfort is that when white people are scared, people die,” Ciccariello-Maher said. He cited the example of Jordan Davis, who dared to sit in a car with music loudly playing as a white man was present.
“If you watch a crowd of middle-class white people and a car drives by blasting hip hop, or people (particularly black people) walk by talking loudly, you can register [their] discomfort,” he said. “People who spent the last 10 years mocking people for wanting safe spaces suddenly want safety.”
It is equally important to remember that not all white violence is physical violence; it takes many forms.
The oft-uttered “Not all white people” is a form of white violence. It is a silencing move that, as Ciccariello-Maher says, displaces the conversation. It says, “Yeah, you’ve had that experience, but since all white people don’t do that, it doesn’t count.”
When a black person offers a polite critique of something a white person has done, and said white person calls the critique an “attack” or says the black person is being “racist,” that, too, is a form of white violence, used to deflect and derail. The person it is used against will often have to abandon his or her first point in order to defend him- or herself against the accusations of attacking and racism. As Ciccariello-Maher asked, “Why are you so invested in whiteness that when you see something said about white people, you take that personally?”
— AJC (@ajc) January 13, 2017
On Wednesday a police officer in Smyrna, Ga., reportedly purchased doughnuts at a local Krispy Kreme location, and when he received his order, one of the boxes had “Black Lives Matter” written on it in black Sharpie. The officer reported the incident, the Smyrna Police Department called it “egregious,” and now law enforcement and the Krispy Kreme corporation are “investigating” the incident.
Pro-police blog Blue Lives Matter posted about the box and condemned both the action and the Black Lives Matter movement, saying, “For those who are not aware, this is extremely disrespectful to law enforcement.”
While writing the message on the box may not have been the best decision Krispy Kreme’s employee made that day, why is that particular critique considered an attack on law enforcement and, ultimately, whiteness?
“It’s only considered that in the context where people consider black rights and black equality as an attack on whiteness,” Ciccariello-Maher said to me.
Furthermore, has anyone noticed that neither the race of the employee nor the police officer in the incident has been revealed? It is simply the fact that the statement has been made at all that seems to be the most offensive thing to anyone involved in the incident, so a witch hunt has ensued, and an employer is taking unspecified actions against an employee who dared to speak out in defense of black lives to a representative of the very power structure (law enforcement) that gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement.
The police have also been weaponized against black people, and that is a direct result of white fragility. We can look at the case of Northwestern grad student Lawrence Crosby as an example of this.
“Everyday white people say, ‘Oh that looks suspicious. I think I’ll call police,’ and then a black man ends up dead, i.e., John Crawford,” Ciccariello-Maher said.
White people calling the police on “suspicious”-looking black people—or, even worse, taking matters into their own hands à la George Zimmerman—is how 17-year-old Trayvon Martin ended up dead. The audacity of a black person to dare infringe upon what a white person considers to be their space.
Even when we look at what happened to Ciccariello-Maher after his white-genocide tweet, we have to ask ourselves, why did people interpret his tweet literally?
“It’s because [white people] think they are victims in a country where they have never been victims,” he said. “I think there’s a deep-seated guilt in white America. The resentful insistence that white people in contemporary America have nothing to feel guilty about. Contemporary structures of white supremacy remain from which people draw a series of benefits. White people deny these things, and yet know that they are true.”
Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to......
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2017
mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk - no action or results. Sad!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 14, 2017
We are just five days away from the inauguration, and President-elect Orange Foolius has taken to Twitter to attack a venerated member of the civil rights movement and a congressman while simultaneously making a veiled, racist dig at the congressional district he represents, leading many others to follow suit. Twitter violence. Comment violence. Think piece violence. White violence.
“We haven’t transcended race. We should bear in mind that Trump was elected on a platform of white supremacy,” Ciccariello-Maher told me.
Whether we write the message on a Krispy Kreme box, send it from our Twitter account or, in our capacity as a congressman, dare to speak out against a questionable election and a president-elect who ran on a platform of white supremacy, white fragility is always going to shout us down and prevent the real conversation from being had.
Until white fragility, white violence and the many other elements of white supremacy are eliminated, we will never be able to have an honest conversation about race in this country.