A Safe Space for Racism

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There’s a term for situations like these, coined by the scholar
Robin DiAngelo
: “white fragility.” White Americans, she writes, “live in a social environment that
protects and insulates them from race-based stress…this insulated
environment…builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time

lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to…a state in which
even a minimum amount becomes intolerable, triggering anger, fear, and guilt.”
The root of this problem isn’t just segregation, she says, but the kind of segregation white Americans have
experienced over the last four or five decades:

White people are taught
not to feel any loss over the absence of people of
color in their lives, and in fact, this absence is what defines their schools and
neighborhoods as “good;” whites come to understand that a “good school” or
“good neighborhood” is coded language for “white.” The quality of white space
being in large part measured via the absence of people of color (and Blacks in
particular) is a profound message indeed, one that is deeply internalized and
reinforced daily…This dynamic of gain rather than loss via racial segregation
may be the most profound aspect of white racial socialization of all. Yet,
while discourses about what makes a space good are tacitly understood as
racially coded, this coding is explicitly denied by whites.

It’s worth dwelling for more than a moment on that first
sentence: White people are not taught to
feel any loss over the absence of people of color in their lives.
Isn’t it
true, though, that white people are taught, endlessly, in trainings and
seminars and mandated HR videos, about the value of diversity? They are—at
work, where diversity has demonstrable monetary value, and the lack of it
carries serious legal risks. But the ultimate lesson of the suburbs has always
been that home and work are different worlds. In this case, the separation is
particularly stark: Over the past two decades American businesses have begun to
emphasize diversity, with some success, both in hiring and in the culture of
the workplace, but neighborhood segregation in the US has changed very little
since 1980, the end of what’s usually thought of as the era of “white flight.”
In a statistical analysis of the 2010 US Census, sociologists John R. Logan and
Brian Stults sum up the data this way:

average white person in metropolitan American lives in a neighborhood that is
75% white. Despite a substantial shift of minorities from cities to suburbs,
these groups have often not gained access to largely white neighborhoods…a
typical African American lives in a neighborhood that is only 35% white (not
much different from 1940) and as much as 45% black. Diversity is experienced
very differently in the daily lives of whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians.

It turns out, not so surprisingly,
that if white children are raised in homogeneous suburbs, go to homogeneous
schools, and are given few opportunities to encounter people of color other than on
TV or the internet, the boilerplate language of multiculturalism, diversity,
“tolerance,” and unspecific reverence for Martin Luther King Jr. will have
little effect on them; it will seem, at best, hypothetical. This is
particularly true if they’re constantly reminded—as white children even in
liberal communities often are—that they are the fortunate ones, that they
should be grateful for the good things life has given them. The underlying
message children hear in these situations is: We’re lucky to be white, and
things are perfect just the way they are.

Of course, things aren’t perfect in
that imaginary land called white America (except, perhaps, in the glossiest of
the suburbs—Alpine, Darien, Greenwich, Mountain View—where hedge fund traders
and tech entrepreneurs live). The 2008 financial crisis only deepened the
generational stagnation of the middle class and bottoming-out of the working
class, affecting all American workers, from small towns in Iowa devastated by
factory closings, population loss, and opiates, to Milwaukee, Flint, and
Newark, where foreclosure rates were the highest in the country. This sense of
shared desperation, particularly driven by students and voters under 30, drove
the extraordinary and radical candidacy of Bernie Sanders, who managed to mount
a credible challenge to Clinton with no war chest and the active opposition of
the DNC. 

 At the same time, however, and
among some of the same white voters, something else was happening: Donald Trump
was articulating a position on race that seemed to many of them—from interviews
widely reported over the course of the campaign—refreshingly honest. Why, he kept asking, should we be asked to
care about people of color, or immigrants, when we don’t actually care about
them, when we never see them or interact with them, or share their concerns?
In a sense, Trump managed to turn racial politics—“the multicultural
state”—into a version of “the global economy”: two abstractions that were
supposed to be a good thing, a beneficial thing, but actually turned out only
to be good for other people.

Of course, conservative politicians
and commentators have been playing varieties of this rhetorical game for years,
but Trump hit on a strategy only a consummate showman would think to exploit:
instead of using surrogates and coded language to signal to white voters that
he was fighting for their interests, he focused his attention on rallies as
spectacles of rage and catharsis, where white voters would finally get to say
what they “really” thought. The outrageousness, the unacceptability, was
precisely the point: Trump wanted his all-white crowds to feel embattled,
shamed, aggrieved, and now exultant at finally fighting back. He wanted, in
other words, to bottle the feeling of the crowd at Busch Stadium and unleash

During the campaign, and since
Trump’s surprising (and possibly artificially engineered) victory, some
commentators have been laying the blame for his success on “identity
politics”—what Leon Wieseltier, speaking for many others, calls “the
politics of grievance,”
as opposed to the more noble politics of national
unity and belonging. (“National politics in healthy periods is not about “difference,”
it is about commonality,” as Mark Lilla put it in his recapitulation
of this argument that appeared in the New
York Times
last weekend). In this formulation, activist groups and
academics on the left essentially taught Trump supporters to feel like white
nationalists; by focusing on discrimination to the exclusion of all other
issues, the argument goes, they alienated even sympathetic white voters who
felt their own concerns were never addressed. By emphasizing their
vulnerability and fragility—by using terms like “safe space”—they allowed such
visceral responses to dominate the entire political process. 

There’s at least one compelling
truth among all the fallacies in this argument: for decades the right has used
the very existence of social justice
and civil rights movements to make white Americans feel under attack. This is borne
out by a startling and deeply depressing 2011 paper by psychologists Michael
Norton and Samuel Sommers: “Whites See Racism as a Zero-sum Game that They Are
Now Losing.”
Using a broad-based survey that asked whites and
African Americans to rank their perceptions of racism against different groups
on a 1 to 10 scale, Norton and Sommers discovered that, contrary to all
available economic or legal evidence, white Americans believe themselves to be
the victims of discrimination and bias that has increased over time, as legal
forms of discrimination against African Americans have decreased. This
perception can’t be controlled for levels of education: According to this
analysis, at least, even the most well-educated white Americans still believe pervasive anti-white
discrimination exists.

Where does this perception come
from, if not from actual evidence? Nikole Hannah-Jones, in The New York Times Magazine, details an interview she conducted with one
Obama-to-Trump voter, Gretchen, a registered nurse in rural Iowa who describes
herself as a “social liberal and fiscal conservative,” who supported Democrats
even though she worried that government programs were creating a culture of
dependency, but who changed her affiliation and her vote, decisively, when
Obama described Trayvon Martin as a boy who could have been his own son. “The
Black Lives Matter movement bothered her,” Hannah-Jones writes. “Even as an Ivy
League-educated, glamorous black couple lived in the White House, masses of
black people were blocking highways and staging die-ins in malls, claiming that
black people had it so hard.” Norton and Sommers sum up this feeling with a
quotation from Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, now nominated for the attorney
general position in the Trump administration: “Empathy for one party,” Sessions
said, “is always prejudice against another.”

How is it possible for a thinking,
psychological stable person, let alone a practicing Christian—that’s the vast majority
of the Trump electorate—supposed to hold this explicitly hateful idea in the
mind? For the most part, it happens by feeling it, without necessarily voicing
it, articulating it, or talking it over. Hannah-Jones describes Gretchen this
way: “Some of her liberal friends on Facebook called her racist. So she shut
her mouth—and simmered.” Like so many forms of psychological repression, white
fragility follows precisely this pattern: Unacceptable thoughts / tentative voicing of those thoughts / immediate criticism / silence / “simmering.”

And then, in the end? Anyone who has
ever attended a Thanksgiving meal, or any large family gathering, knows how the
story goes: Explosion. 

It may be that Gretchen would feel
the same way if she lived in an integrated community, had friends and neighbors
of different ethnicities—even if she were part of a multiracial family. In the
vast majority of cases, we’ll never know: Integrated communities exist, of
course, and many white Americans live vibrantly interconnected lives with
people of color, but demographically speaking they are a tiny minority. I will
go to my grave believing many more white people secretly (or not so secretly) wish they knew black people better, have
a deep longing for racial reconciliation, and carry around a heavy load of
racialized shame. That’s how I have always experienced my own whiteness, and
that’s the whiteness I recognize in my family and the many communities I’ve
lived in—urban, rural, Eastern, Western.

But none of that has prevented the
past fifty years of right-wing myth-making about race in America, playing on the
fears and suspicions of whites living in overwhelmingly segregated communities:
That black people are innately
predisposed to commit crimes
; that uncontrolled
waves of immigrants
are destabilizing
the economy and taking “good jobs”;
that people
of color in urban centers receive more tax dollars than rural communities
; that
people of color are “takers,” receiving government benefits they don’t deserve
that “it’s
impossible for a white man to get a good job anymore.”
These are lies that
have become, in many white contexts, a kind of unspeakable common sense, the
definition of what isn’t “P.C.”

Until now. Now, they are speakable.
Spoken everywhere. Yet even in victory, Trump hasn’t altered the rhetoric of
his campaign at all: at every possible occasion, he’s still playing the victim,
wounded by mass protests, insulted by the cast of Hamilton and Saturday Night
, insisting that the theater should be a “safe and special place.” He
and his advisors know that the language of fragility, fear, and rage—the
adrenaline rush of white solidarity against “them”—is what got him where he is.
Whether he can sustain it is the most frightening question of all.

I don’t feel prepared to make
predictions. What I want to know is: how
did it happen?

Would Gretchen have been the one
shouting racist names at the Black Lives Matter protestors at Busch Stadium in
2014? I don’t think she would have. I have a much easier time picturing her in
the crowd, tense, nervous, wishing she were somewhere else. But not outraged,
and not disagreeing. Maybe feeling a little glad that someone was taking her
side, that the yelling wasn’t coming from only one direction. Feeling herself
closely hemmed in a crowd of people like her, and taking some sense of safety
from that feeling. There are so many of
us and just a few of them.
In an hour or so she will find her way to the
parking lot, sit miserably in stadium traffic for twenty minutes, and then be
out on the open highway again, settling in for that thirty or forty-mile drive
home, and reassured by the distance, taking her away from those faces. In a
way, that distance is her real vote. She’s cast it even before she gets to her

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