What is “white” fragility? — you might wonder. According to my current understanding the term has been introduced by an American scholar by the name of Robin DiAngelo and probably made more popular to a wider audience through her book “White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism.”
From my experience the word “racism” is charged with a sense of moral wrongness. I see people using the word often enough and I am concerned different people have different ideas about what they think of as “racism”. I rarely hear people describe themselves as racists. This other person is a racist, these people are racists — this is a racist system — even, I consider myself as part of a racist system, we are all part of such a system and we need to change it — now!
I consider anything charged with a sense of moral wrongness as a tragic, even suicidal expression of unmet needs. Because such an expression makes practically certain to produce more or less the opposite of the wished-for result.
I want to show what I mean in a concrete example.
In the below video presentation of 3.47 minutes Robin DiAngelo explains a couple of her key findings about how white people relate to racism.
My general internal response when I listen to her presentation is that I am tensing up. She seems to judge the situation she is describing in desperate need of change, as she describes the racist socialization of “white people” in general. As I experience that urgency in her message, I do wish for more choice and spaciousness — I wish for a kind of energy, that would invite me to a “no”, that would seem open and curious for a different view. When she generalizes how white people respond to situations, I would like to be asked if what she describes feels true for me too. That kind of asking would meet my need for respect.
Being white — how is your internal response to viewing this video? Is there any sense of guilt, shame or fear in you, when you view this video? Do you think you should change something? Or — alternatively — do you feel an inner sense of clarity arise, a sense of wanting to contritube to change from a place of freedom and joy?
And being “non-white” — what are your feelings, when viewing this video, hearing this presentation? Do you have a sense of support, unease, happiness …? What comes alive in you?
I would find more helpful if she were to use her own example or the example of specific people and then propose to her audience to check, if they also find such types of reactivity in them. This might increase my openness to the important issues that may be underlying, my willingness to cooperate to more well-being with inner joy.
Also — from the point of view of nonviolent communication — connection first. When I hear this author speak I get a strong impression that she wants people to change her attitudes. What I do not get from her presentation — in terms of honesty understood as one’s own personal observation, feelings, needs and requests to seeing “white fragility”.
As a giraffe I am curious and I ask: “So, Robin, what do you feel and need, when you take the perspective that white people find it difficult to talk about race? Are you angry?” — Hearing her response, I might be able to connect to her as a person.
From NVC point of view her analysis, full of generalizations, is a personal interpretation. It is easy to see that, when different people evaluate the same facts in a different way. We view facts in the light of our feelings and needs and we connect at that level, as human beings. For nonviolence it is crucial that all parties involved in a process are acting in full autonomy and do not act from fear, guilt, shame or obligation. I do experience any part of the above presentation as nonviolent. She is just about her request, not even conceptually showing a room for varying theories.
I want to share also how I see her approach different from the one in harmony with my understanding of nonviolent communication for the first example she gives in the above video, which seems to have particular relevance to her entire approach.
Taking part in a workshop on race led by a black trainer, Robin DiAngelo describes a white person as saying:
“I don’t see color.”
And how the trainer replied:
“So how are you going to see racism? Because I am black. I do think you know that. And I have a different experience than you do. And you are not going to be able to understand that and you are not going to be able to support the parts of that experience that are really painful and problematic, if you refuse to acknowledge my reality.”
“I don’t see color — means — I refuse to acknowledge your reality.”
I hear her making an interpretation of the inner motivation of the white person. From a nonviolent communication point of view, I might guess that she be wanting to express this:
“What you say is painful to me (feeling), because I think you are denying the feelings of another person (thought=observation), when you say that (stimulus for thought). I need people to respect each other’s experience. (need) Would you please acknowledge that different people might have very different experiences from you? (request)”
From a normal, “violent” language point of view, DiAngelo is simply making an interpretation what the statement of the white person means, without establishing connection with the person or checking with the person, if what she is making out of the statement coincides with what is alive in the person.
I do not see her asking what the inner motivation of the white person is. Asking would be a practice in harmony with nonviolent communication, where we want to value individual differences and where we want to respect the inner life of each person.
Paradoxically the need that might be alive in DiAngelo is what she is not serving by her expression herself — not making space for differing experiences in different people. This is what Marshall Rosenberg referred to as “jugdments and evaluations are tragic expressions of needs.”
I can also see how people who value inclusivity and tolerance might enjoy this way of approaching the subject of race. A new and stronger version of political correctness for the 21st century? My hope would be that this tolerance would extend to people who hold a different view than this.
I can also see how people who value tradition and safe borders for themselves and their friends would not enjoy this approach, seeing her approach as an example of an anarchism, communist or racism. I would hope that they might find an open door for hearing some of the needs of the group above.
Making generalizing statements about groups of people is not in harmony with my understanding of compassionate communication and its spiritual basis. The best way of hearing this would be to hear requests in it.
That said, personal experiences from people of all walks of life on skin color or other discriminating elements of outward or inward realities can help us to learn about the suffering that all people experience on their individual level, to truly feel connected to universal human longings.
I suggest to stay curious about the human being beyond the differences and leave generalizations about people to the realm of science.
I would connect empathically to the black trainer, who states his feelings and needs in terms of what does not work for him in the attitude or words of the other person:
“Do you want to trust that your reality is appreciated and fully understood?”
Connection before correction.