the delicate pretend acceptance offered by normals

In the wake of recent events, concepts like “white privilege” and “implicit” bias are showing up in mainstream newspapers. Tim Wise describes the issue in more plainspoken terms: “Most white people in America are completely oblivious. ” A million times THIS:

To white America, in the main, police are the folks who help get our cats out of the tree, or who take us on ride-arounds to show us how gosh-darned exciting it is to be a cop. We experience police most often as helpful, as protectors of our lives and property. But that is not the black experience by and large; and black people know this, however much we don’t. The history of law enforcement in America, with regard to black folks, has been one of unremitting oppression. That is neither hyperbole nor opinion, but incontrovertible fact.

From slave patrols to overseers to the Black Codes to lynching, it is a fact. From dozens of white-on-black riots that marked the first half of the 20th century (in which cops participated actively) to Watts to Rodney King to Abner Louima to Amadou Diallo to the railroading of the Central Park 5, it is a fact. From the New Orleans Police Department’s killings of Adolph Archie to Henry Glover to the Danziger Bridge shootings there in the wake of Katrina to stop-and-frisk in places like New York, it’s a fact.

And the fact that white people don’t know this history, have never been required to learn it, and can be considered even remotely informed citizens without knowing it, explains a lot about what’s wrong with America. Black people have to learn everything about white people just to stay alive. They especially and quite obviously have to know what scares us, what triggers the reptilian part of our brains and convinces us that they intend to do us harm. Meanwhile, we need know nothing whatsoever about them. We don’t have to know their history, their experiences, their hopes and dreams, or their fears. And we can go right on being oblivious to all that without consequence. It won’t be on the test, so to speak.

I thought “White fragility” was a funny way of talking about the problem:


White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such
as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium. Racial stress results from an interruption to what is racially familiar. These interruptions can take a
variety of forms and come from a range of sources, including:

  • Suggesting that a white person’s viewpoint comes from a racialized
    frame of reference (challenge to objectivity)
  • People of color talking directly about their racial perspectives (challenge to white racial codes)
  • People of color choosing not to protect the racial feelings of white people in regards to race (challenge to white racial expectations and need/entitlement to racial comfort)
  • People of color not being willing to tell their stories or answer questions about their racial experiences (challenge to colonialist relations)
  • A fellow white not providing agreement with one’s interpretations (challenge to white solidarity)
  • Receiving feedback that one’s behavior had a racist impact (challenge to white liberalism)
  • Suggesting that group membership is significant (challenge to individualism)
  • An acknowledgment that access is unequal between racial groups (challenge to meritocracy)
  • Being presented with a person of color in a position of leadership (challenge to white authority)
  • Being presented with information about other racial groups through, for example, movies in which people of color drive the action but are not in stereotypical roles, or multicultural education (challenge to white centrality)

In a white dominant environment, each of these challenges becomes exceptional. In turn, whites are often at a loss for how to respond in constructive ways. Whites have not had to build the cognitive or affective skills or develop the stamina that would allow for constructive engagement across racial divides.

You could even die from being asked to consider the feelings of Other people:

A cogent example of White Fragility occurred recently during a workplace anti-racism training I co-facilitated with an inter-racial team. One of the white participants left the session and went back to her desk, upset at receiving (what appeared to the training team as) sensitive and diplomatic feedback on how some of her statements had impacted several people of color in the room. At break, several other white participants approached us (the trainers) and reported that they had talked to the woman at her desk, and she was very upset that her statements had been challenged. They wanted to alert us to the fact that she literally “might be having a heart-attack.” Upon questioning from us, they clarified that they meant this literally. These co-workers were sincere in their fear that the young woman might actually physically die as a result of the feedback. Of course, when news of the woman’s potentially fatal condition reached the rest of the participant group, all attention was immediately focused back onto her and away from the impact she had had on the people of color.

This phenomenon is by no means limited to black people and white people, though. “White fragility” is just a clever rewording of something described in Goffman’s classic Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, over 50 years ago (!):

That the stigmatized individual can be caught taking the tactful acceptance of himself too seriously indicates that this acceptance is conditional. It depends upon normals not being pressed past the point at which they can easily extend acceptance–or, at worst, uneasily extend it. The stigmatized are tactfully expected to be gentlemanly and not to press their luck; they should not test the limits of the acceptance shown them, nor make it the basis for still further demands. Tolerance, of course, is usually part of a bargain.

The nature of “good adjustment” is now apparent. It requires that the stigmatized individual cheerfully and unself-consciously accept himself as essentially the same as normals, while at the same time he voluntarily withholds himself from those situations in which normals would find it difficult to give lip service to their similar acceptance of him.

Since the good-adjustment line is presented by those who take the standpoint of the wider society, one should ask what the following of it by the stigmatized means to normals. It means that the unfairness and pain of having to carry a stigma will never be presented to them; it means that normals will not have to admit to themselves how limited their tactfulness and tolerance is; and it means that normals can remain relatively uncontaminated by intimate contact with the stigmatized, relatively unthreatened in their identity beliefs.

Normals make being stigmatized SO ANNOYING.

I thought it was neat that Goffman anticipates queer theory and critical race theory in MUCH less annoying language:

The problems associated with militancy are well known. When the ultimate political objective is to remove stigma from the differentness, the individual may find that his very efforts can politicize his own life, rendering it even more different from the normal life initially denied him–even though the next generation of his fellows may greatly profit from his efforts by being more accepted. Further, in drawing attention to the situation of his own kind he is in some respects consolidating a public image of his differentness as a real thing and of his fellow-stigmatized as constituting a real group. On the other hand, if he seeks some kind of separateness, not assimilation, he may find that he is necessarily presenting his militant efforts in the language and style of his enemies. Moreoever, the pleas he presents, the plight he reviews, the strategies he advocates, are all part of an idiom of expression and feeling that belongs to the whole society. His disdain for a society that rejects him can be understood only in terms of that society’s conception of pride, dignity, and independence. In short, unless there is some alien culture on which to fall back, the more he separates himself structurally from the normals, the more like them he may become culturally.