Somewhere before White Fragility became the lingo du jour of anti-racism workshops, white people stopped telling me out loud that they were ‘one of the good ones’. They chuckled and said ‘Oh, I’m so white’. They offered me a conspiring wink. It’s not as suave when I reciprocate. I can only blink, or hold my hand over one eye like an optometrist, testing just what it is I’m meant to be seeing.
They said ‘Oh, I’m so white’ eating chillies—which serrate my bowels. They said it getting sunburned—while I put on sunscreen next to them. They howled it while being bad dancers—my arms flailing vaguely to the same music. Hearing them, you’d wonder when whiteness became an in-joke, rather than, as Cheryl Harris wrote for Harvard Law Review in the year I was born, ‘a type of status in which white racial identity provided the basis for allocating societal benefits both private and public in character’. Or, as Nell Irvin Painter writes in her 2010 work The History of White People, a personal and collective identity that barely bears thinking about for its cherished invisibility and horror, somewhere between ‘nothingness and awfulness’.
They’d say ‘Oh, I’m so white’ with an ingrained institutional advantage dangling over your head, as you survey their parents’ house. Their grandparents came here from England, South Africa, New Zealand, presumably brought with them the good kind of white splashback tiles and a five K couch.
‘Oh, I’m so white’, and so what?
I’m lying on the floor of her bedroom, mostly naked and caught by a little strip of sun that dips into my bellybutton. She has plants. She’s playing Beyoncé’s self-titled album and of course she is. She peers over to me from the lip of the bed, having known me for all of two weeks, and says: ‘I like how you pull me up on my bullshit, you know? I just can’t be with other people like who don’t see it. My whole life, everyone in my white circles. I don’t want to be complicit.’
I wonder just what deranged pleasure she gets from me seeing her like that, aside from the more obvious part of us both being naked in her parents’ townhouse, her having clearly enjoyed those spoils of colonial complicity up until two weeks ago when we met on an app. From our earlier encounters, it was hard to determine whether I would have made it through the door if I didn’t pass as white, whether the desire was for me as a moral collectable that needed to look like I was at home in this place, next to a feature wall with a picture of a white guy from a war and a white cloth couch with a singular appliqué cushion. I still had a broad nose and a big butt. Guess that was just enough to make me part of these white spoils around her, splayed out on the floorboards like a skin rug.
With this vulnerability, bronde hair sluicing down, she watches me dredge up some vague praise. ‘I like your self-awareness.’ There’s a long silence afterwards, like neither of us knows how to progress the conversation. Does she want me to yell at her? Congratulate her? I’m much younger and duller in this memory than I am now, but I still don’t know if I’d do it differently.
Obviously I’ve retained some resentment—being unsatisfactorily rooted in two ways. And obviously this isn’t the most effective way to introduce an essay about white fragility, but if I have to be bored by the worst of its minute self-flagellation and deification in even the most private corners of my life, then you have to put up with some of mine, too.
When I think of her now and how she took on her white fragility by having me over and symbolically copping my disdain, I think of the esteemed Black dominatrix Mistress Velvet. She requires her clients read Black feminist literature both before they engage her and as part of the process of being in service to her. It pays. What’s more, Mistress Velvet says, it has a therapeutic potential to act out control and power. She theorises, as a practitioner and a scholar of domination—‘an emotional sense of reparations’. You grab the face that says ‘Oh, I’m so white’ and then you pull it by the hair, back and back and back, until it can’t look you in the eye.
Anyway, what’s the point of me raising this anecdote except to declare that I got laid in a nice house?
Not much, except that white fragility will always have its opposite, just as structurally sound: the beaming grin of ‘the good whites’. If, in 2010, Nell Irvin Painter thought of white self-awareness as between ‘nothingness’ and ‘awfulness’, I wonder if one way that dynamic is being expressed in 2020 is as goodness and fragility. But which is which?
It’s hard to know what to do with a good white. White fragility, the theory, is blossoming now, a concept long brewed and then explosively distributed when Robin DiAngelo took its baton around in a tour of the settler colonies. In White Fragility, her book on the concept, DiAngelo poses white fragility as a response to racial stress:
A challenge to our very identities as good, moral people … any attempt to connect us to the system of racism [is] unsettling and unfair moral offence … including anger, fear and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation.
These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy.
I think of the times I’ve gingerly passed on my beaten-up copy of Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s Talkin’ Up To the White Woman to non-Indigenous lovers leaning out over a bed to thank me for my plain talking about race. I don’t, at least I didn’t then, do it out of a desire to discipline them or any latent didacticism, but out of enthusiasm for Moreton-Robinson’s work. It’s very good. Proselytising, I guess, that turned out to be more prophylaxis.
The book recounts what it means to be an Indigenous woman working within and around feminism from a complex standpoint in race and gender. I’m underselling it. The book opens with an anecdote: Moreton-Robinson was given one day’s notice by her university to welcome a white feminist professor from her early-morning international flight to receive an honorary doctorate. The professor ‘threatened not to come to Australia unless she was met and welcomed by Indigenous women’. It was, Moreton-Robinson said, ‘a seemingly noble but colonial gesture’ on her part—forcing esteemed Indigenous women to get out of bed to go lie on the floor and witness her goodness.
Twenty years after the book was published, the vague and dripping over-praise of the work I get from non-Indigenous lovers is a turn-off, and the speed at which they devour it is not at all believable. Patronising. A flip through.
I was concerned with what Moreton-Robinson herself calls a ‘cultural entrapment’ by which the Indigene works to be seen ‘in the right way’, as if colonisation were a miscommunication. Would I be happy if they’d read it the right way? As if by being seen, I became. In a way, that’s what happens. That’s how, woven in by economic, social and legal structures, I was made the Indigene—by colonisation.
I wonder sometimes if settlers have the same preoccupation for how they were made by colonisation, the appeal for recognising themselves grounded in either guilt or heroism rather than a collective deprivation and desire for justice. Who wants to be seen as fragile, but overcoming? Generations of First Nations wracked by trauma, displacement and debasement? Or someone who hates that their house is built on bodies: but it’s such a nice house, and who could get a new one in this market? ‘I’ll just wait for my parents to die. Lol.’
Not reading my little library of First Nations feminism in the way I wanted them to or being awkwardly fawning and over-articulating whiteness are not even close to the worst things that white women have ever done to Aboriginal women. I’m no victim in this story, but maybe more of a bemused observer to whiteness, finding new ways to assimilate the racial stress we bring. From the floor, it’s not a flattering angle.
Maybe I’m telling it like this because I want to be seen as relatable by what I assume (probably falsely) is a bronde, white, upper-middle-class, townhouse-residing readership of Meanjin—reading this essay from the bed. I’ve been in houses like yours. I hope I’ve appealed to you well.
I just want to suggest to you that the popular thinking around white fragility is an innovation, or at least it marks one, in white innocence. It will never give me the title to your home. Is that a relief? Not to me.
Poppy Noor, not long after I tried to file this essay for about the fifth time, reported on dinner parties of white women who ‘confront their privilege and racism’ at dinners hosted in their homes and convened by Saira Rao and Regina Jackson for $2500. The initiative, Race2Dinner, targets rich white women and their complicity as a model of change. They are invited to ‘unleash [their] power’ through these discussions. Rao tells Noor ‘wealthy white women have been taught never to leave the dinner table’ as a way to hold them in a state of confronting white fragility head on. As a model of change, it’s a little jarring and hard to make out. Noor reports that the centre of the dinner is an invitation to white women attendees to recount the last time they were racist, over ‘freshly made pasta’. They are pulled up by Rao and Jackson. The evening closes, to ‘self-righteousness’ on the part of the white women. That may be so and duly nauseating. But what about a model like this offers anything but correction and buffering of an optimal white self that doesn’t look racist anymore? What else did they pay $2500 for?
Janet Mawhinney calls the engagement of white people in anti-racist and decolonial movements ‘moves to innocence’, and Mary Louise Fellows and Sherene Razack describe some anti-racist work of white people that prioritises their conceptions of race as little more than a ‘race to innocence’—a terminus in the relationship marked by being sufficiently good, where everyone can forget and forgive their relative positions and go home to live on stolen land. Reconciliation. Resolution. Return.
When I’m napping on the floor I worry that, with the birth of a new wave of pop scholarship on whiteness by white people, we are marking a shift in how white people understand themselves. From the right, this sometimes means fever dreams about white persecution. From the left, it’s ‘Oh, I’m so white’, yearning for some solipsistic leap out of complicity.
It’s a phenomenon Emily Bazelon identified for The New York Times:
Some of us fixate on maintaining racial dominance, conjuring ethnonationalist states or a magical immigration formula that somehow imports half of Scandinavia. A majority of white Americans currently believe that their own race is discriminated against. News accounts fill with white resentment and torch-lit white-power marches. White Americans, who ‘seem lost’ are searching for something important: how to see ourselves without turning awful in the process.
The drive to conceptualise and reconceptualise the settler relationship to the Indigenous drove Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang to write ‘Decolonization is not a Metaphor’—its central thesis obvious in the title but worth laying out here:
One trend we have noticed, with growing apprehension, is the ease with which the language of decolonization has been superficially adopted into education and other social sciences, supplanting prior ways of talking about social justice, critical methodologies, or approaches which de-centre settler perspectives. Decolonisation, which we assert is a distinct project from other civil and human rights-based social justice projects, is far too often subsumed into the directives of these projects, with no regard for how decolonisation wants something different than those forms of justice. Settler scholars swap out prior civil and human rights-based terms, seemingly to signal both an awareness of the significance of Indigenous and decolonising theorisations of schooling and educational research, and to include Indigenous peoples on the list of considerations—as an additional special (ethnic) group or class.
Back to the townhouse floor and the white guilt and the dominatrix now imposed in that room in my memory. I was a fool for doing it, a fool for doing it often, and a fool for doing it for free—and a fool for doing it without the explicit, exquisite clarity of communication that only comes with a riding crop.
But much like the relationship a race-critical dominatrix has to her underlings, there’s a delight in and a market for white self-aggrandisement through self-minimisation. Delight aside, it lacks the transfer of control, power and capital necessary to be transformative. In this context, it’s understandable that white fragility has emerged as the vogue expression at the turn of the decade, either to describe white racism or to provide a framework for white anti-racism. It placates, in the way all self-help does, with the promise that transformation of small behaviours will give its students security in the face of the racial stress DiAngelo writes about. In this case, security in whiteness, as Moreton-Robinson calls it, is a ‘possessive investment’ in power beyond individual behaviours.
To stretch the metaphor, in the culture of control that is sadomasochism—the dominant party maintains only an illusion of dominance. It is the submissive one who holds the real power, deriving pleasure from being directed or debased. (A very millennial blak essay—horny and unashamedly didactic.) The submissive determines when the scene starts and stops, its limits, goals, desires and turns. She may have been debasing herself on the bed, talking about how I ‘pull her up’, but she was in control. It was my gaze being pulled up to meet hers.
‘Okay, darling. For you.’ is a thought I assign to the version of myself on that bedroom floor. She was not fully self-aware, nor was I, and I preferred that she didn’t pretend to be, so the whole theatre of her goodness would not fall away into a familiar complicity that no-one found hot. Give me the oblivious guy at the supermarket who says ‘Aborigine’ and then says ‘Oh, sorry, I mean …’ and writhes, over the agonised wringing of settlers who learned their catchphrases well. The language gets slicker, harder to hold. The wringing is my birthright—I get it. That racial stress is ours to inflict. If speaking whiteness edges us closer to the comfort of it, then we lose one important part of our social justice toolkit—purposeful upset. Moving into and out of white innocence means all anti-racism can give us is a smoother, sanded-down field of interpersonal race relations, and we know who gets sanded down to accommodate that.
What of the white confessional’s capacity for social change? Has white people becoming more aware of their fragilities and biases really done anything for us—aside from finding a new way to say ‘one of the good ones’ or worse, asking us to? White progressive tendency to move towards an articulation of self-awareness (always in vague terms about their subconscious, and therefore unimpeachable, bias) is at least fungible in its capacity to pay for and promote the very public act of fundraising, to its credit.
This year #PayTheRent and blak-led bushfire campaigns have redirected funds to Indigenous-controlled organisations, where they need to be, asking white fragility to go for its piggy bank.
But the white confession leaves us with plenty of baggage, as Brit Bennett reminds me:
[They say] I am a good white person. Join me and remind others that you are a good white person too. Sometimes I think I’d prefer racist trolling to this grade of self-aggrandisement. A racist troll is easy to dismiss. He does not think decency is enough. Sometimes I think good white people expect to be rewarded for their decency. We are not like those other white people. See how enlightened and aware we are? See how we are good?
There’s a great deal of social capital to be acquired from the confession of whiteness, but not as much for the accusation of white structural power. Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, is running a workshop circuit by and largely for white people, while Reni Eddo-Lodge, author of Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race, is asked about unrelated knife crime in interviews. Both, strangely enough, scenarios that work to prove their broader theses.
White fragility comes up in peculiar places, in the commons as well as in our bedrooms and classrooms and workplaces and river walks. At an event about Treaty, a young white woman gets up and asks a panel of senior Indigenous politicians about whether they tire of white fragility. There’s a good ten-second pause, because why wouldn’t there be at a question like that at an event like that from an audience member like that? Yet, here it is and who had prepared for it? They chuckle awkwardly. White fragility isn’t really on the Treaty agenda.
Dawn Burton, a consumer culture scholar, has typologised whiteness theory and whiteness studies as a distinct discipline from critical race theory. Emerging in the 1990s through the discipline of labour history, whiteness studies makes whiteness its centre of enquiry, as well as the dominant race and ethnicity of the researchers. Its tendency to prefer textual and discourse analysis—as Burton identifies distinct from the counter-storying, ethnography and participatory-action research of the PoC-dominated critical race studies—does something to suggest its foundations in speaking the self. Which is not to say that whiteness studies isn’t a useful discipline. The Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association, established and closely run by Indigenous scholars, scholars of colour and Jewish scholars, is a fantastic example of how whiteness studies can reclaim white space rather than intrude on racial analysis with confession to no end.
Jun Mian Chen, in defence of whiteness studies—and in defence of its dominance by white scholars and authors—says ‘the stack of whiteness studies is staggering in its achievement to boldly isolate the axis of race—whiteness—and to turn the invisibility of whiteness into a visible and operationalised form: white privilege’.¹
Which is certainly true, but into what? Perhaps its most immediate form is the acquisition of a discipline about race and racialisation where whiteness is considered an autoethnographic asset, or another way to justify the entry of non-Indigenous scholars into Indigenous spaces, disciplines and resources.
DiAngelo—and it’s not fair to pick on her so much, but her book and how it is popularly understood (and just plainly popular) was the reason I was approached for this essay—told Nosheen Iqbal of the Guardian that she was motivated to write about whiteness because of its unspeakability.
It’s worth wondering, then, on the role of shame in fronting up to whiteness and whether the role of anti-racist whites is to let that shame be, rather than be speakable. In the same interview, Iqbal observes DiAngelo’s lack of exhaustion at talking about race, indeed her ‘invigorat[ion]’ at it: ‘Isn’t this itself a marker of white privilege? I can’t think of a single non-white person who enjoys talking about race or feels energised by it. More often than not, it is awkward, uncomfortable and frustrating.’
I think of my bronde lover draping her hair over me from above, gaining obvious joy from her confession while I dredge from my depths a Chrissy Teigen smile. Looking, for all the world, wonderful, because in that moment why wouldn’t she feel good about herself? Through me and her white confessional, she’d gotten free of those burdens—fragility and guilt.
Clearly they felt heavy and unspeakable to her, and my framing of her isn’t fair. She was doing what was asked of her in the social justice discourse that turned out to mostly just be capable of giving birth to more discourse—confessing. That is what she was doing, and she expressed her gratitude and openness to it. It doesn’t escape my attention that my reaction, from her perspective, might be a little cruel. Ungrateful. Making it unspeakable again. So white, so what?
Nevertheless, it’s hard to move in this space without encountering this new movement of scholarship merging into a relatively mainstream social justice consciousness in search of how to resolve whiteness.
Lauren Michele Jackson called white fragility an innovation in a new generation of how white people talk, and perhaps therein lies the problem with white fragility—it becomes its own performance that has a real material effect in the world. It’s not the one we’d hope for. They gloss over DiAngelo’s chapter on resisting the pull to anti-racism as goodness. Maybe it was never about surrendering white power but finding the easiest way to consolidate it in the framework of justice. White fragility found a crack in the mortar of whiteness that was just beginning to crumble. This structural pressure only forced it in.
This is a more general problem encountered by critical studies of power by those who theoretically benefit from it, especially once these concepts find their way into the relatively flattened and ever-urgent formats of social media and marketing. At least critical masculinity studies, and its pop offering of toxic masculinity, offers a path other than self-reflection, even if beset by its own challenges. At least it is in some way enmeshed with a fuller community—families, networks, organisations, projects, kin where (mostly) men are made responsible to and are supported by other genders—rather than projecting itself onto another community who exists principally because of their structural subjugation.
Settler studies, among which in the colony of Australia Clare Land and Sarah Maddison find their names, are interesting, if divergent, bodies of thought coming to the surface where one might think the claim to self-reflection would herald more currency. DiAngelo’s call to ‘relinquishing … racial supremacy’ is found in internalised reflections here too—no personal criticism of anyone intended—in Sarah Maddison’s call in The Colonial Fantasy to ‘step back’ from First Nations’ work of self-determination and enacting sovereignty and in endless discussions in social justice circles to do the same, without a real model for how to do so or a sense of how the structure of whiteness resists any efforts to opt out.
It’s as hard a thing to critique as the lover dangling from the bed. I’m white. True. You should hold me to account. True. I should relinquish my power. True. It’s all true, but why you telling me? And what’s more, when people of colour have already told you what you know, what use is a collective development of branding and catchphrases from that theorising? To hear these parroted back, again without critique of the writers as much as the systems they’re writing in and through, isn’t as exciting or transformative as the flurry of energy around whiteness or settler-hood would have us think. Instead of publishing these books, these tweets, these sentiments, again, full of truths, what else could be done? And where, in all of this, are all these newly de-fragiled white people going to go except into bedrooms, workplaces, streets and parks, offering us that stiff little smile that says ‘I read the book. I relinquished my power’—as if the former were useful and the latter were possible through grit-teeth will? They’re retreating into the ‘nothingness’ of whiteness by trying to rid themselves of it. They aren’t going out into the ‘awfulness’ to do anything about it.
Whatever. This whole essay is going to do little more than what Thelma Plum managed in Woke Blokes:
I’m so sick of these woke blokes
Living their woke lives
Fucking the woke girls, not like me
Yeah not like me
He says change the date you should be grateful
You’re only stirring the pot
Babe there’s only so much I can do
But I don’t want to let it go
If I do no-one will know
How it feels to be alone
And I just want it to stop
It’s also difficult not to understand the claim to shirk from white shame as having some role in the gendering of white women as innocent in the colony—mere passive beneficiaries rather than active participants. It’s a criticism that DiAngelo anticipates with a chapter on white women’s tears, but it is not only through their projected suffering that white women can call upon their unique position. Their tender authority, the welcome non-threatening settings in which they can present ideas, might go some way to allay white shame. This is not inherently bad. It’s hard to conceive of white men doing what mostly women scholars of white and settler studies are doing in public—the affront too hard, the expression of authoritative power too obvious to be enticing.
Yet theorising about whiteness by people of colour, especially by Indigenous and black people of colour, remains distressingly under attended to, even with its precision, specificity and calls to action. What about this literature makes it so difficult to wrangle with? That it is difficult to wrangle at all. From Nell Irvin Painter’s history of the construction of whiteness, to Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s analysis on the white possessive, to the creation of an Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, to Larissa Behrendt’s Finding Eliza, to Ruby Hamad’s offering in White Tears/Brown Scars, to the poetry and scholarship of Evelyn Araluen, to fiction by Tony Birch in The White Girl or by Alexis Wright in The Swan Book, to Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir The Hate Race, to podcasts such as Lorna Munro’s Survival Guide or NITV’s Take It Blak or the De Vries’ Broriginals—there really is no shortage of good thinking that goes ignored.
What unique insight do white people have about whiteness that cannot be accessed by the experts on racialisation, the racialised scholars who lovingly furnished the field for us? Those who come to the defence of whiteness studies might say, ‘What else should whites do with their white trust but weaponise it to the benefit of people of colour?’ It’s a good point, if critical whiteness and white fragility could be weaponised outside of articles, workshops, clout. Still, perfectly good white fragility mobilisation tools are clad by an industry of self-improvement that’s difficult to put down. As Lauren Michele Jackson writes:
When DiAngelo puts the spotlight on whiteness, she means it, and she starts with herself. ‘I am reinforcing whiteness and enforcing whiteness,’ she said onstage, articulating the hazard faced by any white person who gets applauded for anti-racist work. She knows that for all her expertise, this mostly white, mostly female audience will grant greater authority to any white person sharing their white truth. DiAngelo is a white woman who has spent decades deliberately mired in the race question. Much of her audience has not. How much can be learned in a single afternoon? I wondered. What good is a workshop?
Not only that, in depicting white fragility as others have depicted racism, whites are allowed to set its terms. Why, then, does white fragility centre so perfectly on interpersonal responses? What possibilities open up when we think of white fragility more broadly, beyond tears and tantrums at the threat of having power stripped bare? What of the whites who are driven to defuse ‘racial stress’ by confessing their whiteness again and again until it no longer becomes a point that people of colour can leverage? White-men-can’t-dance jokes probably used to sting—as did white-men-in-power jokes—now they tell them themselves. The power of whiteness is consolidated, and what do we have to show for it?
White racial consciousness, as it is developing in this continent under the settler state called Australia, is largely shaped by the racial content we take in from the United States or the United Kingdom. It is introducing and moulding reams of thought that don’t fully accommodate the racial state here, but which are nonetheless useful. The ubiquity of whiteness appearing in white critical thought in popular spheres seems to ignore the specific and strategic construction of whiteness in every context in which it appears. Aside from acknowledging that it is a category of privilege, both interpersonal and structural, these populist texts don’t define whiteness or explain its deliberate shifting production, so they fall into the same race essentialism that enables the racism whites benefit from. DiAngelo says, ‘whereas our personal narratives vary, we are all swimming in the same racial water’, which is not very true. The racial water is different everywhere.
The carp among which the water moves might not notice the water, but the birds do. The yellowbelly notices the carp, and the crushing pollution is noticed by the people who drink it. It’s not really the same water. It is different to everyone, especially to those downstream who get none, or to those upstream who revel in the saltwater. Making whiteness visible by naming it is, of course, important, but in its new visibility we cannot let it take the centre of a movement, much less without understanding the conditions that create, define and express its power. The carp are the problem in this racial water—how did they get here? In this colony, it’s the very act of making and remaking the colony that does it.
What of the impact these works and theories are having? Ijeoma Oluo writes on the centring of whiteness:
Every time I stand in front of an audience to address racial oppression in America, I know that I am facing a lot of white people who are in the room to feel less bad about racial discrimination and violence in the news, to score points, to let everyone know that they are not like the others, to make black friends. I know that I am speaking to a lot of white people who are certain they are not the problem because they are there.
Just once I want to speak to a room of white people who know they are there because they are the problem. Who know they are there to begin the work of seeing where they have been complicit and harmful so that they can start doing better. Because white supremacy is their construct, a construct they have benefited from, and deconstructing white supremacy is their duty.
White fragility has become a new language by which good whites feel they can extract themselves from the bad, fragile whites—increasingly granular distinctions in a good/bad dichotomy that even DiAngelo identifies as ultimately harmful to breaking down white complacency.
White fragility itself is a complex concept, which in its wild meandering adoption in pop culture has slid away from what it means to accept structural responsibility and to do the hard and humbling work, including breaking white solidarity, towards a warped kind of insider status: whites who are comfortable in their whiteness.
In making white fragility a personal condition to be overcome, we produce white security as a goal, but one that belies the discomfort that theorising about white fragility tells us it is necessary to have. In seeking solutions, ways out of fragility, the fragile discourse that’s developed around it just finds another path to innocence.
Like intersectionality before it—a term law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined in the 1980s to describe the racialising of gender and the gendering of race as invisible to discrimination law—white fragility has been subsumed into the discourse as a way of articulating the self. Intersectional feminist means absolutely nothing in Crenshaw’s formulation. She said just that of the co-option of the concept at Yale Law School’s 2018 Rebellious Lawyering conference, which she is brought in to ‘answer for’, as if people’s misinterpretation of her work writ large without ever reading it is her responsibility. As she told Vox:
Sometimes I’ve read things that say, ‘Intersectionality, blah, blah, blah,’ and then I’d wonder, ‘Oh, I wonder whose intersectionality that is,’ and then I’d see me cited, and I was like, ‘I’ve never written that. I’ve never said that. That is just not how I think about intersectionality.’
What was puzzling is that usually with ideas that people take seriously, they actually try to master them, or at least try to read the sources that they are citing for the proposition. Often, that doesn’t happen with intersectionality, and there are any number of theories as to why that’s the case, but what many people have heard or know about intersectionality comes more from what people say than what they’ve actually encountered themselves.
So, while it says nothing about Crenshaw and other scholars’ application of the analytical frame, what to do when predominately white audiences take a concept designed to challenge structural powers through the individual, and run with it full tilt towards a way to describe themselves and to ascribe power and responsibility elsewhere? I have no idea.
So, in a way, it is unfair to ask white public figures who talk about whiteness to answer for what a white public has done to white fragility—except that, had they paid closer attention to how the work of Crenshaw has been co-opted, and less to introspection about white feelings, maybe they could have seen it coming.
Strategy for change lies not in some essential truth—because whiteness is a very wriggly structure with its innocence at the centre, and it will accommodate any incursions we throw. That’s what’s missing in this theorisation: an understanding that white people are looking for themselves in critical whiteness and white fragility, not their responsibility. I am surrounded by fragile white people who confess their fragility to me until it becomes their strength. And as long as I’m on the floor, it will always be like that.
I’m reminded of the collection False Claims of Colonial Thieves—a conversation between poets John Kinsella (a whitefulla) and Charmaine Papertalk Green (a Yamaji woman). Towards the end of the collection, they correspond in verse about the ‘wild colonial boy’ and the ‘white colonial boy’ with unflinching gazes. Together, they tell us a little bit about the fragile relationship between whiteness and innocence:
the wild colonial boy has guilt over his plunder
the wild colonial boy plunders his guilt
the wild white colonial boy perches
like a false king on his high court judge bench
White fragility is no real vulnerability. We know who it puts in the line of breaking. We know who really shatters on the floor and who leans over saying nice things. •
Alison Whittaker is a Gomeroi poet and researcher at the Jumbunna Institute for Indigenous Education and Research.
1. Jun Mian Chen, ‘The Contentious Field of Whiteness Studies’, Journal for Social Thought, Volume 2 (1).