Some of you will have read White Fragility. Some of you will have read about it. I haven’t read it (but I’ve read reviews). I’ve read that it claims that white people are racist all day, every day, and that if you resist this notion, you are fragile. So I’ve read other books, I’m fragile, and that’s OK. I simply resist the notion that there is any value in seeing racism everywhere, in every interaction. Even if that were true, we need to do the best we can to enable you, me, everyone, to get through the day and on with our lives.
I’m completely happy to work on real problems. That means that if something is holding you back that I can address, then let’s work on that. If there is a law or a policy that needs to be fixed, let’s work on that. If there is an attitude that needs adjusting, well, maybe we can address it. But depending on who has it and how it’s impacting you, it might be better to work around a person with an attitude than assume it’s going to ruin your life.
What about microagressions? Am I against them or not? Sadly, I’m not excited about microagressions. Of course, I’m white, and privileged, and old, so most likely, I’ve been committing microagressions most of my life. I ask people with strong accents where they’re from. (I might even ask people without accents where they’re from if I have an opportunity to chat with them.) I don’t think I’ve said, “Oh, you graduated from college!” to a black person, but I might have made some other condescending remark. I’ve read about remarks that are now considered offensive, and I’m just glad I mostly interact with older, privileged, white people in my retirement home at this point in my life.
My big question for today is this: If I were younger and white and privileged, with a job that I enjoyed, what would I do if I were to find myself sentenced to a multi-day training in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Let’s assume that throughout this event, the leaders are pushing the ideas of White Fragility or How To Be An Anti-Racist, with the dogma that white people are oppressors, always privileged, always racist, that the system is rigged for them and against everyone else. Would I object? Would I be brave enough to speak my own mind? Would I stand up for an approach to working with a diverse group of colleagues that didn’t focus on race as the determinant of our success in life? Would I plead for an approach that allows us to see each others as individuals with agency, rather than simply as representatives of a racial group?
During my past life, I’ve been through at least three different trainings to help me understand racist undercurrents in our society. I’ve learned from each program. But they’ve also been uncomfortable depending on the degree to which we were put on the spot and expected to share encounters from our life that fit one or another narrative. The trainings I’ve endured had one important difference from what is typical today, though: all were based on the assumption that we could all do better if we could see beyond race. Today’s trainings assume that we can never see beyond race.
I recently learned of the dilemma of Jodi Shaw, a young woman working at Smith College. If, like me, you’ve heard of Smith, but know little about it, take a moment to look at its website. If this is a college looking for diversity, they’re missing a big opportunity right off the bat: it’s a women’s college. Yup. They’ve excluded half the human race from the get go. That’s fine with me, but please, don’t say you want to increase diversity – or inclusion! Also, check the price tag for Smith, nearly $75K/year if you live on campus, which is a big feature of Smith. Granted, they do offer scholarships, often generous ones. 58% receive aid; the average aid package is $48K. So families “only” need to put up about $27K per year. Given that most families in the US don’t have $1000 for emergencies, that could also limit your diversity goals.
Back to our story. Jodi was recently required to attend a three day diversity, equity, and inclusion workshop based on the writings of Robin DiAngelo and Ibram Kendi (authors of the titles referenced above). I cannot do her story justice here. She has bravely resisted the brainwashing she was required to endure, and she has now been placed on paid leave. Her resistance is based on our nation’s employment laws that say that employers shall not create a hostile work environment. A requirement that employees see race as the most salient characteristic of individuals; that white employees be assumed to be racist at all times; that resistance to these ideas only proves that you are racist, is nothing, if not a hostile environment. You can listen to her story at Smith College Big Dig.
I don’t know Jodi personally. But I do wish her luck. It’s possible she’s a horrid, wretched, racist individual who wishes all manner of ill on anyone who is not white and privileged. But I doubt this. I’m guessing that at Smith, she learned to think for herself, and when this woke nonsense started taking over an institution she loved, she decided to fight back. What she is enduring is happening at campuses and corporations across the country. If she does succeed in standing up to this trend, there is a chance that we can, collectively, hold the line and gradually turn the tide on this counterproductive ideology.
One reason I oppose what’s called Critical Race Theory is that I grew up in a racist home where the first and foremost thing my parents needed to know about potential friends was what color they were. If white, I could proceed; if not, I couldn’t. I couldn’t listen to black musicians; I couldn’t watch black people on TV; once sports were integrated, I couldn’t watch them either. I know where a race-first perspective takes us, and I don’t want to go there again.
Many smart people acknowledge that racism is a problem in our society, yet refuse to use it as an excuse for every instance of inequality we see. These people credit all individuals with the agency they need to find opportunity within their individual set of circumstances. They credit the civil rights legislation of the mid-20th century with enabling black people to access education and employment so they could improve their lives.
None of these people say that we’ve conquered racism. Yet they resist efforts to focus so much on current inequalities that we blind ourselves to real progress. Let’s proceed down the path of “cup half full” and keep addressing real problems.