Fragile-White-People Syndrome

Written by Phyllis.

Given the amount of time I’ve spent over the past few months working on the copy for this website, I’m surprised when I find myself talking about anything besides race. The topic has become kind of all-consuming, to tell you the truth. To me, these conversations are always fascinating and revealing, sometimes frustrating or emotional but most often uplifting. I never hesitate to engage in them though, even when passions are running high. Maybe that’s because I’ve been called a racist – more than once – and lived to tell the story.

A couple months ago I watched a video on Huffpost Live hosted by Marc Lamont Hill, a Black journalist who was clearly enjoying exploring the subject of why White people are afraid to talk about race. In the 30-minute panel discussion that follows his enticing introduction, three other Black men and one beleaguered White man offer their insights. The segment ends with Hill posing the following questions: Is there a safe space for racial dialog in America? Are White people safe to talk about what it means to be White in public? Can Black people respond in a fair way?

What is it that makes so many White people feel that we’re unsafe? Assuming for a moment that there won’t be an actual brawl, what are we afraid will happen? I imagine many of you know the answer without having to watch the clip.

We’re afraid that someone will call us racist.



Are we White people so fragile that being called racist utterly destroys our self-esteem? Is this really our biggest fear - so devastating that it completely undermines our ability to engage in conversations about race? Personally I find this excuse embarrassing, pathetic, whiny, and cowardly. Certainly we're resilient enough to face this possibility without crumbling. What if we just had the courage to start with a given: If we're White and living in this country, then our minds, attitudes, and behaviors have been molded by racist conditioning. That's an inescapable fact, regardless of what word we use to describe it. Could we just agree on that as a starting point? We didn't ask for this conditioning, but if we pretend it doesn't exist, we have no hope of freeing ourselves from its power to jerk us around. As with any other unconscious pattern of thought, acknowledgement is the first step in reclaiming our freedom to choose our own behavior.

We have so much to gain by participating honestly and vulnerably in the conversation about race, from becoming more authentic versions of ourselves, to creating solid cross-racial relationships, to contributing to systemic justice. When we don't participate, not only do we lose out on the those opportunities but we also reinforce the belief - both in our own minds and in the minds of others -  that we're just too afraid, too fragile. And I'd like to be better than that. Better and braver. Let's just give it a try, see what happens. Let's boldly go where few Whites have gone before and engage in  conversations about race.

And let's not wait for a "safe space," because to White people that means a space where Black people are expressing no intense emotions, so it’s likely not going to be an honest conversation. We can handle it. What I know, from my own experience, is that at some point we will probably say something insensitive, clueless, or downright offensive and a Black person might call us racist. We will not melt or implode or fall apart. We will lose face only if we become defensive. In fact we can best maintain our dignity by responding with something like, "Oh. You're probably right about that. Are you willing to talk with me about it?" This kind of response engenders respect and trust, both of ourselves and our conversation partners, and creates the possibility for something real to happen.

Let's turn this thing around and start a new story about our courage. Here's the headline I'd like to see: "Studies reveal that a growing number of White people are not afraid to talk about race." Now that would make me proud.


Photo courtesy of ©Martin Applegate/