A look back at 2018 and how white fragility describes a developing trajectory of white supremacy at a national level. How this shifts understandings of white fragility beyond simply being an individual weakness to reveal the interplay between interpersonal and structural racism.
2018, much like every single one of the preceding 230 years of this un-ceded land’s ongoing colonisation, managed to mark itself in the pages of racist infamy with the latest bouts of hysteria, paranoia, dog-whistling and racial-profiling. Considering the genocidal nature of that history and everything else that has passed, it might be possible to assume that there is nothing new to see, or be said, here. However, to effectively track and counter the active threat that racism presents, it is important to stay attuned to the variations in trajectory that occur in terms of discourse and action. One aspect that has become noticeable, if not to the same extent as in Europe and the USA, is that the far-right has managed to use a generalised state of hyper-racialised paranoia to find ways to enter the mainstream. While tracking this will not be the focus here, it is related to the discursive trajectory that I will be exploring in this article: how a sense of white fragility is increasingly articulated as a justification for the re-assertion of this country as a white space.
If you’re a person of colour living in so-called Australia, you’ve probably at some point encountered the vortex of white fragility on an individual level – a seemingly simple conversation with someone you otherwise trust and care about spiralling out of control because you’ve raised something about race dynamics. It’s called white fragility because you will see this person’s self-perception begin to shatter and breakdown in front of you at having to incorporate complex issues of race into their white worldview. The conversation will be derailed and over because you will either take on the role of reassuring this person that they aren’t a ‘bad person’ or you will walk away in sheer frustration.
While, in the scheme of things, one moment like this might not seem to represent a particularly dangerous form of racism, there is a significant misunderstanding of the power of white fragility and how it taps into broader, systemic racial dominance. The almost cartoonish image of the individual, precious white person breaking down at any simple mention of race – while sometimes true – misrepresents white fragility as an individual weakness instead of being based in the systemic power of whiteness. Late last year, writer and educator Robin DiAngelo, spoke about white fragility (she published a book titled White Fragility in 2018) to a packed lecture theatre at the University of Sydney. DiAngelo’s work is particularly focused on supposedly ‘progressive’, anti-racist white people who nevertheless, respond to being confronted with questions of race with defensiveness and fear. While DiAngelo is thorough in breaking down the specifics of this type of reaction and the damage it causes to people of colour, she also unrelentingly links it to broader systemic issues: it is too easy for white people to avoid taking responsibility for racism by blaming it on individuals instead of being determined by socio-historic and political factors.
The initial over-wrought and emotionally defensive reaction that typifies white fragility derives from this limited understanding of racism as being the domain of ‘bad people’. This is why supposedly ‘progressive’, anti-racist white people often have extreme reactions when asked to take responsibility for their position within these racial structures – they assume that they are being re-cast from the role of ‘good ally’ to ‘bad white person’. This line of thinking is continued at a broader societal and national level, with re-assertions that white people are racially neutral and harmless. The connection between the ‘progressive’ individual’s white fragility to the racism of the populist and extreme right is not as distant as those people would like to believe. In October 2018, Pauline Hanson took the assertion that “it is OK to be white” and put it as a part of a motion to the senate to recognise ‘anti-white racism’ as a form of discrimination. This motion reflects a backlash against the efforts of people of colour generally, but Aboriginal activists particularly, to force white Australia to grapple with foundations rooted in genocide and racism.
The assertion that ‘it’s ok to be white’ – as if that is what’s at stake here – is deploying at a national level the strategy of shutting down a conversation about race by re-centring the ‘hurt’ feelings of white people. Ruby Hamad described, in an article that went viral in May 2018, one way that this strategy works at an individual level, when the tears of white women (DiAngelo’s book also includes a chapter titled ‘White Women’s Tears’) are used to silence and marginalise women of colour. Further, this strategy of acting scared and harmed is an active choice to call on racialised stereotypes around threat and danger. As DiAngelo writes, “By employing terms that connote physical abuse, whites tap into the classic story that people of colour are dangerous and violent. In doing so, whites distort the real direction of danger between whites and others. This history becomes profoundly minimised when whites claim they don’t feel safe or are under attack when they find themselves in the rare situation of merely talking about race with people of colour.”
As we move into 2019, the manifestation of white fragility at a national level in so-called Australia, is consistent with a thread that has become conspicuous within much mainstream discussion of race – that in having to consider and be responsible for the effects of racism, white people are in fact facing their own form of racial victimisation. Pauline Hanson’s motion merely exemplified this. While some may want to imagine that Hanson is completely marginal (she’s not as much as you’d like to believe) or point out that the motion was defeated (only just, by 51 – 48), the reality of this moment exposes the normalisation of the idea that white people are being bullied by brown people talking about how prevalent racism is. This victimisation narrative has been a feature of far-right, white supremacist and identitarian discourse for quite a while but has now become noticeably prominent, not only in mainstream media and politics but, in my experience, also on the streets, in public transport and public areas, and at workplaces.
With this in mind, and as white fragility becomes a defining form through which racism and fears of ‘the other’ are being expressed, it is important to take stock of subtle but important differences between it and the nationalist paranoia that was pre-eminent 15- 20 years ago during the John Howard era. Ghassan Hage wrote in 2003 that “paranoia denotes here a pathological form of fear based on a conception of the self as excessively fragile, and constantly threatened. It also describes a tendency to perceive a threat where none exists, to inflate its capacity to harm the self”. While this would seem to be a suitable description of white fragility, the key point of difference is that it is depicting a white nationalism that was marked by Howard’s, “We will decide who comes here and on what terms”, where the threatening ‘other’ was still imagined as existing (mostly) beyond the national border. As such, the white mainstream could cling to a belief in a safe, protected interior, where paranoia functioned within the national consciousness as a fear of the darkness outside that endangered the white homeland, a fear of what is to come – the ‘Asian invasion’ or Islamic terrorism.
White fragility however, is a response that comes from being confronted with the recognition that the racialized ‘other’ is already, indisputably here. While the title given to the print version of Andrew Bolt’s racist article from August 2018 – ‘The Foreign Invasion’ – was nothing new and has assuredly been used previously, it is interesting to pay attention to how his rhetoric now reflects a sense of precarity regarding the assumed privileged position of whiteness is this country. Although it’s easy enough to notice the usual dog-whistling racism in Bolt’s writing, he now expresses less confidence in the ability of ‘our’ (ie, his and white Australians’) national identity being able to withstand “the tidal wave of immigrants” that are already here. He knows that “there is no ‘us’ anymore” and says that “immigration is becoming colonisation, turning this country from a home into a hotel”, without the slightest amount of self-awareness.
The irony is that what has partially provoked the fragility of this response is the confidence that second generation migrants of colour gain as they feel more settled here, more capable of asserting their voice and taking space. And of creating spaces that more readily suits their hybrid position of being from somewhere else – and carrying some of the cultural markers of that – at the same time as being from here and feeling capable of challenging the complex web of racism, white supremacy and colonisation that is weaved through the foundations of this society. Of course, this isn’t the ‘assimilation’ that Bolt or much of white Australia is comfortable with. They want people of colour to keep their head down and be forever grateful for their place at the table. The fragility and paranoia of whiteness in this country – despite all the material and social advantages it conveys – is borne of an ontological crisis, an embedded memory of the founding violence against First Nations people and the continuation of that through White Australia, stolen generations, etc, that permanently destabilises any claims to the legitimacy of white superiority.
This fragility was in evidence regularly in 2018, prompted by politicians and the media, and particularly notable during the ongoing racist positioning of groups of young African migrants in Melbourne as criminal gangs. That hysteria came with the usual claims that white people were afraid to go out into the streets. White people being afraid of the racial diversity around them was a theme taken up by Fraser Anning in his infamously, white supremacist maiden speech to parliament in August 2018 when he declared that: “Ethnocultural diversity, which is known to undermine social cohesion, has been allowed to rise to dangerous levels in many suburbs. In direct response, self-segregation, including white flight from poorer inner-urban areas, has become the norm”. What we should note here is that this ‘self-segregation’ is a typical part of the white fragility response. On an individual level, we see this when white people will use the claim of harm to avoid dealing with specific race dynamics that are challenging to them, and instead retreat into what DiAngelo calls a “cocoon” of white racial insulation, with the safe knowledge that “the larger social environment protects whites as a group”. This individual ‘cocooning’ tendency is not simply innocuous, as it directly relates to more ominous attempts to recreate a safe, protected space for white people at a broader societal or national level.
The uproar around Anning’s speech tended to focus on his utterance of the phrase ‘final solution’, allowing for a superficial posturing amongst many white people that buried the detail of his vision for what is basically a white ethno-state. This amounted to a call for race war as he asserted that “on the brink of irreversible change, it is time for us to decide whether we as a people will rise up against this, hold fast to the crimson threads of kinship that define and unite us… or concede the field to enemies of Western civilization and see all that we were and all that we might yet have become fall away to ruin.” Even if Anning can be dismissed as a nutjob, there were numerous other examples in 2018 where attempts were made to articulate a framework that re-positioned so-called Australia as a safe space of white racial dominance. This ranged from Peter Dutton’s suggestion that this country should provide sanctuary for white South African farmers due to the ridiculous claim that they are facing genocidal violence (a claim that is a favourite of the alt-right) to Tony Abbott and the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation’s manoeuvres to establish a tertiary degree that would defend and reinscribe the legacy of ‘western’ (ie, European, white and colonial) civilisation.
This is what is at stake when we understand the current trajectory of white supremacy and race politics in this country as an extension of white fragility. Recognising this denotes more than the aspect where a scared and fearful reaction allows white people to escape taking responsibility for racism, it importantly also involves the reconstruction of an insulated, safe white space to the exclusion and endangerment of people of colour. White people in this country are not endangered or being bullied by Aboriginal people or people of colour talking about colonisation and racism. Rather, as DiAngelo describes, white fragility is itself a form of racial bullying that is “much more than mere defensiveness or whining” and should be “conceptualised as the sociology of dominance: an outcome of white people’s socialisation into white supremacy and a means to protect, maintain, and reproduce white supremacy”. Here, a feedback loop exists between occurrences of white fragility on an individual, interpersonal level and as a meta-narrative of race politics at a national level. It needs to be interrupted and contested in those small moments, as well as being broadly recognised as a dangerous strategy for re-establishing white racial dominance at a societal level.