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On Building Racial Stamina

The Journey Out of White Fragility

Black Lives Matter changed how I understood both power and justice.

As the white wife of a Black man and mother to two beautiful Black boys, I’ve seen a lot of what my husband calls “little-r racism,” or individual people’s individual biases. It’s been harder for me to wrap my mind around the “capital-R racism” or “systemic racism” he described as woven throughout the fabric of our American lives. I couldn’t see it the same way.

On August 9, 2014, Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Black teenager Michael Brown. At first, I thought of Brown’s killing as a regrettable accident. I dismissed the related protests.

Within a month, I saw several other Black lives taken by U.S. law enforcement officers. I started suspecting I was missing something.

Taken alone, each death was troubling. Taken together, they were petrifying.

I began listening to Black people and other people of color when they described their experiences with racism. Instead of reading tidy, heavily edited magazine articles, I started following Black Lives Matter activists on Twitter. I read the blogs they linked and watched the videos they shared, becoming ever more troubled by discrepancies between videos they shared and news later presented by mainstream media. Reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow also increased both my understanding and my horror.

I slowly began to understand U.S. power and race dynamics, and how these have little to do with equality.

I used my blog to document my slow, uncomfortable journey out of ignorance. Each time I hit the “Publish” button on a Black Lives Matter post, I was anxious about being attacked for misunderstanding everything. Instead, I mostly found a lot of other white people who felt uneasy discussing race and racism.

In June 2015, I discovered an article that helped me understand my discomfort. In “White Fragility,” Robin DiAngelo described “White Fragility [as] a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.” This fragility reflects the lack of “racial stamina” typical of white people, who often haven’t personally experienced systemic racism or talked seriously about race.

It felt awkward and uncomfortable because it was new to me … and because it challenged my understanding of U.S. neutrality and equality.

I continued listening to people of color. I kept reflecting and talking to people despite my discomfort. Slowly, my racial stamina increased. It’s still not great. Just yesterday, I telegraphed an embarrassingly hearty dose of white fragility. (Spoiler alert: I survived.)

Black Lives Matter activists shared their knowledge as they demanded justice. Because of them, I was finally able to see “capital-R racism.”

When state actors kill members of a population with little or no consequence, over and over again, the problem runs much deeper than “bad apples.” The problem lies within the system that enables such heinous outcomes.

When the system routinely pardons its agents for killing, it also informs its citizens that death is an acceptable outcome for any infraction, actual or alleged. It ensures that horrific outcomes will continue unless they’re challenged from the outside.

The problem isn’t bad apples. It’s the tree from which the apples fall.

I still lack nuance when I try discussing race and racism with friends. That’s not surprising. I only have two years of experience under my belt so far.

Understanding white fragility, I also understand I must work to counter my own. DiAngelo suggests some techniques here.

For my part, I’m trying to be open about how little I know. I’m trying to welcome my white friends to join me on this journey out of white fragility and into having any kind of racial stamina. I’m really trying to emphasize that we need to listen to Black people and other people of color.

When people of color tell us how flawed the system is and how those flaws are devastating them below our radar, we need to hear that.

Because Black Lives Matter called out carefully maintained power imbalances, I was able to begin spotting those imbalances elsewhere. I was better able to distinguish fact from what people in power brazenly misidentified as fact. For example, I was able to see signs that establishment Democrats had already selected their presidential candidate completely apart from the voters they allegedly represented. Moreover, I was able to see why: to consolidate and protect their own power.

That seems to be what all these systemic issues come down to – how to keep—and keep others from—power.

Now that I see some of this, I can limit my role in perpetuating injustice. I can take part in building what Martin Luther King, Jr. described as positive justice:

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Black Lives Matter helped me see how power favors a certain kind of order over actual justice. Its activists helped me understand the fatal costs of a system favoring this (im)balance.

Because I now see these things, I must help work to effect positive peace.

That’s an endeavor worth building stamina for.

To find powerful voices from the movement and understand more, 
please explore the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag on Twitter.

Written by Deborah Bryan

Deborah Bryan grew up poor and afraid. She has a pretty good life now, but can't rest easy until everyone, everywhere, is fed, sheltered, and free from harm.

Deborah is a Guest Contributor to Progressive Army.

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