White fragility

Apr 27, 2015 by

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We have heard many apologies in recent months, particularly from white communities, regarding racial, ethnic and gender issues.

Powell

Powell

There has been a lot to apologize for. Politicians, sportswriters, newscasters and others have made derogatory statements that maligned marginalized people. The statements gained national attention and caused an uproar.

Although today’s young people have been socialized in a multiracial and multiethnic society, some still boldly speak racist language. Members of a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma recorded themselves singing an exclusionary song using the “N” word. The action was hurtful and, for many, bordered on a hate crime. Parents of a student who was expelled said their son was not racist and apologized for his action. The apology from the student and his parents was received as an empty gesture. The damage had been done.

While the “N” word is hurled at black folks, different words with similar intent attack Latinos, immigrants, gays and lesbians, the homeless and people with disabilities — basically, anyone who is not white, middle class and heterosexual. Derogatory statements, followed by corresponding apologies, happen almost daily. Most violators are mildly punished. Life goes on as usual until the next outrage. Then we hear another apology, and the cycle continues.

The comments and empty apologies are not the real issue. They illuminate a deeper problem of perceived racial superiority rooted in the American psyche. This mentality of racial superiority grows from a desire to maintain an advantage in the midst of a growing nonwhite population. I call it a colonial mentality.

Robin DiAngelo, professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University and author of What Does It Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy, offers another assessment. She calls it “white fragility” and says it “comes from a deep sense of entitlement. . . . We are born into a racial hierarchy, and every interaction with media and culture confirms it — our sense that, at a fundamental level, we are superior.”

Common decency and respect are lacking. Our communities protect the individual freedom of one select group while maligning marginalized people. Hateful speech and action have caused violence and a lack of respect for human life.

I have witnessed enough of racial superiority. So, out of a deep sense of remorse for failing to address issues that require immediate attention, I issue some apologies of my own:

I apologize to my brothers and sisters of faith for not confronting racially and ethnically charged statements made near me. I apologize for pretending I didn’t hear. If I had spoken up, we could have had a conversation about what happened. We missed an opportunity to begin a healing process.

I apologize for not noticing teachable moments for families who promote bigotry and hatred.

I have not given full support to my white and less-empowered brothers and sisters who are willing, but hesitant, to confront the rampart verbal violence around them. I ask your forgiveness.

Apologies are just words unless they are followed by action. My apology is earnestly given. I ask all justice-seekers to help me live up to them.

John Powell, of Ypsilanti, Mich., is a regional pastor for Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference.


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