White Fragility and Response-ability - by Carolyn B. Helsel

Carolyn B. Helsel

Carolyn B. Helsel is assistant professor of homiletics at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Austin, TX) and is ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA). This excerpt is drawn from her new book, Anxious to Talk About It: Helping White Christians Talk Faithfully about Race, with permission from the publisher, Chalice Press.

When someone talks about their experience of being pulled over by the police in their own neighborhood for the ninth time that year, you can respond with compassion to that person’s experiences and feelings of anger and sadness.

Alternatively, responding by trying to explain, rationalize, defend, or otherwise dismiss their experience limits your response-ability, and you are less likely to build a meaningful relationship with them. They are not asking you to take responsibility for the police; they’ve invited you into their experience. They know this is not your common experience, and they aren’t asking you to do anything about it or to make sense of it. You are not responsible for the fear or anger they feel. But you can be response-able by listening, believing, and accepting their experience.

Racial justice educator Robin DiAngelo says white people suffer from “white fragility” when it comes to encountering conversations about race.1 She argues that the emotions of white people often get in the way of learning about the realities of racism because white people often live segregated from “racial stress,” noting that when whites first experience it, they often react defensively, expressing outward anger, arguing, or withdrawing completely. We need to consider the emotions we experience while talking about race, and become able to sit with them and honor them, rather than withdrawing.

As a white person, listening to a person of color share about discrimination by another white person or white society in general can be difficult to hear and not interpret it as being directed at you. For example, a Latino man says white people always assume he’s a foreigner or from Mexico, when in reality he’s from Puerto Rico, which makes him an American citizen. You hear this, and you sense he is angry. Where does your mind go? Is it to thinking whether or not you have ever done this? Or is it to defensiveness, thinking he’s being too sensitive and it’s an easy mistake?

Some white people when talking about race say they “feel stupid.” Maybe you didn’t realize Puerto Ricans were American citizens, and now you’re wondering if you should just back away from the conversation and Google information about Puerto Rico. To feel stupid is to feel inadequate, insecure.

Given that you just saw his frustration that white people are not aware Puerto Ricans are citizens, you may be hesitant to say, “Wow, I didn’t know that, either.” You don’t want his anger directed at you, and this white anxiety could prevent you from continuing the conversation. You may keep your mouth shut, feeling guilty for your own ignorance. But what if instead of letting this push you away, you focused instead on your response-ability? Might you be able to improve your relationship with this man?

Being response-able might mean you could listen to his frustration and not say anything. Perhaps being response-able would include saying “I’m so sorry – that must be really frustrating.” It might include getting to know this person better and learning what his experiences have been like living between Puerto Rico and the US. Perhaps it could mean thinking about your own education as a white American, never learning in public school history lessons about the unincorporated territories of the US. Perhaps it means simply sitting with the anger that the other person feels, understanding that it’s about something much bigger than you. Your response-ability is in your power – how you respond in the moment.

Also important is to understand the role of anger in the work of justice. Anger about injustice propels us to make a difference. At the same time, anger can feel all-consuming, and so we need to take breaks from time to time from our anger. The best way to diffuse anger is to help someone feel they have been heard. The issue may not be resolved, but the anger itself diffuses and the mind can begin to work again. Then you can feel free to address the action that caused the anger.

Building relationships with people who have been discriminated against means believing that their experiences of discrimination are real, and that their feelings are what we would feel if we were in the same situations on a daily basis. Authentic relationships require this kind of response-ability: being able to hear the frustration and the pain another person has experienced, without feeling as if we need to run in and “fix it” or save them. Instead, we are called to respond by being witnesses, accompanying our brothers and sisters and supporting them in whatever ways we can.

1 Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 3, no. 3 (2011), pp. 54–70.