White Fragility in the Age of Trump

Posted on: July 29, 2018, by :


By Jeff Turner

BBQ Becky, Permit Patty, Pool Patrol Paula, the list goes on of white people calling the police on people of color who aren’t even breaking the law. Of course, this is by no means a new phenomenon. Smart phones have just made it easier to capture these instances of rampant racism across the country, oftentimes done by white people who don’t realize they’re racist. Fortunately, in those three cited cases, no one was hurt or even arrested by the police.

Many Americans believe that these instances are endemic to the age of Trump. Not one of the three individuals cited was wearing “Make America Great Again” hats though, or even praising Donald Trump as they did their “civic duty” to report people of color who they felt threatened their safety. And in these instances, there was no actual threat being posed by a black man barbequing on a grill in a California park (BBQ Becky), a black girl selling water outside of an apartment complex (Permit Patty, who pretended to call the police on the girl for “selling water without a permit”), or a black woman at a community swimming pool (Pool Patrol Paula). There was even a case recently in the news in Indianapolis of a black man at the pool of his apartment complex being harassed by people who felt he didn’t belong there and made him leave.

The typical responses used by white people guilty of racism when confronted with their behavior are “I don’t see color,” “I have black friends,” “I can’t be racist, I voted for Obama,” etc. Some shut down completely or get outright hostile. Clearly, however, these people hold some type of bias against people of color, reinforced by negative stereotypes perpetuated by American society, the news, and pop culture, among other things.

The majority of these white people aren’t ones you’d find at Klan rallies or white supremacist gatherings like the one in Charlottesville last year. They may well have non-white friends, and truly believe they don’t see color. But then why do they do what they do? Why call the police on people of color for the most ridiculous reasons (or pretend to like Permit Patty)? Something is clearly at work here, something that Donald Trump and his campaign successfully tapped into that allowed them to win the 2016 Presidential election. It’s not just resentment and anger against marginalized groups. It’s also fear. As stated before, not all of these people are Trump supporters. But some type of fear exists within all of these individuals towards people of color. And many of them are unlikely to confront and address their subconscious biases.

Why won’t they confront these biases, whether covert or overt? Robin DiAngelo came up with the term “White Fragility,” in her book of the same name, as the reason why racism continues to linger in society. According to DiAngelo (who is white), white people will get defensive when confronted with their own racist behavior, going into a state of denial that brings about a strong emotional response. DiAngelo postulates that this denial results in systems of white dominance in America remaining entrenched and insulating them from possible erosion. This leads to white people not actively confronting racism of which they themselves may be guilty. Of course, not all white people are racist, but those who are the worst offenders usually aren’t the ones waving around Confederate and Nazi flags, rather the ones who remain oblivious to their own racism, “closet racists.” DiAngelo doesn’t offer any real solutions, and while she presents this as groundbreaking information, it’s something myself and any person of color has been well aware of for quite some time. So why does the problem remain? Largely because people nowadays tend to live in their own “bubbles,” surrounding themselves with people whose beliefs echo their own point of view. Social media reinforces this, creating an echo chamber where beliefs, opinions, and attitudes are reinforced, in many cases rather unhealthy ones (on both the right and left). Any debate is highly polarized and unproductive.  Most interestingly, DiAngelo calls out white progressives for causing the most harm in this regard. Because while decrying and attempting to shame racist Trump supporters and closet racists like BBQ Becky and the like as they do, they fail to see that they are further entrenching the systems that continue to facilitate racism in America. And some of these white progressives are guilty of the exact same type of behavior, harboring the same subconscious biases. Finding common ground is key, not perpetuating the divide and conquer strategy that got Mr. Trump elected, making a highly-polarized electorate even more so. Not all racists are Republicans, nor are they all on the political right. It’s easy to confront someone about their own racist behavior, but sometimes the solution involves the individual looking into a mirror.

People are blaming Trump for what they perceive as an explosion of racism in America since he launched his campaign and won the 2016 Presidential election. Trump is just a symptom. The root causes are fear, misplaced anger, and a lack of empathy, which results in people failing to properly address these issues. Getting defensive and coming up with excuses as to why they aren’t racist even when faced with evidence to the contrary doesn’t help things. Mention the words “white privilege” and a great many white people will completely shut down, citing those same previously mentioned excuses for why they aren’t racist, or some variation of them.

Is Trump emboldening racists around the country?  Yes, those in his base, and probably a few others. But is he the one to place all the blame on? No. But there has to be another solution than shaming those people who may actually not recognize their own racism and got caught on camera displaying it for all the world to see. I’m neither defending these people nor their actions, which are deplorable. I just question the current tactics being used and their effectiveness.

Educating, empathizing, and reaching out are more productive tactics than public humiliation. I’ll admit, a great many of the BBQ Becky memes were fairly humorous. I even shared several of them with my friends, who also got a good laugh out of them. But if this type of “spread their shame” activism really had the desired effect, then why do such instances of racism keep happening?

The bottom line is white Trumpites aren’t the only ones to blame for the current state of America when it comes to race. It’s more than just a left/right issue. The sooner people come to this realization, the better. Biases exist in all of us—Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, etc.—we all need to look into a mirror, recognize our own, and adjust accordingly.

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