Yesterday’s email and my anti-White-Fragility Ti-shirt

Hi Friends,

My email to you yesterday—“Want resilience? (Black) American culture has you covered”—prompted numerous comments and one request. Most were about culture rather than how it makes you resilient, but it’s still early! Allow me to close the loop.

1. There was no link to the online version. Please share.

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Oops, true. Here it is:

2. Strikes me as brave for you to challenge the white fragility label

Thank you. It’s certainly unfashionable. The Ti-shirt would say “Neither white nor fragile but anti-racist since 2000.” This is when meditation taught me to notice the flurry of ideas of dubious goodness, truth and beauty passing through my mind. Among these then and now are racist ideas that swim in the culture. I would just as soon apologize for breathing oxygen or wearing slacks with a belt.

If Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, said to me, “Admit it. You have racist ideas,” I’d reply, “You betcha. Who doesn’t? My question for you is how to have such ideas rather than letting them have you.” Here, to invert the Heath Brothers (Made to Stick), the goal is to reduce the mind’s adhesive qualities. This leads to practices like meditation, compassionate self-reflection, somatic bodywork and naming-the-Steve Wonder-inside-of-you, all of which sadly aren’t part of today’s White Fragility curriculum. Plus, ironically, DiAngelo treats black folks as delicate members of an undifferentiated mass rather than complex individuals with varying personalities, skills and interests who carry proud heroic traditions, like jazz and overcoming adversity, that have always been deeply influenced by and interwoven into other dimensions of American culture. See: Henry Louis Gates, Colored People; Albert Murray, Omni-Americans; Charles Johnson, Middle Passage; or anything by Toni Morrison

3. This is a much-needed approach, Amiel. All the hangdog/pain/victim stuff gets old, stale, mind-numbing and counterproductive mighty quickly. It all degenerates into empty rituals and phrase-mongering.

This comment came from a successful professional writer who in a much earlier life worked for the Nation of Islam and has tracked this topic for decades. It highlights how aligning with an ideology can cause well-meaning people to produce unintended consequences they might regret. This traps opens widely when everyone you know is reading the same books and citing the same experts. Ironically, today’s most popular thinker on anti-racism, Ibram Kendi, has a far more complex and nuanced take than many people who cite him. In Stamped from the Beginning, he says that there are no racist people, only racist ideas; that many civil rights leaders we admire used racist ideas to justify their positions (lesson for you and me: there’s no shame in having racist ideas, only in holding them); and that altruism is a self-defeating motivation for action.

4. I have been really struggling with the more absolutist/monolithic aspects of BLM/antiracism and the like, yet I have been terrified to say much of anything publicly.

I’m hearing this a lot, especially from light-skinned folks who for years have been taking actions that today we’d call anti-racist. (In college I attended several Black Student Association meetings mostly out of curiosity but also to listen for new perspectives). Such silencing of would-be partners is another unintended consequence of an unreflective version of the anti-racism/white fragility ideology.  Although it feels noble and contains important truths, it evokes shame and sends cortisol and other stress hormones hurtling through the nervous system.

Thanks, everyone, for the comments!

Cheerfully real,
Amiel Handelsman

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