White Fragility: The Secondhand Smoke of Racism in Public Education

Education is really a caste system and all children suffer from it.

A class full of children does work in school in this pre-Covid image by CDC on Unsplash

“Politeness as filtered through fragility and supremacy isn’t about manners. It’s about a methodology of controlling the conversation.” — Mikki Kendall, Hood Feminism: Notes from the Woman that a Movement Forgot

Today, American public education is a caste system empowered by policies that push Black students to the bottom.

A history of Black efforts to educate Black children

Photo: Brown v Board of Education National Historic Site, TradingCardsNPS, Creative Commons license

The downside of desegregation

When Jim Crow segregation in public education ended, black schools were forced to close and Black teachers’ unions were required to disband. Black educators were rarely hired in the desegregated schools, leaving Black students to be educated by a majority white teaching force. In the aftermath of desegregation, Black students lost access to the high-quality strong network of dedicated Black educators.

How to fix the dysfunction in public education

To change the dysfunction in public education requires assessing and transforming policies, not students, and dismantling structures of anti-Black racism. White people are insulated from the impact of racialized schooling practices that negatively impact Black students, and there is limited teacher preparation that addresses this historical content.

Robin DeAngelo (photo: Unitarian Universalist Association, Creative Commons license)

“Weaponized weakness”

When discussing white fragility, DeAngelo explains, “Think of it as a weaponized weakness. Weaponized tears, weaponized hurt feelings. The weakness is just in how little it takes to trigger it. But the impact is not weak at all. It’s a powerful means of white racial control.”

bell hooks (Photo: Alex Lozupone (Tduk), Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons)

What I learned in school

Edith Bazile when she was a 13-year-old BPS student.

The conversation is not about white people

Carly Simon sang, “You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you, don’t you, don’t you, don’t you?” Exposing systemic racism is not just about what one does individually; it is about the hardwired, systemic set of policies, rules, procedures, and practices that impact a racial group, specifically Black people.

Viewing Black children from a deficit lens

White fragility is designed to protect and defend white dominant culture at all costs. It is rooted in viewing Black students from a deficit lens, a fixed mindset.

The T-shirt is not enough

Racial equity cannot be achieved simply by wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts, hugging it out, fist bumping, or shedding tears over racism. Black people do not need a pity party with a white-centered theme of saviorhood. Racism is not about your windows; it is about mirrors. It is about educating yourself because you can’t be an anti-racist if you don’t know the history of racism.

Malcolm X (photo: Rogelio A. Galaviz, Creative Commons license)

Why there aren’t enough Black teachers

Edith Bazile as a new teacher at Dorchester High School, September 1979. She had applied a year earlier after graduating from Northeastern University but was not hired. The Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts (BEAM) and others strongly advocated that Boston Public Schools stop the hiring discrimination against Black applicants, and the next time she applied, she got the job.

Whataboutism

We must examine why conversations about systemic racism make some engage in circular discussions that fall into the rabbit hole of whataboutisms. In a whataboutism response to systemic racism, there is a counter-accusation or a separate issue raised. Whataboutery is a series of deliberate deflections including personal attacks to avoid addressing the deep harm of systemic structures of racism in public education. In using whataboutisms, “White fragility functions as a form of bullying; I am going to make it so miserable for you to confront me — no matter how diplomatically you try to do so — that you will simply back off, give up, and never raise the issue again” says Robin DeAngelo.

James Baldwin (photo: Allan warren, Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons

More by Edith Bazile:

Fix Boston’s McKinley Schools: Rename them “Melvin H. King Schools” and reimagine their vision and purpose, March 31, 2021