White Fragility: The Secondhand Smoke of Racism in Public Education
By Edith Bazile, as first appeared in Schoolyard News
“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
During this nation’s history of enslavement, laws were enacted making it illegal for Black people to learn to read. We learned anyway. In the late 1800s, during the Reconstruction era, Black students were denied access to schooling. Black educators opened schools and provided high-quality education, which led to the economic independence of many thriving black businesses and communities.
According to historian Dr. Vanessa Siddle Walker, “it was common for whites to believe [Black people] were undeserving of schools.” During this era, Black citizens were forced to pay higher taxes, which essentially covered the cost of the education of white students. Jim Crow emerged during reconstruction. Mobs of enraged white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan, and white government officials destroyed many thriving black communities and massacred Black people across the country.
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.
In 2021, Black students continue to face barriers accessing high-quality education, and the shortage of Black teachers persists in America’s schools. The conversation must center on school policies that block Black students from success and perpetuate the chronic shortage of 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schooling practices that negatively impact Black students, and there is limited teacher preparation that addresses this historical content.
Public education is dominated by white educators; engaging white educators in discussions about structural racism in schools is necessary.
Robin DeAngelo states that conversations about race trigger white fragility in the form of silence, defensiveness, or anger. She states white people may protest, hijack the conversation, or demand others soothe their discomfort. DeAngelo explains, “The simplistic idea that racism is limited to individual intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic.”
White fragility is not racism, but it promotes racism by denying the reality of white dominant culture and its pervasive structures that are rooted in anti-Blackness.
White fragility is not the same as white supremacy and differs from white privilege. White supremacy is the false belief that individuals are superior based on skin color, and white privilege refers to the unfair societal advantages white people have over their non-white peers. White fragility shows up as staunch defensiveness: angry, hurt, wounded feelings or even an outright dismissal or rejection of the existence or evidence of racism in schools.
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.”
When Black people call out the oppressive effects we suffer from systemic racism, we are often targeted as the problem, the troublemakers.
bell hooks states, “Shaming is one of the deepest tools of imperialist, white supremacist, capital patriarchy because shame produces trauma and trauma often produces paralysis.”
Public attacks against Black people who expose systemic racism are not rooted in factual disagreements; they are intended to isolate and silence us.
These personal attacks are a form of gaslighting. They are coded in unflattering language or stereotypical code words/phrases, such as passionate, angry, ranting, and shockingly dramatic. We may even be accused of stirring up racial vitriol for calling out systemic racism.
Robin DeAngelo states, “Today we have a cultural norm that insists we hide our racism from people of color and deny it among ourselves, but not that we actually challenge it. In fact, we are socially penalized for challenging racism.”
These deflections are also intended to center whiteness. Centering whiteness has its historical roots in this country going back to the kidnapping and forced enslavement of African people.
What I learned in school
In my early schooling, I was taught that the enslavement of Black people was justified because we were saved from our miserable existence and brought to this country to be civilized. In other words, enslavement was done for our own good. White people were centered as paternalistic, altruistic with good intentions. Racism is historically rooted in this anti-Black rhetoric, which was constructed to justify enslavement and deny our humanity. Those who study history understand how deeply anti-Blackness resides in the American psyche.
Centering Blackness is necessary when discussing racial inequity, injustice, white privilege, and the deep wound of systemic racism that historically pushes Black students to the bottom of the racial hierarchy in public education. During these discussions, white fragility often shows up in the form of defensiveness coupled with deflections to shift the narrative to re-center whiteness. Why? White fragility often demands people of color give comfort to white educators when the real focus should be on dismantling racist institutional policies, rules, and structures.
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.
When Black people center Blackness and expose racist structures, white people should resist inserting themselves in the conversation and instead listen. This conversation is not about you; it is about Black people and what we experience.
When white people demand the focus shift from institutional policies, rules, and practices, it showcases white fragility when it comes to topics about race. Ironically, the mask of white privilege is amplified by the desire to be acknowledged as allies. But ultimately, Black students are blamed for failure because there is a refusal to acknowledge that racism is at a crisis level due to policies rooted in anti-Blackness.
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.
When white fragility is weaponized in schools, Black students are perceived as prone to permanently suffer in this world unless white saviors intervene to hold their hands, wipe their tears, and rescue them from their desperate, impoverished conditions. This form of fake wokeness also seeks to give students a family-centered school environment that Black students are perceived to lack. They are taken to the theater or museum so they can experience some good ole white culture, but they are not provided strong curriculum that results in academic excellence.
This was my indoctrination process into white supremacy culture as a student and teacher so many decades ago, and sadly it continues today. Instead of empowering Black students’ multiple literacies, these approaches are rooted in cultural erasure.
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.
Through the forced labor of enslavement, Black people built the economic foundation of this country and contributed greatly to daily comforts experienced today, but our incredible contributions and achievements are absent from curricula content.
Malcolm X states, “I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand up under the weight.”
The value of Black educators who founded black schools during and after Reconstruction led to independent flourishing black neighborhoods in Tulsa, Oklahoma (known as Black Wall Street); Hyti District, Durham, North Carolina (known as the Black capital of the South); Harlem, NY (known as the Black Mecca); U Street in Washington, DC (known as Black Broadway); Sweet Auburn Historical District, Atlanta, GA (dubbed the richest Negro street in the world); Jackson Ward, Richmond, Virginia (known as Harlem of the South); Seventh Street, Oakland, CA (known as the cultural hub for Black entrepreneurs); and countless others that exemplified black excellence.
Black researchers ranging from Dr. Carter G. Woodson in the 1930s to Gloria Ladson-Billings, Lisa Delpit, Adrienne Dixson, Pedro Noguera, Christopher Emdin, James A. Banks, and Adrienne Dixson affirm the importance of Black educators. A recent John Hopkins study reinforced the critical value of Black educators for all students.
Black educators provide value in the classrooms but must be at the policy table making policy decisions. The benefits for Black students range from reductions in suspensions and expulsions to significant increases in enrollment in advanced academic programs, graduation rates, and college entry.
Why there aren’t enough Black teachers
Yet public education has not embraced the value of Black educators. Why? The shortage of Black teachers begins with the mistreatment and miseducation of Black students in schools, which negatively impacts Black students’ desire to pursue the field of education. To fill the demand for Black educators, public education must end anti-Black discrimination in the teaching and hiring practice. Districts must decolonize school cultures, the curriculum, classroom spaces, and routines. Research supports Black educators leading this work on behalf of all students and staff.
Centering Blackness is not a threat; it is necessary to center the voices of Black people when discussing racial equity and justice. Equity means acknowledging our full humanity in a society where justice is centered.
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.
White fragility is an unwillingness to seriously study the history of racism and to reflect on the current prevailing structures and how these structures impact Black students.
As James Baldwin states, “If one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question…the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected — those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most! — and listens to their testimony.” But, that’s not how white fragility works.
bell hooks states, “The rage of the oppressed is never the same as the rage of the privileged.” It is a privilege to engage in discussions about structural racism rather than experience its traumatizing effects as Black people do.
It is important to develop an awareness of systemic racism and discern actions that uphold systemic racism versus actions that disrupt systemic structures of racism. Critical race theory is a set of educational strategies that analyzes historical patterns of racism, privilege, and power, and targets solutions while centering those who have been left out. CRT should be embedded in professional development to help understand actions that lead to educational justice. In the words of bell hooks, “true resistance begins with people confronting pain…and wanting to do something to change it.”
We must recognize how white fragility shows up in conversations about race. According to DeAngelo, “The key to moving forward is what we do with our discomfort. We can use it as a door out — blame the messenger and disregard the message. Or we can use it as a door in by asking, “Why does this unsettle me? What would it mean for me if this were true?”
There must be the social, economic, and political will to acknowledge that racial gaps are imposed by policy decisions and change school policies rooted in anti-Black racism. In the words of Ijeoma Oluo, “You have to get over the fear of facing the worst in yourself. You should instead fear unexamined racism. Fear the thought that right now, you could be contributing to the oppression of others and you don’t know it. But do not fear those who bring that oppression to light. Do not fear the opportunity to do better.”
Edith Bazile is a former BPS special educator and administrator and former President of Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts (BEAM).
More by Edith Bazile:
Black Lives: Do we matter in Boston Public Schools? December 22, 2020
Is Boston’s school system still stuck in the 1970s? October 28, 2020
BPS Touts Anti-Racism, But Actions Speak Differently, September 30, 2020
BEAM President Edith Bazile’s advice to Excellence for All students, December 4, 2019