OPINION: How white fragility prevents progress from being made at the 5Cs

A white outstretched hand covered in spiderweb cracks
Graphic by Eloise Magoncelli

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you … I’m not sure what was offensive, but I guess I’m sorry.” This was the reluctant apology I received from the white student who said I spoke English well. 

They were astounded that I spoke English well because I am a Latina. In other words, because I’m not white. 

I’m frustrated that this person felt the need to patronize my speech, that they made assumptions about my abilities and that once again, I was made to feel like a foreigner in the country I was born in.

It was as if my ability to speak English well made me less foreign, a more palatable version of a person of color for this white person to swallow. This person truly didn’t understand why I was upset, and they didn’t want to make an effort to understand. 

Like many other people of color, I’m seen as hostile and over-sensitive for being upset about the microaggressions that occur on these campuses every day. Yet, we’re all expected to tolerate such incidents, forgive white people for their ignorance or use our emotional labor as a tool for their learning. 

The issue of white fragility is prevalent in our society. Despite the progressive facade the 5Cs like to portray, we are not excluded from this problem. 

White fragility occurs when white people’s racial prejudices are challenged and instead of trying to listen and learn, they withdraw, defend, cry, argue, minimize and ignore, according to Westfield State University professor Robin DiAngelo. They try to push back to maintain their racial position and power.

White fragility makes people of color hesitant to have discussions with white people about race, under threat of eliciting some of these reactions and suddenly becoming the antagonist. It’s a way for white people to silence us and avoid self-critical reflection around race. 

It’s a cunning yet effective tool — white people save face and are able to keep their “woke” reputation without making any real efforts to make spaces safer for people of color.

Racial comfort is vital to the maintenance of white fragility. Since white people are almost always the dominant group in the United States, they never have to deal with racial discomfort or any challenge to their own racial perspectives. 

Once, I told someone that their language excluded people of color from queer issues and made whiteness the default — the person divided LGBTQIA+ people and people of color into two different groups and described predominantly white queer spaces as accepting.

This erasure of queer and trans people of color is insulting when they’ve been at the forefront of the LGBTQIA+ rights movement for decades. The assumption that predominantly white spaces are comfortable or welcoming to people of color is many times false. Failure to acknowledge this reinforces the idea that people of color should be made to feel guilty for not assimilating into a white space. 

This person responded to my challenge by briefly emphasizing how bad they felt but then proceeded to express how uncomfortable and anxiety-triggering this conversation was for them. 

They effectively shifted the focus from their bigotry to their negative feelings about being confronted, as if I or any other person of color am supposed to comfort them and assuage their guilt. I forced them to see themselves as prejudiced, or worse, as someone that other people may perceive as racist.

At the core of white fragility is the idea that people are much more concerned with being perceived as non-racist than actually doing the work to improve the conditions for people of color. Many white people are obsessed with labeling themselves as “good whites,” who are not prejudiced, versus “bad whites.”

This simplistic understanding of race as individual attitudes is part of the problem. Every single white person is complicit in white supremacy because institutions are made for and benefit white people. They have the systematic control that’s allowed them to reproduce and reinforce their racial interests. 

These campuses thrive on performative wokeness, yet not many white people would be willing to give up their positionality for the success of people of color. 

As people of color, our existence is racialized; we are forced to be experts on race and ethnic relations because they are our lives. But we are not teachers; we aren’t responsible for teaching others about white fragility or other similar topics. The amount of emotional labor asked of people of color in the education of white people is already ridiculous.

It’s not the job of people of color to explain what you did wrong. We aren’t going to argue with you about whether or not your actions can be justified or explained. 

I have close white friends who still require me to use emotional labor when I explain how my family and I have been affected by discrimination. But these people don’t use my experiences as their own educational tool about oppression and they don’t respond with white fragility. They are trying to understand and support me. 

If white people at the 5Cs continue to perpetuate white fragility, productive conversations and critical self-reflections about race and privilege won’t happen. As a result, they aren’t allowing these campuses to become more secure for non-white people. 

Without conversations, there is no action, and people of color will continue to be brought into unsafe spaces. Our existence here shouldn’t be to validate a false narrative of the 5Cs being progressive institutions, especially when it comes at the cost of our well-being.

If the institution itself will not improve anytime soon, then it’s up to white students to stop dominating these spaces and truly reflect on themselves and their actions. 

Anais Rivero PZ ’22 is from Miami, Florida. She’s interested in politics and Latin American studies. She tells everyone who will listen about being Cuban and drinks three cups of coffee a day on average.

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