White Fragility – A Self-Reflection

By Elizabeth Perry @eperryinsights         July 14, 2019

I’m working through My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem.

I was doing ok with the work until I got to the chapter The False Fragility of the White Body.

I remember when I first heard the term White Fragility. It was being screamed at an audience by a young woman who had recently experienced a very public humiliation. I agreed with her anger at the time. I just didn’t think screaming at and accusing her potential allies was the best way to get support.  I questioned at the time if my very response to her was evidence of my own White Fragility.

I’ve held that possibility in my self-check template since then, aware that if it’s true for me I will need to deal with it. I’ve been busy self-educating myself about trauma, resilience, indigenous perspectives, equity. Reading My Grandmother’s Hands has given me the opportunity to dive deeply into the experiences of many Black people in a white body supremacist world.

Much of what Menakem writes resonates with conclusions I had already come to myself and written about in “Addressing ACEs as a Social Transformation Initiative.”

Menakem writes:  “White Americans must accept, explore, and mend their centuries-old trauma around the oppression and victimization of white bodies by other, more powerful white bodies.” (Page 104)

I’ve been promoting people with power and privilege taking accountability for recovering from their own pain all my life in various ways in order to inspire them to stop creating pain for others as an effect of their unresolved hurt. This stemmed from my own experiences while growing up neglected and criticized for existing and being inadequate at that.

I was not socialized in an environment that included Black people. The only Black people I was exposed to were on the TV as entertainers.

“Whiteness does not equal fragility. That’s a dodge created by white fragility itself – a way for white Americans to avoid the responsibility of soothing themselves, metabolizing their own ancient historical and secondary trauma, accepting and moving through clean pain, and growing up.”

This is the paragraph Menakem writes on page 105 that digs into me.

I had to learn how to soothe myself because there was no one available for me to be soothed by, not a white person, nor a Black nanny. I work every day to metabolize my own temporal trauma as well as my ancestral and secondary trauma, to accept and allow myself to experience clean pain. I’ve been so grown up my entire life, I have to work every day to allow myself to be a normal human.

Is this White Fragility or just another affected human?

I recently had a conversation with a friend during which I shared some personal struggles I was going through. Just because he’s Black doesn’t mean I was relying on him to soothe me. He’s my friend and has been my friend for a few years and specifically told me he would support me through thick and thin.

Was this White Fragility? Was he just enabling my White Fragility? Or were we just two friends doing what good friends do with each other – share and support?

A young Black man leads a group I attend. I look to him for leadership and control as the authority figure. Is this White Fragility?

The exercises Menakem invites us to practice are excellent. I agree that it’s important to pay attention to my body’s responses to interactions with black people.

Imagining walking into a wedding where I was the only white person made me stop at the entrance, but I quickly caught my reaction and overrode it, entering as one human among others, and remembering I was there to support my friend. Was that White Fragility? Was I able to override my initial reaction because of my privilege of existing in a white body which may actually give me security within that context? Or have I internalized that all humans are Mother Nature’s Children and I’m secure enough in my own identity that I’m not threatened by other identities, and I’m respectful and compassionate enough about other humans that I can relate to anyone, anywhere, without fear for my safety?

I actually feel safer in groups than with individuals. But that’s because of my past relational trauma.

I recently presented some material by a third party to a group of employees to assess the usefulness of the training for their organization. I was specifically asked to present it as written, to not modify it in any way. I spent an hour being criticized for the content, and eventually the criticism became personal. Admittedly if I had known that’s what would happen I never would have agreed to the work.

The most distain was expressed by a white woman with significant power. My body felt like puking all over her self-righteous face. The one Black person present, after accusing me of triggering trauma and telling me I should be paying her for her opinion, in the end chastised me for not acknowledging my colonial heritage on unceded Indigenous territory.  

Obviously in that experience a lot of my sacred self-image buttons were pushed. I was actually proud of myself that I kept focused and kept presenting the material exactly as requested, even though I was a deer in the headlights being triggered myself by the verbal assaults.

Was my being triggered evidence of White Fragility? Or was it the result of years of relentless criticism by people with power?

When I finally snapped back at the Black woman, “What words would you like me to use?” I felt bad that I had lost the ability to disguise my own reaction for that one instant. When leaving I shook her hand and thanked her genuinely for her contribution to the discussion. I was genuinely disappointed that the opportunity for connection with her was hampered.

The disdainful white woman looked at me with disgust and refused to shake my hand. I didn’t care what she thought. She had proven herself to me to be overcompensating for her own issues. I’ve encountered enough people like that in my life I don’t give them any credence. They all probably remind me of my mother in their intellectual arrogance. I leave people like that to self-destruct on their own.

Was that White Fragility? Was I fawning over the Black woman? Was I genuinely concerned with how I made her feel? Or was I most concerned with how I was perceived and my own reputation?

When I didn’t get any support from the person who invited me to that dog fight, I had to soothe myself. Was I able to do that only because of my white body privilege or was I able to do it because I’d learned a specific coping mechanism during my own intensive trauma recovery process?

I recently attended a presentation by Deborah Levens of Harvard. She reminded us of Freud’s 8 defense mechanisms.

I wonder if everything I’ve written above is just more defense of white body supremacy that I’m oblivious to.

I don’t want to have a colonized mind. I have had many cross cultural experiences in my life. As a poor, oppressed white kid I empathized with and intentionally included and befriended the different kids in my world. As a kid I probably did it because I felt we were kindred spirits. Or more likely, I included them because I wished that for myself. I have been exceedingly blessed throughout my life by my relationships with people who embody different intersections than me.

I always valued my diverse friends as human beings and I thought that made me more accepting and appreciative of the diversity of humanity. As a white bodied human, though, I admittedly didn’t grasp their experience as non-white in my community. I knew what it felt like to be rejected, but I never had to feel that way because of the colour of my skin.

I’ve obviously got a lot of work left to do to decolonize my mind. It seems like a bottomless pit of toxic programming to unravel.

I feel betrayed by my ancestors, for more reasons than I’ve discussed here. I’ve made sacrifices in my life to protect those I love from the prejudices I experienced within my own family. I work every day to create a trauma preventive humanity.   

I look forward to the day when everyone I interact with can know that I respect them and value them as equal children of our shared Mother, Nature.

Back now to My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem. I hope I finally get it and my answers by the end of the book.

Author: Elizabeth Perry

I am a 1st voice trauma educator, counselor, coach, peer supporter, consultant. I am passionate about addressing childhood trauma (ACEs) in adults, and helping those adults establish distinct autonomous free and empowered selves. Understanding the effects of our interpersonal relationships is key. I believe when we truly know ourselves and can understand others we can make healthy, informed decisions about our relationships which can benefit all involved, including nature. I constantly seek deeper self understanding and support others in doing the same through group training and one on one sessions. I'm most active on Twitter @eperryinsights My favourite hashtags are #HealthyRelationships #TraumaInformedByTraumaSurvivors #TraumaInformedCanada #ACEsAwareCanada #ACEsAllies #AdultsWithACEsRecovery

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