Month: May 2019

The psychology of white fragility (Part 1)

Splitting, dissociation and oppression

In a previous piece on the embodied manifestations of racism, I put splitting at centre of the reproduction of oppression, inequality and racial violence. I posit that splitting allows people racialised as white; within white supremacist contexts, to dissociate from the harm and pain they cause and thus, to continue to reproduce it, blissfully. Splitting is often described as polarised or binary thinking but, the essence to remember here, is that the defence helps us manage conflicting emotional states or information we cannot integrate, enabling us to thus distance ourselves from those aspects we find irreconcilable with some perceptual entity, often ourselves or the world.

As such, we may say, splitting maintains white ignorance which is in turn fed by splitting. Splitting is an incredibly serious problem in race relations. Not only does it reduce white people’s self-awareness, including awareness of their own racial prejudices and biases, but it also limits insight in terms of how such prejudices may leak relationally, influence their behaviour; including their embodied conduct. Splitting consequently, keeps white people dissociated from the impact of the harm they cause and, how such harm is structurally located.

Robin DiAngelo’s (2011) concept of white fragility, one of the most recent influential sociological frameworks to formulate white responses to racism, may be particularly helpful here. White fragility refers to the range of defensive moves white people perform to disengage from conversations on race and racism, because of their reduced capacity to tolerate race-based stress or distress (lack of racial stamina). These defensive moves include physically removing themselves from the stress inducing situation (eg. walking away) arguing, denying or minimising the continuing significance of race or of white privilege and, sometimes becoming threatening and aggressive.

DiAngelo proposes that whiteness, provides ‘protective pillows’ to white people and that this protection insulates them from experiencing racial stress. As a result, white people come to expect to feel racially comfortable at all times. As this expectation is socially sanctioned within white supremacy, it is rarely challenged. Not being exposed to racial stress will naturally translate in a lack of experience in managing the strong emotions which can arise in race-based discussions, leading almost inevitably to defensive retaliation. Behaviourally, we may see this as poor coping, inefficient stress management or poor distress tolerance. And again, this lack of adequate behavioural strategy is bound to compound anxiety and fear, which will in turn increase the likelihood of splitting or other problematic responses.

The neuropsychology of white fragility

It is virtually impossible to take in differing perspectives and, to be reflexive when under acute stress. Our brains are simply not designed to do so. This is our first problem. The more acute the stress, the more difficult this task will be. Exposure to high levels of stress impairs our cognitive functioning, including our capacity to think flexibility and our complex reasoning skills. When we are stressed or scared, our autonomic system get into motion and, threat responses are activated. Another problem we have, is that many white people are so split from their body, they may not even realise they are feeling threatened. Whiteness elevates the white body above its physiology so this split is seen as desirable although it limits our understanding of human suffering. This body-mind split is also encouraged within discourses of colourblindness which render the noticing of racial differences shameful.

There is thus a real socialised deficit in bodily self-awareness. This is significant. Research indicates that shame not only impedes cognitive processing, it interferes with our ability to appraise situations in a balanced way, our awareness/openness to potential implicit racial biases and, can lead to anger and aggression. We also know that despite many white people claiming to be colourblind, evidence suggests that our brain responds to racial differences and, skin colour is noticed by our brain within milli-seconds. Similarly, when presented with images of Black people, threat responses via increased amygdala activities have been objectively observed. Further, we know that racial stereotypes evoke more emotional responses and memories, than other kinds of stereotypes. So in summary, we have enough to posit that threat responses via physiological and neurobiological processes and events, underpin and, maintain white fragility.

Wanting to be soothed

Our cerebral threat system is designed to identify threats quickly. And, we are designed to focus our attention, memory and thinking towards threat-based information, as a priority and of course, for survival. Our brain does so by triggering feelings of anxiety, via relevant hormonal events that sustain fear or aversive responses to potentially threatening stimuli. Once triggered, our threat responses, motivate us to take associated behavioural action, in essence to fight or flight. If we believe consciously or otherwise, that we can overcome the danger by fighting, our brain will gear our body towards doing so. If we feel at risk but think we cannot overcome the danger by fighting, we will generally run away.

There is a thin line between the socially sanctioned belief that white people are entitled to racial comfort and, the expectation that people of colour should protect white people from race-based stress and thus safeguard the said comfort. That is to say, that the emotional states of white people and their feelings should be centred and prioritised in discussions or conversations about race. White centeredness is a core pillar of white supremacy and, expecting soothing from people of colour, is an enactment of master-Slave configurations which reproduce power relations. Not only is this exploitative, it deprives those with power from building self-awareness and develop the relevant ‘psychic muscles’.

Further, this soothing expectation not only position people of colour as superhumans and, in that sense dehumanises us; it turns us into objects. Specifically, into instruments of self-soothing. Staying with the discomfort of oppression related guilt, shame and/or distress without discharging it or projecting it onto the racially marginalised is central to learning to tolerate race-based stress. It is also important to break the cycle of relationally enacted oppression. As previously posited, white fragility splits white people off from pain. Black pain and the pain people of colour experience because of racism. It therefore stops white people from being authentically and humanely present in their relationships with people of colour.

Learning to tolerate racial distress

A big part of decreasing inequality and injustice is increasing connection between white people and people of colour and, bridging the gap between our experiential realities. Or, increasing  connection between our structural realities. Thus, remedying that socially sanctioned dissociation which is sustained by splitting, is fundamental. This is why I believe that soothing white people who experience race-based stress as they are being awaken to the harm they enact in the world and the unearned privileges this society continues to grant them; is the least helpful thing we can do. Doing so is depriving them of the chance to become more compassionate, more integrated, more human.

Consequently, it is important that all agents of oppression connect with the pain they cause. The pain they have avoided confronting all of their lives. We should let them taste it and, experience it in their body. Feel it in their bones. Reclaim the oppressive part of themselves, which will help them see what they are socialised not to see; structures of domination. This will not happen without increasing tolerance to racial stress and distress. Many of you will read this and now wonder what it is that could thus be done, to increase (racial) distress tolerance in white groups.

And, I wonder too. The honest answer is, I don’t know for certain. We do not have an evidence base to answer this question unequivocally. Partly because white fragility as a framework is relatively new. Further, it is derived from sociological scholarship rather than psychological scholarship thus, psychological research. Nonetheless, clinicians and psychotherapists do know quite a bit about how to generally increase distress tolerance and, how to work with anxious and distressed states. This is a core part of what we do. So, it makes sense to start with what we know. The steps below are derived from such clinical evidence.

Some practical steps

In psychology, distress tolerance comprises both our perceived capacity to withstand negative and/or aversive emotional states and; the behavioural act of withstanding the same. Building distress tolerance is helpful when working with those who have a tendency to feel overwhelmed by their emotions and/or find strong feelings unbearable or, when we have such a low tolerance for distress, that even mild levels of stress can trigger disproportionate responses and/or when we have learnt to manage difficult emotions and/or feelings by resorting to destructive or damaging behaviours. You can access distress tolerance exercises here.

Exposure methods in therapy simply focus on helping people confront rather than avoid their fears. As human beings, we tend to avoid what we feel threatened by, be it situations, objects or people. This avoidance may help us manage our stress and fears in the short term. Nevertheless, over time, it worsens our anxiety and, leads us to respond more strongly, feel more overwhelmed and/or become more sensitive to the feared stimuli. Hence, psychologists tend to see avoidance as a maintaining factor in anxiety. In the context of white fragility, exposure would imply creating an environment in which to progressively expose white individuals to race and racism stimuli, in time, reducing fear (thus threat responses) and decreasing avoidance.

A final step to help re-connect white people to their bodies and to the world around them, may include mindfulness. Mindfulness as a meditation is centred on helping individual focus their attention on the present, moment to moment by paying attention to their thoughts, bodily sensations, perceptions and feelings in a non-judgmental manner. Thoughts, bodily sensations and feelings are envisaged as mental events one can be distanced from, rather than inherent and constitutive parts of the self. Mindfulness helps us explore, understand and reflect on these events as transient moments that are separate from the self. It has been found to limit our tendency to react, self-evaluate and dissociate. Mindfulness may be particularly helpful in becoming aware of the responses triggered by race related material and to reconnect with the world of senses. Encouragingly and perhaps unsurprisingly, mindfulness has been found to have positive effects in the reduction of prejudice and implicit racial bias.


To conclude this article is a first attempt at using psychology to make sense of white fragility with a view of deriving useable tools which may help increase racial stamina and thus reduce relationally enacted oppression. There is no doubt that a lot more could be written and unpacked using psychological and psychoanalytical scholarship. I will aim to further explore the ways in which psychology can help us tackle white fragility. Finally, I am aware that some people of colour may be suspicious of approaches focused on supporting white people to deal with whiteness. I am ambivalent too. Nonetheless, my thinking is that we are all to gain from better understanding racial violence, it’s relational enactment and how it may be countered. I am hoping too, this article may serve as a helpful reference some readers may use when asked to provide a response or education to the forever recurring question ‘but what can we do’…

Thank you for reading

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Education requests, exploitation & oppression

‘Let me tell you what it feels like to stand in front of a white man and explain privilege to him. It hurts. It makes you tired. Sometimes it makes you want to cry. Sometimes it is exhilarating. Every single time it is hard. Every single time I get angry that I have to do this, that this is my job, that this shouldn’t be my job. Every single time I am proud of myself that I’ve been able to say these things because I used to not be able to and because some days I just don’t want to’ (McCleave-Maharawal, 2011)

The violence of public scholarship

Since I have started writing and speaking about race and oppression my intellectual and to some degree my professional lives have been transformed. In the main, for the better. I am thankful. There are however aspects of this public life that continue to be extremely violent. Navigating any public space particularly as a scholar when your body is Black, and female can be treacherous. There are those who will always have a hard time with women and Black bodies taking up space and, occupying any position that affords their voice a platform. Or their thinking an audience.

The worse I have had so far, is a rape threat. A single one though, and so I consider myself lucky. Some of my peers have to contend with recurrent threats of rape, death and mutilation and, sometimes even threats to their loved ones. That’s in addition to everyday racist and sexist harassment that is sadly so banal, it is not even worth a mention. This is the backdrop to our scholarly work. That our words alone would cause such intense aggressive impulses to freely become bare, in public, often in the most ardent defenders of free speech, requires sustained reflection.

One of the aims of such conduct is of course social control via intimidation. It is to remind us of our place. To trigger sufficient fear, or distress that we merge back into silence and return the space we’re occupying to some fantasised or constructed rightful owner. Or knower. Bodies with the ‘right’ gender and the ‘right’ colour. Women of colour, Black women in particular, are not supposed to know or, be scholars. Let alone public ones. How dare we think that what we have to say and that our thinking, particularly when it challenges established (white male) orthodoxies, matter enough to constitute and contribute to knowledge?

Still I rise… above my station.

Overt aggression is not the only form of violence marginalised scholars face. Recurrently and increasingly, I am asked to provide the emotional or intellectual labour of educating privileged folks on oppression, racism and (although much, much less frequently) sexism via requests for of ‘debate’, elaboration or information. These demands for education occur on and off social media. Publicly and privately. They reach me almost daily. Simply reading them recurrently leaves me exhausted. Often frustrated. Sometimes angry that so many would expect such a laborious service, from me for free and, the imperial echoes this has. Always, I am left feeling heavy.

Because of this, I have taken the political position of not responding. Of course, this attracts strong reactions too. Often anger, dismay and/or more insults. Much of it, and often unbeknown to the education seeker, becomes manifest because it is still socially transgressive for a Black woman to refuse to serve those who demand that she’d be of service. How dare I. Again. Moreover, not only am I a scholar but I am too a therapist. Surely, it is part of my role as a ‘helping professional’ to kindly and dutifully educate and explain, on request?

Well, it may be so, but I would argue that non-education here, is in fact education (on exploitation and on the de-centering of whiteness) and that above all, that it is an act of self-preservation. And that I do indeed need to exist safe and sound to do my job. Even if that is the only contribution of value some may see in my existence. The continuing role of history in the structuring of power relations and, of the wider social world has long been recognised. It is central to group analytic scholarship including the concept of the social unconscious or indeed, the intergenerational transmission of cultural experiences and of relational/social configurations.

Oppression as trauma

Considering a different axe of oppression to hopefully make the point (this is not a perfect rhetorical device)… would we expect survivors of gendered violence and victims of male rape to educate men, on request, on what it is like to be groped and sexually exploited? If you find this proposition more absurd or problematic you may want to take a few minutes of reflection. All oppressive experiences are traumatic.

As we still struggle to accept this simple statement as fact particularly in relation to racism, let alone embody it relationally, I am going to write it again. All oppressive experiences are traumatic. It hurts. It makes you tired. Sometimes it makes you want to cry. The cumulative effect of subtle and everyday or micro experiences of othering and discrimination is grinding. It is draining. And again, every single time it is hard. But more than that, it wears our health and mental health down. It renders us vulnerable to psychological distress and make us feel unsafe in the world, the very definition of insidious trauma.

Given this impact, the expectation that we should as a matter of course and at the drop of a hat, subject our bodies to such effects is frankly gross in its lack of compassion and consideration. It also has a sadistic element which needs attention. It is the ultimate stripping of our subjecthood. And, as such it is of course also historically loaded. I would thus argue, it is another way to reproduce the commodification of our bodies and to dehumanise us, maintaining both the status-quo and power relations, the education seeker purports to want to challenge and/or to understand. This extract from an I email received a few days ago via Race Reflections is a good illustration and, I hope a learning opportunity.

Education and oppression

The email above is from a therapist and someone who likely considers themselves an ‘ally’. Someone thus, who could reasonably be expected to be familiar with issues of boundaries, emotional distress and trauma. Indeed, their apparent grasp of the issues is expressly stated; ‘I understand how utterly emotionally draining it can be for the majority people of colour to have to get into these conversations’. It would appear, they get it. Some evidence of compassion or at least empathy for the taxing conundrums her request would expose people of colour to, seems to be present. Alas this empathy is not extended to me and, I am excluded from their circle of compassion.

It is unclear wether I have not been included in that ‘majority’, because I am believed to somehow possess some inherent protection from or resilience to experiencing the said emotional tax, in the author’s mind and if so, on what basis or; whether the writer’s needs ‘to understand’ in spite of their apparent awareness of the emotional costs to me, takes precedence. Or again, wether they are completely split off from their impact on me. Indeed, the request is presented as a banal one. It has a ‘hey girl’ or ‘no biggie’ quality. ‘I’d appreciate your thoughts on how I can considerably learn more’. And of course, it would be a banal, nothing to see here request since at least in their mind, the author may be ‘a bit more educated than the rest’.

These education requests are thus clear communications. They state whose bodies matter and whose experiences or needs should be centred. They render our bodies instruments or territories to be exploited for the self-development and enrichment of those with more social power. When violence to our bodies and our welfare matter less than the curiosity our experience provoke and/or demands for ‘education’, we are once more albeit unconsciously or inadvertently, sacrificed by and for those who seek to grow at our expense. Often without our consent. Our psychological boundaries are tested and there is a desire or at least a move, albeit likely unconscious to intrude and exploit. An attempt, I would say, at psychological colonialism.

Projection and psychological exploitation

Each time we are asked to educate mindlessly, not only must we re-experience oppression and racism, we must often carry the weight of the privileged’s inability to tolerate their own responses, distress, discomfort and, the disturbance caused to their benevolent sense of self or worldview, which often gets passed on to us via projection. Projection, as a defense mechanism takes place when we unconsciously attribute feelings, drives or impulses located within us to someone else. Usually emotional states that are unwanted and, that we are unable and/or unwilling to carry or hold ourselves. It is not unusual for example, for those who challenge racism to be called racist, bully or some other persecutory term. One may say, attributes that are disowned and projected outwards onto marginalised bodies, here people of colour. 

Projection per se is not harmful. Projective identification however can often be. With projective identification we are induced to feel or act in accordance with the material that has been disowned and projected onto us. We lose our psychological agency and autonomy and with that, the capacity to distinguish what belongs to us and what belongs to the ‘projector’. Our thoughts, feelings and experiences become merged and/or replaced by those implanted into us. The breach of psychological boundary by excellence. We are made to carry someone else’s unwanted psychological baggage and, we experience it as being our own. Psychological pressure is unconsciously exerted to coerce us into being once more, of service.

In doing so, we become estranged from our own mind which is turned into a vessel for the exploitation of those who project onto us, here those with more social power, indeed specifically White people. It can be difficult to know when we’re identifying with a projection, it requires a fairly high level of self-awareness, and often support from a therapist or an analytically orientated supervisor. One way to tell if you have access to neither, is you may start to experience confusion about your experience and, your feelings may appear disproportionate and/or seem out of place (and could plausibly be attributed to the other entity). In the case of racial projections, you may become the container for strong feelings or shame, guilt, inadequacy or distress which do not belong to you, whilst their rightful owner will be blissfully split off from them and therefore, free from carrying their own shit.

Education and epistemic exploitation

Another way to conceptualise the exploitative nature of education requests in the context of oppression, is in terms of epistemic practice. Berenstain (2016) ‘s framework of epistemic exploitation is particularly helpful here. Epistemic exploitation according to her, occurs when privileged folks force marginalised folks to educate them about the nature of their oppression in an unpaid capacity. This educational labour leads to a double bind since there are costs associated with both meeting the demand for education and, costs associated with refusing to meet it. If one decides to comply with the request, one must face testimonial and hermeneutical injustice and scepticism by virtue of one’s very belonging to a marginalised group.

Thus, despite education demands, marginalised perspectives and knowledge are usually dismissed and subject to unattainable epistemic or truth thresholds. Refusing the request on the other hand, because it is socially transgressive, exposes marginalised bodies to violence or hostility via retaliation, affront and anger. According to the philosopher, epistemic exploitation despite being ubiquitous is rarely recognised as a form of epistemic violence which is part of wider macro systemic socio-political oppression. Rather, it is often dressed as a practice deemed epistemically virtuous, as a necessary part of social exchanges and knowledge acquisition; creating an unjust burden on the marginalised to educate and enlighten all while limiting their capacity to do so and, exposing them to violence and harm.

Concluding thoughts

To conclude, relational and psychological configurations will invariably mirror socio-economic and historico-material configurations, if relationships are left to their own devices. I doubt that enacting oppression can ever lead to anything other than oppression and, therefore to the reproduction of the status-quo, even if there was no other, less harmful way to acquire the education sought. Which there is. As we say on Twitter street, Google is your friend. Liberation is something we do in the material world, not uniquely something we conceive and intellectualise. Burdening, harming and marginalising the needs and experiences of those whose freedom and liberation we say we seek to support is the height of white ignorance and as such, does nothing but reproduce whiteness as a structure. Thus, if you take just one sentence from this piece, remember this one; ‘it hurts, it makes you tired, sometimes it makes you want to cry‘.

Thank you for reading

If you have found this article useful or interesting, please spread the word.
All work published on Race Reflections is the intellectual property of Race Reflections. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Race Reflections. If you wish to repost this article, please see the contact section for further details.