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 splits 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.

Conclusion

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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8 comments

      1. Sure, whatever you think best. I posted it as a reminder of what’s out there as I chanced upon it after reading your blogpost and was amazed at how seemingly rock-solid political analysts can let their guard down at times and self-destruct credibility. Keep up your great work.

  1. This is a great blog, thank you for taking the time to bring it together. I was wondering, is there a formal definition of ‘racial stress’ or ‘race-based stress’ somewhere in the academic literature? DiAngelo uses these phrases but I don’t think he provides a clear definition of the kinds of situation that white folks would experience as racial stress

    1. Thank you.

      DiAngelo is a white woman 🙂

      Stress has been defined as the ‘environmental demands that tax or exceed the adaptive capacity of an organism, resulting in biological and psychological changes that may be detrimental and place the organism at risk for disease’ (Cohen et al., 1998).

      Racial = related to race.

      I therefore take racial stress to mean,
      demands related to race ‘that tax or exceed the adaptive capacity of an organism, resulting in biological and psychological changes that may be detrimental and place the organism at risk for disease’.

      I am not aware of an universally agreed definition but, most papers I have read take a similar approach.

      I hope that’s of some help.

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