White People: 4 Questions for Diffusing Our Defensiveness About Race

When our defensiveness comes up, how do we deal with it in productive ways and ensure we don't use it to do more harm than we've already done?

Good news is hard to come by these days, but a small bit of it is the fact that white people are finally waking up to the brutal lived realities of Black Americans. I say "small" because we are centuries too late; there's a massive amount of catching up to do.

But learning, as we know, comes with a curve - and a lot of white folks are finding it challenging.

Let me be clear: being a white person learning about our complicity in white supremacy is nowhere near as difficult as being a person of color in a white supremacist culture. Given everything that BIPOC have been through in this supposedly great nation of ours, white tears are self-centering, inappropriate, and downright gross.

That said, there is room to acknowledge the reality that learning how to do better isn't always easy, especially when us white folks have been conditioned from birth to believe that our experience of American life is everyone's experience. "White fragility" is a term you may have heard, and simply put, it means that white folks have a tendency to be highly sensitive to any insinuation that we play a part in keeping racism alive.

Here's an example, courtesy of my own white fragility.

Just a couple weeks ago, I was scrolling through Instagram when I saw a company advertising a sale on promotional Black Lives Matter gear. I'd been following this company for a while because I liked their personal hygiene products, but once I saw this promo, the thought crossed my mind that it would be highly unethical for a white-owned business to be profiting off the Black Lives Matter movement. A comment below the post echoed my concern: it said, "Is this business POC-owned?"

Feeling validated, I responded to the comment: "I hope so - it would be a shame for opportunistic white folx to be profiting off the movement."

About an hour later, a Black woman responded to the original comment and tagged me as well. She said, "A simple Google search would have answered this question for you."

Her response wasn't combative or rude - but I felt my hackles go up all the same. Defensiveness swelled within me, and my knee-jerk reaction was to fume and think to myself, "Who the hell does she think she is?" I felt slighted. I felt attacked.

Fortunately, I recognized my reaction as a classic case of white fragility, and I knew I had a choice in how to respond.

As white people trying to do better, we first have to admit there's a problem - and if we're really being honest, we have to admit the ways in which we've contributed to that problem. This is not easy, especially for those who are freshly hatched from the White Bubble. This kind of self-examination can bring up a lot of shame - and since shame is such an uncomfortable emotion, it's really hard for us to sit with it. Enter: defensiveness - the brain's tool for expert deflection when things get uncomfortable. Rather than acknowledge and work through our shame, why not just absolve ourselves of any responsibility in the matter? It's much easier and much less painful...for us, anyway. Not so much for the BIPOC who have been at the receiving end of racism for the entirety of American history.

Obviously, this defensiveness cannot continue - not if we want to make lasting change. So how do we, as white people, deal with it when it comes up? First, here are a few important things to know about it:

  1. Our defensiveness does not mean we are bad people - it means we have been well-trained to accept white supremacy as the norm.

  2. Our defensiveness does, however, indicate that we have more work to do.

  3. In conversations about race, our defensiveness is almost always rooted in a desire to deflect an uncomfortable truth, rather than in response to an actual wrong that's committed against us.

  4. Therefore, we have a responsibility to examine and dismantle our defensiveness.

This brings us to our next question: how? When our defensiveness comes up, how do we deal with it in productive ways and ensure we don't use it to do more harm than we've already done?

Below are 4 questions I've found helpful in dismantling my own defensiveness that's rooted in white fragility.

"What if this was true?"

When our defensiveness comes up, it's generally in response to a statement that's been made. Sometimes, we've been called out; other times, it's not about us at all. Even a statement written in a social media post about white folks' complicity in racism can trigger our fragility, despite the fact that it's not directed at us. When you feel the defensiveness in response to a statement, ask yourself: what if the statement was true? What would it mean? Who would be most negatively affected by it? When in doubt...give the benefit of the doubt.

"What is really important in this moment?"

Is it your feelings? Or is it dismantling systemic oppression? As driven as many of us are by our emotions, we're not actually at the mercy of them. Ask yourself if your feelings are the most important thing to be concerned about here - or if there's perhaps something larger and more vital to focus on.

"How would I respond if I was someone who is truly trying to do better?"

But I AM someone who's trying to do better! Great - now prove it. What does "doing better" mean to you? Learning? Listening? Not placing the burden on BIPOC to educate you? Do that. True effort in conversations about race requires walking the walk - and if you find that you're doing a lot of talking but not as much walking, you may want to check in with yourself and figure out why. Perhaps your intentions need a come-to-Jesus moment.

"Am I willing to sit in a place of discomfort in order to end the oppression, brutality, and murder of Black Americans?"

Here's a whopping dose of perspective. As humans, it's natural for us to avoid even mild discomfort. But when that discomfort is placed next to the lived realities of Black folks in America, from micro-aggressions to murder...it pales in comparison, doesn't it? Ask yourself: am I willing to get a bit uncomfortable in support of lasting change? If you're reading this right now, most likely, your answer is yes - but we must also ask ourselves whether we've actually been doing just that. So you're willing to get uncomfortable - that's great! Have you done it? Have you stared your discomfort in the face and let it crawl all over you, because you know it's a necessary part of learning how to be anti-racist? If you haven't...now's the time to start.

The defensiveness that came up for me when I was called out by a Black woman for not doing my research was strong, and it carried a lot of anger with it. When I started asking myself these questions, though, here's what happened.

When I was told I should do my own searching instead of letting others do the work for me, I first asked myself, "What if this was true?" I realized, quickly, that it was. In fact, I have admonished people for this very same thing - and here I was perpetuating it. Feeling chagrined, I navigated to the company's website, where I learned in the first fifteen seconds of my search that it was, in fact, owned by Black women. Enter: shame - so much so that my next knee-jerk thought was that I should delete my comment and destroy the evidence.

So then, I asked myself the next question: "What is really important in this moment?" My ego? Not being wrong? Making sure no one ever found out? Hard nope. Anti-racism is more important to me than all of those things combined - which means, of course, that deleting my comment (and the learning moment that went along with it) would have been unacceptable.

Okay, then. "How would I respond if I was truly trying to do better?" This was a pretty easy question to answer: I would take accountability, apologize, and move on. But as we know, taking accountability can be uncomfortable, so then came the final question: "Am I willing to sit in a place of discomfort in order to end the oppression, brutality, and murder of Black Americans?"

Hell yes I am.

So I did. "You're right. I'm sorry. I'll do better next time."

As I mentioned before, this is hard work for a lot of white people. However, it's nowhere near as hard as being Black in America, so next time you feel the white tears rising, do us all a favor and check yourself. Ask these questions to get to the root of what matters, and use them as a guide to diffuse the defensiveness, combat white fragility, and actually start working toward lasting change.

American history has shown us that our culture doesn't listen to the pleas of Black voices. This sucks - and sadly, it's our reality. This means that as people with racial privilege, it is our responsibility to use that privilege for good. Let's stop spending our time pushing back against uncomfortable truths and start making our country a better place, instead.