As a white man, I don’t take any particular pleasure in writing about how much white people, especially white men, in America suck. We’re racist. We’re greedy. We’re unbelievably self-centered. We’re violent. And above all, despite our insistence that we are the greatest thing to ever exist, we are as fragile as spun glass.
This doesn’t apply to all of us, of course. People exist on a spectrum. I’m a liberal writer so I’m more self-centered than racist. Others are more greedy and less violent. Some, like Donald Trump and much of the alt-right, are the total package, filled to the brim with the worst this country has to offer. But white fragility can be found just about everywhere you find white skin.
Responding to criticism and adversity
Recently, I’ve been listening to anti-racism activist Tim Wise’s podcast and he had an episode during which he discussed white fragility. While he didn’t exactly separate it himself, there are two distinct, but somewhat related versions. One of them is a fair take on how poorly white people respond to criticism. But the other one I found to be a less convincing take on how white communities responded to the economic collapse and lack of recovery after the financial crisis.
We’ll start with the economic collapse that decimated white communities. The collapse also hit black communities hard but, as annoying as it is to say, they’re used to being economically devastated. If there’s one thing white America is good at, it’s ignoring (or, worse. deliberately exacerbating) the economic plight of black America.
What was different about the last recession was that the jobs didn’t come back afterward and those that did didn’t pay nearly as much. Republicans blamed Obama for 8 years and demanded massive tax cuts for the rich to increase wages but the truth is that corporations are sitting on trillions of dollars in profits. They just don’t have any incentive to share that wealth with the rest of us.
After 40 years of being promised that the rich would share their money with the nation, or at least white people, middle class and working poor white Americans finally tumbled to the fact that it wasn’t going to happen. Their golden future of prosperity was gone and they took it…poorly:
Mortality rates have been going down forever. There’s been a huge increase in life expectancy and reduction in mortality over 100 years or more, and then for all of this to suddenly go into reverse [for whites ages 45 to 54], we thought it must be wrong. We spent weeks checking out numbers because we just couldn’t believe that this could have happened, or that if it had, someone else must have already noticed. It seems like we were right and that no one else had picked it up.
We knew the proximate causes — we know what they were dying from. We knew suicides were going up rapidly, and that overdoses mostly from prescription drugs were going up, and that alcoholic liver disease was going up. The deeper questions were why those were happening — there’s obviously some underlying malaise, reasons for which we [didn’t] know.
This didn’t actually start after the Great Recession. It actually dates back to 1999 when the Baby Boomers saw that their retirement wasn’t going to happen the way they thought it was. It simply got worse after the economic collapse of 2008-2009. The opioid epidemic accelerated the trend and the press started to report on it so now it’s national news but the crumbling of white communities has been in progress for some time now.
During the podcast, Tim Wise chalked up this increase in mortality to white fragility; the inability of white people to handle long-term economic failure. And this is probably true — but only up to a point. The idea is that white people, again, particularly white men, have been sold the myth that if you work hard, you can have the American Dream. A family, a nice house with a white picket fence, a car, a yearly vacation to Disney, etc. And at the end of this bucolic life, you can retire and spend your golden years playing with your grandchildren and watching Late Night TV.
But that didn’t happen for millions of white people and their communities sank into poverty and long-term unemployment. As a result, suicide, alcoholism and drug use skyrocketed. So did drug-related crime.
Yes, some of that is going to be white fragility; the frustration of hopes predicated on lies. But looking at how black communities respond to economic devastation, we see more or less the same thing: Drugs, alcoholism, crime, increased mortality (compared to less economically stressed communities).
The loss of hope
I would submit that what we’re seeing is not so much white fragility, but a community finally coming to terms with the fact that their future in America is bleak. When hope is limited, despair fills the void and things get ugly. I would submit that we’re seeing destitute white communities “catch up” to destitute black communities. If this persists for a generation or two, we wouldn’t see much difference in terms of how both communities cope with economic destruction.
On the other hand, when it comes to legitimate racial criticism, white fragility is a wonder to behold. You can’t say anything about whiteness without sending white people into a frenzy of rage and denial. Simply pointing out that most school shooters are white, or that most white collar criminals are white, or #OscarsSoWhite will set heads exploding from sea to shining sea.
This is a direct result of white supremacy in America. Race is something other people have because it allows us to Other them with ease. But doing so requires whiteness to be invisible; our own race has to not exist. Therefore, anything that calls attention to whiteness is a problem and anything that criticizes whiteness, no matter how true or mild, is a red-hot assault on us.
This is true for both the left and the right. While you’d naturally expect the right to lose its mind over what it falsely perceives to be whiteness under siege, the far left also is extremely intolerant of having its whiteness questioned.
After the murders at the Madden tournament a few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about white male rage. I got a lot of pushback from white progressives who really didn’t want to talk about it. They found the entire idea of talking about white male rage to be entirely offensive. My depiction of white men as overly entitled in a country that has told them for generations that they are the pinnacle of creation infuriated them. I was told, flat out, that what I was doing was no better than Donald Trump’s attacks on blacks and Latinos.
These would be the same people that flatly refuse to acknowledge the existence of white privilege; claiming that they never got any help so how could they have privilege? It doesn’t matter how many different ways I explained that privilege can also simply be the lack of obstacles systemically thrown in the way of minorities, they didn’t want to hear it. Their whiteness was sacrosanct and was not to be spoken of in a negative way and preferably not at all.
I was surprised at first as the reaction from (admittedly all male) progressives but it occurred to me that it actually makes sense. As a group, the far left is more ideologically driven than moderates. They are heavily invested in their identity in much the same way the right is invested in theirs. Thus, anything that challenges that identity is rejected on the spot with extreme prejudice. White moderates, at least on the left, are much more flexible and nuanced in their thinking, making them less invested in their identity. Without that investment, they’re not nearly as threatened by criticism of whiteness.
That’s not to say that political moderates are immune to white fragility. Far from it. If an angry black woman starts yelling “Check your privilege!” at most of us, our first response, even if it’s just internal, is not going to be one we’re proud of. But when someone, even a black person!, explains to us how and why we’re not being a good ally or lays out the realities of white privilege, the point of Black Lives Matter or other issues we may be ignorant of, we won’t archly declare, as far too many progressives do, that income inequality and economic justice are far more important than this “identity politics” stuff and blow it off.
If you want to see left-wing white fragility on full display, challenge a progressive on their dismissal of identity politics as a function of their whiteness. After all, being white means you never have to worry about racial injustice which is why it tends to be unimportant to many progressives. It’s not their problem. The anger such a challenge generally invokes bears little difference from the anger you see from the right because they come from the same place. Whiteness is not be to discussed unless it’s as the victim (and, so far, that’s almost exclusive to the right).
The unvarnished truth
Someday, people will stop talking about us being so fragile because we’ll have finally matured enough to stop throwing temper tantrums over the tiniest of criticisms. But in order for that to happen, society would have to stop being almost entirely geared to favor white skin while simultaneously pretending it doesn’t exist. It’s hard to grow up when you’re coddled all the time.
As horrible as it is, maybe the economic devastation of white communities will finally start breaking us of the lie that we’re special and intrinsically better than Those People. We never were. We just created a rigged system and told ourselves we naturally prospered because of how awesome we were. Now that the system is finally breaking down, the stark reality of how not special we are is staring us in the face and we can either drown our sorrows in drugs and alcohol and white nationalism or we can focus our rage on the greedy billionaires that have systematically destroyed our future.
We can continue to be fragile or we can remember that we were part of the diverse coalition of people from all across the world that built the most powerful nation in human history. I know which I’d prefer.