At The Crossroads: Psychological Bleeding and the Emotional Impact of White Fragility

“[White Fragility is] The discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice”

–Dr. Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility

“There isn’t any Negro problem; there is only a white problem.”

-Author Richard Wright, in response to a reporter’s question about the “Negro problem in America”

White Person: When I look at you, I don’t see race.

Black Person: Then you don’t see me.

White Person: I see a human being.

Black Person: Then you don’t see me.

White Person: We are all red under the skin.

Black Person: Then you don’t see me.

White Person: Why does race matter?

Black Person: Then you don’t see me.

White Person: I was taught everybody is the same.

Black Person: Then you don’t see me.

White Person: I am not a racist.

Black Person: Remember me? It’s about me.  You don’t see me.

-Scene from “Choosing To See or Not See”

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My Dear Readers,

I have missed you!  In November 2018, after 6 years of consistently blogging to a readership spanning six continents, I simply lost the passion for writing.  I intended to take a well-deserved rest from blogging and to consider what direction I would move forward within my own journey of self-discovery.

A lot of newsworthy situations have occurred since I ceased writing, among them the racial and political havoc in Virginia, my state of early childhood development, the Jussie Smollett case in Chicago, and the recent refusal of state prosecutors in California to file criminal charges in the Sacramento police shooting death of Stephon Clark.  So, what brings me out of hibernation to write to my beloved readership?

The usual suspects: love, fragility and most importantly…. Fear. I recently received a correspondence from a reader seeking to address the issue of “white fragility.”  Interestingly enough, this has become a hot topic within my clinical practice.

I recently had an interview with a prospective patient who sought ways to act such that white people would become comfortable with him.   He said that his white colleagues were uncomfortable around him because of his large frame and dark skin.  When I mentioned that the issue may not be simply about white fragility but also about his own internalized psychological demand and his unmet needs for acceptance, he quickly terminated the interview.

In another situation, an African-American male patient spoke of his pain when a white female coworker complained to the organization’s HR director regarding his greeting her every morning by saying “Good Morning” when he arrived at work.  The coworker’s complaint was that she did not know him, and it made her feel uncomfortable when he greeted her. The black patient was directed to abide by her request not to speak to this individual.

A “notation” of the formal meeting was being placed in his personnel file.  To ensure that this didn’t happen again, and to protect his employment, the male patient made it his standard policy not to greet white female coworkers unless they initiated the greeting. He was later criticized by his supervisor for his “unfriendly attitude” and warned that he may be negatively evaluated for creating a hostile work environment.

African-American males in predominantly white social situations often must walk a thin line between social courtesy and withdrawal.  These incidents are dangerous due to the consequences to professional reputations, employment status, and the looming risk of arrest for alleged criminal behavior.

This week, I respond to the concerns of an African-American male who is psychologically “bleeding” from the emotional impacts of “White Fragility.”

Here is his story…

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Dear Dr. Kane:

Why do white people feel so fragile and feel so reactive about feeling it?  Why do I have to acknowledge their fragility and make allowances for it?

Over the last few years, I have found myself in social gatherings with white people having to endure not only their fragility but also a lot of “innocent” (aka dumbass) questions like:

  • “How do you know the host?” (Dumbass, the host is my wife and you are standing in my house.)
  • “What do you think about the chances of [insert random local sports team here] making the playoffs?” (Dumbass, what makes you assume that I play sports?)
  • And my favorite, “What do you think about Trump?” (Really Dumbass, your people elected him and you’re asking me?  How is he working out for you?)

Now, if I tell them that I am offended by these questions and that they reflect the stereotypes, unconscious bias and outright racism that festers within their meaningless lives, I become THAT GUY: the angry, insensitive monster who hurt their fragile feelings.   Never mind my feelings.   So, to avoid making them feel uncomfortable, I put on my “Good Negro Face.”  I smile, nod, make a little joke here and give a little pat on the back there.  I feel like a running back, using my “God given talents” as I slip, slide and dash through hardened defenses on my way to the goal line, or, just get through a swirling sea of dumbass questions without losing my cool.

It’s bad enough that I have to endure the bullshit of niceness and fake displays as I play the game in the work environment.  In my personal space, however, it has become so disgusting to me that it is now hard for me to even acknowledge the friendship of my white wife and her friends.

All white folks have become suspicious to me.  I never know when their fragility might explode into violent action based on little more than their self-made fears. I fear that I cannot in good faith trust white people, even those I whom I should be able to trust.

-Distrustful in Seattle

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My Good Man,

Hmm.  Distrustful in Seattle?  Is that a play on the movie “Sleepless in Seattle”? If so, please remember that being distrustful is a choice you make where being sleepless is a physical indication that the body for whatever reason, cannot rest.

Your concerns are valid and so essential for me to respond to in that I have momentarily stepped away from my self-imposed silence from writing.  Your correspondence is powerful and speaks for many African-Americans who are constantly responding daily to “white fragility.”

In my dual roles as a psychotherapist (who provides a safe secured space to either sit with or speak to submerged materials surfacing upon the human landscape) and a clinical traumatologist (who works to stop the emotional bleeding to help heal the psychological wound), I am also responding to the same issues (known as counter-transference) as I sit in sessions with patients listening to the psychological pain and emotional suffering being endured in their lives on a daily basis.  Like I do with them, I will seek to respond to your concerns.

 

Question: Why do white people feel so fragile and feel so reactive about feeling it?

Response: This is a multilayered question. Imagine four lanes of freeway moving in opposite directions, one side free traffic, the other in a traffic jam.   Imagine drivers on the fast side, observing the slow side, saying the following:

  • I wouldn’t want to be them
  • Dumbass should have left earlier (or later)
  • Glad it isn’t me
  • How do they do that every day?

Let’s imagine that in terms of race, white people are on the fast side of the freeway, and people of color are on the slow side. The people on the slow side may have an idea as to what is causing that backup, but they cannot know for sure what it is- they cannot see that far ahead– but they are still impeded by where they are going.

On the other hand, the people on the fast side are either unconcerned with why the other side is slow or have passed judgment on the folks who are stuck in that jam, both without an understanding or a curiosity about what’s causing that traffic jam.

In a similar way, white people are insulated from impediments that may slow progress from a racial perspective. Dr. Robin DiAngelo says that this insulation can render white people “innocent of race.”   It is this “innocence” that gives rise to white fragility.  As a result, white people are not raised to see themselves in terms of race, or to see white spaces as racial spaces.

African-Americans, on the other hand, particularly those who are born in or grow up in racially segregated spaces, must become “experts on race.”   Behaviorally, this shows up as white people expecting African-Americans to be sensitive of their racial innocence, requiring African-Americans to excuse and explain away their sheltered ignorance as they become (if they chose to) awakened to the harsh realities of racism.

Consider the following: a child is rudely awakened by his care provider from a deep sleep, one that was secured, warm and encased in comfort.  How does the child respond? The child is naturally upset because of the betrayal—the illusion of the safety of their sleeping environment has been interrupted and they will remain upset until a stable environment can be restored by the care provider.

In this analogy, the African-American, as the “racial expert,” is the care provider who is all-loving and self-sacrificing and is expected to provide the safe nurturing environment regardless of the psychological and emotional impacts to themselves.  If this grace is not extended, the African-American is regarded as unforgiving instead of as having a very natural, human reaction, and the relationship is harmed, if not terminated.

 

Question: (paraphrased) It’s one thing to have to be fake at work and another to be fake in my personal space.  What am I really angry about?

Response:  There could be several reasons for your anger. This may include

  • Feeling powerless,
  • Lacking strategies to respond to insensitive comments and,
  • Feeling hopeless.

You may be having a “fight or flight” response.  “Fight or Flight” is a physiological and psychological response to stress that prepares the physical body, the intellectual mind and the psychological self to react to danger.

Instead of this, utilization of an empowerment strategy like the ABCs of Empowerment can bring relief to the physical, mental and psychological self.  It consists of the following:

  • Advocacy-being willing to speak for self and not depend on others to do so on your behalf.
  • Balance-listening intently to what is being said, being willing to psychologically step away and embrace your emotions while weighing what you are feeling and thinking.
  • Calmness-while holding your psychological space, (advocacy & balance), allow the psychological self to be centered as you deliver your response to those within your external environment.

 

Question: (paraphrased) I am tired of playing these games at work and having to play the same games in my personal space.  It feels so frustrating and hopeless.  What can I do?

Response:  The only way to avoid this is to live on an island by yourself.  The reality is that this drama exists in all spaces. So, we As we live out our lives (the walk,) we have many different experiences.  During any point in this process, submerged materials may surface for the individual to address. We call these incidences “the crossroads.”  At the crossroads,

  • Choices are presented.
  • Decisions must be made.
  • Consequences for these decisions and choices can be foreseen.
  • You will ask yourself: What are my choices? How shall I respond?  Am I prepared to handle the consequences of my decision?
  • The individual remains at the crossroads until a decision is made and the journey continues.

An example:

Recently, at a Starbucks Coffee counter, I was waiting my turn for service.  So, when I became the first person in line, I naturally expected the cashier to take my order.  Instead, she looks directly at the next person in line, a white male, and says: “Hi, what can I get you?”  The white male replies, “I believe this gentleman is in front of me.” The cashier then looks at me, quite surprised, and says: “Hi, what can I get you?” 

 I spent my formative years in the Deep South, where I experienced racism and the psychological trauma of the invisibility syndrome. This occurs when one’s physical presence is either ignored, or that presence is made to be inferior in comparison to another person who is seen to be racially superior.

Due to these previous experiences, it would be normal for me to respond with anger, but I was surprised that this came from an African-American cashier!

I never expected this.  Seconds felt like eons as thoughts and feeling flowed through me:

  • Did this really happen? Yes, it did, and I am stunned beyond words or belief.
  • What do I say? Do I challenge her actions?
  • How do I respond? Do I file a formal complaint?

The incident was psychologically wounding.  It was not of my creation.  It was the words and actions of someone else who may, as a black person, unconsciously see themselves as inferior to white people and has brought those feelings to the workplace for me to encounter as I walk my own landscape.

So, what was my response?

  • I looked at her eyes to see if she was aware of what she had done.
  • I grabbed my coffee, thanking her for the service.
  • I went to catch my flight.
  • I’m writing in my blog and sharing the incident as a learning lesson.
  • I have benefited from another experience as I walk my landscape.

—————————

 Concluding Words -Dr. Kane 

My Good Man,

In your words you stated the following:

It’s bad enough that I must endure the bullshit of niceness and fake displays as I play the game in the work environment. 

Responses:  Your parents may have taught you two realities of a black person’s life in America:

1) To come in first place, you must work twice as hard as the white person beside you, and:

2) In order to be successful, you must learn to play the game.

Today is a new day, but the psychological wounding of racism and trauma remains the same.  In racism, the objective of either holding the black person away from winning or wounding the individual psychologically so much that the individual lacks the will to compete remains the same. However, the strategies have changed. Overt racist tactics have been replaced with covert tactics and casual racism.

We as African-Americans must also seek to transform.  We are already skilled and knowledgeable in running the race, but now we must want to learn how to run the race smarter, not harder.

We must want to consider that the prizes we see as the incentive for running the race, whether it’s a promotion, or a raise or more opportunity, is often the “carrot” in a rigged race with ever changing rules.  To live an empowered life, to transform our journeys, we must transform our definition of “winning” to seeing it as the ability to “cross the finish line.” We must understand that the simple act of crossing the finish line is in itself an outstanding victory!

 

However, in my personal space, it has become disgusting, so much that it is now it is now hard for me to even acknowledge the friendship of my white wife and her friends.

Response: In his poem Invictus, William Ernest Henley wrote: “I am the master of my fate.  I am the captain of my soul.” 

Remember, your personal space is your space. It belongs to you and no one else. You must empower the psychological self, seeking advocacy, balance and calmness as you decide how to utilize your personal space.

I too have encountered insensitive and uncaring remarks while attending several “all white” social events.  One person assumed that I was there to provide drugs. (Really?)

To empower the self, I now make assessments before accepting invitations to social gatherings, starting with the diversity of the attendees.  If there are no other black people, I assess whether I want to be the token Negro in the event.  This empowers me to decide whether I want to deal with the possible incidents (trauma) arising from underlying stereotypes.  For the majority of these events, unless it is business or politically related, I always decline to attend.

You have the same options.   Remember that this is your landscape.  You can decide whether to attend, and under what circumstances you will leave.  Finally, don’t expect others to speak up proactively regarding another’s individual insensitive or uncaring remarks. 

 

All white folks have become suspicious to me.  One never knows when their fragility might explode into violent action based on little more than their self-made fears.

Response: Take a good long look in the mirror.  You may be looking at the reflection of the same people who are acting out their suspicious, fears and racism towards you.  Remember that this is your landscape.   The impact of white fragility on your life depends upon the impact you allow it to have on every step you take as you continue your walk across the landscape.

 

I fear that I cannot in good faith trust white people, even those whom I should be able to trust.

Response: “… even those whom I should be able to trust”? I have serious reservations regarding these remarks. This is an underlying tone implying distrust being specifically directed towards your spouse.  The spousal relationship, unlike the parental relationship, is not based on unconditional love.

Your spouse is neither the cause nor the outlet for your misplaced anger.  You knew she was white when you married her.  Interracial relationships, particularly black men and white women, given the racial history in the United States, are especially different.  However, this is the life you have chosen.

You have the responsibility to empower your own psychological self; she cannot do this for you. You now have an opportunity for growth and development. I urge you to seek individual psychotherapy that provides you with finding a safe, secure space to sit with unprocessed feelings surfacing on your landscape. If you are unable or unwilling to maintain your commitment to her, then release her from the relationship so she can be available to live the life she wants and not the life she is living.”

———————

Closing Remarks– My Dear Readers,

I want to clarify that in my earlier statements of conceptualizing the developmental stage of whiteness as white innocence, that I do not imply or believe that designation is a justification for not accepting responsibility, accountability, or consequences for one’s actions.  I am also not suggesting that in conceptualizing black people as “racial experts,” that black people should deny or minimize their psychological traumas or accept responsibility for the grievous actions, statements or comments of others.

I close, leaving with great anticipation for the immediate future. I now return to my commitment to cease writing blogs and in doing so, walk my landscape as I seek to fulfill my journey of self-discovery.  Two upcoming projects 2019 include:

  • Returning to Paris, France, in April, doing further research on the psychological traumas experienced by African-American troops in WWI abandoned by the American High Command forced to fight as segregated combat units under the command and flag of the French military.
  • Traveling to Ghana, West Africa during August for the Year of the Return Conference acknowledging 400 years since the Atlantic Slave Trade (1619 to 2019). I will participate as a panelist and workshop presenter regarding the psychological trauma of being experienced by African-Americans.

Once again, I bid you all farewell.  I am unclear as to whether I will return to consistently blogging on a regular pace, there may be those times like in this writing in which I am drawn to write as it may either resonate or stir up passion within me. I truly believe that life is about “walking the landscape” and in doing so to “live the life you want and not the live you live.”

I bid you all wellness. I encourage you to seek advocacy for the self, attain balance within your internalized world, and calmness in your externalized environment. Best wishes to you all in your future journeys of self-exploration.

Best regards,

Dr. Micheal Kane

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There is no growth without discomfort.  Being honest can be uncomfortable.  It is the freedom that comes from being honest.”

-Delbert Richardson, Ethnomuseumologist

Here is what it is. They don’t like you.  They don’t dislike you.  They are afraid of you.  You’re different. Sooner or later difference scares people.

– “The Accountant” (2016)

You attract what you fear.  You attract what you are.  You attract what is on your mind.”

-Denzel Washington, Actor/Academy Award Winner

Once burned we learn.  If we do not learn, we only insure that we will be burned again, and again and again … until we learn.”

-Dr. Micheal Kane Psy.D

***************************************

Farewell for now…….

Until the next crossroads… The journey continues…

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