“Hey. You just scratched my car.”
“No, I didn’t. And you’re shaming me in front of everyone in this parking lot.”
“I don’t understand why you won’t admit it.”
“You are being aggressive.”
“I’m upset that you scratched my car. I think you’re being really shitty about this, and it’s pissing me off.”
“OK. You really don’t need to cuss at me. Actually, I feel abused.”
“You feel abused? You damaged my car, and now you’re acting like I didn’t see you hit it with the cart, and now, what? I’m being aggressive?”
“Honestly, I don’t feel safe. Excuse me, sir, do you see how aggressive and abusive this person is?”
“Can we please get back to the fact that you scratched my car? What the fuck is the matter with you?”
“Do you see how they’re behaving? They’re attacking me!”
When I put it in terms of something someone owns, it makes perfect sense to you. Now, let’s pretend that car is human dignity, you fucking capitalist. This piece is about white fragility. This is my version of gotcha journalism.
So often, when mistakes are pointed out to white people, they… we… deny we caused any harm. Say your white friend is really enthusiastic about a black acquaintance’s hairstyle. She shrieks with joy upon seeing a natural Afro, not considering it is attached to a person who is not hoping for a random white woman’s approval.
“Oh. My. God. I love your hair!” she hollers at the woman, one of the only black people in the room. Because of your friend’s reaction, all eyes are on the woman, and your friend, oblivious to this, continues to gush, like some kind of “demonstrably not racist” geyser.
If you care about racism, you might try telling your friend her behavior was kind of racist, as well-intentioned as it was. You might explain how imagining that her approval is needed, or wanted, by a black woman is an expression of white supremacy. You might talk to her about how making a public spectacle of someone else’s natural, black hairstyle as if it’s a museum curio is objectifying. Or maybe you’ll never get that far because you run into white defensiveness.
This most basic form of denial puts the blame on the person pointing out the problem to the exclusion of the problem. This is called derailing. If you take the shock of seeing your racism and reflect it back to the person pointing out the racism, then you never have to have considered you were wrong, and you can ignore your own racism forever.
“You were kind of objectifying about that woman’s hair.”
“What do you mean, ‘objectifying’”?
“Well, it’s just that when you make a spectacle of someone, especially for a feature associated with their race, it’s objectifying.”
“Are you saying I’m a racist? I was being nice!”
“OK. I’m not saying you are a racist, but in a way what you did was racist.”
“I can’t believe you’re calling me a racist. Her hair was beautiful!”
“I’m not saying it wasn’t. Look…”
“How can you call me a racist when I was being nice?”
“Well, it kind of shows your internalized white supremacy when you imagine that black people are out here hoping for white approval.”
“I can’t believe you’re saying this to me.”
“Look, it’s normal to try to overcompensate… just, it’s important to understand the effects of your behavior.”
“So you’re saying there’s a problem with my behavior.”
And on. And on. And on.
We live in a world where black kids get suspended from school for not chemically processing their hair — where black people are fired, or not hired, for natural hairstyles. If you’re white, you never have to worry about that. The impulse to overcompensate for that injustice comes from the same racist system that tells you your opinion on black hair is important. It’s benevolent racism: “I am going to give you the approval you aren’t getting from the bad white people.”
If you compliment anyone on their appearance, stick to things that are clearly a choice: accessories, clothes or makeup — not bodies. Compliments that, at their core mean, “I support your right to wear your hair the way it comes out of your head,” are creepy and paternalistic.
Working against white supremacy means accepting your mistakes. It means putting on hold your impulse to defend your virtue — to see yourself as “good” or “bad” with no room for doubt or self-interrogation. Before you defend your virtue, you have to ask yourself if you are being attacked, or if it’s the lessons our culture taught you about white virtue and white goodness. We internalize these cultural messages as white people — that our opinion matters, even about injustices and problems that will never affect us. To learn, to grow, we need to take a step back when offered criticism, and internalize the critique. It’s not easy, but it’s the work.