Addressing White Fragility Through Taking Accountability in Perpetuating Systemic Racism

I support Black Lives Matter! It is time we stand up for our African American brothers, sisters, and fellow human beings. It is no longer acceptable to live the status quo. America was founded on the backs, blood, sweat, and tears of slavery. There is no question about this historical fact. Despite the founding fathers who claimed to hold inalienable the freedoms of all men and women, people of color have always been treated as less than in American society. In 2020 this pattern is not lost. The rise of police violence, disproportionate mass incarceration amongst men of color, and bigotry continue to divide our culture. I am writing this to white men and women who feel BLM does not apply to them or who fail to see the point.

White people it is about time to join the conversation. I am angry to live in a world that doesn’t get why Black Lives Matter. People are dying because of ignorance and hatred. I’m begging you to wake up and help heal our culture. Be part of the solution. 

To live blindfolded and silent is to perpetuate the continuation of violence against men and women of color. What we need in America is to heal the deep-seated, festering wounds of racism, bigotry, and hatred. I am a first-generation Italian American. My parents were not born in the United States of America. My parents immigrated to this country from Southern Italy in 1960s amidst the Civil Rights Movement, Orangeburg Massacre, and the Detroit Riots. Growing up on Long Island in New York I witnessed overt racism. I fought against racist beliefs in my culture and family. Challenging the status quo made me an outsider. I will not rest until we take accountability for the past and work to change the systemic systems of oppression, hate, and violence. 

Earliest Memories of Hate

Hate is a learned emotion. 

Out of the womb babies have no concept of right or wrong. The word hate does not register in their psyche. We are taught to hate through our role models’ actions and the media we allow to inculcate us. 

I recall growing up hearing my father use the word eggplant to describe people of color. I found this term offensive. It made my blood boil and still does. Afterall, people of color are human beings. Systemic oppression against Italians in this country has long been an unhealed trauma. It was my sense at a young age that the bigotry experienced by my father and his immigrant generation was hard to overcome. That bigotry and violence was transferred to people of color. Transferring abuse from one immigrant culture to the next is woven into the fabric of American life and culture.  We live with intergenerational trauma. Trauma passed from one generation to the next. Trauma is not an excuse to harm others. It is time we begin to open these wounds and heal them. 

Growing up we were forbidden to bring any person of color into our home. I tried to challenge my father’s racist beliefs to no avail. I decided at a young age that I would not follow in his footsteps. In 1996 a story about singer Lauryn Hill circulated that she allegedly said, “I would rather die than have a white person buy one of my albums.” My older brother immediately stopped listening to her music after this news surfaced. The historical record notes Hill never made that statement. It was a falsehood perpetuated by someone who called into a television show. I recall arguing with my brother about how people of color have been hurt and beaten by society. To this day people cannot accept that she made no statement, or the traumas experienced throughout history by people of color. He could not see past his white fragility nor could my father. 

Growing up in a house filled of hate made me fearful to have meaningful connections with people who were different from me. I did not want to say the wrong thing or cause any violence. I always feared bringing people around my family of origin. Thank God for public schooling and for educators who helped me understand the complexity of race in America. 

In school I was challenged to explore white privilege and examine the unearned things I received because of the color of my skin. One of my favorite social experiments to this day is Jane Elliot’s blue and brown eye experiment (See A Class Divided). Following the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elliot decided to separate people on the basis of their eye color. During the first day she allowed brown eyed people to be superior. The brown eyes verbally abused the blue-eyed people. Brown eyed people became arrogant, bossy, and otherwise unpleasant to their blue-eyed counter parts. Brown eyed people tormented blue eyed people. In 1992 Elliot also ran the experiment on the Oprah Winfrey show where she again made two distinct groups. The results replicated. Brown eyed audience members were abusive toward blue eyed peers. Blue eyed people were labeled lazy, dumb, and their intelligence was also questioned. Many of the white people in the audience refused to accept how racism and bigotry shows up in their lives. Some left the studio in disgust. Sometimes people act out violently.

In 2020 when discussing systemic racism, we can see the same things happening. When challenged to examine deeply held racist beliefs and ideas people become dysregulated and destructive. Because I have not experienced racism it does not mean that racism does not exist. Systemic racism is real and alive. It continues to exist in modern times. The unfortunate election of Donald J. Trump to the US Presidency normalized white supremacy and white nationalist sentiments. I do not support Trump; his version of what America stands for. I denounce white nationalism in all its forms. 

We must begin to look through racism through the eyes of people who have been most affected by it. The beautiful part of Jane Elliot’s initial experiment is when her students are interviewed almost 20 years later. Many of them recount the impact that experience had to awaken them to how systemic racism, bigotry, and violence show up in their day to day life. It is time we wake up America. If third graders can wake up to systemic racism and oppression, its time the rest of us stop living with blinders on. 

I don’t see color

It irks me to no end when I hear people say, “I do not see color”. Color-blindness is harmful and racist. Seeing people as they are does not make you a racist. Choosing to ignore that people different from you exist does make you racist. I choose to live in a world where I see black is beautiful. Our society is a tapestry of colors. It is time we start to shift away from white centrism. Explore the richness of African American history. Learn about the African diaspora. Dive deep into the history of music. Genres that would not exist without African American creativity include Jazz, Hip Hop, R&B, Soul, Rap, Spirituals and the list goes on. White people did not invent these genres. Learn about the ways the style of music you listen to developed. Listen to the pain woven into music. Do not take it for granted. 

The Past Is In The Past 

Being a trauma therapist, I have a front row seat to the historical past living on in the present moment. We must seek to understand what people of color have endured at the hands of colonial America. Colonialism, oppression, and systemic racism permeate American culture. Slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, Tuskegee Airmen Experiments, and countless brutal murders by police do not align with the “all lives matter” slogan. If all lives mattered, then people of color would feel safe to walk the streets at night. When is the last time as a white person you had a conversation with your son about how to handle the police if stopped? For people of color this is a daily conversation. Growing up no one gave me instructions about handling the police. My friends and clients have taught me the traumas endured at the hands of police. If all lives mattered, cops who kill suspects of color should be prosecuted and convicted. We live in a world where police are adjudicated when the officer is White and the suspect if a person of color. In many cases suspects have been misidentified and unarmed. What does this say about the status of people of color in this country? Accepting Black Lives Matter does not take away your power. Working to change systemic racism means we will no longer tolerate antiquated ideas of how to treat people based solely on the color of their skin. Reverse racism is not a real thing. 

It is time we stop detracting from the main issues of the Black Lives Matter movement. I am imploring white people to unpack their privilege and how their ethnic and cultural identities contribute to systemic racism and oppression. As a psychotherapist I have had to work on my biases. I work every day to understand how the dynamics of race, gender, and identity shape the work I do and the clients I serve. To be a true multicultural society we must not live in fear of the unknown. We must not accept the status quo. 

People are dying in the streets! The time for being gentle and handholding is over. It is time we show up to the healing process. Do your part to heal our culture. If there is some part of you that is angry, agitated, or pissed off by this post, welcome to the conversation. Don’t push these feelings away. Take some time to reflect on what you are reacting to. Anger is our biggest teacher. Consider your family history. What do you believe about race? What makes it difficult for you to say and accept Black Lives Matter? No one among us is perfect. Changing these ingrained dynamics within our psyche and world is an active and ongoing dialogic process. The more we increase our awareness of racism both subtle and overt we can repair ruptures in our human family. 

Knowledge is power. South African President Nelson Mandela and Nobel Peace Prize winner, famously said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” To learn more about this issue from the perspective of men and women of color, check out the following video series produced by the Institute for Creative Mindfulness. 

I also encourage you to read White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh (PDF). 

Recommended Books

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo 

My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies by Resmaa Menakem

Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet E. Washington

4 thoughts on “Addressing White Fragility Through Taking Accountability in Perpetuating Systemic Racism

  1. Michelli Simpson July 9, 2020 — 3:53 am

    Thank you for putting in a so clear words what many therapists and society in general still refusing to recognize. I encounter so many people that feels defensive to talking about it or even dismiss the conversation. Racism is a very uncomfortable topic for many and I do believe because they fear to have to come to the terms that they do perpetuate racism even if they believe they are “good people.”

    1. Michelli thank you for your words of affirmation. It’s not a comfortable topic but is needed in the world right now. Good people can do things that aren’t always on the mark. My hope is people open up to this reality and take stock of their cultural identity and how it impacts trauma work and systemic healing.

  2. thanks Michael for all of this. We all need to do our own work in this regard and I very much appreciate your list of readings/books

    1. Thank you Mary for reading. If you find other books you enjoy on the topic, please feel free to share.

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