“White fragility” – my journey exploring diversity and inclusion so far

(by Robert Schwarz, PsyD, DCEP)
Preamble: I wrote the following blog several weeks ago, long before the current crisis. This blog is about my personal journey of coming to terms with diversity issues that had been instigated by ACEP’s Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Initiative. Just so readers have the appropriate context, I have supported the D&I Initiative since its’ inception. Even though I already accepted the concept of systemic racism, I had no idea about the journey I was beginning.    

Last week, ACEP sent out an email discussing this issue. We received some responses acknowledging that the violence perpetrated against Mr Floyd was wrong, but questioning the existence of systemic racism. Perfect! This is the conversation that this country needs to have. This is the conversation that healing professionals need to have. This is the conversation that ACEP needs to have.

Conversations are by their nature interpersonal. However, we must also have an inward conversation with ourselves. You will see such a conversation in this blog. I had hoped my sharing my personal journey would be of service in having inward and interpersonal conversations. I had no idea we would be where we are today. I hope this may be of service to you in your sorting through your own feelings and reactions.  – Robert Schwarz

“White fragility” – my journey exploring diversity and inclusion so far

A while back, my son gave me a book for the holidays entitled: White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism by Robin DiAngelo. He knew about the diversity and inclusion initiative that we have started at ACEP. He thought I might find it interesting and helpful. 

That might just have been the understatement of a decade. I found it to be deeply eye opening and revolutionary! So much so that I feel compelled to write about it in this blog. I want to write about it as much as I can from my own very early experiences in dealings with this material. ACEP has begun the journey to make the organization more inclusive and diverse, and we need to understand what that means for us. 

There is a statement that many of us use in the field of human change: “Name it to tame it.” Some months earlier, I had a felt experience of my own “white fragility”. I did not know it at the time. I wish I had known about this then. I am sure I would have had the fragility, but I suspect I might have handled it differently. But I get ahead of myself.

I want to focus on a few concepts that truly have blown my mind. As I was reading the book, I must confess that I found myself alternatively embracing/exploring the ideas being offered then resisting/disagreeing and arguing (in my head) about the very same ideas. I bring this up early on in this blog because I believe, and I think Ms. DiAngelo would agree, that this is perfectly normal and natural for a white person (and of course I am white).  

The first is the idea that white people take their experiences of being white in the West completely for granted, as completely normative, as the way things “just are.” 

DiAngelo eloquently makes the point that there is so much subtle socialization on so many levels that it is actually impossible for it to be any other way. To deny this is part of what she calls the difficulty that white people have in acknowledging racism in the culture.

The second idea that I had never really considered before is that racism is usually framed in a good/bad dynamic. Racism is bad. Not being a racist is good.

Now at first blush, you might be thinking, “Well, Yah!!!” But here is the problem. It’s all or nothing. What happens if a white person is given feedback that they have just engaged in behavior or language that is racist? What DiAngelo describes is that the white person, including and maybe especially liberal white people, will become defensive. It’s almost impossible not to become defensive once you accept the good/bad dynamic!!!  I can totally relate. This is what happened to me again and again. Throughout the book Diangelo describes various ideas and thoughts as racist.

“I have those ideas and thoughts – What??? ” 

I am thinking, “Well I am not a racist!” 

“Obviously the solution must be that DiAngelo is in error – and let me tell you three reasons why.”  

“Oh, wait a minute – she predicted that I would think this very thought! Maybe I am being defensive.” (More on this prediction thing in a moment.)

The antidote to this defensiveness, is to:

1) Name it to tame it – the problem is framing racist thought and emotion patterns in a good/bad dichotomy.

2) Create a new, different frame for how to think about this. DiAngelo suggests things such as: 

a. All of us are socialized into the system of racism.

b. Being good or bad is not relevant.

c. Racism cannot be avoided.

d. Giving us white people feedback on our racism is risky for people of color so we can consider the feedback a sign of trust.

What I take from this, is that as a white person it is important to recognize that I am going to have a reaction and it will probably be defensive. I can recognize that it is natural that I have the reaction, and then I can begin to work with that reaction so it does not control me.  

I cannot stress enough the experience I had of reading this book and going into and out of a reactionary position. It really brought home to me how if this happens reading a book, it surely happens in real life, especially if you are trying to have any kind of real conversation about these issues. 

And this is as good a time as any to say that I don’t think this applies to just issues between blacks and whites. It applies to any version of dominant group versus marginalized group. We simply cannot easily escape our culturalization. 

One of the things that I found helpful and challenging was the distinction of seeing the world through the lens of being an individual versus the lens of a group. I (we) like to see myself (ourselves) as an individual. I have my experience and you have yours. From that place it is a lot easier to not see the influences of racism on one’s thinking. DiAngelo takes the perspective of a sociologist. From that place she makes predictions about what a single person (i.e., me) would say or think.  And she was incredibly accurate.  I like science, and here is a person making a thesis about a concept called “white fragility.” She makes predictions based on that theoretical construct and those predictions are very accurate. I can’t ignore that. And, as I have already said, reading this was not a dry intellectual exercise. If anything, I could feel different parts of my brain vying for control. 

It was like a boxing match. I could almost feel the announcer, “In one corner Mr. Limbic System and in the other corner, Mr. Frontal Lobes!”

So, what’s the point of all this?  The point is that ACEP has embarked on a journey to be an organization that embraces inclusion and diversity. ACEP does not exist independent of the people in ACEP.  So the people in ACEP need to be on a journey that embraces inclusion and diversity.  This is a very interesting and challenging journey. I have to say, as I read this book, even though I was challenged, I was deeply engaged and excited. (By the way, there is a lot more to this book – I am just focusing on part if it here.)

We have just begun the process. Those of us who are white need to do things like read the book White Fragility and struggle with how it makes us feel. We need to recognize that it’s okay to be at the beginning of a journey rather than at the end.  We need to take more steps along the way like engaging these issues with people in our organization.   

We need to apply our skills of mindfulness, presence, and energy psychology to deal with our own reactivity. This is a spiritual task. Like all spiritual tasks it is a challenge to our usual way of doing things. The possibilities for growth and change are enormous. I am sure I will have more to say about this. But that is where things stand in the journey so far. To be continued…

Author
Robert Schwarz, PsyD, DCEP has been a licensed psychologist for 30 years. Bob has trained therapists internationally on trauma treatment, panic and anxiety, energy psychology. For the last 12 years Bob has served as executive director for the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology. He has organized over 25 conferences on energy psychology trauma treatment, Ericksonian hypnosis, brief therapy, that trained over 18,000 therapists. Bob also designed ACEP’s online program The Science of Energy Healing. He has authored 3 books: Tools for Transforming TraumaPTSD: A Clinician’s Guide and We’re No fun Anymore as well as numerous articles and papers.

energypsych.org

Comments

  1. Susanna Grace says:

    Hi Bob. Thanks for this – I really enjoyed your frank and engaging review of the book and of your experience as a white person witnessing your conditioning in action. This is just the kind of change-agent conversations we as white people need to continue having (and as therapists, doubly so). I’ve been getting a lot of necessarily uncomfortable growth out of Reshmaa Menakem’s book (and online course) My Grandmother’s Hands, which works with radicalised trauma at the somatic, embodied level. Unpicking systemic institutional racism will require a change in our politics and our psychology, cognitively and somatically!

    • Hi Susanna thanks for the recommendation. Menakem’s work has been mentioned to me now several times. I suppose the point here is that there are plenty of different voices and works that help forward this conversation. The main challenge is to make the time and space. It is clear now that a sea change is happening in the culture. It’s about time.

      • the special place that Menakem’s work has in the context of ACEP, is that as an Somatic Experiencing practitioner, he is actually doing energy psychology using mindfulness of sensations, images, beliefs, affects, and meaning. SE uses attention and relationship to energetically transform social traumas, including and especially racialized trauma. He was recommended as a keynote speaker for the last conference and would have been an outstanding choice.

        he should go to the top of your reading list, imho. and also read, “How to be an Antiracist.” by Ibram (sp?) X Kendi.

      • Just ordered both books. This is interesting they are both sold out on Amazon. I had to order the kindle versions.

  2. As a POC, I am tremendously grateful for your honesty and willingness to explore this and make needed changes. Thank you!

  3. Thank you, Bob. These are clearly thoughtful, courageous and vulnerable reflections on a journey of “awokening” that is perilous, but also the promise, of deeper, more vital and more just forms of life.

    A confusion that white people often have is that racial complaint, critique and protest is about the character and motives of white people. This is not the heart of the issue. I am not sure about this statement: “[T]he problem is framing racist thought and emotion patterns in a good/bad dichotomy.” I don’t think that is the main problem. The main problem is that the autonomic threat responses, the guilt, defensiveness, resentment, fear and even self-pity of white people (that is often the substance of “racialized discomfort”) in a crucible of “racialized discomfort” will typically mobilize unexamined beliefs and reflexive behaviors that have the impact and consequence of restabilizing a white supremacist cultural equilibrium.” “white fragility” is part of the emotional gyroscope of institutional and cultural racism. when the cultural norms of white supremacy are being violated, white people will tend to very quickly become flooded with anxiety and other unpleasant affect. As a rule, white people have very low tolerance for racialized discomfort. Further, they typically feel morally entitled to not be subject to this sense of awkwardness, tension, and vulnerability.

    For far too many well-meaning white people, release from cognitive dissonance and intolerable affect, causes well-meaning whites to behave in ways that are profoundly annoying at best, and profoundly destructive at worst. To add insult to injury, critique of many of these unconscious *behaviors* is framed as an ad hominem attack on the individual or by extension, the “white race.” This is harm on top of harm because it means that the “first dart” of racial injury is never honored and witnessed, but buried under the demands of “white fragility. Instead we have to minister to the howls of discomfort of white people who feel that the conflict is all about whether their right to comfort or to “not be seen as racist and/or bad.”. Amy Cooper who summoned a lynch mob by 911 call on Christian Cooper, but had no empathy for the threat that she subjected him to. Instead, in her apology, it was clear that she was more concerned about “being seen in a negative light” than about the harm that she did, and what impulses drove this reflexively racist behavior. After all, she is an “educated,” refined, wealthy white woman. Where did her dramatic demands, claims and meltdown come from?

    Again, Bob. Thank you for opening thi important conversation in so bold and self-disclosing a way. we are all babies with the truth, teething and drooling together towards wisdom.

    • Thanks for your well considered thoughts Victor. In my life, I tend to shy away from a stance of vulnerability. I am actually working on that. It seemed to me to be very important to be as vulnerable as I could about my experience reading this book. And, if it was not made clear let me say this again. I had a ton of emotional reactions and I was just reading a book!!! I was not having a conversation with a person of color who was raising those issues, which would create a great deal more anxiety and “racial discomfort”. And I agree with you that for me as a white person, those “racially uncomfortable” moments are not something that I like. And as I was saying in the blog, DiAngelo’s explanations and frames very helpful at helping me regulate those feelings. I do get the sense though that those uncomfortable moments can become an acquired taste. There is a level of aliveness and possibility along with the anxiety/excitement ( these two are very similar on a physiological level) that comes from dealing with these issues. And of course there is the potential of a huge payoff in terms of changing ourselves, our organizations and our culture. As I have been engaging with these issues over the past few weeks, It is becoming more and more clear to me that one of the things that energy psychology and other related approaches can really bring to the table is the ability to help people regulate their emotions and nervous systems so that they can be their better selves. And from that place, we can be more present with each other. And, I love your phrase, “We are all babies with the truth, teething and drooling towards wisdom”.

  4. Bob and fellow contributors thanks for all jumping in. Not much role-modeling available for this kind of truth-sharing for most folks. I knew early on witnessing the 1960s civil rights and women’s movements, that all people deserve freedom, respect, and equality under the law even as a child. Yet, growing up in a white status-dominated society, the concept of “white fragility” never felt comfortable. First, “fragility” as a man has seldom felt good, in the past. I’m kind of leaning into that space now and sense that fragility for me, means a lack of flexibility or snapping point towards anger or sadness.

    My first-generation American (born of immigrants) father told me as a 8 year old-child, that I had no reason not to be successful in my life, because I was born: a) American; b) male; c) white; and was to be d) educated; and e) healthy. In his mind, I had no excuses not to achieve some sort of success, as these things were given me. When I think of white privilege it includes that larger list. Yet, I realize now, that if I were black, that list might not have fit so neatly together.

    I became aware of white privilege, as a 20 year old college student living abroad in India. After centuries of British rule, combined with the sacred heart of the Indian people, I was shown such respect, at the time, mostly because I was a white male, and being American helped, too. I remember feeling I didn’t really deserve the unexpected extra respect, I certainly hadn’t earned it. But I felt I was enjoying a path already paved, before I arrived on the scene. Not always enjoying, sometimes I felt embarrassed or annoyed.

    Being a white male in America is a different cultural experience. However, my white maleness has been a mixed experience on this generations old, well-trodden, path. Aside from my own individual inadequecies, my father’s predictions were not that far-off. I grew up in the baby-boomer generation where being American, being white, being male, and being educated generally gave one a leg-up on the competition. However, the fragility of building one’s self-esteem on these “birth rights” inevitably leads to some serious soul searching and suffering. I welcome a new human awakening where all children feel they have a Universal birthright to a successful future. The horrors of inhumanity perpetuated upon humanity for tens of thousands of years, needs to pass. And yes, I’m still working on that fragility thing.

    • Hi Jeffrey,

      Thank you for sharing your experience. Yes the “fragility” word does not fit well with the dominant story about what it is to be male. Of course, that dominant story/conditioning is not the truth and we must allow ourselves to become free from those limiting ideas. And I agree, it will be a much better world when all children feel they have a Universal birthright to love and success.

  5. Thank you Bob. I really appreciate what you have shared here. I’m also pleased to know that ACEP is consciously pursuing a goal of inclusion. I am reminded that opening up to hold two opposing thoughts at once creates a huge expenditure of energy. When we apply energy psychology techniques to calm the lymbic system, we can hold those contradictions and become curious and compassionate from a place of calm. That is the true hope for mankind and that new reality is emerging.

    • Hi Betsy, Yes energy psychology and related techniques are so useful at calming the nervous system. We all have to work on our stuff. I really like what you said about holding opposing thoughts. There is a book of essays by Peter Elbow called Embracing Contraries that I really like. The main point is that embracing contraries leads to immense creativity.

  6. Lori Hops says:

    I’m learning along with everyone else, taking this moment in history to clean out the cobwebs of past beliefs from my personal history and the context of being raised in the US as a white Jewish female. I look forward to being part of structured learning opportunities, reading, conversation and above all, listening deeply while exploring my shadow material. Thank you to all that is coming together to help us open to new awareness and hopefully, greater consciousness. It starts with me. I can only go as far outside myself as I have gone inside myself. It may be of interest to read a passage I wrote about the notion of disparate parts coming together to solve problems they cannot achieve individually, yesterday on my Facebook page:

    Day 67
    Complementarity

    Welcome to A Tip a Day for Wellness Program. I’m sharing a tip a day I’m using for wellness, and you can add your own. Let’s see how we can build wellness together.
    The term complementarity refers to interrelationship and complementary processes, regarding practical and theoretical mathematics, biology, social and psychological systems, geography, and the law. It is when two self contained yet contrasting laws, theories or systems combine to explain phenomenon neither could explain on their own. It also implies a symbiotic relationship, with one system taking and giving to the other, it ways each cannot achieve alone. Born out of quantum physics, this term offered a new way of looking at the world. You may notice working together with others, sometimes at odds with you, allows change to occur that cannot happen in isolation.

  7. Wow, what a fruitful set of discussions. A few days ago in the UK, a commissioned report was published about the much higher death rates (roughly double) from Covid for people in BAME communities. The gov’t REMOVED the section on why this is so (intersecting impacts of race, class, access to health care, co-morbidity, social exclusion, etc) and suggestions on what to do about it (address structural racism, um, structurally), garnered in consultation with over 1500 leaders and community-based organisations. Yup. Structural racism cynically in action.
    It seems to me that for the changes we all want to see, we need two main nodes of activity, official and structural, and, personal. With law and gov’t led activity, i.e. take the lump of consultation and actually follow advice, as a start, for the structural end. AND, as we know from narrative therapies and discourse analyses, Bahktinian and Foucouldian (more subtle interactions with social structures as well as people, a refusal to see people as disconnected actors but, esp for Bahktin, co-creating identities through connection), that story telling both shapes and is shaped by our perception of self and others, and, Others, and is an active form of Othering as a verb. Some stories we are born into. Others, we create. Our stories intersect. All of us, no matter what side of the advantage divide we may be on whatever vector and in combination – race, class, ethnicty, ablism (as I am recently in a wheelchair, I am very sensitised to this) , sexuality (my daughter came out as queer a few months ago), age (I looked at the back of my hands the other day and felt a bit of disgust in perceiving the crepe-iness of my skin, such a homophone to creepiness – internalised ageism) – and all the complex interactions of public and private stories around these issues and topics. AND the intersection – I have learned over years of study, including African and African American Studies at a leading university, that it is impossible to speak about any one of these issues without care for the others, e.g. a trans black person has a very different yet overlapping life context for experience as a heterosexual black male. My male adult child solider client needs something very different from me than the female law partner, both with dark skin, but different passports, language/languaging, and much more. AND, they need a LOT of the same things, very much including needing me to make efforts to understand all of the complexity they bring in a globally racist world – esp the White West. I can’t serve them properly unless I am willing to continually enquire. Inside and out. And above all, to LISTEN.
    Thus, PART of where we contribute as practitioners is both internally for ourselves – leading the path of courage, strength, honesty and kindness in facing our crap – and, to help our clients build capacity for the same, to make welcome space for discomfort, pain, anguish, and labelling the crazy as something we do because of beliefs we hold, may of them trauma-related, rather than a global assessment of a True Self. Querying how we have absorbed lies about ourselves and others, opening to how systemic the structuring of self and experience and society is, all takes courage and strength.
    I deeply welcome this conversation and many more uncomfortable ones to come. Nobody ever outgrew dysfunction, as far as I know, without at least discomfort, and often deep fear, defensiveness, etc. – you know the score. With commitment to integrity front and centre, we have room for us all, and all of what all of us bring.
    Let’s keep discoursing. xoxo

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