White fragility, as defined by Dr. Robin DiAngelo, a consultant and trainer for over 20 years on issues of racial and social justice, is “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves… [including] the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”
While in conversation about race, white people often unknowingly display this ‘white fragility’ because of their tendency to act defensively or aggressively, despite being aware of the fact that the institution of racism is immoral. White fragility prevents many people from understanding a pressing concept—that reverse racism is not real. Reverse racism is a term used to describe the idea that people of color can be racist towards white people. However, this is simply impossible in today’s society. Certainly, people of color may have prejudices against white people, but racism and prejudice are entirely different things—they are not interchangeable terms.
Racism itself is much deeper and more complex, as it is the systematic oppression of an entire race because of the belief that one’s own race is superior, whereas prejudice is a preconceived opinion or belief about a certain person because of who or what they are. Racism emerged from the notion that the white race is superior to all other races; therefore, people of color may express anger towards white people because of the oppression and discrimination whites have systematically imposed upon their race throughout history and the present. Thus, the resentfulness that people of color may exhibit towards white people is based on the prejudice that white people are racist rather than the idea that people of color are superior.
Historically, racism has presented itself in the forms of slavery, segregation, discrimination, and persecution. Racism has become embedded into the very institution of society, preventing people of color from having the ability to oppress white people on the grounds of white privilege. People of color have been treated as subhuman for centuries, which is evidenced through the fact that they were not, and still have not been given the same rights as white people in regards to voting, education, pay, job opportunity, etc. Until 1865 when the thirteenth amendment was passed in the U.S Constitution, black people were not even viewed or treated as human beings, but rather like property that did not have any rights. And yet this amendment is celebrated by white people as an act of benevolence and acceptance towards the African-American race in history, as it technically freed black slaves and outlawed slavery, even though they were neglected the status of human beings. Because white people established themselves as the superior race, beginning as long ago as the Middle Ages, they have held the most power in society, making it utterly impossible for any other race to oppress them (Frederickson).
Society is ultimately controlled by white culture—this forces other cultures to adapt and conform in turn. People of color do not have the same ‘upper-hand’ in society that white people do, and it is because of this that they cannot be racist to white people (Blay). As said by one of the characters in the 2013 satirical film Dear White People, “black people can’t be racist. Prejudiced yes, but not racist. Racism describes a system of disadvantage based on race. Black people can’t be racists since [they] don’t benefit from such a system.” Therefore, prejudices that a person of color may hold against white people do not systematically oppress the entire white race as racism does to colored people.
The argument that reverse racism is real in itself demonstrates the unwavering determination of white people to deny their own privilege—even the fact that many believe the U.S to be “post-racial”, meaning that racism no longer exists or is a problem in society, proves this (Smith). Without the acknowledgement of privilege, racism will continue to root itself into the foundation of society. The reality of privilege is attributed to the fact that as a whole, white people do not experience things such as “housing or job discrimination, police brutality, poverty, or incarceration at the level that black people do” (Blay). Even within the justice system, “white people benefit from privilege and power when they aren’t arrested for drug crimes at disproportionate rates, while black people experience racism when they’re arrested, and sentenced, for the same crimes” (Smith). According to the National Association for the Advancement of People of Color, “African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites.” People of color are often punished more harshly for crimes, especially nonviolent blunders, compared to white people. Furthermore, NAACP states that “if African American and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of whites, today’s prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50%.” White privilege deems it impossible for whites to be oppressed since it puts them at an advantage over other races in every aspect of society.
Privilege is analogous to a classroom with three rows of desks in which the teacher places a wastebasket at the front of the room and promises to reward students who can throw a crumpled piece of paper into it while remaining in their seats. The students in the front row have an obvious advantage since they are much closer to the wastebasket than the students sitting in the rows behind them. Those in the back rows have to overcome the obstacle of people in the front row since not only is their vision is obstructed, but their chances of being successful are decreased. The students in the front row represent white people in society, while the students sitting in the rows behind them are representative of people of color.
A particular example that demonstrates how privilege affects all aspects of society is seen with Scarlett Johannson, a Caucasian actress, who was cast in a movie called Ghost in the Shell as the protagonist, a role intended for portrayal by someone of Japanese heritage. A similar situation surfaced earlier this year when Caucasian actor Matt Damon was cast as the main character, a European mercenary, in a movie about the creation of the Great Wall of China. By casting a white man as the protagonist in a movie about Chinese history, the accomplishments of the ancient Chinese men who toiled and perished to protect their own country were minimized and diminished. Whitewashing, which is when white actors and actresses are cast in roles that are historically non-white, is a common occurrence in the film industry, and demonstrates how privilege is an ultimate oppressor.
In order for one to be racist, privilege and power are key (Smith). These are things that only white people possess in twenty-first century society. White people have notoriously enslaved, taken advantage of, oppressed, and discriminated against people of color. For centuries, the countries of Africa were imperialized and depleted of their resources, people, and culture all in the name of white supremacy. This very institution and cycle of abuse based on a demented delusion of superiority remains prominent today. White people as a whole are not oppressed. All white people possess significant privilege that puts them at an advantage in society and it is because of this that is it utterly impossible for white people to ever experience racism.