Tuesday, August 01, 2017

"White fragility" is ableist

Ableism graphic (people with disabilities fobidden/not welcome)
I often read and hear people with disabilities, describe the moment the light bulb lights; lights with incandescent rage in the moment we understand the standards defining "normal" rest on choices as fundamentally arbitrary as the dictates of fashion. Norms shift from culture to culture, but this culture, our culture, polices its norms by any brutality necessary. Since policing construed as therapeutic supposedly serves the interests of those policed, no consideration of rights or fairness restrain it. If the policing takes a form impossible to construe as therapy, its promoters justify it as necessary for the prosperity and happiness of future generations.

Some people, a tiny minority, have the credentials or the power to set standards, define "normal"; others enforce these standards, checklist by checklist on the bodies of the vulnerable, often starting before school age. This entitlement of the doer over the done to forms the essence of the oppression we call ableism. Those who have received this treatment, the done to, feel this entitlement in our bodies: deathly sick and uncontrollably shaking from drugs given to us because the impulse to erase our differences outweighed the (known) side effects. We know it in our spirits and our memories, of being held up as examples of failure, targets for bullying, or just old fashioned beatings by authority figures or by our peers.

Using the term "white fragility" accepts and affirms this system of entitlement. It affirms the checklists acted out on the bodies of children who can't speak, the toxic drugs given to neuro-divergent children and teens, and acts yet more extreme. It affirms the whole system, with one proviso: racial animus, or more precisely any deviation from the response to animus the enlightened decree, also counts as a deviation, a symptom in need of correction, of checking off the list.

We live in a culture long trained to fear deviations from the "norm", to view divergence as shameful, to accept the abuse of people who do not conform. This conditioning makes a political accusation couched in the medical terminology used to define disability a potent threat. It may seem powerful. It may appear effective. But attempts to achieve progress for one group of people facing oppression at the expense of people facing a different oppression effectively compromises and corrupts the process of human liberation. It replaces solidarity with the prisoner's dilemma.

This corruption can build walls and undermine solidarity in ways that cause long lasting harm. The Democrats shepherded the social programs of the nineteen thirties through Congress by making sure, few African Americans would ever benefit from them. Thanks to the new deal, more people enjoyed decent working conditions and tolerable retirement. Thanks to the compromises Roosevelt and his allies accepted, the term "white working class", has come to define workers who feel entitled to support from the government, and have a sense of betrayal when they do not get it. The racial divides carried on from the nineteen thirties, and the sense of entitlement preserved by the social programs of that era, have had a lot to do with electing the current American president.

Aside from the moral objections to an attempt at anti-racism that promotes ableism, use of "white fragility" also fatally confuses the nature of racism; after all the efforts to promote understanding of racism and white supremacy as a social and political system, "white fragility" firmly fixes it back to individuals. By associating the shifting political category of "white" with a pseudo-diagnosis, "white fragility" affirms "white" as an individual identity. As Shuja Haider pointed out, the concept of "white" as an identity is compatible with the agenda of the "white nationalist" right.

Finally, by replacing argument with diagnosis, the phrase prevents the dialogue the offers the only real hope of defeating the system of racism and beginning to heal the people in it. The arguments against racism and "white" supremacy, as a matter of ethics and a matter of practicality are overwhelming; that doesn't mean we don't need to make them in ways other people can hear. A formulation that enables us to easily dismiss any and all responses to our message except those we want to hear short circuits the process of thinking questions through and finding the best way to reach people who disagree with us.


Anonymous said...

I think you're confusing fragility with frailty.

John Spragge said...

Whether we use "fragility" or "frailty", the published definition of "white fragility" reflects ableist language and paradigms.