White Fragility is 242 years old today. It stinks. Can we finally bury it?
Disclaimer: If you haven’t read White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, this article will likely enrage you.
Two hundred and forty two years ago today, The Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully held in bondage (PAS Society) was founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It’s founder, Anthony Benezet was a French born Hugenot who became a Quaker at fourteen and immigrated to America at the age of eighteen.
Benezet’s analysis of race, privilege and power was centuries ahead of his time. In 1766 he published a tract entitled: A caution and warning to Great Britain and Her Colonies in a short representation of the calamitous state of the enslaved negroes in the British Dominions which challenged the then popular notion of ‘inherent negro inferiority’. Two decades later he gave what may be the earliest articulation of white privilege in his book Some observations on the situation, disposition, and character of the Indian natives of this continent. Benezet states:
“[Native Americans] mental powers are equally with our own capable of improvement; the apparent difference in them, as well as in the Black people and us, arises principally from the advantages of our education and manner of life.”
Benezet’s determination to speak truth to power led him to write to Kings, Queens, scholars and societal influencers. He gained the support of well known founding fathers like Benjamin Rush and Benjamin Franklin. Yet it was Benezet’s unwillingness to break white solidarity by criticizing those very allies that led PAS down a slippery slope of paternalism less than two decades later.
Franklin and Rush were not as liberal as Benezet. In 1774, Benezet wrote a letter to Rush extolling the virtues of British abolitionist Granville Sharp’s theological argument for liberating slaves. Sharp cited Deuteronomy 23:15, stating true Christians have a moral obligation to assist escaped slaves in gaining and maintaining their freedom. Benezet wanted Rush to publish this argument in the newspaper. Rush replied: “They would knock us on the head if we did.”
Rush’s unwillingness to discuss racial oppression in a way that might alienate or discomfit other whites adhered to a set of unwritten cultural rules that would remain nameless for the next two hundred and thirty seven years — White fragility.
Robin DiAngelo defines White Fragility as “the reduced psychosocial stamina that racial insulation inculcates”. She goes on to say that “White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.”
Rush’s fear of reprisal from other whites permeated the very fabric of PAS. By the time of Benezet’s death in 1784, the society had gained high profile supporters at the expense of watering down their message. By 1787, Benjamin Frankilin had been elected honorary president of PAS, a position he used to subtly pedal his own white supremacist viewpoints on other psuedo-liberal whites.
In ‘An address to the public, from the Pennsylvania Society for promoting the abolition of slavery, and the relief of free negroes, unlawfully held in bondage’ Franklin legitimized three particularly harmful stereotypes which persist to this day.
- Blacks are less deserving of and capable of handling freedom than whites. Franklin writes: “Slavery is such an atrocious debasement of human nature, that it’s very extirpation, if not performed with solicitous care, may sometimes open a source of serious evils… Under such circumstances freedom may often prove a misfortune to himself and prejudicial to society” — implying that black freedom and success is contingent upon white supervision. He later calls it the duty of whites “To instruct, to advise, to qualify those who have been restored to freedom, for the exercise and enjoyment of civil liberty.”
- Police should pay special attention to blacks. Franklin goes on to say: “Attention to emancipated black people, it is therefore to be hoped, will become a branch of our national police”, again reinforcing and normalizing white fear of blacks’ ‘inherently violent nature’. Policing black bodies is not just a branch of modern policing, it seems to be the entirety of its focus.
- Blacks are naturally lazy. In addition to qualifying blacks to enjoy being free, whites were also “To promote in them the habits of industry.” This is perhaps the most egregious statement in the entire document. Instead of addressing the fact that whites didn’t want to pay free blacks a fair wage when slave labor was cheaper, Uncle Ben Franklin advances a false narrative of black laziness and white industriousness. If blacks were inherently lazy, why were whites so dependent upon their free labor? Likewise if whites were so industrious, why didn’t they pick their own cotton?
Franklin’s Racial Arrogance reinforced and legitimized white abolitionists paternalism. Instead of becoming catalysts for black agency and complete person-hood, PAS served to further marginalize people of color by seeking to ‘qualify’ them for the civil liberties and access to opportunity that whites of all economic statuses were entitled to.
By adhering to the unwritten rules of White Fragility, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society set a dangerous precedent for white allies — the ability to don the cloak of liberalism without addressing one’s own accountability for or complicity in systems of oppression.
Ninety years to the day after the founding of PAS, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Booth was a veritable case study of White Fragility. According to DiAngelo, challenges to white solidarity are often perceived as triggering to Fragile Whites, sending them into a state of emotional stress which leads to angry or defensive behavior.
Booth’s triggering event occurred on April 11th, when Lincoln made a speech supporting partial enfranchisement of blacks in Louisiana. It is worth noting that Lincoln, like Franklin, was a proponent of conditional freedom and only supported voting rights for “the very intelligent, and (on) those who serve our cause as soldiers.”
Still, the mere possibility of some blacks gaining political enfranchisement was anathema to Booth. Lincoln’s (limited) support of ‘the negro cause’ challenged white solidarity and was perhaps the motivating factor in Booth’s personal virulent hatred of Lincoln. On the evening of April 11th, he told co-conspirator Lewis Powell: “That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.”
Three days later, Booth smuggled a gun into Ford’s theater and shot President Lincoln in the head at point blank range, fulfilling his own prophecy and birthing the myth of the ‘white lone gunman’.
The truth of Honest Abe’s assassination was a bit more complex.
John Wilkes Booth was born into privilege and power in the town of Bel Air, Maryland. His father was a wealthy, slave owning drunken Lothario who left his wife and two kids in England to shack up with John Wilkes Booth’s mother in America, a woman who would bear him nine children before he finally ‘made an honest woman’ of her.
John Wilkes Booth had less acting talent than his father and older brother, yet rose to stardom on little more than his family name and classic European features. As an actor, Wilkes Booth received an annual income upwards of ten thousand dollars at a time when most Americans lived on three hundred dollars or less per year. Wilkes Booth understood that his way of life depended on the systemic oppression of others. In fact, in November of 1864 he wrote to his brother in law, saying: “This country was formed for the white not for the black man. And looking upon African slavery from the same stand-point, as held by those noble framers of our Constitution, I for one, have ever considered it, one of the greatest blessings (both for themselves and us) that God ever bestowed upon a favored nation.”
In this statement Booth demonstrates DiAngelo’s principles of white centrality and racial belonging. To John Wilkes Booth, white domination of black and brown bodies was the natural order, and Lincoln’s attempt to ‘elevate’ blacks to the status of citizens, even second class ones, was a heinous perversion of nature.
Although Wilkes Booth is often framed as a ‘lone wolf’ or ‘deranged fanatic’, nothing could be further from the truth. As a former confederate spy, Booth was plugged-in to a network of ‘supporters of the southern way of life’. He used these contacts to recruit at least six co-conspirators, arrange for covert interstate transport of firearms, and secure the schedules of the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State.
Wilkes Booth and his crew originally planned to kidnap Lincoln to force the President to release Confederate prisoners of war. This plan fell through on April 9, 1865 when General Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army. Lee’s surrender meant there was no safe place to store a kidnapped President. Like many people of privilege today, John Wilkes Booth may have felt that there was no ‘safe space’ for those who thought like him, those who equated black freedom with white oppression. Perhaps it was this fear that motivated him to form a new plan to cripple the United States government by assassinating the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State on a single night.
Although seven men and one woman were convicted in the plot to assassinate Lincoln and other heads of state, only Booth succeeded in killing his target.
The manhunt for John Wilkes Booth lasted nearly two weeks, during which Booth had help from friends and Confederate allies to evade detection. During the manhunt, dozens were arrested on suspicion of complicity, but at the end of the day, only eight people were tried and convicted by military tribunal. Booth was killed at the site of his capture, yet somehow the role he played in the assassination attempts so far eclipsed the other players as to render them invisible to the eyes of history.
Then as in now, the myth of the lone gunman serves to underpin DiAngelo’s “split consciousness” resulting from the dual framework of Universalism and Individualism. Universalism allowed wealthy southern landowners like Booth to claim solidarity with the tenant farmers and laborers they exploited on the basis of shared skin tone. In this way, southern whites of all socioeconomic statuses consciously and unconsciously identified Booth as a vigilante ‘hero’ — preserving the privileges of whiteness. At the same time, white American individualism allowed others who shared Booth’s views and level of privilege to deny complicity by framing him as a lone gunman, an individual acting outside of societal bounds.
Booth’s ‘success’ as an assassin was more a matter of luck and White mediocrity than any brilliant planning on the part of himself or his cohorts.
White mediocrity is the flip side of black exceptionalism, the set of societal expectations that predicates a racially restrictive dual path to success. People of color are expected to excel in their field to succeed, whereas whites as the dominant, normative race, are allowed to be… well, normal.
White mediocrity is what allowed officer John Frederick Parker, a known alcoholic with an abysmal track record and a penchant for whoring to be assigned to the President of the United States. Instead of protecting Lincoln, Parker decided his time was better spent at a local tavern with Lincoln’s footman. According to Smithsonian Magazine,
“Parker’s record as a cop fell somewhere between pathetic and comical. He was hauled before the police board numerous times, facing a smorgasbord of charges that should have gotten him fired. But he received nothing more than an occasional reprimand. His infractions included conduct unbecoming an officer, using intemperate language and being drunk on duty. Charged with sleeping on a streetcar when he was supposed to be walking his beat, Parker declared that he’d heard ducks quacking on the tram and had climbed aboard to investigate. The charge was dismissed. When he was brought before the board for frequenting a whorehouse, Parker argued that the proprietress had sent for him.”
Despite his demonstrable incompetence, Parker was never arrested or charged in conjunction with the assassination plot.
Even if Lincoln had been assigned a competent protective detail, chances are the officer would still have permitted John Wilkes Booth into the President’s box based on his celebrity status. In the same way that Universalism allowed whites to generalize people of color as violent, lazy, and devious; whites as a whole were juxtapositioned as nonviolent, industrious, and trustworthy. Thus celebrity combined with the privileges of whiteness almost guaranteed that John Wilkes Booth would have access to Lincoln on the eve of his demise.
John Wilkes Booths’ inability to see or address his own White fragility left him feeling triggered and hopeless. Lincoln’s continual challenges to white solidarity, white centrality, and white normativity made him a symbolic target for those whites most invested in the privileges of whiteness. White America’s presumption of white innocence and cultural acceptance of white mediocrity ensured that Booth would have opportunity to execute his plot. Yet instead of addressing the psycho-social and cultural roots of White Fragility, our paler skinned brethren chose to scapegoat a single individual who was ultimately a single symptom of a terminal cultural illness called white supremacy.
Now, two hundred and forty two years after the first White Ally group was founded and one hundred and fifty two years after the most effective White Ally that Black America has ever known was murdered, white Americans once again face a critical choice — — whether to continue to pay lip service to “superficial racial toleration and acceptance”, or to finally take responsibility for their own complicity in their pitiably fragile collective state and begin the difficult work of building white racial stamina to discuss and address issues of race, privilege, and power.
One path leads America backwards down the slippery slope of conditional freedom and paternalism that ‘made America great’ for wealthy white males and shitty for… basically everyone else. The other propels us forward into a space that is imminently less comfortable for people of privilege yet infinitely more safe for black, brown, and female bodies.
This second path cuts through an undeveloped wilderness of cross cultural incompetence and inter-sectional accountability. If America decides to forge this new path, all who are brave enough to walk it will come away scarred. These cuts and scratches are unavoidable when navigating unfamiliar territory. Yet by embracing this discomfort we transform painful scars into badges of honor, exchange conditional freedom for unconditional love, and finally begin to live up to our legacy as the greatest nation on earth.