Teaching ‘white fragility’ is bad for kids of color

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Last month, my 8-year-old sister came home from school deflated and torn. She told me that a young boy in her class was making fun of her because of her skin color, comparing her brown skin to fecal matter. I remembered being mocked and tormented for the very same reason in elementary school, growing up in a nearly all-white area in western Canada. Many of my fellow Indian immigrants have experienced it. 

When she asked me what was “wrong” with having brown skin, I told her “nothing.” 

“Your skin color doesn’t define who you are.” 

She also asked me how white people are “different” from her and I told her they’re not. No skin color is worse or better than the other — discriminating against people based on race is simply wrong. 

Thankfully, her school took the incident seriously, and the boy ended up writing a letter of apology to my sister, saying he was “sorry for being mean” and that he “will work harder at being a better friend.” 

I felt happy that the system had done its job in combating racism. 

But then, in that same week, my 15-year-old brother told me he is learning about the concept of “systemic racism” in his English class. His teacher instructed her students that white people in our society are privileged and people of color are marginalized and disadvantaged. She went on to divide the class into groups and told them to discuss “white fragility” — the feeling of discomfort white people experience when forced to confront racial inequality. 

But the lesson actually left my brother, one of five people of color in his class, feeling awkward and discomforted. What he had been raised to see as a trivial and unimportant trait — the color of his skin — was suddenly spotlighted and politically charged, and all his white classmates were implicitly being told to see him as different from them, and vice versa. 

In the wake of protests after the police killing of George Floyd, the influence of Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 book “White Fragility” has spread far and wide. It has dominated Amazon and New York Times bestseller lists. It has been discussed on late-night TV, in workplace diversity seminars, and now even in children’s classrooms. Seattle Public Schools held training for teachers in which they were told the US is a “race-based white-supremacist society” and white teachers must “bankrupt [their] privilege in acknowledgment of [their] thieved inheritance,” according to documents recently obtained by journalist Christopher Rufo. This summer, KIPP schools — the network of free, open-enrollment college-prep schools in low-income communities in America — abandoned their classic slogan “Work Hard, Be Nice” because it “supports the illusion of meritocracy,” which “is not going to dismantle systemic racism.” Last November, Megyn Kelly revealed that she is pulling her kids from their private Upper West Side school after a letter distributed to faculty members stated, “There is a killer cop sitting in every school where White children learn.” These so-called “anti-racist” teachings have even made their way to my brother’s classroom in the small British Columbia town of Chilliwack, population 83,000. 

The most troubling aspect of the White Fragility doctrine — and the broader “anti-racist” movement — is that race is considered the defining feature of human experience. The opening words of DiAngelo’s book encapsulate her reductionist philosophy: “I’m a white woman.” DiAngelo seems to see the world through an anachronistic black-and-white television set from the 1940s. Whites and minorities live in two separate, irreconcilable dimensions. Complexity and nuance are alien concepts. The best whites can do is become baptized in DiAngelo’s anti-racist program of eternal guilt and atonement. 

DiAngelo paints western society as more akin to the racial caste system in India — in which darker skinned people are rendered “untouchable” and lighter skinned people are seen as superior Brahmins — rather than one of the most inclusive and progressive cultures on earth. Her belief that “individualism,” “objectivity” and “rationalism” are pillars of “whiteness” is functionally indistinguishable from a Ku Klux Klan member’s white supremacist handbook. Both progressive “anti-racists” and those we would conventionally define as “racist” see people as members of racial tribes rather than as individuals with unique circumstances, values and merits. 

One of the worst things you can tell young people of color is that they are fundamentally different from their white counterparts and they are powerless victims in a system that is built to limit their success. I was amazed to hear my own brother — despite growing up incredibly privileged with a successful business-owner father — ask me how minorities are oppressed in our society. 

Martin Luther King once wrote that “the important thing about a man is not the color of his skin or the texture of his hair but the texture and quality of his soul.” By today’s perverse standards, King’s sentiment would be considered racist in itself — antithetical to the progressive pursuit of “racial justice.” But, until we re-route to a more humanistic approach, grounded in respect for the common qualities that bind us all, we will continue to be stratified along racial lines. And my brother and my sister will not grow up believing that they are equal members of society or that they can fully flourish within it. 

Rav Arora is a 19-year-old writer based in Vancouver, Canada, who specializes in topics of race, criminal justice and culture. His writing has also been featured in Foreign Policy Magazine, Quillette and The Globe and Mail.

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