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The Charlottesville protests are white fragility in action

Here’s why white men are acting like the victims in Charlottesville.

unite the right 2018, dc, charlottesville Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A lot of white men are marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend, chanting slogans like “white lives matter” and “you will not replace us.” The rally suggests that white men are the real victims of the American political climate, due to plans to tear down Confederate monuments — symbols of white supremacy and racism — in the Southern city.

The reality, of course, is white men have dominated America throughout its history. White Americans beat their black and Latino counterparts in terms of wealth, income, and educational attainment. All US presidents but one have been white men, and the current Congress — supposedly the most diverse in history — remains dominated by white and male legislators.

So what’s going on here?

One concept to explain this is “white fragility.” Robin DiAngelo, who studies race at Westfield State University, described this phenomenon in a groundbreaking 2011 paper:

White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.

DiAngelo’s paper explained that white Americans have a range of “triggers” that can make them defensive about race, from suggestions that a person’s viewpoint is racialized to the rise of people of color into prominent leadership positions. All the triggers she listed were present in the past year — through the presidency of Barack Obama, President Donald Trump’s racist rhetoric, and Black Lives Matter protests against the dominance of white privilege.

Consider how often throughout the 2016 election people would respond to even the slightest suggestion of racism, whether in media or everyday life, with immediate vitriol, disdain, or dismissal. This, DiAngelo argued, is a defense mechanism to confronting questions about privilege. And it makes it difficult to have a reasonable conversation about race, effectively perpetuating a status quo favorable to white Americans by averting discussions about how to change the existing circumstances.

DiAngelo offered a telling example, from an anti-racism training session she facilitated:

One of the white participants left the session and went back to her desk, upset at receiving (what appeared to the training team as) sensitive and diplomatic feedback on how some of her statements had impacted several people of color in the room. At break, several other white participants approached us (the trainers) and reported that they had talked to the woman at her desk, and she was very upset that her statements had been challenged. They wanted to alert us to the fact that she literally “might be having a heart-attack.” Upon questioning from us, they clarified that they meant this literally. These co-workers were sincere in their fear that the young woman might actually physically die as a result of the feedback. Of course, when news of the woman’s potentially fatal condition reached the rest of the participant group, all attention was immediately focused back onto her and away from the impact she had had on the people of color.

This illustrates just how defensive people can get in the face of accusations of racism: Not only did the woman who faced the criticisms genuinely feel like she was having a heart attack, but the white people around her believed it was totally possible she was. This is the reality of trying to have a conversation that challenges white privilege in America.

You can apply this concept to what we see this weekend in Charlottesville. Many of the people involved have likely led advantaged lives — just because they’re white men in a society that has historically given them more rights than everyone else.

But they’ve seen their racial security challenged. They saw the first black president with Barack Obama. They see demographic statistics that show white Americans will no longer be the majority in the coming decades. They see all of this talk about Black Lives Matter and the importance of diversity, including through policies like affirmative action. They see recent moves to tear down Confederate monuments in the South. And they themselves may have been accused of racism at some point in their lives, perhaps after they raised concerns about any of these issues.

So we get protests and brawls in a small city in Virginia, with the people who’ve long dominated American politics suddenly acting like they’re the oppressed.