Social Issues

stomping on eggshells: on white fragility and speaking up

It’s been two weeks since the election, and I’ve been struggling to find something to say. Somehow life has to keep moving, we have to keep going … but it’s difficult to come here and continue reviewing Redeeming Love when it feels like the entire world is going up in flames. On the other hand I don’t want to continue re-iterating what you’re likely seeing through the rest of your social media/blogging channels, and as important as it is for us to be aware of the steps Trump is taking, I don’t want to merely add to the noise.

I went to a march and protest in DC the Saturday after the election. We started at a candlelight vigil, singing 70s-era protest songs and “Hallelujah,” and it was amazing to be with thousands of people who were grieving as much as I was. Then, thousands more of us marched to the Trump hotel– the one he’s asking foreign dignitaries and diplomats to stay in when they come to Washington– and shouted “Islamaphobia is not America” and “My Body My Choice” and “Black Lives Matter.” That whole experience was cathartic, and I plan on taking more actions in the future as they are necessary. I also attended the local county meeting of the Democratic party last night, and I’m going to become involved with organizing on that level. I can’t sit on my hands and watch the world burn. I encourage all of you to take whatever action you can, whatever it is.

Which brings me to the topic of today, which is part criticism, part education, and part encouragement for my fellow social justice advocates and progressives. In speaking with people over the past two weeks about ways to get involved and stand up for vulnerable people– especially Muslims and people of color– I’ve been seeing a common theme. It’s certainly not new, and it’s something I’ve struggled with until relatively recently. People with privilege– white, straight, male, Christian, etc– frequently want to do what’s right, but they feel like they’re “walking on eggshells.” They want to be an ally, but they don’t want to say or do the wrong thing. Many of us feel anxiety or nervousness about racial issues in particular.

I would like to gently and lovingly and directly say that this feeling of “walking on eggshells” is based in a lie, and one we believe because our privilege has made us incredibly arrogant. I don’t say this to be mean or harsh, but because I believe it’s the truth, and one I had to learn for myself sometimes painfully.

To be bluntly honest, I started this blog because I was bored. I’m fortunate now to have a job that only asks me to work twice a week, but three years ago I didn’t have that. I was stuck at home, working on periodic freelance editing contracts and watching TV the rest of the time. After a few months I started writing a blog … and now I’m here. I’m an activist, a professional writer, I’ve been interviewed for multiple BBC radio shows, for the Washington Post and Marie Claire, gave a talk at the Gay Christian Network, and now I’m being published at major feminist websites and helping to organize state politics.

I didn’t intend to become a feminist activist. I almost literally stumbled into it on accident because I started talking about my personal experiences with fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism… and now I’m considered an expert in my field. It’s weird, and mind-boggling. Coming to this the way I did meant that there were more than a few rough patches. I had no choice but to learn as I went, and it was not always sunshine and rainbows.

For a long time I was so incredibly nervous about messing it all up. When you’re first thrown into social justice, it can be incredibly overwhelming. It’s so hard to catch up and learn all the ropes. Is it trans or trans*? African-American or black? What is a polite way to engage with a hypervisible black woman on twitter? How do I find resources? How can I figure out who’s credible and who isn’t? It’s a lot.

Getting started did make me feel like I was walking around on eggshells. When there is that much to try to absorb all at once, how do you even begin without being afraid you’re going to make a mistake?

Here’s where the lie and the arrogance come in: we think it’s possible to avoid making mistakes.

I believed for a long time that I could do enough research and get enough education and listen hard enough to the right people for long enough and that would mean I was ready to be a “social justice warrior” and work for all the causes I believed in. If I worked hard enough at it, I could say everything I wanted to say without any blunders or missteps. I wanted to be a good ally. I wanted to be a part of Jesus’ mission to liberate the oppressed and set the captive free, and I certainly didn’t want to hurt anyone while doing it.

I was so incredibly arrogant to think that was even remotely possible. I was blind to just how much my whiteness could affect me– that my whiteness would affect me. And not only did I believe the arrogant lie that a white person could avoid making any mistakes when talking about racial justice, I was also prioritizing my own fear over doing what was right. I was terrified of being “called out” if I did or said something wrong … so, sometimes, I didn’t do anything. Instead of speaking up, I’d let my anxiety about screwing up keep me silent.

That was my white privilege in action… or inaction, really.

We can’t let our pride get in the way of taking steps, of using our voice and our privilege on the behalf of the oppressed. We have to be humble enough to know that we will fuck up. It is inevitable. We will say something racist. We will say something homophobic, or transphobic, or biphobic, or sexist. We have to be willing to speak up anyway, but we have to do so while practicing humility and listening. It would be just as wrong to let our fervor carry us away from the marginalized we’re supposed to be fighting for, which has happened time and time again in progressive circles. We can’t shield ourselves from criticism– either through saying nothing, or refusing to see when we said something wrong.

I think what this all comes down to is that I’m asking us to be bold. To set aside our white fragility and get to necessary work of fighting for justice and equality for everyone– even when we’re uncomfortable, even when we make mistakes.

Photo by Jorge Andrade
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  • Annie

    I beg to differ. Personally, I am worried about being called out, not because I arrogantly believe I won’t ever say anything stupid, but because people on both sides of polarizing issues in our society have allowed the level of discourse to be degraded to a point where those we disagree with are often mercilessly insulted and berated for their beliefs, opinions, or even mistakes. I have seen this far too many times on my university campus in recent months. Generally there are plenty of people open to honest and vulnerable conversation on both sides of any issue, but the inability to respect the dignity of the other side happens on both sides of any “hot topic” social justice issue right now. This behavior is preventing many from joining in the effort to make positive change happen in our society, not arrogance.

    • I’m not saying that’s not a problem anywhere– I’ve experienced this, and probably will on the future.

      But to be blunt I still think this post applies and white people need to get over it. The vast majority of people having this conversation are *not* like what you’ve described, and I do think it’s masculine or white or hetreo fragility allowing us to feel like having our fee-fees hurt gives us the right to exempt ourselves from even bothering to try.

      Again, I’m not denying that people on both sides can get uncomfortable, even nasty. But there is a power differential there and your comment does flatten that. A Nazi berating a black person is not the same as a black person being angry about the fucking shit they have to put up with.

      Maybe that wasn’t your intention, but your comment didn’t make that clear and it needs to be said.

      • Annie

        Wow thanks for replying! I’ve never really contributed to a forum like this before, so it’s pretty exciting for me to get a response.

        I’m not sure that my intent was communicated super clearly. You mention in your reply that concern for hurt feelings is an inhibitor to speaking out, but that’s not quite what I’m getting at. I’m speaking more to the sense of moderate to extreme exasperation many (or maybe only a significant “some”) people feel when their attempts to contribute to a conversation result in a very impassioned response which lacks any attempt to create meaningful dialogue.

        I am currently typing this in a lecture (shame on me, I know) and this very thing just happened! Students sitting near me didn’t bother to bring up their opinions to the entire class because they have resigned themselves to the fact that no one will bother to listen to what they actually have to say and will instead respond with mudslinging. Unfortunately, this happens all too often, at least in my particular university community. (I should note that I go to a very large, very diverse school with a students from a huge spread of socio-economic backgrounds and cultures, so this (in)action is not the result of a small, cloistered college environment where a majority of students come from the same background and hold the same viewpoint.)

        I understand what you are saying. I appreciate the fact that you use your platform to bring awareness to social justice issues and that you are taking a stand for so many people in our society today. I’m merely trying to contribute to this conversation by pointing out my own experience and express my desire for the creation of more spaces where humans can communicate with and learn from other humans without fear of hurt, shame, or humiliation. I think providing those spaces will alleviate some of the “walking on eggshells” you describe in your initial post.

        • I’m glad you’re venturing into discussion! I do try to respond at least somewhat regularly to commenters, especially new faces. 🙂

          Like I said– I do agree that what you’ve described happens, and happens more often than it should.

          Coming at this from the other side, though, there’s a question worth asking. For example, a friend of mine is latinx and one of the most patient and compassionate people I know. I’m not exaggerating when I say she has the patience of a saint, and I’ve watched her engage in discussion with some pretty … lets say “opinionated” people with grace. Today, what almost any person would see as a reasonable, polite conversation ended with the white man telling her that she was a “baseball bat,” and that her behavior precludes discussion and he wasn’t going to bother talking to her anymore because of the way she treated him… which had been incredibly more than fair.

          As a feminist who talks about some pretty contentious topics, and who can be blunt but goes out of her way to be welcoming to differing points of view … I have been told *hundreds* of times that simply being upset/angry etc makes me impossible to deal with, and that being angry about, for example, a convicted rapist getting off with a few weeks in prison is going to make men like him feel like they can’t talk to me.

          Are there people from marginalized groups being nasty? Yes. I’ve experienced that first hand. However, in my experience, most of the time when white people or –in my particular case, since I’m a feminist– men are saying “your tone/emotions/expression/word choice/whatever makes me feel like I can’t participate,” what is usually happening is they’re being affected by their masculine or white fragility.

          And sometimes, it’s straight up because they’re being racist or misogynistic and that sort of speech isn’t being tolerated in as many places any more, and racists and misogynists are really unhappy about that. I will admit I tend not to care much about whether or not a misogynist feels like he can “engage” with me.

  • A. Archer

    Longtime reader, first-time commenter…I first want to say I’m glad to see you blogging again.

    I agree that this kind of white fragility is a problem, but I see its cause a little bit differently. I’ve known numerous people with this issue and have even felt that way myself, and in no case has it ever seemed to me like arrogance–any more than a teen evangelical girl’s clinging to the conviction that she can and must be perfectly modest and chaste at all times, inside and out, is born of arrogance. I.e., it’s not that we’re so arrogant we think we’re perfect and can thus avoid ever making a mistake–it’s that we’ve accepted a message that we MUST avoid ever making a mistake. Because there’s no such thing as a minor mistake–they’re all horrible and unforgivable and make you an innately and incurably bad person.

    In fact, one of my best friends…whom I met in the fundy private school we helped each other survive as teens…and I have talked about how current tumblr-style leftism among those slightly our juniors can sometimes feel as strict and punishing as Christian fundamentalism, with original sin replaced by privilege, minus any possibility of salvation.

    However, it seems in my experience like a mostly “white-on-white” problem: young white lefties excoriating other white lefties in order to boost their own apparent standing. The POC’s I’m close to, online and IRL, seem generally more clear-headed about what the problems are and how to solve them. The same seems to go for GLBT folks. Yet another reason to listen to them.

    My hope is that if anything remotely good comes out of the orange disaster that’s struck our county, it will be for those progressives who have been prey to the temptation to attack people they actually agree with 99.9%, or 99%, or even just 90%, to readjust their perspective, so we can all unite to support and defend each other against those who are 1000% against us. Because it’s going to take all of us.

    • Lucy

      As a white autistic who went to a private special ed school that emotionally abused me and was VERY concerned about its own image, I second that. Furthermore, I might also add that for white autistics, it may seem shameful to them to consider that they might experience discrimination for being autistic because how dare they be disingenuous, especially since some of them experience ableism without knowing ableism actually is a thing (this can even lead to white autistics inaccurately concluding that autistics don’t really experience discrimination because the glaring signs of discrimination against autistics are their fault somehow. Furthermore, some of them might have only had terms like “reverse racism” to describe such things as a black teacher being openly ableist towards them, even though it is actually an instance of ableism and “punching sideways”; if the autistic were also black, it would be “punching down” (and yes, that does happen). I know that learning what ableism was cleared a lot of things up for me. Also, if you yourself are only experiencing discrimination for being neurodivergent and not other reasons, you may not realize that is discrimination, as you may have only received a whitewashed definition of discrimination (you know, the one that includes mainly the worst examples, like genocide, slavery, lynching, etc. and that’s basically it except when it’s specified that the lesser things like not being hired are for NO reason at all that does not have to do with the person’s character, even though in real life there are superficial “good” reasons offered for even racial discrimination).
      Also, the kind of talk used in the social justice discourse often superficially feeds into the kind of talk autistics already get about social screwups, so if they do make a social justice error, they may be absolutely devastated. And yes, that talk often involves the idea of how you should never ever make a social mistake bigger than accidentally bumping into someone and IMMEDIATELY offering a deep and profuse apology, or else you are nothing but a pathetic screwup (that’s if you are lucky enough to have the implied standard even be that low). For example, the “your fave is problematic” talk resembles the kind of messages they already get about the things they are interested in, because they are already told their interests are problematic, especially if they are not exactly in line with everybody else’s. Not to mention, some of the phrases they have to avoid may make literal sense to them; for instance, when they hear “all lives matter” they think “Well that’s a no-brainer. Of course all lives do matter, without exception, so it’s ridiculous that people get marginalized”. Of course, someone who uses the phrase “all lives matter” completely literally, as I mentioned, would of course be mistaken for someone who uses it as a racist motto; the person hearing that wouldn’t know that when this particular person says “all lives matter”, they mean “marginalization is wrong and shouldn’t happen” because most people who say “all lives matter” DON’T really mean that.
      On top of that, autistics are often falsely accused of being arrogant, narcissistic, and/or self-centered; yes, some autistics may be truly arrogant and self-centered, but far too often those accusations really are false, as was the case with me. A note to my fellow autistics; arrogant and self-centered people have a pattern of mostly worrying about themselves, and when they do worry about others, it is always about how it will reflect on themselves (i.e. helping someone only to make themselves look good or feel like they are a good person, not to actually make things better for others). Thus autistics are yet another group who need to hear that being afraid of making mistakes is often not arrogance, but the idea that making mistakes is Not Okay.

      • Wow. I know this comment was from 23 days ago but I just have to reply because this is so totally insightful. I have autism but I haven’t put much thought into figuring out what that means in terms of big-picture things like privilege, social patterns, culture, what’s seen as “normal”- the kind of things that feminism talks about. (I was diagnosed when I was 23.) All my experiences just feel “normal” to me- I’ve never really thought in terms of “that’s an example of discrimination” or thought about what life must be like for people who don’t have sensory issues/ phobias/ etc like I do (like wow, that must be SO NICE to never have situations where some kind of sensory stimulus is completely overwhelming and nobody else seems to mind and they all think you’re “overreacting” and you have to make a decision between doing what you need to do to protect yourself, even if other people judge you for it, and just trying to act normal and internalizing the message that your sensory pain doesn’t matter and you need to just “get over it” and accept that other people don’t care- wow, what would like be like if I was NEVER in situations like that? It’s hard to even imagine.)

        • Lucy

          Yeah, I’m in a good situation right now where that hardly ever happens, but it sure ain’t “never”. I still get misjudged and made fun of (by grown adults who never grew out of schoolyard bullying) sometimes, and those are bad days. They bug me.

  • Stephanie Gertsch

    I think learning the term “sealioning” can also help in the context where a privileged person engages in what they think is a respectful way but nevertheless receives extremely strong pushback. Some questions, not matter how politely stated are both A) extremely offensive and B) something the other side has heard a million times before and answered in detail. For example, if you go into a LGBT discussion with “But cannot we entertain for just a moment the fact that trans people are unwittingly reinforcing the gender binary?” you’re gonna have a hard time. 😛

    I guess, if someone is getting consistently negative responses to questions on a certain topic, maybe it’s time to back off and either just listen for a bit or ask open-ended clarifying questions so you get a better sense of what the heck they’re actually talking about.

  • Ysolde

    I know this feeling even as a transgender lesbian I am still white and decently well off. So I have made any number of mistakes with regards to non-white and poor issues.

  • I agree, but honestly– when I make a mistake, and apologize, and ask for more information, and the person refuses to accept my apology and goes on berating me, and then all his or her friends pile on; and when I apologize again and the shark-feeding frenzy continues, and my response of confusion and distress is mocked as “white tears” — I’m going to turn around and leave the conversation, and never come back. There’s such a thing as self-preservation.

    (For the record, the conversation was not about race or gender issues, but about my misunderstanding of a certain group of pagans.)

  • “I believed for a long time that I could do enough research and get enough education and listen hard enough to the right people for long enough and that would mean I was ready to be a “social justice warrior” and work for all the causes I believed in. If I worked hard enough at it, I could say everything I wanted to say without any blunders or missteps.”

    This sounds just like purity culture.