Elayne Klasson: Assessing 'White Fragility'
Klass Notes

Elayne Klasson: Assessing 'White Fragility'

The book, White Fragility, appears to have been written for me: a well-meaning progressive. The subtitle of the book is, “Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism”. The author, Robin Diangelo, is an expert in anti-racism. She writes to us well-meaning White folk, those who would never refer to ourselves as racist.

In her book, Deangelo argues how White people react with defensiveness when questions of race are discussed. Before I talk more about her ideas, I want to call myself out on a recent event I am still cringing about.

Here in the Santa Ynez Valley, as small and comfortable as we are, some demonstrations have occurred in the past weeks.

First, there were back-to-back events in Solvang Park — held within a few days of the killing of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis. The horrifying visual of seeing a White policeman press his knee to the neck of an unarmed Black man’s throat for nearly nine minutes, until the life was squeezed out of him, was watched and re-watched. This murder, caught on cell phones of passersby, resulted in people across the world going to the streets to mourn and protest this evil act.

I didn’t count the participants in Solvang Park two weeks ago, but there were more people than I have ever seen gathered at once in our local park. This happened in the middle of a pandemic — when most people have been quarantining to protect themselves and others against COVID-19. We were invited to bring signs and flowers to memorialize the loss of yet another Black person’s life at the hands of police. My husband and I found cardboard boxes and cut them up.

I fetched the markers. In bold letters, my husband wrote his sentiments — an eloquent statement about George Floyd. And then, here it comes — my cringe-worthy moment. I wrote, without thinking too deeply about it, “All lives matter. Stop the violence.” At the time, I didn’t see what was wrong with what I wrote. It stated my peace-loving views.

When we got to the park, we listened to the excellent speakers, some from people of color, others White. We kneeled for nine minutes — astounded at how long it seemed. We thought of George Floyd losing his life in that nine minutes. And from time to time, we held up our signs.

Imagine my surprise, when two young people had the courage to approach me, a person old enough to be their grandmother, and say, “Do you realize that your sign might be offensive to some people?” They spoke from behind their masks, so their expressions were not visible. Yet suddenly, it hit me what was wrong with my sign.

Even before the young people could explain, I said, “Yes, I think I do. I won’t write this on a sign again.” There was no animosity in this exchange, though I must admit, many feelings went through me. Defensiveness was one of them.

“Hey,” I wanted to explain, “I’m a good person. I’m out here in the middle of a pandemic to commemorate and mourn a Black man killed by a White policeman.” But, the door was opened in my brain and in the two weeks since that first protest, I’ve done a lot of thinking and reading.

Of course, all lives matter. But isn’t it condescending, and besides the point, to say that all lives matter, when it is Black men and women who are—case after case, being killed by police violence?

This was even explained to me in a quote from the Bible. (Forgive me for not knowing the passage.) Yes, we care for all the sheep in a flock. But it is the hurt sheep, the injured sheep— these are the ones that we must give our attention to right now.

Black people have been systematically hurt — treated in a racist manner in our nation for centuries — ever since they were first brought to our shores as slaves in the hold of ships. They’ve been damaged by Jim Crow, by segregation, by the income and education and health disparities between people of color and White people. And, they have been killed by the police —the killings too often ignored, unpunished, and swept under the rug. That is why, with indignation, we must shout and write on our signs that, “Black lives matter.”

When I got home, I ripped up my unthinking sign. But, I want to paraphrase what the one and only Beyoncé said: "just because we protest racism, we should not assume we are protesting America." I am a child of an immigrant mother. I love America. But the time has come for all of us to admit that America’s history is steeped in racism.

Last weekend, there was another protest. This one was in front of Veterans Hall in Solvang. The group was demonstrating in support of police.

There were flags and many patriotic signs. There is starting to be traffic again in town, and as we waited for the light to change, my husband and I were stopped in front of the demonstrators. My passenger side window was open. I was almost eye to eye with a young girl. She looked to be about 13. She proudly held aloft a sign that said, “All Lives Matter.”

We met eyes.

I spoke to the girl and said, “Black lives matter.” She looked puzzled and I repeated, without animosity, “Black lives matter.” And I realized that it was a complicated conversation I was trying to simplify. And, that’s the point. We need to be having meaningful talks with each other about race and racism.

Deangelo says we cannot move forward without them.

Elayne Klasson, PhD in psychology, is a writer and recent transplant to the Valley. She was formerly on the faculty at San Jose State University. Her recent novel, Love is a Rebellious Bird, was released in November 2019.

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