Many readers, maybe about half, seemed spectacularly resistant to accepting that anything wrong happened in that Kirkland yogurt shop incident that ended with police telling a black man to leave. A sociologist who got her Ph.D. at the UW coined a term for this phenomenon: white fragility.
“He was acting suspicious. The first thing I would have thought of would have been child molester.”
“Why didn’t he check in at the yogurt store or show some credentials to announce what he was doing? This is not a racism issue … it’s manners.”
“He set the whole thing up to get publicity and people were dumb enough to give it to him. Shame on you.”
Dear fellow white people: With all respect, we have a problem. The one I’m going to talk about today was given a name some years ago by a sociologist, who noticed that when stories involving race came up, many white people reacted, shall we say, a tad defensively.
As The New Yorker put it: “(Robin DiAngelo) noticed that white people are sensationally, histrionically bad at discussing racism.”
DiAngelo, who got her Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004, dubbed this phenomenon “white fragility,” and has a new book by the same name. It’s a “disbelieving defensiveness” that we whites persistently show about issues of race, often taking our denials to the point of absurdity.
My email in-tray these past few days could fill a chapter in her book.
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Last week I wrote about a black man, Byron Ragland, a parental-visitation supervisor who had the cops called on him after he accompanied a white mother and her child to a store in Kirkland to get frozen yogurt for the kid.
By now everyone who was within a mile of this incident has apologized — the store owner, the yogurt chain, the police, the city of Kirkland.
Yet despite these apologies by the people involved, hundreds of readers have insisted in emails and phone calls to me that not only did nothing wrong happen here, but race couldn’t possibly have had a thing to do with it (many of these readers identified themselves as being white, though not all).
Some concocted elaborate alternative sets of facts, or asked obtuse hypothetical questions, in service of willfully misunderstanding the story. Such as the one above, in which Ragland was supposed to “check in” and “show credentials” at, yes, a fro-yo shop. Because he did not do this, it followed that he deserved to have the police called on him.
At the risk of lapsing into the tediously obvious, I have been out for ice cream with kids dozens of times. I don’t think I’ve ever bought anything for myself, because … wait for it … I was there for the kids. Suspicious! And then I sat around waiting, often at a distant table so I could get some peace checking my phone. Child molester!
Others tried out preposterous analogies.
“Try bringing a sack lunch to Canlis, stroll through the door, invite your friends and bring your own booze. Pretty close to the same thing,” hypothesized another reader.
I’ll repeat, slower this time: Ragland went there with a mom and kid who bought ice cream. So no, not at all the same as guerrilla drinking at Canlis.
It went on like this. Some readers said Ragland should have smiled more. Some said he should have worn a badge. Dozens of readers called him a cheapskate and a loiterer for not buying yogurt himself, even though he was working and was with people who did.
One reader said that as a middle-aged white man he has a personal policy of never going to Chuck E. Cheese’s by himself. So therefore, by some transitive property of racial math, this Kirkland incident was Ragland’s fault and didn’t involve bias of any kind.
“Is the door to the street open at Seattle Times headquarters?” wrote another. “Can a black man who does not work there double up and stroll in behind you (not Jerry Large) and find a place to sit and hang out?”
Do I really have to point out that The Seattle Times is not a frozen-yogurt store, and so not a public accommodation? I guess I do.
My white tribe, or at least a portion of it: You are laboring conspicuously hard to not see what’s right in front of your noses.
DiAngelo in her writings argues that white fragility comes from an understandable source. We whites don’t feel race much, so when it pops up in ways like the yogurt-shop story, it’s so beyond our own experiences that we cast about for other explanations.
But it can turn irrational and pernicious. It can have the effect of papering over our own implicit biases. Most dangerously, it seeks, when confronted with a story like this one, to try to re-center the world back to a place of “racial equilibrium and comfort” — at least for us, she writes (DiAngelo is white).
“If the cops cleared everything up, then what’s the problem?” wondered a reader. “All the articles I could find on the subject just focus on the negative. They forget to mention that it ended up alright.”
So, nothing to see here. Everybody return to your stations.
I don’t know what should happen now in this case. I hope the police there change their mall-cop ways. I don’t agree with the protesters Tuesday, including Ragland, who called for the shop owner to lose his business license.
Everyone deserves a chance to grow and learn. That probably won’t happen through threats. But likewise it can’t or won’t happen if it’s just waved away — something many of my tribe also seem unaware only they have the luxury to do.