Why So Fragile, America?

We’re all witness to a lot of fragility right now. It’s on our TV screens, in our former high school friend’s Facebook posts, on the timeline of that person you followed on Twitter because they said something funny that one time. We have become accustomed to the prevalence of this fragility throughout US culture and notice it less and less, but the threat of its presence only increases our inability to confront difficult issues as a larger society—leaving those difficult issues entrenched.

Robin DiAngelo created the concept of fragility through her work on white fragility. She specifically states that White Fragility is the expectation of “racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress.”. I posit that this fragility carries over into other majoritized identities in the US. When we’re on the favored side of the white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist patriarchy we’re shielded from criticism and conflict about our identities and we don’t have to tolerate stress from confrontation about those identities. So in the same way that white people develop an inability to tolerate racial stress, cisgender men develop an inability to tolerate stress about their maleness and cisgendered-ness, heterosexuals develop an inability to deal with stress about their heterosexuality, and so on.

As I mentioned before, fragility is all over the place right now. We have a presidential candidate whose fragility is off the charts, there is an occasionally trending hashtag on twitter called #MasculinitySoFragile, we’ve got NFL fans complaining that Colin Kaepernick is protesting in the wrong way (even though it’s peaceful) and owners calling Kaepernick a traitor, and we’ve got cisgender people flipping out over Trans* people having access to public bathrooms and challenging gender norms like language.

Donald Trump can’t take any criticism without deflecting it. He gets caught on tape bragging about sexually assaulting women he just met and then tries to tell us that what someone else did was worse. Several women come forward to tell their stories about Trump assaulting them and he tells us it’s a corporate media conspiracy to slander his name and rig the election in favor of his opponent.

#MasculinitySoFragile was started as a way to point out the ways in which the rigid views of masculinity—which cisgender men hold as sacred—are protected and preserved. The hashtag usually highlights products, news stories, and internet accounts or outlets that reinforce the rigid notion of what masculinity is.

The white people complaining about Colin Kaepernick’s protest can’t understand how this is an important gesture in the quest for justice because justice is already achieved in their eyes so what else is there to complain about. They’ve been shielded from racial injustice so there is a no reason to protest. So when someone protests, their racial frame can’t compute that it’s grounded in real experiences. And then there are the owners and team executives who can’t understand why a player would take a political stand because they’ve demonstrated they care about nothing but the profit margins and this may cut into those margins.

Then we have cisgender people clinging to their gender binary by “protesting” Target’s decision to have gender neutral restrooms in all of its stores or voting to pass laws that target Trans people or TV personalities fixating on whether or not a Trans actress has had gender confirmation surgery. And we can’t even allow something simple like changing the ways in which we use gender pronouns in the English language. Which, by the way, has changed and morphed a lot over the years. One of the beautiful things about language is it’s an invention people made up, so we can change the rules as we go to be more inclusive of people.

All of these very public and prevalent examples are of majoritized people displaying their fragility and trying to further entrench us in the status quo. We see these things on the news and they demonstrate a pattern of inability to take criticism, understand the existence of different experiences, identities, and perspectives, and deal with the stress or cognitive dissonance of these differences. So, if nearly everyone is fragile to some extent, what do we do?

Dr. DiAngelo has some thoughts on this. Specifically she says, “When whites only notice “raced others,” we reinscribe Whiteness by continuing to posit Whiteness as universal and non-Whiteness as other.” So when white people don’t notice that we’re in a room full of other white people, we continue the mindset and narrative that Whiteness is universal. We need to talk about it. We need to notice when we’re in places that only represent and serve majoritized people and work to change those environments. This will lead to discomfort, but as Dr. DiAngelo continues, “a continual retreat from the discomfort of authentic racial engagement results in a perpetual cycle that works to hold racism in place.” Backing away from our discomfort perpetuates the problem and that’s what the reactions I’ve outlined above are. Those actions are intentionally backing away from any discomfort or any confrontation from the dominant narrative which just reinforces that status quo narrative.

As with most problems, you can’t address fragility until you know it’s a problem. That’s a big first step to achieve and it starts with discussions and educating ourselves to recognize the problem. Then we can become aware of the issue in order to learn “the micro level of analysis, and move to the macro” so we can learn “from the individual out to the interpersonal, societal and institutional.” In this way we can see how our individual attitudes and behaviors are influenced by and reflect larger systemic issues. For example, when we reject the notion that “they” is an acceptable singular gender neutral pronoun, we side with institutions who also only see the gender binary. As a result, it reduces the momentum for change in both individual behavior and institutional behavior to acknowledge the full humanity of trans people.

When we understand how the macro level influences the micro level we develop a better analysis of the current events in front of us. To be on the side of justice we must push for the changes that need to be made for our collective liberation. As Paulo Freire said, “no one can be authentically human while he prevents others from being so.” When we allow our fragility to be our most prevalent trait, that is exactly what we’re doing— preventing others from being authentically human. Let’s work on that and listen to the stories of the oppressed rather than rejecting them outright simply because we’ve never heard it before.

By Aaron Hood

Aaron is a social justice educator currently working in higher education in the Washington, DC, area. When he’s not focused on his work, he is reading, practicing yoga, or supporting Manchester United and DC United. You can find him online at aaronhood.net.