Exploring the white fragility narrative

abstract black and white image of a city scape and torn edges

Editor’s note:
This feature is a reflective piece between two OSSTF/FEESO, Generation X women. One, Jennifer Seif, identifies as Black; the other, Nanci Henderson, identifies as white. Both were incredibly disturbed by what happened on May 25 to George Floyd and by the continued assaults on Black bodies elsewhere, including in Canada. Separately they were reeling from these ongoing events when they both attended the Remote Annual Meeting of the Provincial Assembly (Remote AMPA) in June 2020 where for the second year in a row, members called out systemic racism in OSSTF/FEESO. Curiously, both women also planned to read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism over the summer. Jennifer and Nanci met as members of the provincial Communications & Political Action Committee of OSSTF/FEESO in the 2019–2020 Federation year. At the time, Nanci held the position of Chair of the committee and Jennifer was a brand new member to the group. However, both Jennifer and Nanci came to their meeting of the minds with years of political action behind them. Both women brought to this discussion experiences gained in various local leadership roles with the Federation. The authors of this reflection undertook a series of conversations from June to September 2020 as they unpacked the ideas contained in White Fragility. What became more important than their reflections on DiAngelo’s writing was their cross-racial dialogue centred on sharing, listening, questioning, and deconstructing their individual understandings of race, as well as their own lived experiences as individuals within racial groups. 

Our reckoning
“Taking responsibility for our actions is much harder than finding someone or something to blame.”

When on May 25, 2020 George Floyd’s neck compressed under the cumulative weight of centuries of systemic racism, most of humanity felt the instinctive reflex to disavow the racist violence seen glaring through our COVID-isolated screens. Together we felt sick to our stomachs, as we listened to pundits, advocates, journalists, protestors, and educators explain exactly what cracked under the weight of Constable Derek Chauvin’s knee. On the surface George Floyd was dead. Days and nights of protests, violence, and looting followed the horizontal lynching of a Black man by Minneapolis police. Many people likened this emotional unrest to the early 1990s when Rodney King’s beating was televised, along with the acquittal of the police who brutally attacked him. For some, Floyd was yet another Black man, friend, neighbour, brother, son, father, husband dead at the hands of police. For others, while they understood that what happened to Floyd was terrible, they wanted to change the subject to the wrongs of violent looting instead of the decades of dead men slain by police. After all, we were all living through a global pandemic where we were supposed to be at home social distancing. To be clear, everyone is at a different point in their understanding of racism, especially in Canada where we make sport out of self-righteously comparing our piety to Americans. However, it’s 2020 and this article sets out to suggest some ways to “raise the bar and close the gap” for education workers. We need to have a reckoning with our flawed and incomplete understanding of our Canadian brand of racism, and it must be tied to our colonial, settler roots. The reckoning is nigh. It is time for whites to self-educate because ignorance is no longer acceptable and plausible deniability has no space in public education that espouses inclusion for all.

Why is cross-racial dialogue difficult?

Nanci: My personal world has been, and continues to be, blindingly white. When I picked up White Fragility I was VERY open to the concepts, but I wanted someone to dialogue with. It was a risk to approach Jennifer because I didn’t want to place her in the role of “educator” and put that labour on her. I decided to risk a misunderstanding in order to uncover the potential for growth and healing. These conversations revealed to me how ignorant I was, which was startling. As I answered the questions that DiAngelo raised, I started to understand that as a white woman with limited interactions with people of colour, I had to work hard to understand what it is like to live with an imposed group, racial identity. Whites fight this by using all the other intersecting “isms.” I was unconsciously adept at changing the discussion from race to ANY other identity construct such as class, gender, sexuality, ability, region, job class, family structure…ANYTHING but race. DiAngelo’s work illuminated this defense mechanism in me. My world tilted when I had to just sit in a white, group identity and be seen solely in those terms. The hardest part, now, is seeing my ignorance reflected in others. 

Jennifer: The hardest part about talking about race is having to switch gears based on my audience. Before 2020, my own discussions of my Blackness were tempered and restrained. Now, it is no longer personally palatable for me to ignore racial tension, and racist action and their effects on me and others. My selective silence positioned my often painful reality in a non-disruptive way that was comfortable to my non-Black peers.

Understand that I am not an expert on Black history nor do I speak on the unique experiences of Black people. When approached by Nanci to participate in an open dialogue on race, I was at the first stage of reconciling and reframing my feelings of anger, hopelessness, and frustration. Nanci’s ask inspired and motivated me to see the opportunity and benefit of a candid conversation on race. We made a commitment to be each other’s critical friend. 

From your perspective, what is the value of DiAngelo’s work?

Nanci: Look. I have a Canadian History degree, I’m a feminist, and LGBTQ2SI ally. I have read the Truth and Reconciliation recommendations, taught a unit on slavery, and incorporated Black History Month into the first unit of the second semester of ENG4CI. I’m still shocked that I could not connect, intuitively, the consequences of colonialism in Canada that produced the Indian Act, the residential school system, the Chinese Head tax, Japanese internment, and the razing of Africville, with the current, ongoing normalized and systemic racism in Canada for people of colour. This glaring disconnect has given me pause. I did not comprehend. I did not connect the dots that needed connecting. It’s embarrassing. So, the value is that DiAngelo connected dots and gave me the conceptual framework to understand my past learning. DiAngelo’s work made me want to take a wrecking ball to the system. However, I had to do the work on myself first, so DiAngelo led me to read Desmond Cole, Robyn Maynard, James Baldwin, and more. Ultimately, I felt that if I want to be part of the solution I have to re-educate myself.Jennifer: White Fragility was the perfect jumping-off point for our candid conversation. Over the past couple of months, I had a burning curiosity about the construct of whiteness and how it is maintained. White Fragility offered simple explanations on the constructs of race. It highlights how racism is embedded within society. DiAngelo heightened my understanding of how my Blackness is perceived within white constructs. 

I have been socialized to accept the status quo. I have been taught both explicitly and implicitly to temper my Blackness in white spaces in order to make white people feel comfortable with my presence, to adapt and be skilled at code-switching and maneuvering between my Black and white worlds, and to expect to be judged on the colour of my skin before my skills are put to the test. In other words, I have to show receipts to prove that I have earned a seat at the table. 

What have you learned during this cross-racial dialogue?

Nanci: Initially, I discovered that I would unconsciously change the conversation away from race to all the other “isms” when we talked because of my inability to relate to a white, group identity construct. I wasn’t used to seeing myself through a racial lens of whiteness. I’m used to seeing myself as this unique human-Nanci. I needed to practice seeing myself as white Nanci. There is a time to delve into intersectionality and Jennifer and I certainly have, but White Fragility has shown me that this cannot be done before discussing race exclusively. When I acknowledge my unearned privilege or advantage it doesn’t minimize my individual challenges. I can hold both experiences together simultaneously. It means, on top of those challenges, I didn’t have to also manage my race. Most significantly, I have learned that I do not know how Black Canadians experience life. First of all, if I am not experiencing systemic racism, I must be white. Secondly, I don’t have a say over whether or not it is real. As a white Canadian, I have a formidable responsibility to learn. I don’t need to make my social media platforms black for a day. I need to be teachable. I don’t need to be self-righteous. I need to self-assess my language, my assumptions, my awareness, my ignorance and yes, my advantage. It’s internal, not external. 

Jennifer: If anyone says that it is easy to conduct cross-racial dialogue, they are lying to you. It takes delving into deep-seated emotional trauma and responses to get to a point of brave conversations. Our emotions drove us to question ourselves at the most basic level. I recognize that we share commonalities that bond us despite the differences in our race. We are co-conspirators on a journey of deeper understanding, healing, and action.

As my critical friend, Nanci was prepared to unpack the emotions and the uncomfortable conversation surrounding AMPA 2019 and Remote AMPA 2020. The most lavish OSSTF/FEESO 100th year celebrations and decorations could not hide the racial tension that filled the room on the last day of the general assembly. As a first time AMPA delegate coming down from the high of celebrating OSSTF/FEESO, I was reminded of my Blackness in that white space. Witnessing the collective silence and numbness to a fellow Black delegate’s pain following racist remarks and public humiliation forced me to take pause and evaluate my place in that space. I realized in that moment I had to be authentic; I had to clarify and understand. And ultimately, I had to see change. In order to do so, I actually had to get up and remove myself from the floor. 

2020’s OSSTF/FEESO Remote Annual Meeting of the Provincial Assembly was the “in your face awakening” to the systemic forces at play preventing true progress of anti-Black racism within my union. I sat at home, remotely participating in disbelief and rage. I questioned whether or not there was space for me as a Black leader within this organization. I questioned whether or not the organization understood what being an ally meant. I felt emotionally taxed witnessing the effects of white silence.

Nanci: I sat at home in disbelief, but I was immobilized. The meeting ended and I sat staring at the computer monitor ready to fight, but I didn’t know what the words and actions should be. I had already started reading White Fragility and discovering that I needed to unpack the concepts with someone who was not white. I wanted to reach out to Jennifer, but I didn’t know how my message would be received. I did not want to add to the harm, confusion, and pain.

Jennifer: Breaking the silence with Nanci and revealing my raw emotions was healing. We did not talk around the issues of race, but let me be absolutely clear, the work doesn’t end here for Nanci. Now I need her to have honest, difficult conversations around race with her white friends, colleagues, and families. I don’t need to be Nanci’s one Black friend. Now I want her to be a white ally publicly and to say in public what she says to me one on one.

What are the next steps for OSSTF/FEESO in addressing systemic racism?

Jennifer: First, the foundational structure of OSSTF/FEESO, including practices and norms, cannot be fixed overnight. As leaders, we need to be prepared for the uncertainty of change. We need to be ready to be uncomfortable. We need to have the difficult conversations that expose the reasons why access and participation have their limitations to Black members. I hope that tangible goals will be set and that all levels of leadership will be held accountable. I am looking to OSSTF/FEESO to re-evaluate what values and principles we want represented and then to rebuild. More importantly, I need the union to acknowledge that their Black members have experienced severe racial trauma and that the old ways of doing things pile on to that trauma. Finally, I request that OSSTF/FEESO practice racial humility and recognize that active Black membership has a role to play in the dismantling of systematic racism. 

Nanci: We cannot dismantle systemic racism without changing our constitution, bylaws, policies, and practices. We need a complete audit from an outside source and then we need to implement recommendations and dismantle the system that those “in” the system can negotiate easily around those left out. This cannot be a one-time event. To dismantle systemic racism we need to continue to re-evaluate. For instance, some of our members believe that Robert’s Rules of Order is used to keep control in the hands of people savvy in these rules. I have seen these rules used well and loosely. OSSTF/FEESO meetings set their own working norms, but even these are predicated on a structure of knowledge of the rules as the guarantor of power. These rules are used as tools to shut down new ideas, new ways of knowing and expressing, as well as accountability to the membership. This needs to end and we need an overhaul of how we conduct our business.

About Nanci Henderson and Jennifer Seif
Nanci Henderson is a teacher in District 24, Waterloo and Jennifer Seif is a Professional Student Services Personnel (PSSP) member in District 13, Durham and is a current member of the provincial Communications & Political Action Committee.

2 Comments on Exploring the white fragility narrative

  1. Nanci: Look. I have a Canadian History degree, I’m a feminist, and LGBTQ2SI ally. I have read the Truth and Reconciliation recommendations, taught a unit on slavery, and incorporated Black History Month into the first unit of the second semester of ENG4CI. I’m still shocked that I could not connect, intuitively, the consequences of colonialism in Canada that produced the Indian Act, the residential school system, the Chinese Head tax, Japanese internment, and the razing of Africville, with the current, ongoing normalized and systemic racism in Canada for people of colour.”

    This statement is part of the problem. Many people feel that if they teach these events they are doing their part. Being open to these conversations and humbly admitting you do not have the answers is the first step. The second is realising that racialised communities are not the ones to give you the answers.

  2. Jenny Stimac // April 21, 2021 at 1:22 pm // Reply

    Thank you for this conversation and for your courage in making your cross-racial dialogue public.
    As a retired member I just learned about the events at AMPA and Virtual AMPA today.
    My retirement has given me time to reflect on the extent of the racism I was aware of during my
    teaching career. I often feel bad that, as a White educator, I did not take a stand or respond to racist comments or events although I saw myself as opposed to racism.

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