White Fragility and the path to White Depression

Louisa Leontiades Beastly & Beautiful, Psychology

In one of my favourite childhood books which takes place during WWI, a little boy proposes a suitable punishment for the Kaiser.

“Don’t you see,” said Bruce, looking levelly at Susan, out of his blackly blue eyes, “if he was turned into a good man he would understand how dreadful the things he has done are, and he would feel so terrible about it that he would be more unhappy and miserable than he could ever be in any other way. He would feel just awful – and he would go on feeling like that forever.” – Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery

Perhaps it is therefore, simply that many so-called white allies like me have turned into a good–or at least better–people. Because the world, this world, is a horrible, horrible place and I feel awful. Gone are the days when I positively affirmed every day in the shower and shared uplifting memes. Now I see these past behaviours as tragic extent of mine and others’ unawareness. I thought if I changed my mindset and concentrated on amplifying positive activism, that the world I wanted would resettle itself with my aligned actions. And whilst the psychology of self fulfilling prophecies is still valid, the positive world can only be positive because privileged folk don’t understand the enormity of the tragedy and the misery we have wrought. Why must we find or otherwise invent a silver lining for everything? If I am to hazard a guess, mainly for our own protective buoyancy. Our life vests of privilege allow us to ignore how treacherous these waters really are.

So some years ago–rightly or wrongly–I stopped looking away, I stopped trying to find the light in tragedy all the time and I saw the terrible, awful inevitability of oppression, of my own privilege and of the hardship my intersectional friends faced every single day. I signal boosted important intersectional issues, supported initiatives, albeit with little tangible impact. I gave money, more money than I had to give and I stopped smiling, because the money was not enough. It just got eaten up by the system. I tried to give emotional support, but I couldn’t give enough of that either. I am white. I don’t live intersectional issues and the best support I can give is by shutting up, listening and trying to effect change within my own social group – that of white women. So I shut up and I listened. I called out in my own group, I called in. Very little changed and I was alone in my outrage. Few friends wanted to hear what I heard and continue to hear. Terror and tragedy screaming its way across the world untempered by any silver positivity we once might have had. For some months now, I have been barely treading water in unfiltered sadness.

I’ve had to scale back on my outreach initiatives to my intersectional peers. Not because their fight is less worthy, and not because they don’t still need my support. I still support financially but my emotional capacity is spent. I only had a limited amount–for my friends, for my family–but not for the entire world. And any drops of emotional support I have given have also disappeared, consumed by the awfulness of their plight. My privileged sympathy makes not one damn of a difference. And I cannot see anything but darkness anymore. I can no longer give emotional support outside of my most immediate circle.

The doctors say, in various ways, that there is something wrong with me. One told me that I have no boundaries. Another said that my sadness regulation machine is broken. That the extent of sadness I feel in relation to the world events is not normal or productive. They say they are normal, and that I am not. They are also white, male and privileged. And I regard them with suspicion. My question is now, what is wrong with them that they don’t feel the way I feel? A rapist has been elected as president of the United States. A cruel, stone-cold sycophant is running Britain. More fascist grime is coming out of the woodwork across Europe and there’s no doubt far more I don’t see. That I haven’t seen in the past.

So I am normal, they are not. But it is certainly true that I am far less productive and that’s not helpful, for anyone because despite my sadness, I need to be able to act, to fight and right now I cannot.

One of the causes of my sadness is what they call ‘white fragility’ even though what has been defined as the consequence of white fragility does not exactly fit me. In her paper DiAngelo defines white fragility as ‘a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves’ such as anger, fear and guilt. But I do not feel anger, fear or guilt as a consequence of racial stress. Those have never been my strongest defensive moves anyway.

For one thing and at a personal level, I’ve been working on my awareness of structural oppression for almost a decade. I have actively de-insulated myself from racial stress as far as I am able to in a country which has never had slavery, and which is predominently white and homogenous. Although I did not build the system, I was born to a system that is racist, classist, sexist… and I played the part prescribed to me, as we all do. So it is not only white fragility, it is also all the other fragilities that come from being cis, middle-class etc. It is looking in the mirror at the global stage of politics and seeing how ignorant my own peers are. It’s meant the loss of family and friends. That’s been painful but it’s been years in the making. I know that I do less harm than I used to. I know that I work actively on this. So no, it’s not anger, fear or guilt, or at least only a decent human amount. Enough to keep me motivated and moving forward.

It’s that my predominant survival mechanism is adapation. I rarely fight, flee or freeze. I default to fawning–that’s to say, adapting to my environment to such an extent that I see the positive in it (as per the Stockholm syndrome). I believe then that if you extend ‘white fragility’ to include the defensive move of fawning which is the most common white woman survival mechanism, that minds like mine are trying and failing to cope with the enormity of the horror. Minds which fawn in order to survive have few boundaries after all, they must be open to being shaped predominantly by the environment in which they find themselves. And right now my mind is contorting out of shape because it cannot take the horror of what surrounds it. My mind is warping as if it is on acid. I’ve taken acid before. Yes, it’s very much like that. I’m trapped on a horror trip. I am drowning.

What kind of world have we created that the reality of it creates trauma and sends us into depression? That I must be medicated to cope with it? With Trump and May directing their abusive agendas, I am living in a parallel, darker universe overridden with corruption, crime and injustice. The powers of denial I once used as protection for my mind have been popped. I thought I was ready to swim in the darkness I might find. But now there’s no life vest, I’m overwhelmed by the rushing waters of deep, nameless dread. And whilst I sink away from the surface, all I can think about are the intersectional folk we have forced to sink or swim like this for centuries.