White Fragility and the Myth of a Few Bad Apples

Exploring race relations and white fragility in Canada.

Posted Jun 10, 2020

Race relations are at the forefront of everyone’s minds. The latest news from the U.S. is deeply troubling. Politicians around the world, including those in Canada, have had to examine race relations in their country this week.

Some politicians in Canada have claimed that although racism exists in Canada, they are the acts of a few bad apples and that there is no systemic racism in their country.1 Through these statements, these politicians have also displayed their bias that racism is the conscious act held by a few evil people.1 Their reactions also showcase their belief that racism is a U.S. problem, not a Canadian one.1, 2

People have criticized these politicians on the grounds that their statements are out of touch. Unfortunately, results from a recent poll suggest that their behavior is not out of the norm. According to a 2019 survey of 3,111 adult Canadians, two-thirds of respondents argued that all races have the same opportunity to succeed in life.3 This belief exists although (a) over half of the black and Indigenous respondents in the same survey report they regularly experience racial discrimination3 and (b) Marie-Claude Landry, the Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission, released a statement arguing that anti-black discrimination is pervasive in Canada and the belief that it does not exist may be a barrier to addressing racial discrimination in Canada.4  

Racial minorities, including those in Canada, frequently have their experiences negated by their white friends, coworkers, and bosses.5 They are told that they misunderstood their own experiences.6 Because racial minorities in Canada are also often immigrants, they are also told that their perception is the product of their limited grasp of the Canadian way and its strong adherence to multiculturalism. Recognizing that their attempt to share their narrative of racial oppression will not be recognized or that they will be labeled a troublemaker, racial minorities silence themselves.5,6 The white friend, co-worker, and neighbor’s reaction to the racial minority’s experiences is what sociologist Robin DiAngelo has termed "white fragility."5

Exposure to racism is known to have a detrimental effect on people’s mental health. Constant exposure to racial discrimination is linked with increased risk of depression, lower self-esteem, more anxiety, and post-traumatic disorders.Psychological gaslighting that "racism does not exist" is known to exacerbate the detrimental effects of racism on mental health.8 DiAngelo argues that the latter may be a form of racial bullying that is regularly perpetuated by well-intentioned white individuals.5

Overall, these insights highlight the importance of recognizing the existence of racism in countries outside of the U.S. and not creating additional barriers to the eradication of racism. For such steps to happen, people need to be more comfortable discussing racial issues. Experts offer the following advice for discussions about racism.5,9

  1. Recognize that denying the existence of (systemic) racism can be a barrier to reducing/eradicating racism.
  2. Don’t automatically negate a person’s narrative of racism.  
  3. Don’t be hyper-defensive. When you hear someone say that you said something racist, recognize that it is not a critique of your entire character but of the situation.
  4. Recognize that a small, single prejudiced act does not permanently make the person a racist.
  5. Recognize that we all have unconscious biases. We all have good and bad days. Not being racially biased requires constant practice and maintenance. 

The demographic diversity of the “Black Lives Matter” protests in the U.S. and countries like Canada gives us hope that this may be a watershed moment with the potential to end racism. However, perhaps for this to occur, all segments of society must recognize that (systemic) racism exists and society must continue to have more constructive discussions about race relations after the protests stop. Only then, different segments of society can have a better understanding of each other, and reduce social distance across groups, so that maybe true multiculturalism may emerge.

References

4. Canadian Human Rights Commission. (2020, June 2). Statement - Anti-Black racism in Canada: time to face the truth.

5. DiAngelo, R.  (2018). White Fragility: Why It's So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism. Boston, Beacon Press.

6. Van der ValkAnya Malley, A. (Summer 2019). What’s My Complicity? Talking White Fragility With Robin DiAngelo. Teaching Tolerance 62. 

7. Williams, D. and R. Williams-Morris. (2000). Racism and Mental Health: The African American Experience. Ethnicity and Health 5(3/4): 243-268.

9. Smooth, J. (2011, November 15). How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love to Discuss Race. TEDx Talks.