Callouts, Bullying and White Fragility

Fellow white people, we need to talk. I doubt the people who need this most are going to read it, but it’s worth a shot.

People get defensive when they’re told not to uncritically support a problematic book. We’re accused of ruining authors’ careers, bullying readers, mobbing innocent people minding their own business. People of Colour, especially Black and Native women, face the brunt of it.

One of the books regularly called out for racism and ableism is Carve the Mark, written by bestselling author Veronica Roth. She’s still a bestseller. She’s fine. We haven’t ruined her career. See also, though the author isn’t quite as famous: Nevernight. (Sidenote: don’t harass anyone whose articles I’ve linked. Don’t be that person.)

The thing is, no one has the power to stop you reading what you want. But when you promote harmful books without even a warning, you are complicit in the hurt they cause. Telling someone a book is problematic–and, if they won’t stop supporting it, the least they could do is be upfront about it–isn’t censorship or bullying. We’re trying to protect the people who could be harmed. This extends to behaviour inspired by these books: posting triggering images, appropriating cultures, using racial slurs, etc. Maybe my priorities are wrong, but the health and safety of marginalised people is more important than the comfort of the privileged.

Now is a good time to discuss white fragility, because the majority of people engaging in this defensive behavior are white (I’m not qualified to comment on those who are not). This paper from the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy is worth a read, given the (white) author Robin DiAngelo coined the term. I have the attention span of a gnat, so I read it in small chunks over time, but even reading a little would be valuable.

In writing this post, I also referred to a number of articles by People of Colour, including this article by Marcus Woolombi Waters, a Kamilaroi man from one of the many Australian Aboriginal groups. I also drew from articles by Monique Judge and June Eric-Udorie, who are black women from the US and UK respectively. Some of you might recognise June Eric-Udorie’s story about how she tried to address a lack of diversity on a publishing industry panel, which resulted in the (white) organiser becoming defensive.

White fragility is the extreme stress response that white people experience when our privilege is called into question. Our upbringing has insulated us from having to think about race, rendering our own race in particular invisible to us even while we reap the benefits. Being forced to confront our privilege is an uncomfortable feeling, one that often results in excessively defensive behaviour.

Judge talks about the circumstances that allow white fragility to have such a foothold:

What those privileges mean is being above reproach and critique and being able to feel safe and comfortable in all spaces, wrapped within a bubble of whiteness.

The result of these circumstances, Waters describes thus:

White fragility leads to feelings of insecurity, defensiveness, even threat. It creates a backlash against those perceived as the “other.”

When our comfort as white people is challenged, often we become defensive, accusing those who call us out of attacking or bullying us. Politeness doesn’t make a difference. This can happen even when the callout is as gentle as can be. The pain we’ve caused marginalised people, especially People of Colour, is pushed to the side.

“But why didn’t they just message the person privately instead of calling them out publicly?” There are two issues with this: 1. You don’t necessarily know they haven’t. Sometimes they do that first and it doesn’t work. 2. Not all people are comfortable with private conversations for a number of reasons, including the fact other people cannot tap in if the conversation gets out of hand.

There is a pattern of trivialisation regarding the issues we’re called out on. Dismissing the issue as “drama” seems to be the order of the day. The thing is, it’s never “just a book” or “just the internet.” The behaviour being called out is part of a long-running pattern of marginalisation woven into the fabric of our society. Trivialising the issue allows white people to feel justified in our anger. Calling out something deemed trivial seems like an overreaction because we’re not accurately interpreting the severity of the hurt we’ve caused. Also, microaggressions are a thing.

There is a trend among those resisting callouts, citing that it aggravates their anxiety or other mental illness, while ignoring that many People of Colour attempting to talk to them are also mentally ill. I’ll refer you to Claribel Ortega’s twitter thread as she is far better-versed in this matter than I am. This is only the first tweet, but please read the whole thing. It’s much shorter than the blog post you’re currently reading.

It’s worth looking at DiAngelo’s list of what causes severe racial distress in white people and therefore sets off defensive behaviours. It puts the “you’re bullying me” arguments into perspective, given they tend to be in response to callouts that fall into the categories below:

• Suggesting that a white person’s viewpoint comes from a racialized frame of reference (challenge to objectivity);
• People of color talking directly about their racial perspectives (challenge to white racial codes);
• People of color choosing not to protect the racial feelings of white people in regards to race (challenge to white racial expectations and need/entitlement to racial comfort);
• People of color not being willing to tell their stories or answer questions about their racial experiences (challenge to colonialist relations);
• A fellow white not providing agreement with one’s interpretations (challenge to white solidarity);
• Receiving feedback that one’s behavior had a racist impact (challenge to white liberalism);
• Suggesting that group membership is significant (challenge to individualism);
• An acknowledgment that access is unequal between racial groups (challenge to meritocracy);
• Being presented with a person of color in a position of leadership (challenge to white authority);
• Being presented with information about other racial groups through, for example, movies in which people of color drive the action but are not in stereotypical roles, or multicultural education (challenge to white centrality).

We need to be aware our discomfort is not comparable to the suffering caused by racism and other forms of bigoted behaviour. If someone says you’ve hurt them, listen. If you’re angry or upset, take a step back and cool down before reacting. Mistakes happen but we need to apologise and change our behaviour so it doesn’t happen again.

The excessive stress response that stems from white fragility has consequences. When our discomfort is treated as more dire than marginalised people’s pain, especially that of Native and Black women, we create an environment that punishes them for speaking out. As Eric-Udorie notes:

For many black people, there comes a point where our silence, rather than our visibility, seems to be safer. When we do speak up, it rocks the boat, and often our disruption comes at a cost.

We need to remember that People of Colour don’t owe us anything, not education, not patience and certainly not forgiveness. If we screw up, that’s on us. Expecting people we’ve already harmed to perform additional emotional labour is unrealistic and smacks of entitlement. Rather, we should listen, learn and do better.

Callouts are designed to protect people at risk of harm. We don’t do them for fun, or to tear other people down. At the end of the day, especially in the YA book community, we’re trying to protect marginalised teens who deserve to be safe.

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