Call it a delayed reality check. Over the past couple of years, the UK's publishing world has become increasingly aware of how much it can exclude the voices and contributions of people of colour and those from marginalised backgrounds. Last week, Waterstones announced they'd hired a woman called Elizabeth Preston to re-launch their Gower Street shop events programme, to mark it as a place of "literary, cultural and intellectual activity." On Tuesday morning, I discovered that the first panel was all-white at the time (Nikesh Shukla was invited but unavailable; Sunny Singh has since been added, with others expected) and I tweeted about what I saw as a problem; here again, writers of colour had been thus far excluded from the conversation.
Preston's response was defensive, which I hadn't anticipated; I hadn't accused her of being racist and I hoped to start a conversation about the dearth of diversity in publishing and how she felt trying to address it. The result? She said she felt attacked, though tweeted that she was "aware the panel is a problem right now; it's something I'm working hard on".
Preston later apologised to me in private, but reflecting on our odd exchange I wondered what it is that makes talking about race so volatile. I realised that this wasn't just about Preston's response to my observation, but a wider issue where some white people find it hard when they're called out on their blind spots around race. It makes them feel uncomfortable, and they often jump to victimhood as a defence or resolve to gaslight people of colour and without hearing out their perspectives.
It turns out there's a term for this: white fragility. You may have seen it bandied about online, but it was actually coined by academic Dr Robin DiAngelo. "It became clear over time that white people have extremely low thresholds for enduring any discomfort associated with challenges to our racial worldviews," DiAngelo wrote in an article outlining just what she means by the term. "We can manage the first round of challenge by ending the discussion through platitudes – usually something that starts with 'People just need to,' or 'Race doesn't really have any meaning to me,' or 'Everybody's racist.' Scratch any further on that surface, however, and we fall apart."
In fairness, DiAngelo is American, so framed her argument around how race is seen as the "third rail" in the US. But that doesn't mean we in the UK don't have our own issues with race and ethnicity. In Britain, racism has always been more systemic, more quietly insidious and, in many ways, hidden. What persists here is the dangerous notion that we don't have a problem with racism – and it means that when prejudice is pointed out, white people aren't often ready to acknowledge the ways it hurts the rest of us. It doesn't matter that ethnic minorities here make up a smaller slice of the population than in the US. We're still prone to what DiAngelo identified as some white people's reactions to someone trying to start a frank conversation about race or racism: white people often "withdraw, defend, cry, argue, minimise, ignore and in other ways push back to regain [their] racial position and equilibrium".
I put this idea to Daisy Buchanan, a white fellow journalist. "I find myself very frightened about any discussions involving race because of the 'calling out'," she said. As an example, she goes back to a time when she wrote a piece about Beyoncé's "Pretty Hurts" video. "A Twitter user – incidentally I think they were white – went for me, using quite abusive language, saying that as a white woman I could not have an opinion on or criticise Beyoncé – and I don't think that's OK either. The culture of 'calling out' in all its forms needs to incorporate civility. A small group of people use it to be unpleasant and unkind, ostensibly presenting themselves as being on the 'side of right' when they're not explaining or discussing, but are just being hurtful."
Filmmaker and friend Catrin Cooper also told me that "when white people are called out, a common response is defence and attack, something that is especially visible in online spaces. With us, we're more concerned about being seen as the 'good white person', rather than facing accountability for our words and actions."
When I asked Preston to "do better" on diversity in her panel, the hostility I received turned into a classic "white fragility' case. It sounded familiar to DiAngelo. "For a long time, I was talking to white people about racism," she told me over Skype. "Consistent patterns appeared; they became predictable."
She continued: "Until white people understand that racism is embedded in everything, including our consciousness and socialisation, then we cannot go forward. The current paradigm we have, with the focus on the individual rather than a system, functions beautifully to protect racism and white advantage." Basically, living in a world where we urge people to "be colourblind" works well if you're part of the ethnic majority – and seen as the default – but stifles conversation around how implicit racial bias affects our lives, from microagressions at the office to BME people opting for "white-sounding" names on CVs to increase their chances of getting hired.
I emailed Preston, to ask how she'd reflected on our exchange. Here's some of what she wrote, in a message that detailed how she felt we were probably both upset by it: "Your criticisms of our events programme were uninformed. My response was simply about the fact I was angry that you had made comments I felt were not justified, and that I already knew – simply by making them on a forum like Twitter (where people do not bother to fact-check) – irrevocable damage was already done. I do not believe our exchange was about race. I would respond to anyone who unjustly criticised my work in the exact same way."
So she didn't believe our exchange, framed around diversity, was about race. 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. Until we can shift the paradigm, where instead of white fragility, white people are able to listen, learn and work to destroy the hierarchies they all benefit from, then we won't be able to progress.
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