As I write my first column, I am thinking a lot about speech. I am thinking about how an urgent and overdue conversation about racism—on our campus and across our country—has been derailed by a diversionary and duplicitous obsession with the First Amendment. I am thinking about how quickly the conversation has shifted from white supremacy to white fragility—and how this shift is itself an expression of white supremacy.
White fragility refers to a range of defensive behaviors through which white people (or more accurately, people who believe they are white) deflect conversations about race and racism in order to protect themselves from race-based stress. Because white people tend to live in environments where whiteness is both dominant and invisible, they grow accustomed to racial comfort, as a result of which even a small amount of racial stress becomes intolerable. This helps explain why talking about white supremacy can feel more painful to white people than white supremacy itself, why the ostensible “stifling” of debate can feel more pressing than the literal strangulation of Eric Garner and how “free speech” seems more important than Black lives.