‘Anyone suffering from white fragility are warned,’ Rani Pramesti began, ‘to get over yourselves if anything we say offends you’.
She was the MC for ‘The Leb’s’ session with Michael Mohammed Ahmad at last month’s Melbourne Writer’s Festival.
I settled in. I was going to enjoy this.
‘I’m not shouting,’ Ahmad began. ‘I’m just loud.’
He continued. ‘I’m not angry. I’m an Arab.’
I’d missed it, but apparently, he had confronted and offended the previous Monday on Q&A.
This was going to be great.
It was and I bought his book. (It’s worth a read).
Fragility… It’s not just white.
It comes in multi coloured blotches that reduce the upright to a cowering quiver. It presents itself as a waver in a voice, a thinning of vocal reeds. It constricts breath, crushes lungs and saps strength.
At least that’s how it manifests for me.
And also for others (‘them’) worn out from defending themselves and their rightful and equal place alongside ‘us’.
A fair go, is all that’s sought. Would be easy if we believed in equality: Equal space, voice, rights… Not here. Not yet.
For ‘us,’ whites, fragility too often presents as anger, outrage and embarrassed denial that there is anything wrong: with our views or place, out front, in the middle or at the top of the apex.
Pramesti and Ahmed described their experience being ‘others’, and I wanted to slink under my chair. I was one of those white folk, one of ‘us,’ the race with a superiority complex.
They described with loud and unapologetic wrath how ‘we’ reduced ‘them’ to pathos by paternalistic, condescending assumptions and stereotypes.
How we spoke about ‘them’ in benignly benevolent tones (or not) as flawed, failed fragments of the human race, inferior beings bent out of shape by the superiority, privilege and narcissism of a group, ‘us’ who are, after all in the minority, but weirdly assert ourselves to be the ‘dominant group.’
‘We’ are at the top of a pyramid limited by blinkered, reductionist thinking that reduces those ‘not like us’ to caricatures of themselves – ‘outsiders’ who belong somewhere else.
And then there was the conversation between Ahmed and Pramesti that had me and all the audience in stitches. A conversation that reduced racism and stereotypes to the length of a dick.
I’m not actually into dicks, but the thought of replicating this conversation around an executive board table of one of our ASX 200 companies is very appealing!
After all, men are particularly precious about their dicks.
And even I know that Black men are far sexier because they have (supposedly) ‘big dicks.’ Asians are asexual with ‘small dicks’. (Imagine Rani’s thumb and forefinger 2 cms apart). And white guys? Their dicks are ‘just right,’ because, after all, they’re white.
My mind wandered… are dicks ever white? Pink, maybe; non-descript actually. Flaccid and forlorn until they’re aroused by their angst and outrage over claims ‘others’ (women) make about their inadequacy.
Sadly, too many of us still need to steel ourselves from the pokes of penises implicitly assumed to fulfil our needs, or not. Too often they’re used to assert fear, power and control.
Stories create culture. They inform and shape beliefs and behaviours – but it’s us fragile white folk who’ve monopolised and legitimised lop-sided story telling and therefore created the ‘dominant culture’. What we say has more weight: ‘I’m white, must be right.’
I notice my own default inclination to assume such and cringe.
Especially every day when I’m frequently the only white person in the lift in my apartment building, standing alongside my mostly Asian neighbours.
Sometimes I make eye contact, and if I’m lucky a conversation follows. Each time, without exception, I’m jolted out of a soporific trance that has somehow grouped everyone in the lift, in my apartment building with a label: ‘Asian’. When we talk I’m engaging with another human being like me. Not better or worse … but often funnier, smarter, more interesting than me.
After these encounters with neighbours I step onto the street feeling enriched. And confronted and embarrassed. Because I notice what was displaced by that conversation was reductionist, internalised racism that had homogenised, dehumanised and categorised another human being.
Stereotypes and implicit biases are insidious. I have them. We all have them.
We need more multicoloured stories. But that’s only going to happen if we overcome our superiority complex, ‘white fragility’ and let down our guard to listen. If we do, we might just notice that we’re with another human being.
One of us.