White Fragility and the Mask of Mental Health
White people will tell you that your tone, no matter what that tone might actually be, is causing them anxiety and thereby use it as a reason to disengage.
By James Factora
Nearly 40 years ago, Audre Lorde gave the keynote speech at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference, now known as “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism.” In it, she discussed the constant invalidation that women of color, especially Black women, face with regards to their emotions; namely, anger. She cited several examples in which well-meaning, “progressive” white women told her to quell her anger for the sake of their comfort and understanding; questioned the “usefulness” of her rage; remained silent in the face of injustice out of fear.
40 years later, Lorde’s words are more poignant than ever. The language that white women (and white people in general) use in order to dodge accountability has changed, but the principles remain the same. White people will tell you that your tone, no matter what that tone might actually be, is causing them anxiety and thereby use it as a reason to disengage. They will accuse you of inaccessibility for refusing to explain concepts that can easily be Googled, or for daring to suggest that you need to read before engaging with a certain discussion. Even if they’re apologizing to you, they’ll meltdown and cry until you must begrudgingly perform the emotional labor required to sustain your relationship and reassure them that they are not irredeemable just because they did or said something racist.
In the past decade or so, mental health has become an increasingly mainstream topic of discussion, the effect of which has been twofold. On one hand, it’s wonderful that talking about mental illness seems, on a surface level, destigmatized, and that many feel empowered to openly discuss their symptoms and their methods of self-care. On the other hand, this also means that these concepts have been co-opted by capitalism, by the same well-meaning white people Lorde critiqued all those decades ago and by all those who desire, consciously or not, to maintain their dominance in hierarchical power structures.
In saying this, I do not intend to deny or invalidate the existence of mental illness. However, I do reject the notion that psychiatry and mental illness are infallible concepts, and that any criticism thereof is rooted in ableism. Mental illness is not, and has never been, a neutral phenomenon. It cannot be reduced to a mere “chemical imbalance,” a popular theory used in an attempt to normalize mental illness (namely depression) even though it’s been proven faulty and inadequate a number of times. While the intent behind that theory is noble, it is not only false but actively harmful to view the root causes of mental illness as pure neurochemistry. In order to achieve a truly progressive framework of mental health, we must place these neurochemical reactions in a sociopolitical context.
Let’s return to those modern-day examples of white fragility, all of which I drew from my own personal experience. In these and other similar scenarios, the BIPOC white people perceive of as the “aggressors” are always presumed to be neurotypical. This is almost never the case; it certainly isn’t for me. And yet for refusing to acquiesce to white fragility and entitlement, I have been accused of ableism; even sometimes against those with whom I share a diagnosis. This is not to say that I believe I am incapable of ableism; there are many forms of disability that I do not experience, and I will readily admit to my own institutional privilege in being able-bodied. The favor does not seem to be returned, however, by mentally ill white people, in the sense that mental illness is used as a rhetorical shield from accusations of racism.
Often times, I wouldn’t even go so far as to say that I am “accusing” someone of racism because accusation implies a certain hostility. I will attempt, in as calm and measured of a voice as I can, to explain why something a white person did or said was bigoted, in the hopes that they might critically self-reflect. Despite these attempts, I am still often labeled (passive) aggressive, rude, angry. I am told that perhaps if I changed my tone, people would listen to me. In these instances, I can’t imagine how white people would react if I unleashed the full breadth of the quiet rage brewing inside me at all times as a brown, gender-nonconforming, crazy dyke dealing with trauma both fresh and centuries old.
Mental health does not exist in a vacuum. Many people of color carry generational trauma and/or minority stress in our bones, especially if we are also queer/trans, lower-income, physically disabled, or any combination thereof. Our traumas–and the ways that they are or are not treated–are inextricable from race and racism. Logically, it follows that mentally ill white people and their particular neuroses are also not any less likely to be racist. Triggers (and “coping mechanisms”) can be racist. Speaking over a woman of color does not become any less of a microaggression because it might be due to poor impulse control.
And more importantly, it’s about time we start centering the trauma of BIPOC—BIWOC especially—in so-called “leftist” spaces. It’s time to start recognizing our anxieties about white women as justified anxiety, and not as “internalized misogyny,” and our supposed harshness as a coping mechanism in a white supremacist world. A radical vision of healing must recognize the unique trauma of colonized and otherwise displaced peoples; it must include reparations and decolonization. We must dispel the notion that all negative emotions (especially when expressed by Black and brown women) need to be repressed. Perhaps instead, we can take a page out of Audre’s book and respect the sorrows, the fears, the rage of Black and brown women as the powerful catalyst for change that they are.
James Factora is a New York-based writer. You can find them on twitter @james_factora.
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