In a Boston Globe Magazine opinion piece entitled “What Too Many White People Still Don’t Understand About Racism,” writer and lecturer Linda Chavers writes:
“You have not seen outrage until you have seen the face of a white person being called a racist. You would think seeing the image of Emmett Till’s mutilated corpse in an open casket in 1955 or Michael Brown’s body lying dead in a Missouri street in 2014 would evoke extreme shock and horror. But, actually, white people get the most worked up when they or someone they know have been labeled a racist. Witness Laura Trott, a Conservative member of Parliament in the United Kingdom, finding it ‘extremely offensive’ that a Black counterpart, Dawn Butler, called Boris Johnson a racist. Same goes for Donald Trump’s ‘I don’t have a racist bone in my body,’ or liberal whites with what Martin Luther King, Jr. called their ‘polite’ racism.”
I’m not sure why Chavers finds it so strange that people would be outraged when being falsely accused of something they did not do. It is extremely offensive to call someone a racist if he or she is not. People have a right not to be accused of doing things they did not do or having character flaws they do not have, and they have a right to be outraged and offended if this happens. Chavers seems to think that she should be free to criticize people with impunity, merely because they are white. If a particular person actually is racist, then yes, calling that person racist is the right thing to do. But if a person is not racist, then calling that person racist is wrong. Chavers does not seem to recognize or care about this distinction. Either she believes it’s OK to accuse people of something they did not do, or she believes that all white people are racist, which, ironically, is racist. Both things are equally wrong.
“This national ignorance leads white people to take offense at being called a racist or, worse, to declare the election of Barack Obama as the cause of racial strife or, worse still, to see extrajudicial executions of Black people as outside the norm,” Chavers writes. “It is absolutely the norm…. White Americans cannot deny the truth and reality of lethal violence toward Black people. They cannot say, ‘Oh, that doesn’t happen’ or ‘That’s only a few bad apples’ or ‘Let’s wait until we have all the facts.'”
Then she tells the reader, “Start listening instead of arguing.”
Well, actually, I can say all three of those things, and I can argue if I disagree with what Chavers is saying. It is entirely reasonable to claim that extrajudicial executions of Black people are outside the norm, or that only a few “bad apples” would commit such crimes. It is entirely prudent to wait until one has all the facts before making a judgment. What right does Chavers have to tell her readers that they cannot say these things? Why are people not allowed to express any opinion that differs from hers?
This attitude reminds me of the sentiments expressed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in an interview with The Hill. In the interview, Ocasio-Cortez spoke about something called “white fragility,” the alleged tendency of white people to become upset when confronted with their own alleged racism. “Even the term ‘white fragility’ can really set a lot of people off,” she said. “It’s almost ironic.”
As you might guess from my double use of the word “allegedly,” I don’t believe in the concept of “white fragility.” Just like claiming that white people, as a group, are racist or ignorant, accusing someone of demonstrating “white fragility” is racist. Associating a negative character trait with an entire race would never be tolerated if directed towards Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, or any other race. Racism against white people shouldn’t be tolerated either.
What Ocasio-Cortez got right is that the situation is, indeed, ironic. Those who believe in the concept of “white fragility” would likely use my objection to the term as evidence of its existence. The fact that I am objecting to being called fragile, goes the argument, proves that I am indeed fragile. But this does not demonstrate any fragility inherent to white people; it demonstrates a problem with the use of the term “white fragility.” It is unfair to criticize a person or group of people, and then use their objection to the criticism as evidence that the criticism is true. If one accepts this logic, then there is no way for the person being criticized to defend himself or herself. The person doing the criticism automatically wins the argument. This logic resembles the reasoning Chavers uses when she tells her readers that they cannot deny or argue against her claims. Both are essentially saying that they are right, that anyone who disagrees with them is ignorant and fragile, and that the more strenuously the person disagrees, the more ignorant and fragile he or she must be.
(This is similar to the logical fallacy called “poisoning the well“).
Strength of character does not require a person to take unfair criticism or false accusations without fighting back. Quite the opposite, in fact. Standing up for oneself demonstrates courage, independence of thought, and a sense of morality and justice. There’s nothing “fragile” about that.