Dr. Robin DiAngelo explains “identity politics” at the beginning of her landmark book, White Fragility:
“The term identity politics refers to the focus on the barriers specific groups face in their struggle for equality. We have yet to achieve our founding principle, but any gains we have made thus far have come through identity politics.
The identities of those sitting at the tables of power in this country have remained remarkably similar: white, male, middle- and upper-class, able bodied. Acknowledging this fact may be dismissed as political correctness, but it is still a fact. The decisions made at those tables affect the lives of those not at the tables. Exclusion by those at the table doesn’t depend on willful intent; we don’t have to intend to exclude for the results of our actions to be exclusion. While implicit bias is always at play because all humans have bias, inequity can occur simply through homogeneity; if I am not aware of the barriers you face, then I won’t see them, much less be motivated to remove them. Nor will I be motivated to remove the barriers if they provide an advantage to which I feel entitled.” (p. xiii)
I turned to DiAngelo because a friend described a situation in which someone exhibited behaviors I would associate with White fragility although the topic in question was not race related. I was looking for a way to understand this person’s reactions which included extreme defensiveness, a focus on her own feelings and sense of being wronged, concern that her authority was being undermined by my friend. I wondered: Is it possible to demonstrate white fragility even if race is not the source of the inflammation?
I don’t have a definitive answer for myself but I do believe the same symptoms may be typical when someone’s sense of entitlement is threatened. A sense of entitlement is defined here as “[a]n unrealistic, unmerited or inappropriate expectation of favorable living conditions and favorable treatment at the hands of others.” Given this, a sense of entitlement might emerge from seniority in a position, elevated status in a hierarchy, deep identification with the status quo, being a member of the in-group. When a power structure is inhabited and led solely by members of the in-group, it’s no wonder that an awareness of the struggles faced by out-group members is diminished. As DiAngelo suggests, “inequity can occur simply through homogeneity.”
My big questions remain: What motivates people to become more careful and critical observers of self? What motivates people to reflect on and correct problematic behaviors?
I often express the wish for others to be and become more reflective. I want that for myself, too. I want to be a better listener, negotiator, coach. And I want others to join me in these pursuits. But it seems harder to do if you are holding onto a sense of entitlement that blinds you to the need for more than surface reflection. Entitlement will always prefer comfort and ease. Deep, consequential reflection promises the opposite. It’s no surprise that more of the privileged and seriously entitled are not jumping on the bandwagon of reflective discomfort.
I’m thinking about my friend and her situation and how it’s part of a larger pattern of power relations stories being told the world over: folks in power feeling threatened by those laboring under them expressing dissatisfaction with their working conditions. Instead of asking, “what can we do to better meet your needs?” power holders seem more likely to embrace defensiveness and denial. When do power holders recognize the need to do things differently?
Usually crisis. Something needs to seriously break down, go awry, come to an irreversible head. Reflection becomes a survival necessity. Change is made. Not always dramatically better but often in the direction of improvement.
How can I help people see this process more clearly? What can I do to increase the likelihood that those who hold power will develop eyes, ears and speech for equity?
I’m scratching my head over this one. In the meantime, I’ll be listening to my friend, offering support where I can and continue to mull over the questions that need big and generous answers.