Sunday, October 4, 2015

Santa Claus, The Easter Bunny, The Tooth Fairy, and White Fragility

Right about the time, in the last quarter of 2014, when deep consciousness surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner in Long Island, NY was beginning to grow, a lot of media attention was being focused on their deaths/murders, and certain people were beginning to get very angry, and I began seeing all kinds of things online being presented as potential answers, explanations, and general framings for the growing questions people were asking about America’s racial life. Some of these presentations put forth to address these questions many were asking were things I saw as being credible and helpful. Others I saw as being much less so. Some of the items that were presented as solutions or explanations, to my eye, seemed to be of a type that made the situation even worse. This is where so called “White Fragility,” I believe, comes in.

It was while engaging in my own part of this challenging process, early in that process, that I became aware of a paper entitled, White Fragility by researcher and university professor, Dr. Robin DiAngelo—a white, female academic and social researcher. Various groups of people—progressive social activists, people who worked in the fields of diversity and inclusion, cultural competency, whiteness studies, and others, began to float this paper on social media and other places during this time of great and growing racialized unrest and turmoil in America. The paper was lauded in many of these same circles as a credible explanation for why white people, as a whole, have a difficult time engaging in discussions about racism, white privilege, white supremacy, and related topics. I am aware, because of my involvement in Zen in particular and Buddhist Studies in general, that some of these same conversations were also taking place in some Buddhist and Zen spaces as well.

The copy of Dr. DiAngelo's paper I saw had been retrieved from the annals of the International Journal of Critical Pedagogy where it had been published in 2011.

From the very beginning I had a palpable uneasiness with the paper before I even read one sentence of it. I had a strong gut aversion to the title—White Fragility. I sensed something ominous my way coming.

By the time I came upon this paper I had come to a place in my life where I had developed a personal distaste and a deep uneasiness with theoretical and human research based propositions and hypotheses that felt a need to present their ideas couched within a presumed to be sound scientific framework of what I saw as unnecessary name calling, finger pointing, and negative character framing directed at particular people, groups of people, or specific identity groups. A research paper with the title, Black Rage or The Asian Dragon Lady Syndrome or Understanding the Drunken Indian Syndrome would have certainly brought about the exact same response from me as the one I had when I first saw that title--White Fragility. 

My guess is that there are a whole lot of white folks out there who have never even heard of so called white fragility. Yes, for you neophytes out there, there is now this thang called white fragility. Read 'em and weep.In some ways I think that is a good thing that many people have not heard about this. If there are lots of white folks and others out there who haven’t heard of this, it holds out hope that this stereotype masquerading as a real, viable thing is perhaps not getting much play outside the very specific quarters one would expect it to be quickly welcomed into. At the other end of the spectrum however, many of you white folks may have people of color friends and colleagues who are progressive social justice activists or diversity and inclusion folks who view you as being intrinsically “fragile” in the same way Dr. DiAngelo suggests. You might not look so kindly on that characterization or upon knowing that you might have friends who view you in this unflattering way.

The idea that Dr. DiAngelo felt such a strong imperative to potentially color (pun intended) the entire white population of the world as being specifically “fragile” in one sweeping and seemingly infallible fail swoop is fairly astonishing to me. And it is a sweeping characterization otherwise it might be called something like “intermittent white fragility” or “randomly occurring white fragility.” But it isn’t. Dr. DiAngelo has named her new group based pejorative—white fragility, joining such others as all black people being lazy, all American Indians have a biological pre-disposition toward alcoholism, and there being a real thing commonly expressed as The Asian Dragon Lady.

I read Dr. DiAngelo’s scientific paper, White Fragility, four times initially. It was only after reading it this number of times that I felt confident in my initial assessment of it.

I came away from those four readings with an absolute certainty there was never nor is there now a real thing called “White Fragility” within the entire compendium of human experiences. I came away very reaffirmed in my understanding that there are most certainly human fragilities of all kinds and expressions that indeed show up and in countless concrete and sub-level kinds and expressions. I came away reaffirmed in my understanding that there are all kinds of human failings, anxieties, forms and expressions of woundedness, emotional immaturity, or any number of other things that can indeed be characterized as a general expression of “fragileness” of some kind or another and that these can show up in countless forms and expressions in the human animal, all kinds, forms, and colors of the human animal.

Additionally, I found this paper itself to be sloppy and careless science at best—dangerous pseudo-science at the very worst. I found it to be completely unconvincing in its attempt to persuade me that the author had come up with something real that was worthy of my attention and serious consideration.

It is my hope that all further potential explorations into this concept by Dr. DiAngelo, if those further explorations are without significant alterations to the constructions presented in the paper I read, do not find grant money sponsorship nor further publication. I do not believe the idea of “white fragility” as presented in the paper of the same name positively contributes whatsoever to race discourse in America nor in the world. I believe it is a detriment and a distraction to such discourse. It is my (hopeful) prediction that the eventual fate of the future of this bogus and harmful concept of white fragility will necessarily be hindered by the evidenced based, peer reviewed, and double blind study standards that collectively often apply to social science research. This is my hope at least unless Dr. DiAngelo makes sweeping, wide, and fundamental changes to the presentation I read in her paper.

In this paper, Dr. DiAngelo also includes what she calls “a cogent example of White Fragility.” In this so called cogent example she references a training she was giving in a workplace setting in which a white female attendee left the training upset. The worker retreated to her desk after she received what the paper terms as “sensitive and diplomatic feedback on how some of her statements had impacted several people of color in the room” 

Let’s look at this a little more deeply.

Dr. DiAngelo. For example, expects the reader to simply take her word for it that the woman’s retreat back to her desk is solely the result of what specifically happened in that training room. I believe that is a fairly reasonable assumption one might make. I do not however, believe it is the only possibility by any stretch of the imagination and definitely not the only possibility in the realm of social research that requires other possibilities be ruled out. If Dr. Di Angelo were a freelance and unseasoned journalist instead of a tenured social scientist/researcher/professor I might not expect more from this "cogent example." However, I do expect more from a scientist/researcher/professor who is purporting to convince the world of the validity of her newly minted group based pejorative, and so will future potential grant sponsors and funders.

Perhaps the woman in the so called cogent example suffers from some mental, emotional, or physical ailment that at least partially contributed to her flight from the training room. Perhaps the woman suffers from panic attacks. Maybe she is simply a drama queen. Perhaps there were long standing and intense conflicts or “bad blood” between her and the co-workers we are told she is insensitive to during the training. Maybe she has recently ended a romantic relationship with a black man and has experienced trauma and/or anger/ and/or possible rejection, hurt feelings around it all that provided strong bearing on how she conducted herself in that training. Hey, stranger things have happened. The point is, Dr. DiAngelo gives no indication that she has explored nor teased out any other potential factors that may have explained or contributed to the woman’s behavior before jumping full blast to the conclusion that the woman unerringly, incontrovertibly, and unquestionably is suffering from so called White Fragility which, of course, it completely benefits her to believe and jump to because she in the major stakeholder here in the presumed reality of white fragility.

Also, since she has come up with this new pejorative—White Fragility—and also presumably has been giving the type of diversity training's that play a central role in her cogent example and for a very long time, one would think she would have an extensive file of cogent examples from which to choose from and include in her paper. After all, this is what she is now seemingly most professionally invested in—convincing us all in the validity of white fragility. Yet she only puts forth one cogent example of it (and a very poor one, I might add). If she has them filed away somewhere, she doesn’t bother to include them. She doesn’t even mention them. She only gives us one single cogent example for something as presumably wide in scope it necessarily effects every single white person on the planet. It seems very fishy to me that she only presents one cogent example of white fragility here.

Additionally, I question the academic rigor of this paper as well as the entire foundation of what she wants us all to believe when she sat down to compose the paper and she only includes one cogent example of white fragility. She does give us one other similar example near the beginning of the paper that she doesn’t call a cogent example. Are two presumed and not very deeply explored examples of White Fragility really supposed to be enough to justify a character flaw potentially to be found in an entire group of people on the planet? She didn’t, after all, name it Very Intermittent and very Randomly Occurring White Fragility. She needs to justify and validate that extremely bold assertion called white fragility, far more convincingly.

Further, with regard to that woman who leaves the training because of her supposed white fragility—most people are uncomfortable with being publicly challenged and in front of people they know no matter how “sensitively and diplomatically” one might believe this challenge has been presented.

Also, every single day I observe people being strongly triggered and strongly reactive in situations far less intimidating that what I can imagine took place in that training room with Dr. DiAngelo. When I was homeless in Oakland I spent a lot of time in McDonald’s restaurants because of the free internet. I very often witnessed people throwing unbelievably intense and severe temper tantrums because of something like them receiving a small order of fries instead of the medium order of fries they thought they had ordered. I’m not talking here of a quick and mild rebuff and redirecting of the McDonald’s employee nor of giving some mildly sassy though essentially harmless attitude to the employee. No, I’m talking women taking out their earrings in preparation for full-on battle while screaming a colorful assortment and stream of expletives at extremely high decibels while simultaneously literally trying to reach over the counter, seriously going for the (completely shocked) workers throat. I kid you not. And the triggered and reactive men were no better.

We now live in a world where many people simply don’t know or seemingly don’t understand the concept of restraint nor public decorum. They engage in totally overwrought and tension inducing public scenes and displays spurred on by their completely out of control reactivity, lack of self-discipline, and seemingly raw, bloodthirsty instincts that lie just a razor thin distance below the surface. Perhaps people just watch too many reality shows these days. I don’t know. What I do know is that it takes unbelievably very little stimulus to set many people off these days and have them behaving like raging maniacs in very public spaces—on public transportation, in public libraries, in hip and trendy restaurants in Noe Valley in San Francisco, on urban street corners, etc. It’s very scary. Such behavior is completely normalized in America today, especially in large urban areas and metropolitan centers. When considering this, the woman who left Dr. Di Angelo's training seems like a mild mannered little kitty cat compared to the ferocious, bloodthirsty tigers and tigresses I've seen in action in all kinds of public settings.

If this had been a paper entitled Black Fragility or Latin Fragility instead, and with a similar lackluster presentation of cogent examples presented, justifying its presumed existence, which I am convinced someone could have easily have come up with containing at least as much of a premise for them as DiAngelo comes up with as a premise for White Fragility here--I wonder how many of the exact same people who have lauded, praised, and have been impressed with Dr. DiAngelo’s work here, would even give such a paper called Black Fragility or Latin Fragility even a serious passing glance? Or an even better question—I wonder how many would have been completely outraged and would have made sure we all knew just how outraged they were?

Finally, I believe everything Dr. DiAngelo attributes to “White Fragility” is explained by forms and expressions of human fragility and human failing that are present in and that can be appropriately generalized to the entire human population on the planet where they pertain to various regularly occurring and observable failings that can show up within a certain large percentage of people representing many different groups of people. So instead of us having “Alcoholics Fragility,” or “Drug Addicts Fragility,”or “People living with Depression Fragility,” or “Narcissistic Personality Fragility,”or “Obsessive Compulsive People Fragility” or “People who have been Traumatized Fragility”—all of these are correctly presumed to be subsumed under the general human condition of “Human Fragility,” and so should so called “White Fragility.”

It saddens me that there are people like Dr. DiAngelo out in the world who are motivated, for whatever reasons, to characterize real personal failings people in the world have and are dealing with through pejorative and sensationalized labeling and scapegoating. It especially saddens me in this particular instance where I know there will be all kinds of guilt and shame ridden, progressively minded, very good intentioned white folks who will innocently fall prey to these shenanigans of hers. I absolutely know there will be white folks who will confidently and proudly label themselves as suffering from this new, intrinsic personality flaw du jour that has now come onto the academic, social justice, and/or diversity and inclusion scene—enabling some portion of them to now evaluate themselves in some new, negative, and completely concocted false light. 

One result of this will be that others of us will be able to triumphantly add white fragility to our cache of verbal and conceptual weapons to use on these same misguided, good intentioned, self-labeling folks and others. So a new way to divide and conquer and insult and blame has now come onto the scene. I can now fully envision White Fragility conferences occurring various places in The San Francisco Bay Area, of course they will be in The San Francisco Bay Area, and maybe eventually other places in America as well, in the near future. At these conferences, guilt and shame ridden, misguided, good intentioned white folks will get the opportunity to gather and verbally beat up on themselves and ask for absolution for their presumed offensive sins and will also get the privilege of getting beat up on by so called “experts” on White Fragility who’ve been flown in and paid big bucks specifically for such a purpose, for a day or a week-end, all in the name of fake “science,” and fake “social progress,” and fake “personal development.” God help us all.

Here is a PDF copy of Dr. DiAngelo's White Fragility paper: White Fragility paper

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Many Dangers of Going Against the Culture of "The Group"

 This is a 2013 photo of the real Frank Serpico. He was 77 at the time

I'm pretty sure I'd never seen the movie Serpico until last evening.

Earlier in the week, when I was at the trusty Kitsap Regional Library, here in Bremerton, Washington, I decided I wanted to check out some DVD’s to view later at home. John and I don’t own a television. So watching movies and documentaries and such on my laptop is one of the few things John and I can do together at home that’s also something we can both enjoy. In addition to Serpico, I also checked out the final season of 30 Rock, Spike Lee’s, School Daze, and a documentary about the singer Sting, filmed close to the region he spent his formative years in The UK. Last night I finally got around to watching Serpico. Diversity baby!

This movie came out in 1973. I was thirteen years old back then. I remember hearing about this movie. However, I had no clear idea what it was about. I had a vague sense that it had something to do with life as a police officer. I also knew it was based on a true story and on the life of the real Frank Serpico. That was about it. I was completely clueless about the plot of the movie other than these two facts.

Serpico is an Italian American former NYPD police officer. He worked in New York City in the 1960s through the early 1970s. His testimony before the legendary Knapp Commission, changed New York police culture forever.

Serpico began his police life as a probationary patrolman. However, he always had aspirations aimed at becoming a detective. All through his childhood, the only thing he really wanted to be was a police officer. There was never anything else he wanted to be. So once he finally joined “the force” he believed he was well on his way to realizing his most enduring dreams. In reality, the biggest nightmare of his life was about to begin and his life was soon going to be completely transformed forever. You know what they say, “we make plans and God laughs.” God must’ve had a series of big ole belly laughs where the perils of Frank Serpico was concerned when it came to him being a member of the NYPD.

Without giving away too much of the plot for those who may decide to view this film sometime in the future, all I’ll say here is that Frank Serpico was the consummate “good cop” brimming to the top with integrity, human dignity, and a sense of duty and pride regarding the wearing of the badge. He viewed the community members (citizens) who were on his beat, as people, regardless of age, ethnicity, gender, etc. He believed his job was to serve and protect them. He was serious about that. He understood that there were “bad guys” in the community. He was dedicated to catching these bad guys and bringing them to justice. However, he was also dedicated to treating them with humanity and common decency.

The problem is, Frank Serpico unwittingly signed onto a job and onto a department and into a police culture that was rife with corruption—I mean big time, over-the-top, all kinds of ways conceivable corruption—replete with high ranking officers who were taking bribes, stealing evidence, framing people, officers who were outright, no holds barred racists and on and on. And this culture of corruption seemingly completely saturated the entire department.

And so, as a result, very quickly, Frank Serpico was tagged by his fellow officers as someone who was not to be trusted. He was seen as a liability. Once he began to talk about how disturbed he was about the corruption he witnessed, he was essentially told to go along to get along or else. Frank Serpico chose the, or else without, really fully comprehending just how extreme nor how serious his co-workers took that choice of “or else” to be.

Human history is cluttered with all kinds of individuals from every life domain imaginable who have tried to “do the right thing” in all kinds of situations and all kinds of environments only to be completely vilified for it or worse. Many have lost their lives in the process.

When I was twenty years old and in the catholic seminary, I was aware that a significant number of my fellow seminarians were gay. I also saw, very clearly, that we were in an environment that was clearly not supportive of this. As a result, there was a lot of unnecessary suffering experienced by many of the gay and questioning seminarians. So I started a semi-secretive support and gay affirming group for us, very similar to Dignity in the Roman Catholic Church and Integrity in the Episcopal Church, as a form of self-ministry to any gay seminarian that was interested in participating. I knew it was extremely risky and could even be viewed as completely scandalous. This was 1980. Everyone who joined knew it was risky and potentially scandalous as well. At the same time, it was overwhelmingly healing for all of us and very exciting for us too.

Then, one Friday evening—I will never forget it. It’s as if it happened just last week—a priest friend of mine who was a priest in the same order that ran the seminary--drove all the way from Chicago, which was the provincial headquarters (200 miles away), to come speak with me. He hadn’t told me in advance that he was coming. He simply arrived, found me, and in a very (uncharacteristically) serious voice said he needed to speak with me.

Long story short, he told me that high ranking “officials” in the order had become aware of my group, were drafting, even as we spoke, a plan to kick me out the seminary, and he told me that the only way this could possibly be avoided was by my giving him my absolute assurances, right then and there, that I would immediately disband the group. He then went on to tell me that this group of officials from the order had also obtained the names of every single other seminarian that was affiliated with the group—and he then proceeded (to my horror) to recite each of their names to me one by one—and he told me that proposals for the dismissal of each of these men were also being drawn up but that I would however, be listed as the “ringleader.” He then verbalized his crowning announcement. He told me I would be seen as being responsible for the ending of all of these mens vocations and that I would have to hold that in my heart for the rest of my days. Because of this last revelation, I gave him my assurances that I would immediately disband the group, which I did later that evening with great personal inner conflict and copious amounts of tears among all of us as we met for the last time in order for me to give them “the news.” This priest friend then returned to Chicago the next morning. I never heard anything more about it. We remained friends. I eventually went on to postulancy and novitiate for the Order.

Sometimes you don’t even have to do anything against the powers that be and the status quo. You just have to express an opinion that is in direct opposition to that which the majority of your group believes or holds and that’s enough to get one of the feces list.

In 1995, after the acquittal of O.J. Simpson, in the murders of Ronald Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson, I was generous with my stated opinion that O.J. was guilty. I obviously stated that this was my opinion. I wasn't at the scene of the crime, nor were any of the people I shared my opinion with. I stated all the reasons why I held this opinion and left it at that. I was fine with people disagreeing with me and said so. I however, got enormous, absolutely enormous and downright vicious blowback from various members of the local black community in the city that I was then living in. It was unbelievable. And then I got a real death threat. It came through the mail with no return address. It was composed of various letters and words cut out of newspapers and magazines glued to a plain white piece of typing paper (just like in the movies). I was in shock. I couldn’t believe it. And then I got a second and a third one—all done in the exact same way. I was like, “you’ve got to be kidding me.” I never reported these to the police even though I took them seriously. And I do often wonder, now twenty years later, just how many of those folks who virulently disagreed with me back in 1995, still do today. Oh snap!

I’ve been in the role of being the insider who criticizes or doesn’t go along with something or other that is considered sacred in the group, a number of times in my life. I know the drill exceedingly well at this point in the game. First, people try very hard to convince you that you’re wrong or bad, that you just need to “understand” things better or understand the culture of the group better. When this fails there tends to come some form of intimidation program of some sort, put into motion. This usually has several levels or degrees of intensity. Often this will include lobbing some regular types of insults at you. A common insult that we people who choose not to go along just to get along is that we are accused of believing we are somehow “better” than everyone else. People will continue to come up with endless ways of trying to discredit you by pulling this trope out of their hat. I have been accused of this. I have seen a whole lot of other people who have chosen not to go along just to get along get accused of this. It especially happens when ones choice of not going along just to get along can in any way be seen as coming from having a greater sense of personal integrity or including brutal honesty about the group’s activities and culture.

Ostracizing becomes one of the final ploys. Many people have discovered from time immemorial that ostracizing people in the group, in these types of situations, is a very powerful and extremely effective approach to use. Any social psychologist worth his or her salt will tell you that being ostracized from the group is one of the most effective weapons anyone can use against someone in the group who is acting in a way that threatens the cohesiveness of the group. This is true whether that threat is a real one that threatens to destroy something that is truly beautiful and contributing positively to the world, or if it comes from a member of the group deciding to not be as corrupt, or as selfish, or as immoral as the group culture permits or even strongly promotes. This is what happened to Frank Serpico. We humans simply do not like to be ostracized from the group. In this sense we very much are pack animals. We want to be part of the pack. We like that sense of belonging. We crave it even. Ostracizing is very effective.

In the end Frank Serpico left the police department and also left the United States of America because he absolutely knew he couldn't have any peace as long as he stayed affiliated with the NYPD or even if he stayed in this country—even with it being as huge as it is. At least he got out alive. That’s more than many can say who have bucked the culture of the group. Many men and women throughout history who have bucked the group’s outrageous cultures of evil, or corruption, or craziness in one form or another have lost their lives because of it. And the group, for its part, often, simply goes on doing what it always has done.