Consider the following scenario: Kathy manages a team of ten, she is white, nine of her teammates are white and one is black. Several teammates, including her black colleague, are often late to work. She addresses the attendance issue with her white colleagues but never addresses it with her black colleague despite thinking she should. Now, let's consider Mr. Joe a white male English teacher at a diverse high school. As a high school teacher he frequently redirects students in class when they are off task. Reflecting on his practice, he admits that he is quicker to redirect his white students when they are off task allowing his students of color to remain unengaged in class learning.
What do both of these scenarios have in common besides the soft bigotry of low expectations… Privilege.
Privilege takes many forms: the generational wealth afforded to white people as a group through government support programs like the New Deal that were only granted to white people… or the freedom from consideration, for example, being free not to consider if people are friendly or trusting towards me simply because of my race… and the freedom of paralysis.
Merriam-Webster defines paralysis as a “state of powerlessness or incapacity to act.” In America whiteness holds power. When a white person, for a brief moment, enters a state of powerlessness or incapacity to act in the face of racial stress - they are engaging in white paralysis. It’s important to note here that the line between paralysis and abuse of power is a thin one and entirely depends on the orientation and analysis one possesses of whiteness and white supremacy.
White paralysis can lead well-intentioned white folks down the inequitable path of low expectations and inaction. It stems from confronting the complexity of racism and privilege, which can surface fear (of being blamed or misunderstood), frustration, anger, shame, and guilt over our own ties to history and the present. This racial stress often includes conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors creating cognitive dissonance that produces a feeling of discomfort leading to an alteration in ones attitudes, beliefs or behaviors to reduce the discomfort and restore balance. Inaction when one knows they should act is often a result of cognitive dissonance trying to restore comfort and ease loss.
Let's take our scenario with Kathy confronting her black coworker for being late. This caused Kathy racial stress. She knew he should be on time, but she also knew timeliness is a white norm, and she didn't know if holding her black colleague to what she perceived was a white norm was the right thing to do. She also didn't know if she would be called, or thought of, as racist for addressing his attendance and was scared she might be. Then she wondered if it is even right that she gets to hold power over her black colleague as she knows it is not right that upper management at her organization is predominantly white. She asks herself: why did she get the role in the first place? Was it because of her race? or her work ethic? or her expertise? or a mix of the three? In the face of this dissonance she found not saying or doing anything the easiest path to avoid loss, restore balance and move on with her day...
At the societal level, white paralysis leads to policies and practices that fail to redistribute wealth and resources, that fail to take from white people as a group, and that often take from people of color instead. But looking solely at the systems level lets those of us considered white off the hook of immediate racial stress. As Richael Faithful writes, “The hourglass of white paralysis has trickled to a halt. White American culture―including activist communities―must learn to break down supremacy on personal, family, and relational levels. Instead of externalizing white privilege as a reality of political systems, white people must be more concerned about their own entitlements and close spheres of influence. Reluctance to this deeper work is rooted in fear. Fear that relationships will be tested. Fear that feelings will be hurt. Fear that resources will be spent. For white people, fighting racism means taking personal ownership of loss.”
Understanding how our own cognitive dissonance and paralysis in the face of racial stress keeps us from owning loss is the first step to breaking out and moving from inaction to redistribution and justice.
As part of Mr. Joe's reflection on his teaching practice, he notes that when faced with racial stress (in particular redirecting his students of color) rather than enter a state of paralysis he strives to take the action that has the best potential to redistribute wealth and resources regardless of what it means for his own comfort, loss and balance - in this case holding his students of color to the same high expectations as his white students. As white people, sometimes the actions we need to take are small, sometimes they aren’t - the key is that we take action - expecting and accepting loss and discomfort as we push past our paralysis.
Ian McLaughlin, Ryan Williams-Virden