‘Naropa is Too White’ – A Student’s Perspective on White Fragility

Photos by Sofia Drobinskaya.

By Heather Hendrie, student in Naropa’s Transpersonal Wilderness Therapy program

Naropa is too white.

That may feel like an inflammatory statement. But it’s also the truth. And I would invoke your courage here to see it as an invitation.

Naropa University is a too-white school, in a too-white town. People of color reading this article almost certainly already know this. But for the white people in the crowd who have the privilege of remaining ignorant, we have deliberately segregated ourselves for centuries, and that is what I mean by “too white.”

It’s high time we talked about it.

Last month, Robin DiAngelo, academic, author, and white Italian-American, came to speak to a sold-out house at Naropa University. Even after her first workshop was canceled due to snow, people piled into buses to pack the room for her half-day workshop on white socialization, systemic racism, white solidarity, and the specific ways racism manifests for white progressives. Hosted at Naropa University, topics addressed included safety versus comfort, the politics of emotions, and white fragility.

DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility” in 2011, which she has defined as, “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.”

As white people, we are not used to even thinking about our race. And that, my friends, is the definition of white privilege. In fact, that was DiAngelo’s opening statement. She stood on stage and said, “I am white.” She let us know that as such, she was not raised to see her race. She grew up with a white worldview. She has had a white experience which, she reminded those of us gathered, is not a universal human experience. So am I, so did I, so have I.

I too am white. I have never before stated that publicly. In fact, for the vast majority of my life, I have been in the privileged position to rarely even consider my race. But I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about whiteness. And I have spent this past week speaking with everyone I can about DiAngelo’s workshop.

As promised, it has been uncomfortable. But it has also been safe, fascinating, and of the utmost importance. I spent much of yesterday involved in a discussion about cell phone emojis. I had always simply used the default setting (the Simpsons cartoon yellow). But what does that mean? What does it really mean? It means that I had always assumed that the default setting applied to me. And in truth, in our culture for me as a white person, it does. For example, if I were to Google “hairstyles,” I would come up with a million hairstyles that I, as a white person, might try. Or what if I hurt myself and wanted a Band-Aid that matched my skin color? I assure you, I’d have no trouble finding one. Unfortunately, the examples don’t end.

By age three or four, children who grow up in our society understand that it is “better” to be white.

As DiAngelo reminded us, “Nothing can exempt any one of us in this room from the racist structure we grew up in. The status quo of our society is racism”. The first challenge for white people, then, is to embrace humility. Because there’s an enormous amount of work to be done. There’s a system to overhaul.

I think it is important to note at this point that I have used the term “people of color” (POC) in this article to describe any person who is not considered European American, or white, and to emphasize some common experiences of systemic racism. I wonder if we could perhaps go further, though, if we were to get more specific.

As DiAngelo put it, “there is something profoundly anti-black in this culture.” She said, “After a good twenty plus years of talking day-in and day-out to white people about racism, I feel very confident to say … [that] in the white mind, black people are the ultimate racial other.” She went on to share a slide illustrating the history and trajectory of anti-blackness in the United States of America. In describing its contents she said, “We can literally think about it as state-sanctioned organized crime. What this highlights is discrimination against African-Americans from the beginning. It starts with kidnapping and 300 years of enslavement, torture, rape, and brutality and it carries on…I say it again because a lot of white people seem to think it ended a long time ago.” Repeatedly, she reminded us that we must understand history in order to understand the complexities of our present context.

The structure of DiAngelo’s workshop was to lecture and then have attendees turn and engage with one another. We were to speak with one another in a structured way and listen without interruption using a series of prompts. She asked us to consider things like the demographics of the place we grew up, who our teachers were, how race impacts our lives, etc.

While I believe that her workshop is needed everywhere, Boulder, Colorado is a great place to start. The event comes hot on the heels of an incident wherein a Naropa student of color was harassed by not one, but multiple police officers for peacefully doing his job at his place of residence. People of color’s distrust in our systems is rational. Duh. And yet, we still like to think that Boulder is a progressive place. In fact, DiAngelo specializes in studying and working with white progressives. She reminded the gathered crowd that, “niceness is not anti-racism,” and went on to say that, “we [white progressives] are perhaps those who cause the most daily toxicity to people of color, can be the least understanding of our implicit racism, and the most defensive.”

Furthermore, she suggests, “I’ve never seen whiteness more fiercely protected than in academia.” I will reiterate my earlier point. Naropa University is too white. And as a white person in Boulder, Colorado, at Naropa University, I say that it really is high time we talked about it.

So, now what?

There’s no short answer.

There are generations of wrongs to right and years of programming to undo. There are systems at play that we must first see before we can seek to shift. So first, let’s open our eyes. Let’s end our ignorance. It’s a lousy excuse.

And for me, first and foremost, I am going to keep looking. I will keep listening. And I will keep on learning. I am going to dig into how it came to be that until my third decade of life, I rarely even considered my race. I will strive to internalize a framework of humility. I will strive to do less harm. I will strive to feel less defensive when inevitably, I do inflict harm. And I will keep working to build great repair skills. I am awake now, and I plan to stay that way.

Because complacency is complicity.

What are your racial accountability practices?

“Racism is arguably the most complex and nuanced social dilemma since the beginning of this country, and yet nothing in dominant society gives us (white people) the information we need to engage across race with nuance and complexity. We do of course develop opinions on racism, but without years of sustained study, struggle, focus, mistake-making and relationship building, our opinions are not informed. In fact, they will most likely be ignorant. In the face of that ignorance, it is essential – and this is a life-long process that is never finished – to continually reach for humility, check our complacency, and build accountability to people of color.”

~Robin DiAngelo, PhD

Naropa on-campus resources (running during the academic school year):

Anti-Racist Whites & Allies (ARWA) is a group open to undergraduate and graduate students, staff, alumni, and faculty facilitated by Wendy Allen and Mike Lythgoe, which focuses on the development of awareness and skills necessary to have conversations across racial differences. Participants examine their own relationship to whiteness and the impact of white privilege in community. Even though the group focuses on whiteness, it is open to all. This group serves as any ally group to COCA and meets on the Paramita campus in Kshanti Wednesdays 1:30-2:50pm.  Contacts: Wendy at wallen@naropa.edu or Mike at mlythgoe@naropa.edu

Community of Color & Allies (COCA) is a group open to undergraduate and graduate students, staff, alumni, and faculty facilitated by Carla Sherrell, which focuses on the development of skills necessary to have conversations across racial differences. Participants examine their own relationship to race and the impact of systemic racism in community. Participants are welcome whenever they can attend.  COCA meets on the Paramita campus in Jim Spearly Wednesdays 1:30-2:50pm.  Contact: Jun Akiyama at jakiyama@students.naropa.edu

Students of Color & Allies (SOCA) is a group which focuses on creating a supportive space of rest and renewal for students of color, hosted by rotating members of the diversity team. The group is open to undergraduate and graduate students, staff, alumni, and faculty but centers on the student experience.  This group meets in the Center for Culture, Identity & Social Justice Mondays 12pm to 1pm. Contact: Faridah Andiaye at andiaye@students.naropa.edu

Further resources are listed on Robin DiAngelo’s website.

DiAngelo also provides a free reading guide to accompany her New York Times Bestselling book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism.

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