Blog #6: Frederick Douglass and White Fragility

As Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam struggles to save his political life, his “white fragility” is on clear display. His weakness contrasts sharply with the strength of Frederick Douglass whose autobiography I finished re-reading today. For more on the term "white fragility," click here.  

Janell Ross of NBC described how Northam, at his February 2 news conference, acted as do many white Americans accused of racism: deny culpability and evade discussing the harm you caused.  Instead, as Ross put it, they “speak about the entire incident as a difficult personal experience to navigate, an opportunity for personal growth….”  Seattle University’s Prof. Angelique Davis described Northam’s press conference as “a demonstration of white fragility. It’s ‘I can’t bear to be called a racist,’ when you actually did something racist.”  

It is impressive enough that Frederick Douglass survived – psychologically and physically – a system so brutally maintained to break his spirit.  His insights into the 19th century versions of white fragility are even more impressive.  He says that slavery taught poor whites to digest their poverty by washing it down with inebriation, indolence, and racism.  Reveling in refrains of “at least we’re not slaves,” poor whites suffer from a system that serves elites.

But pampered elites suffer from “fragility” - even the Lloyd family who controlled the lives of 1000 enslaved people, including Douglass.  Wallowing in wealth and leisure, it’s as if plantation owners become victims of karma, or at least some inner awareness of their complicity with evil.  Douglass explains, “Lurking beneath the rich and tempting viands were invisible spirits of evil, which filled the self-deluded gourmandizer with aches and pains, passions uncontrollable, fierce tempers, dyspepsia, rheumatism, lumbago, and gout, and of these the Lloyds had a full share.”

Life and Times of Frederick Douglass is sprinkled with observations of wounded, tormented whites.  In discussing slaveholders, Douglass admits that slavery allows “no relation more unfavorable to the development of honorable character than that sustained by the slaveholder to the slave.”  Where “reason is imprisoned” and “passions run wild,” whites are trapped by the horror of systemic racism.  It’s time for whites, including the Governor of Commonwealth of Virginia, to accept the reality of systemic racism, and stop evading responsibility by hiding behind our own wounds.

  • Lesson #15: Blackface and Klan costumes are not ok and never were.

  • Lesson #16: The pain experienced by self-proclaimed liberals because they are called racist may be real pain but it has little to do with assessing the validity of being called out for racism.

  • Lesson #17: Oppression attacks the character of all involved - the oppressed and the oppressor, though the attack is obviously more lethal for the former.

  • Lesson #18: Don’t forget that many who benefit from “white privilege,” as did the poor southern whites Douglass critiqued, can be deeply oppressed in other ways.

Hugh Taft-Morales