We are pleased to share guest posts by local Rochester community members throughout this year’s 2nd Annual Digital Black History Month Education Campaign
Congressman’s White Fragility Shatters Before Our Eyes by Erin EgloffOn Wednesday, February 27, criminal and all-around weasel Michael Cohen testified in front of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform. Each committee member used their allotted time as expected: Democrats generally prioritized clear questions about Donald Trump’s actions before and during the campaign, and after the inauguration; Republicans played their broken record by questioning Cohen’s credibility and the need to even hold this hearing. Why, after all, should we waste time investigating alleged criminal conduct by the most powerful man in the country? As a progressive who dreams of the sitting President’s impeachment and criminal convictions, this was a chance to watch a real step toward possible further investigations. There were several “ah-ha!” moments in Cohen’s even-tempered testimony, and I wished I could have been in a theatre, watching it on a big screen with popcorn and Sprite. However, the most stunning exchange I saw wasn’t related to Cohen or his testimony at all. Congressman Mark Meadows (R-NC) blathered on about how the President couldn’t possibly be racist because he had a woman of color working for him who says he’s not racist, and he’d asked her to be in the room during the testimony to show her support for the President. I shook my head, rolled my eyes, and mentally convicted Meadows of Premeditated Tokenism. In white America, it’s commonly accepted that – for example – a person can’t be racist if there is at least one person of color who says they aren’t, or if they haven’t used a racial slur to describe a friend, family member, or colleague of color. Plus, we had a black President! Racism is basically over, folks, so let’s move on. [If you’re not picking up on it, this is sarcasm.] Later, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) used part of her time to point out that using a black woman as a “prop” as Meadows did is itself a racist act. At that moment, America’s white fragility shattered through Meadows’ knee-jerk indignance, and the fragments smashing to the floor were heard ’round the world as he grasped to weaponize them. As expected, Meadows was shocked and offended at being called racist. After all, we live in a world where a white person being accused of racism is much more important than the original act of racism itself. Meadows demanded that Tlaib’s words be “stricken from [the] record.” That was the first checkmark on the white fragility list. Let us enter into evidence Exhibit 1: the attempt to erase or whitewash a comment regarding his racist act that therefore makes a white man look and feel bad. Then Meadows called on the Committee Chairman, Congressman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) to validate his reaction by reminding him – and informing America – that he and Cummings “have a personal relationship that’s not based on color.” Let us enter into evidence Exhibit 2: the I am friendly with a black person and therefore cannot be racist trope. As if that weren’t enough, Meadows continued to run his mouth. Let us enter into evidence Exhibit 3: the white person centering himself as the victim. Pleading his case, he huffed and he puffed and declared that “there’s nothing more personal to me than my relationship – my nieces and nephews are people of color; not many people know that.” At that moment, it almost felt as though he were channeling Trump himself; certainly, he was taking advantage of the fact that the President was watching, and seized an opportunity to curry favor, likely as another lobbying attempt to be named White House Chief of Staff. At this point, I wondered how many other people watching this were also starting to feel a migraine coming on. The irony was so painfully circuitous that I had to rewind to make sure I heard correctly. Meadows was using his nieces and nephews of color as a kind of proof that he cannot be racist in order to defend against an accusation that he used a woman of color as a prop to disprove the President’s – and by extension his own – racism? Let us enter into evidence Exhibit 4: deflection through tokenism of extended family members who happen to be people of color. The final shard of white fragility fell as he claimed, incensed, that “it’s racist to suggest that I asked her [the Trump employee] to come in here for that reason.” This is a classic component of white fragility: the person identifying racism is racist themselves because they had the audacity to point out the racism. In other words, Tlaib herself was being racist by pointing out a racist act. Let us enter into evidence Exhibit 5: a white man is offended, accuses the “offender” of reverse racism, and now that takes precedence over the initial racist act. The six-minute clip is such a clear example of white fragility that I wouldn’t be surprised if Robin DiAngelo pulled a Tom-Cruise-on-Oprah move and jumped on her couch in front of her television, pointed, and yelled “see? See what I’m saying, people?” The subsequent response left me with mixed emotions. Chairman Cummings appeared to legitimize Meadows’ reactions by thanking him “for what you are saying,” assuring him that “you’re one of my best friends” and empathizing that “I could see and feel your pain.” He concluded the interruption by saying “to the gentleman, thank you for allowing us to resolve that.” I was surprised at Cummings’ handling of the situation. I wonder why he felt it necessary to soothe Meadows’ ego and validate him. It may well have been a strategic decision in his role as Chairman; his professionalism throughout the entire testimony leads me to believe that he simply wanted to move on from Meadows’ very public nonsense and get back to the business at hand. This reaction is certainly in line with how many situations of white fragility are handled: if it isn’t possible at the moment to educate someone, it’s easier to move on. It’s certainly always the safer bet: just look at mainstream media. I wish this had played out differently because it could have been an opportunity to teach white America about our defensiveness around conversations of racism. That said, it’s not the job of Chairman Cummings or any person of color to teach white people about racism. Hopefully enough of us will write about this so that it does educate some white people. Our ancestors built the systems, we perpetuate them, and therefore we have the responsibility to dismantle them. So, was it a racist act for Meadows to use this particular woman of color as a prop, as Tlaid so clearly stated? Of course. I’m not talking about what’s in his heart? / does he fly the Confederate flag / does he say racial slurs individual racism that is the usual provocateur of white fragility; though it could have been. Meadows’ action was racist because – and here’s where white readers will need to ensure that their own white fragility callous is tough – he as an individual is racist because he holds white privilege in America, the same way I do. We were raised in a culture of racism – it is in the air we breathe and the water we drink – it’s systemic and institutional. White people need to be in constant reflection, deliberately self-educating, and engaging in ongoing anti-racist w.ork to even scratch the surface of being an ally to people of color. We must acknowledge the systems that provide our privilege and intentionally work together to tear them down.
About Erin Egloff
Erin Egloff is a 540Ambassador aka Board Member and Featured Blogger. She was born and raised in Lowville, NY, and graduated from Pitzer College in Claremont, CA. She pursued a career in the Los Angeles nonprofit sector for 14 years, and moved to Rochester in 2017 with her husband and cats. Erin is a lifelong learner who is particularly passionate about intersectional feminism, racial justice, sexual violence and misconduct, education equity, and government transparency.