400 Years Blog #6 – Frederick Douglass and White Fragility

Posted in: Leader's Blog

As Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam struggles to save his political life, his “white fragility” is on clear display. [For a deeper understanding of “white fragility” explore: https://robindiangelo.com/] His weakness contrasts sharply with the strength of Frederick Douglass whose autobiography I finished re-reading today.


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.” [Janell Ross’s full article of February 5, 2019, can be accessed here: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/gov-northam-blackface-case-distracts-broader-problems-racism-n966856]


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 #12: Blackface and Klan costumes are not ok and never were.
  • Lesson #13: 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 #14: Oppression attacks the character of all involved – the oppressed and the oppressor, though the attack is obviously more lethal for the former.
  • Lesson #15: 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.


Further recommended reading about:


Incident’s in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs (1861). This book written by Jacobs (1813-97), who lived through nearly the same years as Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), is one of the few written by a woman and is important to offer a more gender-balanced history. As Douglass himself said, women are underrepresented and we fail to acknowledge the contribution of their “heart and her conscience,” as well as their “skill, industry, patience, and perseverance.”


DiAngelo, Robin.White Fragility. (2018) DiAngelo explores the how white people react when challenged about their racial attitudes and identity. She analyzes their anger, fear, and guilt – which inhibits real dialogue about racism – and offers ways to get beyond these emotions so as to focus on deeper wounds inflicted on people of color historically and today.


Blight, David W. Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom. One of 2018’s most praised works. Read the NYT review at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/05/books/review/david-w-blight-frederick-douglass.html


Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). May have influenced the United States as much as any book ever written. Caused a surge of abolitionist sentiment in the north and was banned in the south.


Next blog: Frederick Douglass’s Persistence and Strength


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About this project:


This particular year-long commitment – which I am calling “400 Years” – is aimed mainly at people like me: people who identify as white, accept that racism gives them privileges, and want to confront systemic racism more consistently and constructively. Of course anyone can support the project, but my main hope is to encourage self-identifying whites who want to increase their efforts to confront racism and deconstruct white supremacy. I don’t intend on spending time trying to convince people who resist anti-racism activism. I want to help those who want to practice anti-racism to do it more often and more effectively.

This project will focus mainly on how racism in the United States has hurt Africans and their descendants. While non-whites from Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East are often brutal victims of racism, I have been taught most by victims who happen to be black.

So when white people wanting to be more active in anti-racism ask me, “Where do I start?”, I often say, “Start with the history. People of color have already shared their wisdom in countless writings from slave narratives to peer reviewed articles to award winning historical works.” The weight of 400 years of race-based oppression fuels my commitment. Perhaps it will help you with your own efforts to deconstruct white supremacy.


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