Aya de Leon

author – activist – faculty – mom

White Fragility, The Day of the Dead, and the Power of the Second Person (with BONUS “Are You Racist?” Quiz!)

white fragility-1I’ve been blogging here for almost three years now. I have published over 200 posts. I have had nearly half a million visitors and over half a million views. But by far the most viewed post has been the one from 2014 around this time: “Dear White People/Queridos Gringos: You Want Our Culture But You Don’t Want Us – Stop Colonizing The Day Of The Dead.” It received over a thousand comments, and over 400,000 views.

I want to appreciate , Ella Martin AKA E.M. Caines, and for tweeting about the piece earlier this month, as we move into Day of the Dead season for 2015. Unfortunately, it’s just as relevant this year as it was last year. And people are still commenting on it, nearly twelve months later. I don’t generally read my comments, but I was surprised when my friend Shailja Patel alerted me last year that it had over 800 comments. When I went to read them, I was shocked to find that the majority of them (that I read at the time–I am not sifting through 800 comments) were negative feedback from white people that I was racist.

I found this very surprising because I had been so careful to say that I wasn’t talking about all white people. To be specific, I said: “Not all white people feel this way. Thank you to those of you who speak up against this. Thank you to all who boycott these events, support Latin@/Chican@/Mexican@-led events, hire our community’s artists, and hold the tradition with reverence. For those of you who haven’t been doing so, it’s not too late to start. Challenge white people who attempt to appropriate. Boycott their events and be noisy about it. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to participate in this deeply human holiday, there’s something wrong with wanting to colonize.”

But this didn’t seem to have any effect on the massive number of comments from white people who felt personally attacked by what I had to say about “all white people.” I was truly baffled.

I developed two theories:

  1. I wondered if the commenters weren’t reading the whole post. Perhaps they were getting offended by the beginning part and then spouting off on the comments before they finished reading the entire piece.
  2. On the other hand, I wondered if it was possible that once the reader believed that I accusing all white people of being racist, they were so triggered in guilt, anger, and defensiveness that they couldn’t actually comprehend that I didn’t mean all white people, even though I explicitly said so. That is to say, once a person is triggered, it is difficult to take in new information.

IMG_9297I was really curious. In fact, so curious that I asked one commenter: “did you not read the whole post, or was my explicit distinction between white people who do and don’t choose to appropriate POC holidays not enough clarification for you? I am particularly curious because you say I have done a mass generalization about white people, but I was very clear about which white people I was criticizing and which ones I was appreciating….I’m not sure if people just read the first few paragraphs of the post and then comment, or if some white people can’t tolerate any criticism of the racism of any white people….Would I need to start with a bold disclaimer “I’M NOT TALKING ABOUT ALL WHITE PEOPLE” in order not to have this problem repeatedly? I know online conversations can be snarky, but I am hoping for real dialogue here, because I feel frustrated when people comment on my posts by criticizing something that I explicitly addressed…”

As I was reading the comments, I recalled a hashtag that has been trending on Twitter: #WhiteFragility. It seemed as if these folks might be able to help me understand. According to a great article on alternet by Sam Adler-Bell, the concept of white fragility was developed by Robin DiAngelo, professor of multicutural education at Westfield State University and author of What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy. DiAngelo (who is white) defines it as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include outward display of emotions such as anger, fear and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”

This perfectly described my experience. I also wondered if the problem was exacerbated by the use of the Second Person. In creative writing, we sometimes call this Point Of View, where a piece is either speaking in the voice as follows:

First person: “I”

Second person: “you”

Third person: “they”

Because the movie “Dear White People” had just come out when I wrote the post last year, I decided to call the post “Dear White People/Queridos Gringos,” and to put the post in the second person. I think this may have heightened the experience of white people feeling accused. Afterall, I did say “you.” But when R&B singers say, “I’m coming over to your house to sex you up” (I’m paraphrasing) and the doorbell rings, I don’t expect the singer to actually be there. That is to say, we all have experience with an author using the second person and not thinking they’re actually talking to us, personally. However, as part of white fragility, the defensiveness may be so heightened that the second person is too confrontational.

So as the Day of the Dead draws close once again, I’ll close this year’s post with a quiz.

from an LA Weekly Article on Disney's attempt to own The Day Of The Dead

from an LA Weekly Article on Disney’s attempt to own The Day Of The Dead

US White People: Are you racist? Do you colonize the Day of the Dead? Take the quiz!

Part I

How many people of Mexican ancestry live in your area?

a. few or none

b. many or very many

If you answered (a), go to Part IV, answer A.

Part II.

True or False:

I have never heard of the Day of the Dead.

If you answered True, go to Part IV, answer D.

Part III.

When the Day of the Dead comes around:

a. I don’t participate

b. I like to participate in events run by and benefiting members of the Mexican@/Xican@/Latin@ community

c. I like to paint a skeleton on my face and go to my tech company’s Day of the Dead microbrew party where my CEOs rock band is playing

If you answered (a), go to Part IV, answer A.

If you answered (b), go to Part IV, answer B.

If you answered (c), go to Part IV, answer C.

Part IV – ANSWERS

A:  I have no idea whether or not you are racist.

B: I don’t know if you are racist, but I appreciate you making an effort to support our community.

C: you are definitely appropriating the holiday. Appropriation is part of racism. Please reconsider.

D: if you live in an area where there are lots of people of Mexican heritage and you have never heard of the Day of the Dead, then I suspect you might be racist, because you are so unaware of the cultural traditions of the people of color around you. On the other hand, The Day of the Dead is not celebrated in all parts of Mexico, so maybe there isn’t a strong tradition in your area…

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26 comments on “White Fragility, The Day of the Dead, and the Power of the Second Person (with BONUS “Are You Racist?” Quiz!)

  1. spencemanlatin
    October 28, 2015

    Again, with zero understanding and/or acknowledgment of what most people found offensive and confounding about the piece. No one is arguing about cultural appropriation. Most people on this thread share, on some level, your concerns about that. It’s the divisive way in which you frame the conversation. And now, when people have the temerity to take you to task, you simply retreat back to the comfort of your vision that any sort of naysaying (or even mildly nuanced objection!) is merely white reactionary anger. Did you even notice who the majority of the commenters were? Most were Latino! LOL. And a good number of those were actually Mexican. (Some of us DO read the comments.)

    This (for me, and I would imagine most others) had absolutely nothing to do with race and everything to do with smug arrogance and proprietary feelings towards a holiday that, ironically, belongs (according to your warped reasoning) even less to you than it does to the commenters who disagree with you.

    While you clearly have strong feelings for this culture, you might want to think twice before publicly claiming it as your own and trying to control the manner in which others celebrate its holidays. Remember you’re a tourist, too.

    • spencemanlatin
      October 28, 2015

      I might add that I think the least of your concerns should be a handful of urban hipsters (a good number of whom actually are themselves of Mexican descent). People in this community, generally speaking, tend to be fairly respectful of cultural traditions. I might suggest focusing your ire on more worthy targets.

    • kamalakaruna
      October 30, 2015

      Thank you spencemanlatin. The writer doesn’t seem willing to admit that her approach prevented people from hearing a valuable message. Start with what most consider a slur (if you’r not friends or don’t know the person) and you lose the audience you are addressing. It’s fine to feel righteous anger. You just have to be skilled enough to express it in a way to be heard.

    • Matthew Rothenberg
      November 1, 2015

      Nailed it. I’m also surprised that she claims not to read the comments on her posts … But considering how much of the response she missed, I can believe it.

  2. Xaotik Designs
    October 30, 2015

    Dear Muslims, stop being terrorists

    Dear Blacks, stop being gang bangers

    Dear Asians, Stop being bad drivers

    Dear Italians, stop jumping down pipes to rescue princesses

    Imagine articles written with those headlines.

    Now imagine that the person that wrote it later said, “Well, it’s not all Muslims, blacks, asians…”

    Would you then stop thinking that person was racist?

    Remember Donald Trumps little speech about how all the people coming across the border are rapists, murderers, and drug smugglers? Sure, he may have said that there are good people coming across also, but did that make his statement sound any less racist?

    Also, not all white people are descendants of the Celts, and as such, so telling us to celebrate our own holiday, while linking to an article about it’s origins in Samhain, is also a little racist. Wouldn’t celebrating that holiday be “appropriating” another cultures celebration for those of us that aren’t Celtic?

    Should non whites stop trick or treating? If I see a non white individual buying some superhero costume in Wal-Mart, should I chase them out of the isle?

    It should also be noted, that it wasn’t Wal-Mart that turned Samhain into the Halloween we have today, it started with the Romans that stamped out Celtic religious practices a couple thousand years ago, leaving pretty much no records of how to celebrate the festival. So even those of Celtic descent probably can’t properly celebrate since nobody really knows what was down in celebration. The only thing that we know, is that some Roman’s wrote that they used human sacrifice in their rituals, whether or not this is true is unknown, but if it is, then it means that pretty much any celebration is going to be quite watered down from the original, even if the people celebrating are celtic.

    And lastly, “Appropriation” is a term generally used in regards to finite resources, usually money. When a sum of money is appropriated for one purpose, it means that it cannot be used for another. If I appropriate half the fundraising money to build a new concession stand, that’s money you don’t get to buy new uniforms. If I appropriate the last onion for the salad, then you don’t get any for on the burgers. If I appropriate a section of land for a basket ball court, you can’t put a garden there.

    Cultural appropriation doesn’t work the way people like you think it does because A. culture is not a finite resource, and B. nobody is denying you the ability to practice your culture any way you wish.

    If I make sugar skulls and bring them into work, it in no way prevents you from making them for your celebration.

    If someone paints their face up just because it’s pretty, it doesn’t prevent you from doing so to celebrate.

    If white people celebrate one way, it doesn’t prevent you from having your own celebration, joining their celebration, or inviting them to join yours.

  3. Matthew Rothenberg
    October 31, 2015

    I’ve taken exception to the original post for a year now. And it’s got little to do with the use of the second person, but of the first person plural.

    The author identifies as Puerto Rican, which means she doesn’t come from a culture that celebrated Día de Muertos. (That sloppy thinking also extends to casting Samhain as a pan-European “white holiday” — my only real issue with the use of “you.”)

    People of color around the world certainly share a colonial legacy, and white privilege is a real thing (from which I benefit, by the way). That said, there’s really no “we” in her appropriation of Día de Muertos. She can be attracted to this tradition, she can paint her face, she can benefit from the generosity of her hosts … But claiming ownership is way out of line.

    So, Querida Puertorriqueña: You are not part of “we.” That’s my problem with your post. Would you like to address that instead of deflecting to the easy part?

  4. venustribes
    October 31, 2015

    I am White. I love reading your thoughts.

    • venustribes
      October 31, 2015

      … and white fragility has nothing to do with your articles and a lot to do with history and inequality (than and now) on this planet.

    • Matthew Rothenberg
      November 3, 2015

      White people have ESP?!

  5. @@@
    November 1, 2015

    When millions of Mexicans stop coming to America to appropriate white culture (education, health care, capitalist wealth, abundant jobs, clean drinking water, welfare for anyone, safe neighborhoods, liberal democracy), maybe white Americans won’t be tempted to participate in Mexican holiday celebrations.

    • Sam
      November 1, 2015

      I’m sorry are you ACTUALLY claiming “education, health care, capitalist wealth, abundant jobs, clean drinking water, welfare for anyone, safe neighborhoods, liberal democracy” is white culture?

      Wow, you are the very definition of “white privilege”.

      • @@@
        November 1, 2015

        Then why doesn’t Mexican culture have these things? Why are millions of Mexicans here to enjoy them?

    • Casey
      November 1, 2015

      Are you serious??? To say people enjoy white culture then describe it as “education, health care, and clean drinking water” just shows how off the rails you are!! Those things are a human right, not a culture. By the way, were it not for a capitalist economic environment those things along with safe neighborhoods and welfare would not be necessary. Do your research. We as indigenous people never needed your “progress” and only led to our marginalization. Words too big? Just know that not everybody wants to be you, we just want to be as we have always been…. Btw I’m not of Hispanic origin but I am of an indigenous people who ORIGINATED from here.

      • @@@
        November 1, 2015

        You seriously believe people only need these things because of capitalism: education, health care, clean drinking water, safe neighborhoods and welfare? If you believe that, why are you showing off your education with your ability to read and write? If it’s so unnecessary, don’t do it! Stop capitalistic reading and writing! Stop neighborhood safety! Go out and loot something!

  6. nic
    November 2, 2015

    Girl, you did a great job. Just trying to leave you a single comment that won’t make you crazy. Mil gracias por defendiendo tus hermanos y hermanas.

  7. Diogo
    November 2, 2015

    I’m a Latin American, born, raised and still living here. You’re a gringo who apparently can’t tell the difference between Mexico and Puerto Rico (supposedely all “hispanics”, thanks to Nixon and American stupid notions about race.
    Dia de los Muertos is not a “POC holiday” – that’s some deep ignorant shit like that. Like so many Latin American traditions, it is a syncretic tradition that blends elements of the various cultural matrixes of the region: in this case European Catholicism and Aztec motiffs.
    You’re the one colonizing and appropriating a foreign culture as a weapon in an uniquely american cultural wars. Projecting american-made notions of identity and cultural norms unto foreign cultures.
    The people of Mexico and Latin America are a multi-racial people. You arrogantly claim as yours and deny to others based on exclusively american notions of race and identity.
    At least most people who adopt day of the dead in the US do it positevely, whereas you’re doing it by corrupting the meaning, distorting its history, to fit into your own American narratives. Ignorant and arrogant – the WORST attitude Americans can have towards foreign cultures. Shame on you.

    • Matthew Rothenberg
      November 6, 2015

      Thank you for that. The author is a cultural tourist herself … But laboring under the delusion she’s a steward of the culture she’s visiting.

  8. Pingback: Day of the Deceased | Incidents of Travel

  9. Z
    November 3, 2015

    Ahhhh you had me until the end of the quiz. That’s a pretty bold statement to infer that the white people that dress up for Dias de Los Muertos all work at tech companies and drink microbrews….. I personally am grateful that you are writing about all these things and bringing to light your intentions. I heard you the first time, but have been met with the same push back from people in my community. I see where you are coming from, and if you want people to take the quiz seriously, you might want to be less specific. #whitefragility

    ❤ A White Ally that can see where people would rather split hairs than talk about the issues and wants to know how she can better talk to her comrades.

  10. Abby G!
    November 3, 2015

    I find it interesting that you can toss your opinions out there on this subject, but when folks offer theirs in return, it’s out of “anger” “guilt” and “defensiveness.”

    As if one paragraph Acknowledging not all white people are “guilty” of this excuses your other generalizing statements. If that’s the case for you, I can say whatever I want about whatever race, and as long as I make one statement saying “I know it’s not all of them” makes my racism okay.

    You have it very backwards.
    -sincerely, a black woman offended by your lack of awareness outside your own realm

  11. Devon
    November 3, 2015

    You are such a fool….I can only laugh at this. Stupidity and racism with a side of denial and ego.

  12. robin
    November 5, 2015

    I’m Latin.

    We celebrate All Souls on 11/2, and bake Ossi da Morti (bones of the dead cookies), visit the graves of our loved ones,leave flowers, a drink and a snack for the departed, and maybe even have a picnic.

    And when I say I’m Latin, it’s as in my ancestors spoke latin as their native tongue. You know, that place people call Italy nowadays. Should I be railing against Latino appropriation of Latin culture?

    All modern culture is polyglot, particularly in the United States, where part of successful assimilation is losing obvious traces of distinctive cultural identity. When I was in college, I took a homesick Latino friend to my great-grandmother’s for All Soul’s. We ate cookies, drank coffee, and talked about our families – my grandmother and I in Italian, my friend in Spanish. The next year, he brought her a little skeleton figurine, and talked about Day of the Dead traditions in Mexico. When she was asked why she kept her Mexican “piccolo santo” on the shelf next to the Blessed Virgin and Jesus, her reply was “it’s Catholic”. She was not an ignorant woman. She was a midwife, which was the degree conferred upon women who completed medical training in early 20th century Italian universities. She chose to see a gift that celebrated the similarities of 2 cultures, offered by a relative stranger.

    That following autumn we all shook our heads as drunken college students swiped at the ribbons of money strung from the statues of the saints as they were paraded down the streets during the Feast of St. Francis (BTW – that’s a European Catholic tradition too) – we didn’t think racism, just youthful ignorant disrespect. Drunken college students, hipsters and their microbrews – it’s all the same thing. While racism is certainly a product of ignorance, it’s lazy to equate them. Ignorance can be cured by teaching. Racism is a far deeper issue, and it seems to have become in vogue to use the terms interchangeably. From my cultural background, it would be like me calling every fan of The Sopranos racist (because, frankly, that show embodied just about every negative Italian stereotype I grew up with), which is absurd.

    If you don’t like the behavior, explain why it offends. Some forty odd years ago, my friend confronted a drunken classmate at the feast, explaining that it was not cool trying to take offerings made to the church in the name of St. Francis. Of course, he looked more like a linebacker that the run of the mill hipster, so he didn’t have a lot of fear in that regard. In the case of the Day of the Dead, hipsters see a halloween-esque party. So maybe, just maybe, if you disabused them of that notion, they’d show more respect.

    Most disturbing is your ‘quiz’. Sadly, the best estimation you have of non-Latinos seems to be to acknowledge that MAYBE they’re not racist. If you don’t know that European immigrants have also suffered prejudice and racism, you’re either too young to remember, or you’ve never left the west coast. No white fragility here – I just don’t buy into the whole ‘my people’s suffering is worse than your people’s suffering’ malarkey.

  13. Charlene1962
    November 5, 2015

    I challenge you to rewrite an article after you can show your audience you’ve actually done a decent amount of research and can actually provide an in depth argument backing up your statements. You have tried to come across as some sort of activist here but it blew up right in your face. Please call yourself an activist when you actually do something to change the world, instead of typing your opinions behind a computer, and when you can accept the concept of very different people working as ONE. It makes the real activists look like lazy, uneducated hippies that would shit their pants before thinking of leading a rally. Go to time square and start preaching this on a megaphone, let’s see how confident you are in your uneducated statements then.

    • @@@
      November 5, 2015

      That would be great, but that would be her demise. Her whole schitck is writing dumb garbage. This is how she got everything that she has, like her job at UC Berkeley. If she had to do research, use reason, and listen to input from others, she’d be just a normal everyperson writing mundane things, like ordinary, reasonable people do. Then she’d have nothing remarkable to her name. This is why, as she says, she doesn’t even read comments on her own blog. If she so much as read constructive input on her own writings, her subsequent writings would be that much more reasonable, and she’d no longer be that well known wacko who writes dumb garbage, and UC Berkeley wouldn’t hire her back for the next semester. She’d be ruined.

  14. Irony
    October 30, 2016

    Haha a quiz about whether someone is racist? Don’t need a quiz to see. All I have to do is look at you!!!!!!! I’m betting you scored 100% racist. I mean you painted your face as a sugar skull and you aren’t even Mexican. YOU ARE AMERICANO

  15. Irony
    October 30, 2016

    Also you paragraph about not all white people is still condensending to the many white people who celebrate day of the dead. Who knows the history. Who know the tradition. Myself as a pure bread white person with 0% Hispanic ancestors celebrating day of the dead is no different than you, a Puerto Rican celebrating day of the dead. You too
    Should boycot the entire holiday and never speak of it. It’s a Mexican holiday. Regardless of any lineage you my dear are NOT Mexican. Therefore it’s pot calling the kettle black with you bigoted words.

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This entry was posted on October 28, 2015 by in Uncategorized.

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