It’s back to school season. After several months of anticipation, worrying over first-year seminar selections, and at least one public melt-down in a Target parking lot while shopping for dorm room essentials, thousands of college freshmen across the country are packing up and doing the cross-country shuffle. There are communal bathrooms to scope out, clubs to sign up for, and perhaps most importantly, roommates to get acquainted with. This person can either be your partner in crime on a journey of self-discovery and youthful mischief, or your most treasured nemesis . . . or a semi-anonymous entity with whom you share mini-fridge space and see once every three days.
Beyond assessing whether they’re the kind of person that might leave a graveyard of nail clippings around the trash-bin or wet towels on the carpet, there is a lot to learn about this person. In a moment when our political and racial divisions are clearer than ever, the ideological leanings of your new roommate can be more important than ever. Where are they coming from? What’s their deal? Do they know what the word intersectionality means? Do they understand how racial privilege works? Do you know?
Never fear! Author of White Fragility; Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism Robin DiAngelo looks at the ways in which white people make necessary conversations about race much harder than they need to be. White fragility comes in many shapes and sizes, but all are toxic. Much of her advice is geared toward recognizing and treating these symptoms in the workplace, so I’ve taken the liberty of imagining some ways in which they might manifest in your dorm room.
I imagine these as possibilities, because they are, in part, taken from my own experience of being the roommate with white fragility and saying some cringeworthy things that revealed what DiAngelo refers to as “racial stupidity”—something that everyone who lives in our society is susceptible to because white supremacy is a potent drug. It’s something we’ll (myself included!) spend our entire lives unlearning, and what better time to start than now?
You can tell if your roommate has white fragility by these telltale signs:
- They’re from a sheltered town in Massachusetts or some other place with a white reputation. Like Connecticut. Or Ohio.
- Their town is mostly-white, and they reassure you that they regret that, but their parents had to move there because of the good schools.
- Alternatively, they grew up “urban” and poor around a lot of Black people, but they “got out” to come to college.
- Wherever they’re from, they’re white. And they’re here now and they’re your freshman year roommate, and it’s gonna be a great year!!
- On your first night of living together, they suggest agreeing on some “norms” to make sure you’re both on the same page. They contribute the following and hang the sheet of paper above their desk: 1) Don’t judge; 2) Don’t make assumptions; 3) Assume good intentions and vibes 4); Speak your truths; 5) Be cool.
- They have “a ton of Black friends” which is why they can rap along to all the lyrics of “Bodak Yellow.” Yup, all of them. Despite this unprompted declaration, when you look up at the rows of photos they spent two, painstaking hours hanging above their bed, they are all of white people.
- They have a saved Instagram file of white people with dreadlocks because they’ve been thinking about “trying them out.” Because like, why not? They look dope.
- They text you that there is “really yummy ethnic food!” in the common room.
- When you ask about their parents, they gush that they’re pretty much the best, and that they so admire them for volunteering at a phonebank for Obama during one of the campaigns.
- In fact, had they been old enough to vote, they would have voted for Obama. Twice. You know this because any time any Black politician or actor or person comes up they tell you.
- They bring a couple of friends back to the room. When you enter, one of them is in the middle of telling some joke about three men of different racial identities finding a genie lamp. The punchline, unsurprisingly, is incredibly racist. Your roommate and their friends laugh. You don’t, but you also don’t say anything and instead go to bring out the trash. When you bring it up later, their eyes go wide and they assure you that the guy, Robby, isn’t racist, but you have to get to know him to understand his humor. Your roommate thinks he might have an adopted Asian sibling.
- One morning, they might bring up that it doesn’t seem fair to them that freshman who weren’t white got a special pre-orientation. “Doesn’t that just make the problem of race worse?” You aren’t sure whether to agree, so you suggest that you go check out the involvement fair.
- They complain about the lack of white representation in rap music.
- After they do their homework, they watch Mad Men on Netflix and get misty-eyed about how cool it would have been to live in the fifties.
- When you say you’re going to buy shampoo at the Wal-Mart down the turnpike, or at the CVS off campus, they offer to come with you, because that area, regardless of where it is, is just “so sketchy.”
- They didn’t mean to offend your friend/coworker/professor/you. That is, they’re sorry if you were upset by whatever thing they said. They didn’t intend to upset you, and if you really knew them you would know that. They suggest hanging out more so you can understand their truth, gesturing to your previous agreement.
- They use the fact that their high school performed Hairspray! The Musical to demonstrate that their school district was segregated but not like, the most segregated.
- Their stories begin with “Not that it has anything to do with race, but my Black/Asian/Hispanic/African professor . . . ”
- Prominently displayed COEXIST sticker on their laptop or poster of Bob Marley made up of a lot of smaller pictures of Bob Marley—making it the greatest number of Black people they may have ever encountered.
- They have an aunt or a cousin or a father-in-law or a best friend with an aunt or a cousin or a father in law that is Asian, or maybe Mexican, or maybe Filipino? Whatever it is, they spent a lot of time together at the annual Fourth of July party.
- They learned AAVE from The Wire.
- They ask your Black coworker at your campus job whether they’ve read [insert any book by any Black author] every time they see them, regardless of their original answer.
- Went on a mission trip to [insert any country in the Global South] and lived among the [Westernized name for whatever people lived there before colonization], and it’s beautiful.
- Instagrammed a display of books at a local bookstore for “Books from Shithole Countries” with the caption “#resist.”
- Is sure that “Black women will save us all!”
- Doesn’t understand why race has to be brought up all the time? Because the Civil Rights Movement/Brown v. Board/the Emancipation Proclamation/Obama fixed all of that.
- Their grandparents marched in the 1960s, so they can’t be racist, because apparently, anti-racism is genetically passed down between generations like an evolutionary trait.
- Their Common App essay was about being bullied by a Black girl in elementary school, concluding that they forgave her because she “probably” came from a single-parent home/was poor/lived in the projects/didn’t know any better. They can’t recall this girl’s name, but somehow, all of those suppositions are intact.
- When you ask how many non-white kids are in the daycare classroom they volunteer in, they accuse you of being racist for asking them to notice race. When you ask again, they tear up and leave the room.
- Is so glad to be in such an educated, liberal place like [insert any Northern town, city, or state or California], but could never live in the South, because Southerners are all racists.
- They leave their sociology paper in the printer. It is for a class about race and education, but doesn’t once refer to race, instead using terms like “diverse,” “urban,” “disadvantaged,” and “under-privileged.”
- Thinks Dear White People is funny but that they could have gotten to a white audience better if they made fewer generalizations and were just nicer.
- Very aware of Irish slavery but can’t remember the year of the Emancipation Proclamation.
- Agrees with affirmative action until they aren’t accepted for a [insert specialized class, job, mentoring program], at which point it seems unfair that qualified people like them should be denied opportunities in the name of political correctness.
- Wants to move to Harlem for the culture and because no one has discovered how crazy cheap the rent is and they want to get in early.
- Makes long-winded post on Facebook about the anniversary of the tragic death of Trayvon Rice.
- After racist graffiti appears in the student center, there is a campus-wide forum about racism at your college/university—mandatory for all students. When you ask if they went, they say, apologetically, that they were just so swamped with homework and projects. “I just didn’t need that kind of toxicity in my life right now. Self-care, you know?” Also their mom said they didn’t have to go if they didn’t want to.
- Their favorite movies are The Blind Side, Freedom Writers.
- Offended when their classmates of color point out that they are white.
- Shrugs off information that everyone in the education internship program they are doing is white because “sometimes it just happens that way.”
- After a racial bias training held in the dorm, they compliment the facilitator for making everyone feel comfortable.
- Brings up the struggle of being gluten intolerant and maybe even having Celiac’s—they don’t know, they haven’t gotten tested yet—whenever a person of color expresses frustration about microaggressions/outright discrimination/the experience of being a person of color.
- Thinks the world would be better if everyone just chilled/was nicer/didn’t give off harsh vibes.
- Complains to lecturer giving a presentation on race that they didn’t talk enough about how difficult it is to be discriminated against because of your gender.
- Offers obvious answers to racism that include but are not limited to dressing nicer, working harder, being patient, being kind, and not giving up no matter what!!
About the Author
Assistant editor Ayla Zuraw-Friedland joined Beacon Press in 2015. She is a graduate of the Literatures in English program at Connecticut College, and spends the better part of her time haunting the indie coffee shops and bookstores along the Orange Line.