University alum Andy Horning discussed the concept of “white fragility” regarding social interactions occurring at predominantly white institutions, like the University of Michigan, in an interactive lecture Thursday afternoon at the School of Social Work.
The term “white fragility” refers to the tendency of white people to become hostile and defensive while engaged in conversations regarding race relations, inclusivity and privilege.
Horning currently practices as a couples therapist in Colorado and is known for founding a podcast, titled “Elephant Talk,” about love and relationships and more generally difficult conversations about the “elephant” in the room.
“Just because you’re not aware of it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist,” Horning said. “White fragility is everywhere, fragility is everywhere.”
During the talk, Horning described emotions of discomfort as the antidote to fragility and emphasized humans’ desire for comfort and fear of challenging discomfort in life. He stated that acknowledging the difficulty of life allows for the confrontation and better understanding of it.
“Go towards struggle, not away; go towards discomfort,” Horning said. “Too often people try and be comfortable, and go towards it.”
Horning also drew on the work of Kristin Neff, an associate professor who studies self-compassion at the University of Texas-Austin. He explained self-compassion opens the door to resiliency, which allows people to better absorb feedback, respond quicker and build strength.
Self-compassion is not selfish, Horning said, and acts as a better motivator than self-punishment. It allows people to understand others and see them for who they really are.
“It’s about you and your own work to make it not about you and your own work,” Horning said. “For the sake of something different, it’s to get to the other side for a different outcome, for a new possibility, it not being about you.”
Horning said the number of people who refuse to change their ways shocked him. According to Horning, it is grappling with one’s preconceived notions, which he defines as engaging in a close struggle without weapons, that allows people to rewrite the narrative.
“The people who are most kind to themselves can really step in and get uncomfortable; they don’t make up a story about their own story or their own struggle,” Horning said. “What’s the story you make up when you struggle? And what would it be like if you just gave yourself permission to make mistakes, making mistakes for the sake of learning and growing?”
Horning closed his talk by presenting the idea of comfort zones. He explained people think they are more fragile than they really are, and white people think they are in the panic zone when they really aren’t. This creates a smaller learning zone for people. He urged people to focus on the message and not the messenger in order to be open to more difficult conversations.
Social Work student Rachel Piper said she came to the talk hoping to learn how to negate the effects of white fragility and make meaningful changes in her own behaviors.
“I came to learn more about white fragility and to hopefully find ways that I can make small changes and impacts in my life to change my life,” Piper said. “I learned more about white fragility, how you might see it in the world and ways to engage it with yourself and your peers.”
Social Work student Armaity Minwalla emphasized the importance of a session like this in the School of Social Work.
“As a person of color in the School of Social Work, I was wondering how they were going to integrate themes of white fragility and white privilege into talks like this and into our curriculum,” Minwalla said. “I think it’s really important, and being at a predominately white institution, it’s really important to talk about these things so I wanted to see how they frame, who is going to show up to things like this, how can we learn from things like this and how can we grow as a school.”