Just before coming to Americans United, and after years of work in nonprofits, law, advocacy and coalition-building, I dedicated myself to learning about and working to dismantle racism and white privilege.
I was inspired to take this path after I delivered a Yom Kippur sermon at George Washington University’s Hillel called, “Uncovering My White Privilege on Yom Kippur.” (Feel free to Google it if interested!) I had been told I could choose whatever topic I wanted for the sermon. Having just lived through a year (2015) where the media and people brandishing iPhones had exposed repeated instances where police were unjustly killing black people, I had noticed something: Every time I thought about the notion of “racial justice,” I felt passionate and called to action. But when I came across the increasingly prevalent term “white privilege,” it made me squirm, and I did not understand why.
My sermon unpacked why that was the case. My studies of white privilege helped me see how easy it is to be oblivious to your own privilege. After all, part of being privileged is being the “baseline,” so it’s harder to notice, for example, that “skin-colored” bandages and typical hotel shampoos are made for your type of skin and hair — something that people of color never miss.
I also learned about the concept of “white fragility.” This term was coined by Prof. Robin DiAngelo, whose field is “whiteness studies.”
“White Fragility,” DiAngelo explains, “is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.” These behaviors “function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.”
To make the term “white fragility” come alive, think of a white person (let’s call her “Jane”) being challenged by a person of color (let’s call her “Tracey”) for saying something racially offensive, and how that white person might feel and act. Jane might feel defensive, arguing, “I didn’t do anything wrong.” Jane might also be so enraged at being “attacked” that she accuses Tracey of “reverse racism.” Jane might be so emotional that she walks away. If Jane were prone to more physical behavior, she might even shove Tracey out of the way on her way out of the room. These behaviors function to maintain white privilege.
So what does this have to do with separation of church and state? I was reminded of another form of privilege and fragility recently when I witnessed the backlash to our recent lawsuit in Bossier Parish, La. The suit aims to stop the widespread unconstitutional promotion of Christianity throughout the parish’s public schools, and reactions to it have included the same types of defensiveness, outrage and even suggestions of physical violence that I described above.
“This lawsuit against my parish, my way of life, and my God is an attack on anyone who professes God as their Lord and Savior. … It is in moments of attack like this that we as Christians must rally together in support of our Lord and Savior,” wrote one student at Parkway High School on the Facebook page of “Protect Prayer,” a student-led movement that was born in response to our lawsuit. “Protect Prayer” suggests Christians are the ones in need of protection – not the students of different religious and philosophical backgrounds. This verbal jiu-jitsu resembles Jane accusing Tracey of being the racist.
Emotions in Bossier have run so high online that one Facebook post proposed that our plaintiffs be put “in a dirt nap,” causing Americans United to file an unchallenged motion requesting their anonymity. Opponents of our lawsuit are also urging their supporters to draw a blue line on their hands on April 9, physically marking who’s in the dominant group and who’s not. These behaviors are aimed at preserving the privilege that Christian students and families have in the Bossier public schools.
The good news? We have the law and the Constitution on our side, and Americans United has a phenomenal legal team. Our opponents in Bossier cannot just “get up and walk out of the room” like Jane could because they are facing our lawsuit.
Meanwhile, I look forward to thinking with our staff, board and all of you about how we can remind more Americans that confronting privilege, whether it’s based on race or – in our case – religion, is essential to living our fundamental American values.
Rachel K. Laser is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.