Members Only | May 5, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Nikki Haley’s illustration of white fragility

She's made a career of comforting white people, writes Issac J. Bailey.

Nikki Haley's illustration of white fragility

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White fragility is real. Whatever else you think about educator Robin DiAngelo, she has correctly identified one of the most persistent and pernicious phenomena of 21st-century American life, the discomfort and defensiveness white people feel when they are exposed to information or discussions about racial inequality and injustice. It’s a major threat to furthering racial progress. But I’m not sure she even realizes just how noxious the phenomenon is because like white supremacy, it doesn’t only affect white people, even though it is almost always deployed in service of white people.

“I don’t blame Haley for deciding not to use the full name her parents gave her at birth—Nimrata Nikki Randhawa Haley,” writes Editorial Board member Issac J. Bailey. “But I do fault her for continuing to perpetuate myths about this country.”

Take a recent exchange between former South Carolina Governor and Republican Nikki Haley, an Asian American, and Dennis Prager, a white American whose brainchild, something called Prager University, alludes to higher education but actually just dumbs things down and distorts history. In fact, Prager “university” is white fragility in its purest form. It is a safe space for mostly white people, though not exclusively, who’d rather hold fast to American creation myths than have to grapple with harsher truths. Haley was so proud of the exchange that she tweeted out a video of it under the heading “Critical race theory is harmful to children’s education.”

In the video, Prager urges parents to take kids out of schools that teach the 1619 Project by The New York Times. That’s no surprise. White fragility is all about helping white people avoid difficult conversations about race, and the 1619 Project dared to bring to light ideas and facts left out of often white-washed history books generations of students were exposed to. This is how Nikki Haley, the first woman and person of color to serve as governor of deep-red and deep-south South Carolina, responded:

Kids should not be taught that they are racist. And that’s literally what the, the Critical Race Theory and all of those things are doing is they are automatically looking at these kids that know no difference. No, they don’t see color. They don’t see gender. They don’t see anything. They’re just kids. And then you’re going to teach them that they are racist. I mean, this is a problem that really needs to stop.

The video is part of something called “Stand for America,” which Haley claims promotes “freedom at home and strength abroad.” The video ends with her essentially arguing that states’ rights are the right bulwark against such supposed indoctrination. 

I’m willing to bet Haley knows next to nothing about Critical Race Theory, its origins, its creators or primary practitioners, or where it diverges from Ibram X. Kendi’s popular anti-racism philosophy that has gotten as much or more attention than DiAngelo’s book on white fragility. But that’s how white fragility works, too.

It cares not about facts. If it takes distortions and half-truths to comfort white people about race, then they will be deployed—even by a woman who should know better. Haley grew up in a rural part of South Carolina, like I did. She faced discrimination early in her life, which contradicts what she said in the video about children not seeing color or gender. How do we know she faced childhood racism she’s now denying even exists? Because she told us last year during the Republican National Convention.

I grew up in a small town where we were the only Indian family, and I was bullied because they didn’t know if I was Black or if I was white. All I knew was I was Indian. I was brown. I was bullied because I wouldn’t take a side. … So I told my parents and my parents talked to the teachers, and we ended up educating the class.

In service of white fragility, a woman of color who overcame discrimination, including being called a “raghead” when she ran for governor, memory-holed her own painful experiences. I don’t blame Haley for deciding not to use the full name her parents gave her at birth—Nimrata Nikki Randhawa Haley—or checking the “white” box on her 2001 voter registration card. I’m a Black man. I get the external pressures on Black and brown people to “assimilate,” which often just means be more like white people.

I’ve felt it, too. I’ve given in from time to time, thinking it the only way to succeed while maintaining my sanity. It’s the insidious power of white supremacy, which will choose any host that will help it survive and spread, even if the host is a Black or brown body. Neither Haley nor I should be ashamed of finding ways to successfully navigate a country in which white supremacy was embedded during its founding.

But I fault Haley for continuing to perpetuate myths about this country and lying about the intent of those with whom she disagrees. It harkens back to the days she was essentially waving away the presence of the Confederate flag on State House grounds in our home state, as though it was no big deal. Is there a greater example of white fragility than the need to fly the flag of traitors and call it “heritage” and “honor” and having the first person of color to be governor assuaging the fears of white South Carolinians concerned the traitor’s flag might be removed from public property?

Maybe the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency on the strength of white Evangelical Christian support and voters more likely than others to be motivated by racial animus is a more salient example. Because the browning of America was discomforting them, they turned to an open bigot to turn back the clock. Haley initially refused to follow but has become a sycophant, reckoning that her future depends on how effective she is at creating a safe space for scared white people.

It took the blood of nine Black people massacred by Dylann Roof in a Black church in Charleston to convince Haley it was time for the Confederate flag to go. I don’t know what it will take for her to speak truthfully about America’s problem with racism.

Issac J. Bailey

Issac J. Bailey is a South Carolina-based journalist who has won numerous writing and reporting awards, was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman Fellow and is the Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He’s been published by The New York TimesWashington Post, CNN, Politico MagazineTime, among many other publications. He recently released his third bookWhy Didn’t We Riot: A Black Man in Trumpland.

Published in cooperation with Alternet.

Issac J. Bailey is a South Carolina-based journalist who has won numerous writing and reporting awards, was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman Fellow and is the Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College. He's been published by The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, Politico Magazine, Time, among many other publications. He recently released his third book, Why Didn't We Riot: A Black Man in Trumpland.

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