"White Fragility," Vaccines, and Waldorf Education

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I am a parent member of a diversity, equity and inclusion committee at the Portland Waldorf school in Oregon. We agreed to read "White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism", by Robin DiAngelo,[i] which I found to be penetratingly accurate and helpful.

It helped me to understand better how to minimize my own defensiveness and sensitivity to racism so that I can actively participate in its undoing through better self-awareness of my own education, socialization, and biases, and that of my children. In other words, the task presented by this book is a fundamentally spiritual task: to know myself.

DiAngelo discusses the difficulty of this specifically for white people with regard to racism, which she calls "White Fragility." She explains that "White Fragility 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, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium."

In her original essay on White Fragility,[ii] she says that as a result of a history of segregation, racial entitlement, racial arrogance, racial belonging, and racial freedom, white people have not developed "racial stamina", or sufficient resiliency to be able to tolerate or even discuss racial issues. "Whites have not had to build tolerance for racial discomfort and thus when racial discomfort arises, whites typically respond as if something is "wrong," and blame the person or event that triggered the discomfort (usually a person of color). This blame," she says, "results in a socially-sanctioned array of counter-moves against the perceived source of the discomfort, including: penalization; retaliation; isolation; ostracization; and refusal to continue engagement. White insistence on racial comfort ensures that racism will not be faced. This insistence also functions to punish those who break white codes of comfort. Whites often confuse comfort with safety and state that we don't feel safe when what we really mean is that we don't feel comfortable. This trivializes our history of brutality towards people of color and perverts the reality of that history. Because we don't think complexly about racism, we don't ask ourselves what safety means from a position of societal dominance, or the impact on people of color, given our history, for whites to complain about our safety when we are merely talking about racism."

In an interview with Teaching Tolerance,[iii] DiAngelo says: "When we understand racism as a system that we have been raised in and that its impact is inevitable, it's really not a question of good or bad." She explains "foundationally, we have to change our idea of what it means to be a racist" for when we limit this only to define someone who means harm or hates another due to their different race, or negates universal humanity, or claims absolute superiority of one race over another, etc., we are defining a social problem by means of blaming mean people who hate. She says, "I would actually agree with anyone who felt offended [by this characterization]." Instead, she explains that racism is perpetuated by not talking about racism and the racist systems in which we all live. It is a condition in which we live, not a moral character judgment.

"White fragility" that lacks "racial stamina" is the result of white people not recognizing the condition that perpetuates racist systems. "It is inevitable that you are a racist," she says, but that has nothing to do with your intentions.

She includes herself as a white woman and says, as for racism: "I have it." Towards the end of the book she suggests that "having racism" is like being told "you have an acoustic neuroma" and then just when the doctor is about to explain what this is, she has to rush off to an emergency call. She says, "I have been socialized into it," and that she and any white person should "consider racism a matter of life and death (as it is for people of color), and do your homework."

And so the real question, she says, is: "What am I going to do about it?.... And that's where, I think, maybe some guilt could come in, when you know that and you're still not going to do anything about it."

Waldorf school communities today, like all, but especially private school communities, are faced with this same question: What are we going to do about racism? What are we going to do now and into the future about interrupting and transforming its pervasive influence and presence? 

It is a question that seeks a positive, active response from out of the "Philosophy of Freedom" that is the very core of Waldorf education. For example, according to Rudolf Steiner, "The link mediating between a concept and a percept is the mental picture. For an unfree spirit, this link is given in advance (conditioned) - motives are present in advance as mental pictures in consciousness….Only people who have moral imagination are really morally productive….All the moral activity of humanity arises from individual ethical intuitions and their acceptance in human communities. We could say that the ethical life of humanity is the sum total of what free human individuals have produced through their moral imagination."[iv]

It is a social question, to be answered with courageous, spiritual inquiry into how freedom, equality and universal love co-form a healthy social organism, for it challenges the comfortable form and condition from the past that, structurally and functionally, has created an unhealthy, and extremely imbalanced social organism.

It is not a question that needs to trigger an emotionally reactive response; or, that seeks to lay blame; or, that seeks a public rejection or verbal, anti-racist statement that distances ourselves from the uncomfortableness of our inevitably racist social structures. 

The tendency, however, is to attack or react, and some Waldorf schools are publicly rejecting anything in Waldorf pedagogy that would, even if completely taken out of context, associate their school with racism.[v],[vi],[vii],[viii] This tendency to attack or react with "anti-racism" demonstrates an effort to dissociate from the possibility that they (the "anti-racists") themselves "have it." 

It is not an ideological or historical question, but a question, rather, of what each school can do now about what racism lives within the structure, organization, and community relationships and practices. 

To answer this question courageously and with love, such as Rudolf Steiner did with his work towards a social renewal and its extension into the Waldorf movement, the Biodynamic movement, and Curative education for children with special needs movement, and in general the Anthroposophical movement, requires continuous striving. He says in 1919: "The 'social question' is not something that has just surfaced recently and can be solved for good and all by a few people putting their heads together, or by an act of parliament. It is, rather, an integral part of all modern civilization, and is not going to go away. It will have to be addressed again and again at every moment of our further history and evolution. In modern times human society has entered a phase in which social structures continually give rise to anti-social forces. This has to be overcome again and again."[ix]

To overcome again and again the anti-social forces that live in and through each of us by way of the life we give to social structures, requires courageous self-inquiry into these anti-social forces, and into the complexity of our social fears that underlie them.

For, when DiAngelo speaks of racism, she uses a phrase that speaks to one of the greatest fears of our times. She says "I have it," implying that racism is not just a condition - it is a contagion.

The fear of contagion is another way of describing what she articulates so well in her book - that white liberals react to any insinuation that they are in any way racist, as though it were a contagion. They don't want to "have it," or to catch it, or to be associated with it. They want to reject it. They want to prove that they are "anti-racist" due, according to DiAngelo, their White Fragility.

The complexity of this fear of contagion is deeply related to the complexity of racism, and they are both rearing up in our times like a vicious two-headed dragon.

The fear of contagion, articulated and exemplified in daily or even hourly articles written today about disease, is not just a fear of illness - it is a fear of other people's illnesses (and example of "othering"[x]). These illnesses are not from around here. They are from far-away places; places like Africa. They are from far-away times, (like when the water quality in the US was also so poor there was a polio epidemic[xi]). Some of these far-away diseases cross our great walls and national boundaries by way of pestilent insects, just as global climate disruption respects no border. For security purposes, entire communities will now tolerate mass spraying of pesticides from trucks driving through neighborhoods or low-flying planes and helicopters spraying ubiquitously, even while there is simultaneously a strong, predominantly white, liberal movement (with active litigation) fighting against the spraying of pesticides on their food or in their playgrounds, or near their schools. 

In the face of contagion, people are willing to tolerate mass quarantine, separation of children from their parents, and parental incarceration (if they refuse treatment, such as vaccination), and even deportation. Other people's illnesses are not welcome. Many want better, stronger walls between us and them, and mandates that enforce security against their fear of illness, even if these illnesses are statistically insignificant. This is regardless even if those other people are white or middle-class neighbors for whom solitary confinement, expulsion from schools and public places, or time in jail becomes acceptable if contagion is a possibility - for the fear of the other's illness is even greater than fear or mistrust of another race, culture or religion; and white vaccine-resistance is an affront to white solidarity in the form of "herd immunity."

Vaccine resistance, if from immigrant (non-white) communities, is, according to the predominantly white liberal media voices, due to ignorance or religious superstition. These non-white immigrants, as reported in NPR or the evening news, just need to be educated. 

Vaccine resistance in white conservative, right-wing, or fundamentalist Christian communities also is seen as incomprehensible ignorance, but in this case due to racial arrogance. 

However, when vaccine resistance occurs in white, liberal communities, this becomes for the white, liberal majority a great threat and is ascribed to self-centered individualism. These educated, white, liberal minority communities, such as can be found within Waldorf school communities, are depicted in the liberal and mainstream media as extreme versions of racial elitism and entitlement, who have amnesia of historic epidemics due to their white privilege.[xii]

Nevertheless, the illnesses are all still characterized and reported as coming from dirty, under-privileged minorities and third world regions, or from the mis-informed and non-compliant, as an offensive, backwards insult and terrorization of the privileged first world. The universal solution, which according to the dominant culture should be deployed and enforced as soon as possible, is a vaccine, or, a breakthrough drug from modern pharmaceutical medicine - a field dominated by white men.

The solution to these global problems is to swoop in like superheroes, inject vaccinations in as many people as possible to put a stop to the spread of these devastating diseases, and swoop back to the ivory tower laboratories for more research and product development. In extreme situations, this can be seen as a noble gesture, for vaccines (or a military strike) certainly can be effective in saving lives. But the intense propaganda push for vaccines worldwide reveals the real intentions, which, aside from financial and political power consolidation, is to prevent the spread of disease - to the first world. 

If this were not the case, if the real intention was to solve the problem where it exists, the real cause of disease would be thoroughly investigated. The ideology that a pathogenic microbe is the cause of an illness is amazingly simplistic (an example of the "danger of the single story"[xiii]), and a distraction from an understanding of the whole human being, including the actual role microbes play at triggering our immune system to react to an underlying, already occurring condition of illness (congestion, disequilibrium, rigidity, toxicity, devitalization of tissues, etc.) upon which the microbe feeds or finds a place to flourish. It makes perfect sense that white people would intensely focus upon an invading microbe as the source of the problem and as a true evil in the world, given our racist conditioning and socialization that demonizes the other, and insulates us from culpability or responsibility.

The triggers, the insults, the carriers, and especially the contagious are the not the cause of disease. We can only begin to understand the cause of a contagious disease when we examine the conditions in which it is engendered and spreads, which are: poverty, inequality, malnutrition, oppression, suppression, genocide, war; racism.

Vaccinations are being used as a medical solution forced upon a social problem as the only and required remedy. Forcing medical "solutions" upon social problems is certainly not new, for example, in the practice of forced sterilization, forced contraceptive and hormonal treatment, the global propaganda of these methods in third world countries and among minority and poor communities, and the intense medicalization of women's issues, such in the history of the hysterectomy, and the current high prevalence of hysterectomies and cesarean section births. Another example is the medicalization of gun violence, which is blamed upon mental illness, amidst an intensely violent and pervasively racist, gun loving culture.

Vaccines, when used to treat social problems, are racist, in that they perpetuate the system of racism, avoid the real problems and causes (i.e. the underlying conditions) of disease, and pretend they are noble solutions created by the supreme group of people who know best and who should have more and more authority. 

The vehement and violent push for vaccination mandates, and the vitriolic attack of anyone even considering vaccine-resistance, is an example of extreme fear of the other. These attacks against the "anti-vaxxers" come in the exact form DiAngelo describes as a White Fragility response: "socially-sanctioned array of counter-moves against the perceived source of the discomfort, including: penalization; retaliation; isolation; ostracization; and refusal to continue engagement." The fear expressed by the pro-vax, pro-medical authoritarianism, white, liberals makes it seem as though no one is allowed to be sick because that would mean that they could get sick too. This suppression and avoidance is creating not only super-bugs, but an extremely weak immune "stamina" (creating the conditions for a high prevalence of chronic, sclerotic diseases - the solutions for which also now involve vaccine products), just as, in DiAngelo's words, a "reduced psychosocial stamina that racial insulation inculcates." 

Vaccines, though like a hero that can save lives (with some definite collateral damage), nonetheless, suppress a healthy immune response, and interrupt symptom expression, so that the illness can't reveal itself for what it really is: White Fragility in a time of global turmoil and epidemic-level crises, due to racial inequality, racial entitlement segregated from severe poverty and, intense racial violence. 

Take for example the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where there is an intense vaccine effort against the devastating Ebola epidemic, while, as is now being reported,[xiv] the conditions of poverty, malnutrition, genocide, oppression and war are the real and more serious daily threat to the people there - and Ebola is a symptom of these problems. For example, Unicef estimates that there are approximately 40,000 children working in horrendous and life-threatening conditions in colbalt mines across southern DRC - cobalt, the "new blue gold", that is being heavily mined for Apple, Samsung, Sony, and many other technology industry companies, including for production of electric car batteries.[xv]

In comparison with this, consider the three leading global causes of death in school aged children (according to the CDC): 1. Violent accidents and injuries (including in colbalt mines); 2. Suicide; 3. Homicide. Contagious disease is not even statistically relevant, except in extreme situations where the top three causes, and the underlying condition of poverty and malnutrition, are at their extreme. 

The real threat of contagion is that of racism and poverty, for this continues to spread throughout the world; and the fear of contagion as well is spreading like wildfire, hindering us from developing natural immunity and stamina, both in terms of pathogens as well as racism.

Are we going to continue to suppress the symptoms, and pretend our comfortable social structures don't have to change? Are we just going to keep pushing the symptoms into the shadows, poison the insects, increase and intensify the antibiotics, force vaccinations on everyone, quarantine the dirty, contagious immigrants or ignorant non-believers / non-compliers? Will we (and can we really afford to) continue to rely upon these types of violent, oppressive (and suppressive) solutions from the predominantly white privileged elite who claim they can solve the world's problems with products that make their predominantly white employers and benefactors even more wealthy?

What are we going to do about the impoverished people of the poisoned earth? What are we going to do about the real problems? These problems cannot be kept in far-away places or hidden in the shadows any longer, for the new migrations of a global social organism are happening, and the winds and temperatures are certainly shifting.

Measles outbreaks, for example, are not returning because of the non-compliant anti-vaxxers, but because, until we treat the root, the symptoms will always find a way to re-surface, especially when they are allowed to (which helps us to find a better way to learn from them, and to evolve).

We can begin, as DiAngelo suggests, by acknowledging that there is White Fragility - a heightened racial sensitivity and lack of racial stamina among white people due to a lack of engagement (and suppression), and a fear of losing personal comfort and elite status. We can admit that we are not perfectly healthy all the time, and that when we get sick (and we should be sick to get better), we can probably trace the conditions that preceded its expression (for it wasn't just because someone else sneezed!). Likewise, when we reveal our racist socialization, we can, as DiAngelo suggests "demonstrate our vulnerability; demonstrate our curiosity and humility; allow for growth; demonstrate that we practice what we profess to value; interrupt internalized superiority…." 

We can begin by recognizing when our fears of the other, fears of contagion, are inciting or permitting violence, hatred and oppression/suppression of the other. Until we face racism and fear of contagion (or association), their symptoms will only intensify and become even more chronic. Until we acknowledge that we are all responsible for and involved in the creation and perpetuation of the problem, that is, if we are not actively solving it by creating a space for the freedom of the other (even the freedom for the other to be sick, or to be angry, or offended, or to reveal to us that we also are unfree through our conditioning), the two-headed dragon will continue to become stronger.

We can overcome it by cultivating ethical individualism. That is, by challenging our old concepts and acquired mental pictures, and truly perceiving (and witnessing) another person's lived experience - and then, having the resilient strength of will, all of which is the very work of Anthroposophy and Waldorf education, to heal (and repair) the conditions so as to become co-creators of a better world for them, and for our collective future.


[i] DiAngelo, Robin, Ph.D. White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism", Beacon Press, 2018.

[ii] DiAngelo, Robin, Ph.D. White Fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, Vol 3 (3) (2011) pp 54-70.

[iii] DiAngelo, Robin, Ph.D. Teaching Tolerance (interview), "What's My Complicity? Talking White Fragility With Robin DiAngelo", with Adrienne van der Valk, Issue 62, Summer 2019.

[iv] Steiner, Rudolf, Ph.D. Philosophy of Freedom. Anthroposophic Press, 1995. Originally published in 1894 (Germany)

[v] See, for example, the Eugene Waldorf School's and the new Independent High School of Eugene's diversity statement of 2019: https://www.independenthighschool.org/about/equity-diversity-and-inclusion/.

[vi] In contradistinction to this public "anti-racist" statment, see the Washington (DC) Waldorf School's diversity statement: https://www.washingtonwaldorf.org/about/diversity-at-wws/

[vii] See, for example Rose, Robert. Transforming criticisms of Anthroposophy and Waldorf education - Evolution, race and the quest for a global ethics. Centre for Philosophy and Anthroposophy, UK (E-book, available from the author at [email protected]).

[viii] See also this discussion of the question of Waldorf education becoming a promotion of colonization in its globalization: https://www.rosejourn.com/index.php/rose/article/viewFile/285/279

[ix] Steiner, Rudolf. Towards Social Renewal. Rudolf Steiner Press, 2000. Originally published in 1919 (Germany).

[x] See, for example: https://www.otheringandbelonging.org/the-problem-of-othering/

[xiii] See, for example the Ted Talk "The Danger of a Single Story", by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg

[xv] See, for example: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2018/09/26/blood-batteries-cobalt-and-the-congo/#f04aab0cc6ef; and, BBC News. "Why smartphones are no longer driving the search for 'blue-gold', by Jamie Robertson. 8/10/19.

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