Race Talk and Backlash in the Phish Scene
This paper uses and extends Robin DiAngelo’s concept of “white fragility” to analyze a set of reactions to an opinion essay called "Phish Scene So White: Let's Talk" and the subsequent conversation about race within Phish’s predominantly white fanbase, and argues that this analysis supports DiAngelo’s trenchant argument that white fragility is a self-perpetuating obstacle to the work white people must do to dismantle white supremacy.
Authors: Kate Aly-Brady, Daniel Budiansky, Adam Lioz, Rupa Mitra
“Fuck you cunt, the only reason there is a scene is because my friends and I made one. I dated a puerto rican girl which a racist asshole who wants to spread their bullshit identity politics everywhere would ASSUME WAS BLACK-she looked it. We toured the entire east coast tour fall/winter we even hit New Years so you aren't only an ignorant shit stirring, shit bag, you are DEAD FUCKING WRONG go choke on your fucking white guilt but don't think you are going to condescend to me on a lot I go to specifically because it is apolitical. You fucking people infect and infest every aspect of human life with your fucking bullshit, people aren't being kept out of Phish I have brought black guys to shows with me, it's not their scene and there is nothing your fucking bullshit is going to change about it. I better never see you on lot I'll tell you that much I know who you are because like my grandfather said "fools names and fools faces always appear in public places..."
- Email sent Dec 2018 to the author of “Phish Scene So White: Let’s Talk”
In September 2017 one of the authors of this paper(1) published a personal opinion blog called “Phish Scene So White: Let’s Talk” on the website of HeadCount, a non-partisan organization that works with musicians to promote participation in democracy.(2) This essay sparked an online conversation about race within a defined community: fans of the rock band Phish.
This paper uses and extends Robin DiAngelo’s concept of “white fragility” to analyze a set of reactions to the essay and the subsequent conversation about race within Phish’s predominantly white fanbase, and argues that this analysis supports DiAngelo’s trenchant argument that white fragility is a self-perpetuating obstacle to the work white people must do to dismantle white supremacy.(3)
We begin by outlining the concept of white fragility and explaining why the Phish fan base is a particularly useful venue for studying it. We then propose a particular model of white fragility analysis and examine online commentary on race in the Phish scene through this lens. We close by describing an organized effort to promote racial equity in the community studied and offering suggestions for further study.
Concept of White Fragility
“White fragility” is a concept popularized by race scholar and equity facilitator Robin DiAngelo to explain why it is often difficult for white people to engage in productive conversations about race and racism.(4) The notion is that social conditioning causes white people to believe certain false (and pernicious) ideas about race and racism that lead to defensive reactions to conversations about the topic. Rather than being open to the idea that one has racist thoughts or tendencies and room for growth as a direct result of being raised in a society so thoroughly steeped in white supremacy, white people instead become defensive in ways that tend to shut down the conversation and exhibit “fragility” by asserting, and seeking reassurance of, their own moral rectitude. In fact, white people who consider themselves progressive and open-minded about race may be the most vulnerable to this phenomenon.(5)
The result is that when people of color or white anti-racists raise concerns about racism in various contexts such as workplaces or social circles, thoughtful, reflective conversations that lead to behavior change and more authentic relationships do not tend to occur. Rather, the conversation is typically derailed in a way that sustains the status quo both in the short term and by discouraging anti-racists from raising similar concerns in the future. DiAngelo posits that white fragility represents a fundamental challenge to addressing racism in the U.S. We agree, and believe it deserves more study.
Why the Band Phish’s Fanbase is a Useful Venue to Study White Fragility
Phish is an improvisational rock quartet formed in 1983 in Vermont that has recorded music and toured continuously for more than 35 years, with the exception of hiatuses from 2000-2002 and 2004-2009.(6) Although the band has released 17 studio albums which have sold millions of copies,(7) its live shows form the essence of the Phish experience. As Rolling Stone journalist and Phish biographer Parke Peterbaugh has noted, “[c]reating collectively in the moment is Phish’s forte, and it is why they matter. It explains why fans follow them around the country...”(8)
Three key characteristics make Phish’s fanbase a good locus for examining white fragility: self-identification as a community, racial composition, and political self-image.
Steeped in the live experience, a community of self-identified “phans” has emerged around the band, including through early and sustained adoption of Internet-based communication channels as a way to foster discussion--and often intense debate--about the band and its music. Today there are robust discussions on Facebook groups approaching 30,000 members as well as on Twitter, Reddit, blogs, and music websites.(9) Phish fans are more than an amalgam of random people showing up at concerts--they self-identify as a community, with values, norms, and vernacular language.
The Phish fanbase is overwhelmingly white. There is no known scientific survey of the racial makeup of the Phish community; but anyone attending a show can immediately observe that the percentage of white audience members is much higher than in the U.S. population at large.(10) In one non-scientific fan-initiated online survey from 2013, 92.1% of 2,472 respondents self-identified as white.(11)
There are several possible explanations for the whiteness of the fan base,(12) but regardless of the reason, Phish shows and the surrounding scenes in parking lots or midtown bars are primarily white spaces--places where white people have the expectation, and typically the experience, of what DiAngelo calls “white equilibrium.”(13) White people do not come into the Phish scene expecting their whiteness to be noticed, let alone challenged in any way. This fosters an environment ripe for white fragility.
In addition, the fanbase considers itself (and is seen externally as) an open and inclusive community, welcoming of all regardless of race. For many this openness takes the form of an explicitly politically progressive identity; others see the Phish scene as intentionally “apolitical.”(14) This is important because, as DiAngelo points out, it is often those who harbor a self-image as racially progressive that exhibit the starkest white fragility. Those who hold progressivity, openness, and enlightened views on race as part of their self-image can experience any suggestion to the contrary as a direct attack on their self-conception, and react defensively.
Analyzing Online Comments as Examples of White Fragility
In “Phish Scene So White: Let’s Talk,” Adam Lioz reflected on why the fan base was not more diverse; explored how the “whiteness” of the Phish community might affect the experience of fans of color at Phish concerts; and observed that the entire scene was based on a foundation of white privilege, using differential policing as an example. Lioz shared the accounts of fans of color who were subjected to racially insensitive treatment, stereotyping and race-based microaggressions,(15) and were at times made to feel like “outsiders” at Phish concerts. He invited the Phish community to acknowledge the country’s legacy of institutionalized racism, including white privilege, and its impact on the Phish scene. He urged white fans to “[b]e race-conscious, not color blind,” and encouraged the community to take responsibility for both making fans of color more comfortable at shows and fighting racism in the United States more generally.
The piece certainly garnered support, both on and off-line. In fact, it inspired the creation of an organization, as discussed in more detail below. But, in thousands of comments across various online platforms, the piece triggered a far stronger and wider set of negative reactions than Lioz had anticipated. Overwhelmingly, these reactions took the form of denial, anger, dismissiveness, incredulity, mockery, and aggressive criticism--both of the author as an individual and of the mere notion that race and race relations in the Phish scene were even worth thinking about. Many white fans felt they had been attacked and shamed simply for being white and unfairly blamed for the current state of racial tension in the country.
These reactions exemplify the very phenomenon DiAngelo is describing when she observed that, “[m]any whites see the naming of white racial power as divisive…the problem is not the power inequity itself; the problem is naming the power inequity. This naming breaks the pretense of unity and exposes the reality of racial division...”(16)
Pillars & Manifestations: A Model of White Fragility
In examining how white fragility plays out in the Phish fan community through analyzing these online comments, we found it useful to distinguish between two key aspects of the concept. We call the false beliefs that white people hold about race and racism that cause them to be fragile the “pillars” of white fragility; and we call the defensive and emotional reactions that white people exhibit when pushed out of their racial comfort zones, the “manifestations” of white fragility. We have organized a sampling of exemplary comments into these two primary groups, although many exhibited aspects of both.(17)
The Pillars of White Fragility
In this section, we highlight some of the many online comments that best evidence how people embrace the false and problematic beliefs about race that undergird white supremacy culture and lead to white fragility.(18)
Embracing the “Good/Bad” Binary
The central pillar of white fragility is what DiAngelo, crediting author Barbara Trepagnier, calls “the good/bad binary.”(19) This is the idea that racists are bad people--“mean, ignorant, old, uneducated, Southern whites”--and therefore good people cannot be racists.(20) Critically, imbedded in this idea is the notion that racism is fundamentally an individual, interpersonal problem that is actively pursued with bad intent rather than a systemic or structural problem that can persist without individuals acting in bad faith.(21)
The internalization of this false binary explains much of how white people react to any suggestion that they have been complicit in racism. “Within this paradigm,” DiAngelo explains:
to suggest that I am racist is to deliver a deep moral blow--a kind of character assassination. Having received this blow, I must defend my character, and that is where all of my energy will go--to deflecting the charge, rather than reflecting on my behavior...The simplistic idea that racism is limited to individual intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic...If, as a white person, I conceptualize racism as a binary and I place myself on the “not racist” side, what further action is required of me? No action is required, because I am not a racist. Therefore, racism is not my problem; it doesn’t concern me and there is nothing further I need to do.(22)
Many white fans who commented on Lioz’s article clearly embraced this binary:
- “Enough with the white privilege bullshit. All white people don't have to feel guilty because some white people are assholes”
- “You called 99% of the Phish scene racist and told them to "look in the mirror". It's a massive insult, but in your mind it's all in the name of trying to start "conversation", I guess?”
- “The idea put forth by this article…is that because of slavery, Jim Crow laws and lynchings, every single white person will always wear a huge ugly scar on their face wherever they go. Only if we check that huge ugly scar in the mirror every day can we mitigate the nauseating effects it has on other people's conscience…Well, my white skin never was and never will be a scar on me. Fuck that.”
- “It's an attack because it implies that white Phish fans, or at least enough of them to warrant writing an article for a major website, are somehow wrong either in their conception or their practice of living in the world. It also accuses people of being dumb by not having devoted enough thought to this subject. It basically says ‘hey you're a dumb whitey who never thinks about this but if you want to not perpetuate evil you better listen and do what I say or else you're racist.’”
Claims of Colorblindness
A second major pillar of white fragility is the concept of “color-blindness:” I don’t “see” or take account of race so I can’t be racist, and you are in fact racist to suggest that race should be taken into account.(23) Of course, reams of studies confirm that this is not, in fact, how the human brain works--we are all conscious of racial difference and harbor implicit biases based on how we’ve been conditioned by society to interpret this difference.(24) Aspiring, especially as a white person, to ignore race and its impact on society serves only to normalize and perpetuate the status quo, and to erase the lived realities of people of color.
The following are just a few examples of this type of reaction, which was highly prevalent in the online commentary:
- “I guess im white but I thought I was just like everyone else and thats a human being. Its sad that anyone even notices the color of anyones skin. Shitty article because color doesn't matter at all in my eyes. I think if we can just get on that page we could live in a better world.”
- “Us phans don't see color... go try this on some political blog!”
- “Not once have I ever thought of the racial make up of a concert audience...”
Equating Racism with Prejudice: “Reverse-Racism”
Another pillar of white fragility is the false equivalence of prejudice (which all human beings have) with racism (which requires power to manifest).(25) Several comments demonstrated the sentiment that asking white fans to re-examine their group identity and grapple with the concept of white privilege and institutionalized racism constituted no less than “reverse-racism” against white people. However, as DiAngelo has noted, prejudice, bias or discrimination against white people does not have the same effect as it does against people of color due to the institutionalized nature of racism, which safeguards power for white people in society. White people’s inability to see these invisible power structures can lead them to consider all bias as equivalent. This was a frequent defense against having to consider the imbalance of power:
- “idk people just don't take to anti-white hatred. Calling it "white fragility" is just piling on more hatred. How about all these anti-white bigots GTFO?”
- “too white... that sounds racist if you ask me!!!”
- “Take your reverse racism and shove it up your ass”
- “The only thing racist surrounding this article is the article.”
Assuming Parity of Experience
White fragility can also derive from the false assumption that all people can access the same benefits and make the same choices on an equal footing with white people. Many of the online commenters dismissed the ideas in the Lioz’s article based on an assumption that there simply were no racial barriers or issues to consider because anyone could just buy a ticket to a show and go. Thus, they believed that people were not affected by systemic racism but rather individuals who could make choices independently of any imposed social framework. Comments based on this false assumption operated to stymie the conversation by dismissing consideration of the reality of the white supremacist system and its effect on all individuals who exist within that system.
- “Geesh really who gives a shit? I mean really if any one wants to go they can. It's not like Phish says " whites only" . Why make something out everything.”
- “Has phish, as a band and an organization, excluded anyone from attending a show or listening to their music? If not, and im Betting on not, then it's a non issue who chooses to listen to them and attend their shows. Besides, If there is one group of people who'd be accepting, of a diverse crowd, it'd be phish fans anyway.”
- “If black people want to enjoy Phish they can buy a ticket just like everyone else.”
Manifestations of White Fragility
The following comments illustrate the behaviors that white people can exhibit when the pillars of their racial framework or their racial equilibrium are challenged.
Anger at Being Associated with Racism
The clearest and most widespread manifestation of white fragility was anger - white fans who bristled at the perceived accusation that they were individually or collectively “guilty” because of their racial privilege. This relates to the common misconception, discussed above, that racism is always an intentional, chosen, individual attitude and that good people cannot be racists. Instead, fans’ perceptions that they were being held individually or collectively responsible for historic racism or contemporary institutionalized racism led them to lash out, as shown notably in the quote at the top of this article and in these examples:
- “PEOPLE SHOULD LIKE WHATEVER THEY WANT TO LIKE PEOPLE WHO MAKE YOU FEEL GUILTY ABOUT WHAT YOU LIKE -- BECAUSE OF WHO YOU ARE -- ARE ASSHOLES”
- “Jesus Mary and Joseph. Now I'm supposed to feel guilty that there aren't more black people at phish shows?”
Mockery, Minimization, and Disengagement
Many online commenters resorted to making fun of the author or the ideas by trying to recast its content in an absurd or exaggerated way as a justification for not engaging with the concepts raised. The concept of micro-aggression as a product of institutionalized racism was often dismissed or minimized as ridiculous. Within this category of response, a significant number of commenters either had not read the article or seemed to misunderstand it, reacting to ideas that were never put forth or were specifically refuted by the author.
- “I'm not reading some retarded blog, what does the author think we should do about it? Bus in black folks?”
- “We should award scholarships to people of color and bus them to show from out of state. It's only fair.”
- “Donate tickets to your local NAACP chapter.”
- “I'll do my part, I promise not to ask black people where the bathroom is.”
- “So what he's saying is phish needs to give black peoples free stuff”
Attributing the Impacts of Systemic Racism to Non-Racial Causes
In a (perhaps unconscious) bid to dodge the difficult work of self-examination and to avoid the discomfort of having their racial equilibrium challenged, many commenters defaulted to superficial, “perfectly reasonable” justifications to explain away the low numbers of people of color in the Phish community, without considering other angles or factors. In particular, numerous commenters rationalized such segregation as the result of subjective or cultural preferences that are inevitable aspects of the human condition and should by no means be considered a by-product of institutionalized racism. There was also a lack of any sense of social loss about such segregation, with many implying that it was in essence “natural.”(26)
- “It's the same reason there aren't many black people at country concerts. Because it's white boy music and black people don't like white boy music. Even though you have tons of white people who love black boy music. Seems like the black people are the racists here if we're being honest.”
- “Fact is, brown people don't like Phish, as a whole. It's not a problem, It's just a fact. They think it's lame. To each their own…”
- “Maybe you don't see black people at shows because it doesn't appeal to them? This is a pointless article that is just out there feeding The attention craving whores in the world. No need for this in our community.”
Defending White Spaces as Neutral
Whiteness typically masquerades as the “neutral,” “apolitical” and even “universal” in our society. As a corollary to the pillar of assuming parity of experience, numerous online commenters deflected all debate by complaining that the article was off-putting because the Phish scene was the one place where they could go to “escape” from politics and the stress of social problems and current events and issues. These comments showcased a total lack of awareness that the very concept of being able to “get away from it all” derives from white privilege, and from the fact that a Phish show is in part a “safe space” for white people to enforce a norm of being supposedly apolitical in part because it is so monolithic and homogenous. Concerns about racism become akin to a cumbersome piece of baggage to be checked at the door. There was a distinct impression of entitlement to be free of such burdens while in the “magical” space of the music, and even a sense that white fans were the real victims:
- “Last thing I need to be doing is having that conversation at the one place we are all able to escape the daily bullshit. Stupid.”
- “Can you get your racial politics out of my jam band scene please? People go to shows for fun. Let's not overthink this.”
- “Honest to FUCKING GOD! DOES EVERYTHING AND I MEAN EVERYTHING HAVE TO BE POLITICAL, RACIAL. SICK OF IT! I JUST WANT TO GO TO A SHOW, WATCH A GAME. IT'S ENTERTAINMENT. AN ESCAPE FROM THE WORLD. WHY!”
Through this sampling of the responses to the article, we can clearly see many facets of white fragility present within the Phish community. However, the article garnered support as well, which, as explained below, led to the creation of Phans for Racial Equity, or PHRE.
The Birth of Phans for Racial Equity (PHRE)
At the end of “Phish Scene So White: Let’s Talk,” Lioz invited interested readers to be a part of a conversation about race in the jam-band community and provided an email address to contact him. A number of people reached out, expressing support for the article and asking how they could get more involved. The resulting conversations led to the formation of PHRE in the fall of 2017.
PHRE’s mission is to promote racial equity and respect for difference within the Phish and greater jam-band community and beyond. PHRE strives to make the scene a more welcoming space for people of all races and ethnicities, bearing in mind the many ways in which race/ethnicity intersects with gender, sexual orientation, disability, and other identities. PHRE aims to facilitate education and thoughtful engagement, first and foremost within the Phish community, about race and its intersection with other issues, give people tools to build a more welcoming environment, and activate our community to make a positive impact on racial equity in the U.S. more broadly.
Initially there was a PHRE listserv and a fledgling Facebook group of fewer than 50 people. In July 2018, two phans of color were violently assaulted at a Phish show at the Gorge Amphitheatre.(27) After PHRE issued a statement condemning the attacks(28) requests to join PHRE shot up substantially. As of this writing, the PHRE Facebook group counts more than 800 members and the number continues to grow.
Since the Gorge violence, PHRE has helped raise money for the victims; spread its message at tables inside Phish shows; presented at the first ever Phish Studies academic conference in Corvallis, OR; helped address an incident of racial harassment at a summer 2018 Phish show;(29) launched a survey of demographics and racial attitudes in the Phish scene; and planned more future activities.
Notably, there is a distinct contrast between the negative online backlash to the “Phish Scene So White: Let’s Talk” article and the clearly positive reception that PHRE garners from passers-by at its tables at Phish shows. One explanation for the discrepancy might be that online responses are often anonymous, which makes it easier for people to overtly criticize, dismiss, and mock the ideas that led to the formation of PHRE, while those same critics may be more likely to avoid in-person confrontation at tabling events.
PHRE continues to work actively to develop strategies to promote racial equity and respect for difference within the Phish community and beyond. Helping members of the community understand and address white fragility is one important aspect of the wide range of work that needs to be done in this regard, and we have only just begun.
An analysis of the online reactions to an article on race within the Phish fan community shows the prevalence of white fragility. The comments exhibit a tension between expectations of the Phish community as progressive and inclusive (and its reputation as such to outsiders) and the harm unexamined whiteness/privilege causes to people of color in our communities. This persuades the authors of the importance of pushing forward difficult conversations about race within predominantly white subcultures, such as the Phish fan base -- especially by people who have “standing” to do so by virtue of being part of that particular culture. In addition to creating a safer space for fans of color at Phish shows, PHRE creates the opportunity for these difficult conversations to occur. However, for these interactions to be productive - i.e. have impact on undoing systemic racism, and eliminating its harms - the obstacles of white fragility must be overcome.
The primary intention of our proposed “pillars and manifestations” model of white fragility is to better enable people engaged in anti-racism work to recognize when fragility is showing up in themselves and others, and to provide tools for navigating its obstacles. Identifying the specific “pillar” that undergirds a particular “manifestation” can lead to more effective intervention. Further research, including the survey on demographics and attitudes referenced above, is needed to refine this model and realize its benefits. Combined with measuring the impact of organizations like PHRE in their subcultures over time, the insight from this study can provide an important feedback mechanism to make anti-racism work within predominantly white spaces more effective. We invite members of the academic community to partner with PHRE in this work.
- The authors are a woman of color, a white woman, and two white men. We do not separate ourselves from the intended audience for understanding how critical overcoming white fragility is to the overarching goal of ending systemic racism in the United States and the world. The authors are all members of Phans for Racial Equity, discussed below.
- Adam Lioz, “Phish Scene So White: Let’s Talk,” HeadCount (September 5, 2017), https://www.headcount.org/phish-scene-white-lets-talk/. The essay represented only the personal views and ideas of the author, and did not represent the position of the HeadCount organization.
- We proceed from the premise that white supremacy causes great harm to people of color. By “white supremacy” we mean the combination of attitudes and structures that cement differential opportunities for white people and people of color. As best-selling author Ijeoma Oluo says, “white supremacy is not just about the hateful actions of individuals or groups of individuals. White supremacy is first and foremost a system...which puts the belief that white people are superior to other races into practice...” Ijeoma Oluo, “So You Want To Fight White Supremacy,” The Establishment, August 14, 2017.
- Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018).
- In fact, DiAngelo believes “that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color” (p. 5, emphasis in original). We assume by “daily damage” she is referring to the pain caused by interpersonal interactions rather than the overall sum of harm caused by these interactions and centuries of regressive policies perpetuated by conservative politicians and voters.
- Parke Puterbaugh, Phish: The Biography (Da Capo Press: Philadelphia, 2009), 19-24.
- Parke Puterbaugh, Phish: The Biography (Da Capo Press: Philadelphia, 2009), 15.
- A closed Facebook group called “Phish Tour 2014,” for example had more than 28,000 members when last viewed on 6/2/19; a second group called “Addicted to Phish” is a similar size.
- The authors of this essay have attended more than 375 Phish shows collectively and can personally attest to the whiteness of the crowd.
- Phish Fan Demographic Survey, available at https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1etE34lR83ypDNlHS8nUBHrCbLojMk90jsIXWMDL-UTQ/viewanalytics
- These might include the band’s demographics as four white men and the whiteness of their home state of Vermont. Some might point to the musical style itself, although the authors are suspicious of claims that certain racial groups inherently prefer certain musical styles.
- DiAngelo, White Fragility, 103.
- As noted below, there is no reliable data on Phish fans’ racial attitudes, so this section by is by its nature somewhat speculative. We invite others to dispute these impressions with contesting narratives. And, as noted below, we welcome more systematic study of fans’ attitudes about race.
- The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a microaggression as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).”
- DiAngelo, White Fragility, 86.
- We included only a few examples of each phenomenon due to space constraints; the authors have on file a database of the collected online comments we are happy to share with interested readers.
- On pages 68-69 of White Fragility, DiAngelo lays out 14 “patterns” that she says “are the foundation of white fragility.” These “patterns” differ from our “pillars” in that they are not all factual (mis)understandings.
- DiAngelo, White Fragility, 71; Barbara Trepagnier, Silent Racism: How Well-Meaning White People Perpetuate the Racial Divide (New York: Paradigm, 2006 / 2010).
- DiAngelo, White Fragility, 71.
- See e.g. http://www.racialequitytools.org/fundamentals/core-concepts/racism; http://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/racism-101.html
- DiAngelo, White Fragility, 72-73.
- DiAngelo, White Fragility, 40-43. An essential work on this topic is Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s book Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003).
- For a compendium of relevant studies and review of the state of scholarship on implicit bias, see Cheryl Staats, Kelly Capatosto, Lena Tenney, and Sarah Mamo, State of the Science: Implicit Bias Review (Kerwin Institute: 2017), available at http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/2017-SOTS-final-draft-02.pdf.
- DiAngelo, White Fragility, 19-20.
- This lack of sense of loss regarding segregation is one of the key “patterns” DiAngelo highlights.