I have been wanting to write this post for some time. I went to a lecture by scholar Robin DiAngelo on February 26th about something she calls white fragility, or the difficulty white people have when confronted with the topic of racism. She wrote a best-selling book on the topic, as well as other related works. You can find out more about her work here: https://robindiangelo.com. I had a lot of feelings as a result of this lecture, but for some reason, my thoughts have been pretty slow as I process the material.
DiAngelo has a lot to say. I guess she has spent a couple decades studying the topic of racism, so I cannot say she has one point to make, but the most persistent message of that particular lecture was that we (including her; she is white) are uncomfortable talking about racism, and our desire to retreat from this discomfort does a great deal of harm.
I went into this lecture thinking: I’m good, right? I mean, if you talked to me for a while and got to know me a little bit, you would probably give me at least a passing grade on this topic. The intentions of my heart are kind, even open, even humble. So…I’m good, right?
I would like to put one thing she said at the end of her lecture at the top of my discussion of it. She briefly mentioned guilt – she said she does not feel guilty. Guilt is not useful. However, she believes she is responsible for challenging the socialization she talked to us about. I found that helpful.
Anyway. This socialization she worked hard to make us see is one of white privilege and systemic racism – both terms that can make some people roll their eyes and feel skeptical about. It is worth entertaining the idea that those things are real, though. If there is a claim that a group of people are being hurt by something we are a part of, should we not at least take a second to hear the claim?
One of the most powerful things I took from her lecture was her critique of the common, perhaps-not-said-out-loud, definition of racism: an individual who consciously does not like people based on race and is intentionally mean to them. I think when I am asked how I define it I use slightly more grown-up words, but my definition is usually kind of similar to that. Diangelo said this definition actually protects the system of racism.
I thought that was interesting. So, my definition of racism is part of the problem?
Racism is a system, not an event. It is not a matter of if I am racist as an individual, but how I am standing here in this world that gives me a host of advantages and how this came about and how I perhaps unconsciously or even consciously work to keep it that way. Not a matter of if – but how. She defined systemic racism as collective group (racial) prejudice backed by legal authority and institutional control.
As a white person, I enjoy a healthy representation in the halls of power. Most of my elected officials are white. As a white person, I am looked at differently by institutions like law and education. These are aspects of the privilege I live in. It is interesting to me how some people hear statements like that and roll their eyes. This is not the days of slavery…everybody has the right to education and due process and the right to climb political ladders of success.
I just want to challenge that for a second. Human nature is…kind of habitual, both in action and thought. And human nature is particularly attached to the experience of power (actually, I do not know much about the animal kingdom, but I imagine this is true for more than just humans). So one social group at one point found it advantageous to exploit another and use it for unpaid labor. Which means one social group was very decidedly positioned above another. Years went by, and one day, after a long struggle, someone decided the unjustness of this needed to be corrected, and the slavery was outlawed.
But the truth is, one social group was used to thinking they were above another social group. And no matter what the law says, any social group that experiences power is going to be hesitant (to say the least) to relinquish that. So what these people in the more powerful social group told themselves and their children for generations still had this message behind it: we are on top. We are on top. Maybe there is a virtuous message now: We should not be on top. Or we should treat the people who are not on top the same as we treat each other. Or some version of those things. But all that still says it: we are on top.
And no matter how wonderful the painful, blood-won victory of emancipation was, we were on top and we really still are. It is in the way we think about ourselves, and it is in the way our institutions think about us, because those institutions are made of people like us. So it just makes sense, in light of what we know about human nature, that unjust realities did not end with the Emancipation Proclamation or even the Civil Rights Movement or even the election of Barack Obama. Yay for those things, yay for progress, but we are still on top, and we still like it that way. I do not think personally that anyone should go around wishing he or she were on the bottom in some way, but I think if we find out we are unconsciously but actively keeping others back, or turning a blind eye to people who do (which results in a lot of pain and even death for people), well, then, maybe we should do something about it.
I went online and looked for some facts about systemic racism, because specificity is important. I found a good article from the respected US News & World Report (https://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/at-the-edge/2015/05/06/institutional-racism-is-our-way-of-life). A few facts to consider are:
-Black children are 18 times more likely to be sentenced as adults in the court system than white children.
-One study found that people with black-sounding names had to send out 50% more resumes before they got a call back.
-A black man is three times more likely to be searched at a traffic stop, and six times more likely to go to jail.
-A black person who kills a white person is twice as likely to get the death penalty than a white person who kills a black person.
-Black people stay in prison up to 20% longer than white people convicted of the same crimes.
That is just a handful of the stats in one article on the subject…
DiAngelo asked the audience (primarily white people like myself) how our race has shaped us over the years. She did a thing in general during this talk which I like to think of as zooming out – she challenged us to take a break from thinking of ourselves as unique individuals and rather contemplate the power of belonging to a social group. Here are some ways she suggested race has shaped us:
-A general sense of belonging from birth to death. This might not seem like it is that important, but the more she talked about it the more I realized it is very important. She put some pictures up of classrooms and weddings, and everybody was white in the pictures. I thought about my own wedding pictures. Most people – almost everybody – were white. No black people for sure. I reflected on how interesting that was. Because really for most of my life, I have not had to feel the discomfort of being in environments where most people looked and spoke differently from me. That does give me a deep sense of belonging. It is odd how something that seems so superficial actually runs so deep.
-Representation in the halls of power — she pointed out that even though Congress is more diverse than it has been in the past, it is still primarily white. Most presidents have been white – one exception! – and all VPs have been white.
DiAngelo defined white fragility as the inability to tolerate racial stress. Racial stress is triggered when our positions, perspectives, or advantages, are challenged.
She said that racism hurts – even kills – people 24/7. And it is worth feeling uncomfortable to do something about that.
A friend who does anti-racism work just sent me an article that I found helpful in answering the inevitable what-do-I-do question. You can find the article here: https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/ne95dm/how-to-be-a-white-ally-to-people-of-color
A few takeaways from this article about 100 ways white people can make life less frustrating for people color:
-Do not assume or guess the race of a person.
-Do not assume that a person of color knows everything about their country of heritage. We do not know everything about America, Germany, Sweden, etc…we should not assume others are walking encyclopedias. They are more than that.
-Regard people of color as autonomous, unique individuals, not as representatives of their race.
-Do not endlessly complain about how terrible white people are.
-Never try to tell a person of color what is or is not racist.
-Share articles relating to the everyday experiences of race and racism written by people of color.
-Support small businesses owned by people of color.
-Do not ask Black women if it is their real hair (I have done this).
-Confront your colleagues who say racist things at work.
-Commission people of color to make work about race.
-Commission people of color to make work that has nothing to do with race.
-Be cognizant of how your whiteness could be weaponized against Black people i.e. white women, do not play into stereotypes about Black men being inherently threatening to you. It gets Black men killed.
-Remember: Being an ally is a verb, not a noun. You cannot just magically be an ally to people of color because you say you are one, it is something you must continually work on.
You can find a lot more in that article. DiAngelo said one good thing white people can do is talk to other white people about racism. Maybe that is an easy takeaway…maybe it will prove harder than I thought.
So….now that I have written this post, I’m good, right?
I think this is a world that is more complicated than I used to think it is. It requires more of me than just thinking about important things once and leaving it at that. I think it is difficult in this modern world to know which things to value, which ideas to care about. After spending just a moment thinking about racism, it seems that it is an important enough topic for me to keep it open. Rather than close the book and put it on my shelf so people can see I have read at least some of it.