When I read Robin DiAngelo’s article How White People Handle Diversity Training in the Workplace, I had the same hostile reaction she described seeing in so many of her workshop participants. I came away from it thinking, “Of course people are going to be angry with you if you try to put the Klansman’s hood on them.”
The article got under my skin in a way few things do, and I was still thinking about it months later when someone on a mailing list recommended White Fragility. So I bought a copy and I read it slowly.
The book painstakingly (and painfully) lays out an argument that boils down to this:
- American culture is fundamentally racist, preserving racial and social hierarchies over centuries through a number of subtle and not-so-subtle means.
- Everyone raised in American culture has absorbed a racist ideology, whether they are aware of it or not.
- People of color are aware of it. Whites are not.
- Unless you make a conscious and continual effort to work against the racist defaults in your thinking, your attitudes, your behavior toward and treatment of others, you are perpetuating and reinforcing the racist system.
- You will not become aware of your racist attitudes and behaviors until you are willing to become aware of them, and a big part of that willingness lies in the ability to listen to others, and to accept their experiences, perspectives, and opinions as legitimate. (This is where “white fragility” becomes the great obstacle.)
- You can never completely unlearn the prejudices and assumptions of the culture that formed you, but you can begin to see when they shape your actions, and when those actions become hurtful.
- The process of becoming aware can be deeply uncomfortable, but as you become aware, you can choose a better path.
- Awareness and choosing are a constant process. You will never be done.
The hardest thing about reading this book was the feeling of being put in checkmate, the sense that by simply being white and male, I was the oppressor and the bad guy, no matter what. DiAngelo’s arguments do box you in if you’re white, and there is no counterargument that will let you out of the fact that you are at the top of a racial hierarchy, that you see the world through an unacknowledged racial lens, and that the perspective you take to be universal and benevolent is often exclusive and harmful. DiAngelo says:
Whiteness rests upon a foundational premise: the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation from that norm. Whiteness is not acknowledged by white people, and the white reference point is assumed to be universal and is imposed on everyone. White people find it very difficult to think about whiteness as a specific state of being that could have an impact on one’s life and perceptions.
As DiAngelo elaborates on all the subtle manifestations of the white-centric viewpoint that we (whites) see as normal, natural, and beyond question, the inescapable box she constructs around us keeps getting tighter–the box that says You are participating in this unjust system, whether you acknowledge it or not, and you are complicit in it until you begin to actively work against it.
This is where most white people check out. This is where they feel they’re being blamed just for being who they are. The blame feels unjust–I know, because I’ve felt it sharply, not just from DiAngelo, but from others–and it drives a lot of people away. I think the deep resentment that sense of blame engenders showed up in the 2016 election, when many white voters essentially said, If you’re going to make me feel bad about who I am, I’ll never be on your side.
But the point of White Fragility is not to blame or shame anyone. The point is first to open people’s eyes to perspectives they cannot or will not see; second to force them to ask themselves if, in light of these new perspectives, they’re still willing to support the status quo; and finally, for those who say they want change, to call them to action, not by joining some big social movement, but simply by opening up and making changes in how they interact with others in their day to day lives.
The hostile reactions of white fragility constitute a refusal to acknowledge one’s own involvement in difficult problems that affect everyone in our society. Those who won’t acknowledge problems won’t confront them. And many who do acknowledge them won’t take necessary action, in part because they view changes to their own behavior as an admission of guilt. But DiAngelo’s point is “to move past guilt and into action.”
In addressing issues of race with whites, “What [people of color] are looking for is not perfection but the ability to talk about what happened, the ability to repair.”
Unfortunately, many whites can’t even get to the point of talking. Many whites–myself included on a number of occasions–have looked at basic calls for justice and even simple requests to acknowledge injustice as attacks on white people, white culture, white history. This is the response you get when you try to question things that are “beyond question,” when you hit at issues that truly are at the foundation of a person’s and a society’s cultural identity. (Especially if it’s an unacknowledged cultural identity.) DiAngelo does a good job of pointing out how social norms have conditioned whites not to talk about race, and to view the explicit pointing out of racial injustice–especially by people of color–as a social transgression, if not an act of outright hostility.
After reading her book, I see DiAngelo’s work not as attempt to put the Klansman’s hood on me or anyone else, but as an effort to take off our blinders. The author points out repeatedly that racist acts do not necessarily stem from the bad intentions of evil people, but from the unexamined attitudes and uninformed actions of people raised in a racist society. They come from the default behaviors of people who consider themselves good and just, and who can’t stand to be shown that the effects of their actions are often neither good nor just.
This book is politically charged. Its unsentimental analysis of American culture and white psychology is difficult to accept (for whites) and difficult to refute. For white readers, it pushes buttons you didn’t know you had, or wouldn’t admit were there. It risks provoking your hostility, your resentment, and your hatred by asking you to examine deeply held assumptions, by asking you to look at things you were taught not to see, and by pointing out ways you need to change.
This book will get under your skin, which is why you need to read it.