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WHY IT’S SO HARD FOR WHITE PEOPLE TO TALK ABOUT RACE.
Thinking back, I wonder what ran through the author’s mind when I said, “It’s different.”I remember the long, heavy silence of the very pregnant pause. Then the brusk, “I think it’s the same.”
That was our interaction toward the end of my interview with Robin DiAngelo, author of the book “White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.” The book is arguably one of today’s most essential primers on racism and its foundation of white supremacy. Robin DiAngel
A WHITE SCHOLAR TEACHES RACISM?
DiAngelo, a white scholar and researcher, has spent two decades immersed in the study of whiteness. Formerly a tenured professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University, she’s been a lecturer, consultant and trainer on race and social justice for more than twenty years.“White Fragility,” DiAngelo’s most recent book, spent more than a year on the New York Times bestseller list and recently toppled “The Hunger Games” prequel for the top spot on USA Today’s best-selling books list.
WHAT IS WHITE FRAGILITY?
It joined four other race-related books that comprised half of the paper’s top ten list. According to USA Today, Since the May 25 death of George Floyd re-ignited the Black Lives Matter movement and pushed it to a global scale, sales of books on race and racism have skyrocketed.
Floyd was a 46-year-old black man who died after a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minn., U.S.A., knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes, ignoring Floyd’s pleas that he could not breathe. DiAngelo and I discussed many a “fragile whiteness” scenario the day we spoke — including the nature of those with geographic mobility during formative years (especially international mobility amongst disparate cultures and especially for people of color).
Like many who identify as Third Culture, I was stuck in the notion that we are special in this regard — the cultural regard — in understanding, in openmindedness, in fluidity and acceptance of culture, race and many of the nuances that come with them. “Racism in the United States is different,” I offered, much like I’ve heard from many other Third Culture Kids (TCKs), including TCKs of color. I think the remark dumfounded DiAngelo, if only during the brief time of that pregnant pause. Less than a year later, her meaning was crystal clear. During that year, I’d had multiple opportunities to interact with people on a professional level around the globe. Less knowing them through friendship, travel or schooling, and more through the lens of work and career.
There, it was clear— an undercurrent seen in U.S. racism — the more insidious behind-the-veil, under-the-breath, barely acknowledged the truth of what DiAngelo tried to convey that day.
What she conveyed is that undercurrent is not just in the U.S., rather it’s the foundation of all western society and those they touch. The “spearhead” of the experience that opened my eyes hailed from Europe and another from Canada (Yes, kind, empathetic, we embrace everyone- Canada).
It was an experience so subtle that it took me decades to put my finger on how it operates in “corporate America” and U.S. higher education circles. The realization hit me profoundly, as previous to this, I had taken personal responsibility, thinking my individual shortcomings must be altered in order to produce more effective experiences.
SOMETIMES IT’S SUBTLE
Eventually, however, I was able to observe the thread that ran through these experiences. It was an epiphany that would change my world view: my view of whiteness, people of color, and how we deal with racism — no matter where we grew up. Often in professional situations, minoritized people complain of too much work, too little resources, not enough assistance. “That happens to everyone,” you might be thinking to yourself. When, however, otherwise accomplished, intelligent, educated people consistently run into similar issues no matter how they tackle the complication — another option must be considered. In this case, a project was presented as a three-hour monthly endeavor.
In reality, the first month logged more than one hundred hours of work. When discussed with the person in charge, they asked for proof of what had been presented in terms of a time commitment for the project. Once the proof was provided, the solution given was to assign me the additional task of recruiting and hiring a volunteer to help — on top of continuing with the already overwhelming workload. Going forward, any request for resources: financial or otherwise, were met with statements including, “I thought we already discussed this,” and “You’re taking something that was supposed to be fun and ruining it.” Experiences such as these are common in the workplace. As DiAngelo asserts in the “White Fragility “book, the assumption is, “How dare you question me?”
More-so than the picture of the white-hooded robes and burning crosses in the night, the daily terror of racism lies in a system of oppression created to seem invisible so as to deny culpability. It is felt, however, in the denial, rage, and perceived insolence when one’s inherent (and presumed God-given) authority is questioned by one you deemed inferior.“The messages of white supremacy circulate globally,” DiAngelo says. She asserts that as geographically mobile people, it’s up to us to figure out how it appears in the daily context of our unique lives. “So, change that from ‘if’ that happened, to ‘how,’ it happened,” she says. The title of the book comes from the reaction most white people have when their notion of superiority is challenged.
According to DiAngelo, whiteness isn’t something that’s named, it just is. And therein lies the “privilege.” The privilege as being normal, as all that is good and virtuous — the measure to which everything else is compared. Many people see education as the ticket — and in many ways, it most certainly can be. Since institutions of higher learning originally were created for the elite, though time has elapsed, the foundations of the systems remain the same.
A LIBERAL MASK
What that means is that education also comes with a price. “I’ve never seen whiteness more fiercely protected than in academia,” Diangelo says.“White people, we measure the value of our spaces by the absence of people of color, and let’s be honest, primarily black people,” she says.“I can tell you white Americans are more comfortable with Africans and African immigrants … and not African Americans. There’s an innocence we don’t give to African Americans. [Africans are] also not carrying centuries of oppression, at least not that form.”
White supremacy is actually a highly descriptive sociological term to describe the society in which white people are held up as the ideal for humans, as the human norm — and all of us absorb that message. Of white supremacy, in an interview on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop podcast, DiAngelo notes,
“Our socialization, as white people, within a white supremacist society [is we], tend to associate it with the KKK and people wearing hoods. But it’s actually a highly descriptive sociological term to describe the society in which white people are held up as the ideal for humans, as the human norm. And all of us absorb that message.
DiAngelo points out that many pieces play a part in that socialization: individualism and objectivity being two. She says if people of color challenge these things, white people become undone because, “We are taught to be oblivious to all of this (part of it being the basis of our society, we are taught not to see it).”She makes it clear however, that, “We do know. Or 83 percent of people wouldn’t say they don’t want to be black.”According to DiAngelo, though many tend to hold on to the blind spots to their behavior, a lot of white people have found that her book has helped them see something they haven’t seen before.
She thinks “most white people would not want to be seen as racially fragile,” and points out the sense of liberation when people make the choice to see what previously had gone unseen.“Is it possible you have a blind spot,” she asks? “If you had a blind spot, would you want to know about it? What happens when someone tries to tell you about it?️
“It’s like if I came out of the bathroom and my skirt is in my underwear and my behind is showing. Someone finally runs up and tells you. Would you say: ‘No it is not, how dare you?’ No, I’d pull my skirt out. How open are you to knowing,” DiAngelo asks. And that, in and of itself, may be the key to evolving race relations.