Robin DiAngelo Wants White People to Confront Their Racism
DAME talks with the author of ‘White Fragility’ about the real reasons white parents are reticent about discussing race and racism with their kids.
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In her 20 years’ training and educating diverse groups of people on the issues of race and social justice, Robin DiAngelo has seen it all: denial, defensiveness, and rivers of white tears. For Parlour, I spoke with DiAngelo about her new book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, and how well-meaning white parents are among the most invested in pretending not to understand racism.
Kate Tuttle: The title of your book is White Fragility, which on its own can result in white people feeling defensive. Why do you think it’s so important for even well-meaning white people to confront our own complicity in a racist society?
Robin DiAngelo: Because I actually think that very well-meaning white people cause the most daily harm to people of color and reproduce a society in which racism continues. And that is because well-meaning white people basically don’t see themselves as complicit in any way in racism. We don’t tend to understand it as a system. We’re operating from that classic mainstream definition: individual, conscious, intent. Racist is always an individual, not a system, who consciously doesn’t like people based on race. My point here is that most bias is not conscious, but drives our behaviors nonetheless. And then, of course, you have to mean to do it—and if you don’t mean to do it, it doesn’t count. That definition exempts virtually all white people from the system that we’re in, and that we participate in, and that we reproduce. And so, because well-intentioned white people’s identities are so deeply rooted in not being racist, ironically, we are completely unreceptive to feedback that intentionally or not, we have just perpetrated racism.
Tuttle: How do you think white people can be less defensive, and be more open, brave, humble—what are the attitudes and the things we can do to be better?
DiAngelo: Our discomfort is not benign: It protects our position. Can you think of any other social problem where we think that the best strategy is never to talk about it? We have to fundamentally change our paradigm. We have to change what we understand racism is. I start from the premise that, as a result of literally swimming in racist water—living, breathing, working, playing, loving, in a society in which white supremacy and racism are the bedrock—I’ve internalized a racist worldview. I have racist biases. I have developed racist patterns as a result. And I have investments in the system of racism, because it’s very comfortable and it has definitely helped me with the barriers that I do face. And I also have investments in not seeing any of that, for what it would suggest about my identity, and for what it would actually require of me. Once I accept that all of that conditioning, and resultant behaviors and investments, is inevitable, I can stop defending, deflecting, denying, taking umbrage—and get to work trying to identify what does it look like specifically in my life and my relationships. The fact of it doesn’t make me guilty: it’s what I do with that fact.
Tuttle: What do you do to challenge those biases and patterns you were socialized into?
DiAngelo: I’m not going to be free of that conditioning in my lifetime. But what I strive for is to be a little less oppressive, a little less arrogant, a little less ignorant, a little more humble. There are two top questions I get when I give a presentation and one is, what do I do? And I ask back, well how have you managed to be a full functioning educated professional adult and parent, and not know about racism? Why, in 2018, would that be your question? It’s meant to push back on this narrative of innocence, which I do not buy. I think it’s a willful not-knowing, in many ways a refusal to know. For a lot of white people, merely taking the initiative to look it up as you would anything you were interested in, that is a huge breakthrough.
Tuttle: How do you think white parents ought to be interrogating ourselves? How can we work to be more actively anti-racist?
DiAngelo: White middle-class and upper-class parents are a primary barrier to equality in education. I’m just going to say, most white parents don’t want equality for all children; they want the best for their children. And if it means someone else has less, then their child doesn’t have to compete with them. I don’t think most white parents actually care about racial equality. So we have the most superficial approach: Let’s just tell our children to be nice to everybody. That’s the second top question I get from white people: How do I raise my children? Well, start with yourself. I think that white parents have to take a very deep hard and honest look inside themselves about how much they care about racial equity and what they’re going to do about it. What I see is a kind of consumer model: I want some of that, in the right doses, for my children. Everyone wants their child to go to the Silicon Valley Montessori with international classmates. But what white parents do not want is them going to a school that has African-Americans or Latino children in any significant number.
Tuttle: How do you think white parents can or should confront other white parents, challenge them to help them shift their mind-set?
DiAngelo: I think breaking with white solidarity is part of it. Be brave. You can do it by sharing your own experience, point the finger inward and not outward. I think about it as more for me than for the other person, that it’s healthy for me to break with white solidarity. I hope the other person shifts, but I want to live in my integrity.
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