About three weeks ago I started – and promptly finished – the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. While the book is fairly well known and has been around since 2018, its sales skyrocketed with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the news cycle. Literally the book sold out on Amazon and is currently backordered. And that’s exactly why I’m breaking down a little White Fragility review & recap situation of sorts today, since I know so many of you have had a hard time getting your hands on a copy of the book.
When I hear the word “racist” or think of a “racist” – I think of a very specific type of a human or situation. I think of very blatant, individual acts of racism – people making open and blanket statements of discrimination towards specific minority groups.
I’ve also heard White people talk about “reverse racism” and while I may not have necessarily agreed, I never questioned the use of the word “racism” in that context.
But what if this seemingly standard view of the term “racist” wasn’t properly defined?
”The way we are taught to define racism makes it virtually impossible for white people to understand it.”
One of the first tasks DiAngelo takes on in White Fragility is attempting to reexamine and reestablish for us what “racist” really means. DiAngelo really challenges this preconceived definition by urging us to abandon this individualistic approach (that specific one person is “bad” and “racist”) but rather look at the more collective definition. We’ll address individualism later on in this blog post again.
Discrimination is action based on prejudice.
When a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control, it is transformed into racism, a far-reaching system that functions independently from the intentions or self-images of individual actors.
So here’s the thing – in America (which is really what this book is about: White fragility and race relations in America specifically), there can be no such thing as “reverse racism” because no race other than White has the legal authority and institutional control.
Racism differs from individual racial prejudice and racial discrimination in the historical accumulation and ongoing use of institutional power and authority to support the prejudice and to systemically enforce discriminatory behaviors with far-reaching effects.
DiAngelo goes on to clarify people of color can absolutely also hold prejudices and discriminate against White people – but that doesn’t make them racist. The Black community lacks the institutional power to systemically enforce discrimination.
When DiAngelo discusses Whites and racism, she’s specifically referring to that here in the U.S. only Whites have the “collective social and institutional power and privilege over people of color. People of color do not have this power and privilege over White people.
Conversations about racism have dominated the media in recent weeks – even bumping Covid-19 out of the headlines for a bit. From #BlackOutTuesday to #AmplifyMelanatedVoices to the #VogueChallenge, you’d be hard pressed to scroll through your feed without a conversation about race.
And to be honest it’s about damn time.
Here’s the reality of my life as a White woman – I rarely, if ever, think about my race.
Because I don’t “have” to.
DiAngelo writes in the very first chapter, “For much of American history, race has been Black culture’s issue; racism, a Black person’s burden.” Reading this really hit home for me…have I ever really had to think about race? And it’s not that I was intentionally ignoring race as a topic or intentionally not thinking about it – it just wasn’t something I thought about a whole lot. Probably because race has never felt like an “issue” to me for me.
The biggest problem with the fact that race is rarely a “topic” for White people?
Here’s the jam – I’ve never really had to think about or discuss race. Which means I get wildly uncomfortable when race is a topic on the table (or in the news cycle). Or like, attempting to write a blog post like this.
I’m so afraid to say the wrong thing that:
And that dismissiveness and defensiveness, my friends, is White fragility in a nutshell.
If I started to dive into the deep, vast topic that is systemic racism, I wouldn’t be doing it any justice. I’ll leave a link to a great explainer video for you here.
But for the purposes of this post, on my personal blog, with my personal opinions: systemic racism absolutely exists. It’s a reality that (just like Covid-19), just because it isn’t happening to YOU, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.
“We consider a challenge to our racial world-views as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable – the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation.”
White progressives (often my sort of age range – millenials) frequently insist we’re “woke,” don’t see color, or “aren’t racist,” – which means we are often (ironically) the toughest to speak with about race because we’re rarely open to any deeper conversation on the topic. We’re dismissive becuase we think we know it all. We “aren’t the problem!” is the mentality. Go talk to the tiki torch carrying white suprematists. They’re the problem.
And I’ve absolutely been guilt of that mentality. I’m not the ally I thought I was. I’ve said both in my head and out loud that I do not discriminate and that I’d love to see more diversity in the spaces I occupy. But by dismissing the conversation because “I’m a good person” and “I have the right mindset” – have I potentially been an even bigger part of the problem? By raising my hand and identifying myself as “not the problem” it means I’ve checked out – when really I should and could be doing more.
Along with White progressives, White “passing” immigrant communities also tend to be tricky to discuss race with.
There are a few arguments that get tossed around. The most common statements I’ve seen is something along the lines of, “our people struggled and were persecuted as well” and “we came to this country with nothing and made something of ourselves, if I can do it other races can, too.”
Let’s answer this in two parts:
I want to be clear – I’m not targeting any singular person or group of people with these statements. Just to prove that point, let’s personalize this conversation to me.
I’m Irish-American and yes there absolutely was indentured servitude of Irish people. We also had a the Great Famine which was essentially four straight years of disease and starvation (during this time approx 1M died and another 1M emigrated). My ancestors absolutely struggled. I’m grateful for the sacrifices my family made for me.
But any struggles my Irish ancestors faced weren’t because they were White. In fact – my Irish great great great grandfather’s ability to “pass” as White maybe even made his assimilation into this country easier than it would have been had he been Black.
The metaphor of the United States as the great melting pot, in which immigrants from around the world come together and melt into one unified society through the process of assimilation, is a cherished idea. Once new immigrants learn English and adapt to American culture and customs, they become Americans. In reality, only European immigrants were allowed to melt, or assimilate, into dominant culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, because, regardless of their ethnic identities, these immigrants were perceived to be White and thus could belong.
White “passing” immigrants (and their families, children, and relatives alike) are often difficult to talk about race with because the Western ideology of “individualism” stunts our ability to recognize that our individual experience does not outweigh the narrative of the collective.
This same concept of individualism is contributing to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans because we believe as a society so strongly in our rights as an individual that many of us are refusing to wear masks to help stop the spread of Covid-19.
But I digress.
Regardless of one individual person’s success upon coming to this country – it’s a little bit adjacent to the point. In fact, it all really circles back to #1: the ability to “pass” as White definitely doesn’t grant more struggle during the assimilation process in America and it potentially even grants more opportunities.
Being “colorblind” isn’t the good thing we (me) thought it was – it doesn’t make me all-loving, all-accepting, and tolerant. Being “colorblind” means I have a huge blindspot to the experiences of those of a different color than me. It means I’m again relegating race as a “non-issue.”
“Perhaps you’ve heard someone say ‘I was taught to treat everyone the same’ or ‘People just need to be taught to respect one another, and that begins in the home.’ These statements tend to end the discussion and the learning that could come from sustained engagement. Further, they are unconvincing to most people of color and only invalidate their experiences.”
Again, I’m really not the ally I thought I was. If I don’t “see” the problem – how can I help fix it?
The verdict of my little White Fragility review and recap of sorts? I think White Fragility was a damn good educational read. There are tens more takeaways I had from the book – but I really honestly don’t want to rob anyone of the joy of going on this journey themselves.
I’ve still got a lot to learn.
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