White Fragility: Why It Is So Hard For For White People To Talk About Racism
By Robin DiAngelo, 2018
Robin DiAngelo is a Diversity Trainer who specializes in Identity Politics. In her experience, it has been very difficult to really address Racism with White People. Why is that? 1) We White People don’t see ourselves in Racial Terms 2) Our opinions are uninformed 3) We don’t understand the role socialization plays in our views and 4) We have a very simple idea of race.
White people often respond by saying they can’t be racist because they have African American co-workers, neighbors or friends. They often respond by talking about how the Irish and Italians were also discriminated against. These responses serve to shut down the conversation without really understanding or discussing racism.
The definition of Racism is problematic. We view racists as immoral and mean. While that may be true of some, it is not true of all people who uphold the racist system. People take offense right away and feel like you are insinuating that they are immoral or bad people.
Racism isn’t a single act or single phrase uttered. It isn’t always extreme or violent. Racism is a part of our Socially Constructed System. It is a part of our culture and our daily lives. It is everything from slavery and lynching to mass incarceration and media portrayals. It is even in our word choices.
Racism is directly connected to the idea of White Supremacy. Slavery was built upon the idea that African Americans were somehow subhuman. If they were less than it made it easier to enslave them. If they were closer to animals than humans, then it was easier to work them like animals.
Racism is not an individual idea. It prejudice that is backed up by a system. Even in Colonial America, the courts began creating and supporting racism. How? The Courts were always trying to classify who was white and who wasn’t. For example, Armenians were considered white or Caucasian. The Japanese were considered Mongoloid, therefore not white. The poor working class were not always considered white either. They were treated as dirty and dark and related to people of color.
Racism is different than just prejudice and discrimination. Discrimination is acting on a prejudice. Actions may include; ignoring, excluding threatening, ridiculing, slander and outright violence. Racism is a system that builds upon a group identity that excludes other identities. Legal Authority and institutional control is put in place to uphold control by a particular group over another. Ideology is reinforced by society and we are all conditioned to accept it as we grow up.
People of color may indeed be prejudice against white people or other groups of people, by they are not legally backed by social institutions. They have no authority to act against white people.
Individual whites may be against Racism, but they are still benefiting from a system that privileges white people. Whiteness is a position of status in the community whether white people realize it or not.
Who runs the institutions in the USA? It is currently about 90% white people who are at the head of the government and the heads of businesses. Many white people try to distance themselves from White Supremacy, but it still exists and will continue to so long as people of color hold so few positions of power.
Things are framed within the White Race. White neighborhoods are considered nice, safe and more likely to be middle class. Black neighborhoods are considered to be dirty, unsafe and usually full of poor people. White schools are seen as good and have a lot of funding. Black schools, in comparison, are often urban and are considered a bad place to get an education.
Read the book Racism without Racists: Colorblind Racism and Persistence of Racial Inequity. People think the proper thing to say is that they don’t see color, but that is the wrong approach. It denies black people their unique experiences and their voices. Most of bias are largely unconscious, which makes it difficult to address.
Well-intentioned White people might exhibit ignorance by being overly nice or friendly to make up for their awkward feelings. They may try to mimic black speech or mannerisms. Others may avoid terms that address race or labels relating to race. They may also use code words to talk negatively about people of color.
How does Race shape White people? White people have a sense of belonging and inclusion. They are free from the burden of race. They have freedom of movement. Some may be nostalgic for the good old days when White Authority remained largely unchallenged. White people are often innocent and ignorant of what it means to be defined in terms of race.
Socialization and Racial Patterns that have emerged in today’s culture: there is a lack of understanding of what Racism is, we see ourselves as individuals and not subject to the socialization attached to race. White people assume everyone is having the same experiences that we do. We dismiss what we don’t understand. There is a lack of empathy and ability to listen to what people of color are telling us. And some of the problem is just an inherent lack of interest in the African American experience or point of view. There is also a need to stick to the white solidarity we grew up with. Lastly, we feel like good intentions are good enough.
There is a bad racist and good guy dichotomy. White people are quick to point out that either they themselves are good people or that the accused racist is a good person. If they are upstanding citizens and good people, they can’t possibly be racist. Racist people are stereotyped as ignorant, old, uneducated and (often) Southern white person. Non-racist people are stereotyped as young, progressive, educated and (often) Northern white people. You can still be a good moral person and benefit from a white privileged society.
Racism is not just about intolerance to black people. You can work with or be friends with black people and still be a part of the racist system in place. You can still have hidden biases. Friendships between black and white people is often full of tension. True conversations about race are difficult even for the best of friends. The white friend will often shut down any attempt to communicate about words or actions that they find offensive or hurtful. White people still see things in terms of individual identity and not in terms of group identity, which is problematic in many inter-racial relationships.
Affirmative Action is one of the most misunderstood parts of the Civil Rights Movement. Many white complain about it just being about filling quotas and not being a fair system. Affirmative Action was put in place as a way to level the playing field. It was meant to give people of color the same chance at a job as a white person. It was not meant to favor blacks or other minorities over whites. It was supposed to help employers become more inclusive. Affirmative Action is not about exclusion or specifically excluding potential white employers.
Anti-Blackness is rooted in misinformation, fables, perversions, projections and lies. Our projections allow us to bury the trauma of what we did to them. We dehumanize the Black people and blame the victim.
Movies and books portray white people as saviors. It is as if we have to be responsible for rescuing the impoverished and disadvantaged person of color. The message blacks receive is that they can only succeed with some white person’s assistance. Blacks are stereotyped as being from the ghetto and being a part of a gang. They have a history of violence and can only get out of the ghetto through sports. On the surface these stories appear inspiring, but they often send the wrong message.
When we try to address these issues with White people, they become triggered. They get angry because it is a challenge to their solidarity or authority. White people often feel like they speak for all of humanity. It insults them to think there are other voices and view points out there. They are triggered by people of color in leadership roles. The election of Barack Obama really triggered a lot of White people. And other Black people in powerful roles rile up White people as well. Even Black people in movies can piss White people off—particularly if the Black person plays a central role in the movie or isn’t stereotypical.
White people need to understand why their comments and actions can offend the Black people in their company or in their life. We have to understand the context of the comment and why they might be hurt by it when another white person might not find it offensive at all. Racial awareness and sensitivity is important. Just being educated about different points of view and learning to be compassionate can make a huge difference. Efforts to address diversity in the work place have been labeled as Traumatic for White employees. It doesn’t have to be.
White Fragility functions as a formal of bullying. It is the attitude that “I’m going to make it so miserable for you to confront me—no matter how diplomatically you try to do so.” The white person feels like any sort of challenge to their status quo requires them to put the person in their place. White people just get ridiculously defensive with feedback from anyone of color. They don’t want to change their approach or anything about how they interact with Black people.
The problem is that White people control the conversation. If the conversation is going to change, we have to be the ones to do it. White people can pretend that Racism is a Black problem. It is a White person problem. WE ARE THE ONES WHO NEED TO CHANGE.