Commentary: Hey, progressive white people, it is time to talk about our own racism
By Susan Grigsby
In July of 2009, Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested for disorderly conduct by a white police officer who was responding to a call of a break-in at Gates’s home. Returning from a trip, Gates found his front door jammed. With the assistance of his driver, he was able to force it open. Meanwhile, a neighbor called 911 and reported Gates’s actions as a break-in.
Although he showed the responding officer his drivers’ license and his Harvard ID, the white officer arrested him for disorderly conduct after Gates followed the officer out his front door. (An arrest that President Obama legitimately called “stupid.”)
Since the 2016 election, we have seen a marked increase of these incidents where white people have called the police because they object to some ordinary activities that were being conducted by people of color. I’m not sure whether the actual number has increased due to the racist in the White House, or to the ease of recording and then posting on social media that has drawn our attention to the unreasonable fear that white people seem to have of little girls selling bottles of water, if those little girls happen to be black.
White people have called the police because black people have dared to usecommunity swimming pools with their socks on, because they barbecue in public, or mow lawns, or because they unlock their own car doors. And while it is easy for white progressives to smugly condemn these other white people for their racist actions, perhaps we should be doing a little character searching of our own, to see just how much racism we are carrying around and how much more we are supporting.
Born in 1956, Robyn DiAngelo became a tenured professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University. She also served as a lecturer at Washington State University where she had earlier earned her PhD in multicultural education. In addition, for the last twenty years she has been a facilitator and advisor on issues of racial and social justice. She has written articles and books on both topics. Her original article on talking to white people about race, White Fragility, was published in a peer-reviewed journal and forms the basis of her book. Using her experience as a facilitator, she explains how white fragility often manifests itself in discussions about race that make white people uncomfortable:
Whit does directly address racism and the privileging of whites, common white responses include anger, withdrawal, emotional incapacitation, guilt, argumentation, and cognitive dissonance (all of which reinforce the pressure on facilitators to avoid directly addressing racism). So-called progressive whites may not respond with anger but still insulate themselves via claims that they are beyond the need for engaging with the content because they “already had a class on this” or “already know this.” All these responses constitute white fragility—the result of the reduced psychosocial stamina that racial insulation inculcates.
In her book new book, White Fragility: Why it is so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, DiAngelo discusses our inherent racial bias as the natural outcome of being raised as a white person in a white supremacist society. Not the white supremacy that we have come to associate with the alt right and the neo-Nazis, but white supremacy as in white people dominate our culture. White people are the norm and all others fall outside of that norm. We, as white people, belong to the ruling group and so never need to consider our race as we go about our daily lives. We certainly never need to have the talk with our children. It is truly impossible to escape the bias that this creates, whether we are aware of it or not.
White people write the rules by which everyone else has to abide. It was our white founding fathers who invented the concept of race to justify the enslavement of Africans and the genocide of the Indigenous peoples who occupied the land we intended to steal.
She skillfully deconstructs the belief that all racists are automatically evil people. Categorizing them as such makes it impossible for those of us who are not evil but still harbor implicit bias to deal with it, since to admit our bias would automatically convict us of being evil people. But we know that we are not evil, so how can we be racist?
Actually, it is pretty easy. It has been taught to us by our society all of our lives. It is easy to offend with careless comments that reinforce racist stereotypes. It is easy to ignore the racist jokes and slurs that other white people make when only whites are present. It is hard to stand up to our friends and family members or give them feedback when their attitudes and comments are racist. As DiAngelo writes,
White fragility works to punish the person giving feedback and essentially bully them back into silence. It also maintains white solidarity—the tacit agreement that we will protect white privilege and not hold each other accountable for our racism. When the person giving the feedback is a person of color, the charge is “playing the race card” and the consequences of white fragility are much more penalizing.
One of my favorite people on Twitter is @BravenakBlog. A joke she tweeted last week, that apparently went right over the head of a reader, started a conversation that showed Dr. DiAngelo’s thesis in action as a white man argued “not all white people.” Instead of listening to what the black woman was saying, he immediately exercised his white privilege by correcting her.
OK good I’m glad we cleared that up. I was following you because you must’ve posted something else that I agreed with. But I no longer follow you. Problem solved. Congratulations on alienating a potential ally, and also enjoy decades of right wing control of this country. Bye.
And there he goes into withdrawal—in the physical world he would be leaving the room and slamming the door behind him. It is now her fault that he feels alienated—she should feel guilt, not just for alienating him, but for dooming us to decades of right-wing control. Not satisfied, he returns, but only to redirect the conversation to his suffering:
Which, again according to DiAngelo, is a fairly common reaction to being called out for racist behavior. Redirecting the conversation to be all about the offender serves to deflect from the point of the one who was offended. I consider it to be the “poor me” defense.
And then you told her she needs to learn to speak better, which is a very racist thing for a white man to say to a Black woman. So maybe stop tweeting and start working on being an ally. Lesson 1 is shutting up, more lessons will cost you $195.95/mo.
Even after it was explained to him exactly what his words meant to a black woman and why they were racist, he continued to deny and argue. And complain that people who have been reading his tweets find him to be racist.
Honestly Martin, no one is beating you up. We are trying to get you to see that, first, you were sea-lioning. Second, that you dismissed, without reflection or humility what she was trying to impart, and you refuse to admit that maybe, just maybe, you have something to learn.
He serves as an excellent example of why white people like Drum Eatenton, who states elsewhere in the thread that he is “a decent human being who is not racist,” need to read White Fragility: Why it is so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Well, not just those white people, but all white people. And then we need to honestly examine our own behavior. It is not easy.
In one of her articles, White Fragility and the Rules of Engagement, as well as in her book, she outlines the “rules” that white people impose upon black people who call us out on our racism by giving feedback or daring to criticize us. The first one is, “Do not give me feedback on my racism under any circumstances.” The last four rules are fully demonstrated by the twitter exchanges above.
8. As a white person, I must feel completely safe during any discussion of race. Suggesting that I have racist assumptions or patterns will cause me to feel unsafe, so you will need to rebuild my trust by never giving me feedback again. Point of clarification: when I say “safe,” what I really mean is “comfortable.”
9. Highlighting my racial privilege invalidates the form of oppression that I experience (e.g., classism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, transphobia). We will then need to turn our attention to how you oppressed me.
10. You must acknowledge my intentions (always good) and agree that my good intentions cancel out the impact of my behavior.
11. To suggest my behavior had a racist impact is to have misunderstood me. You will need to allow me to explain myself until you can acknowledge that it was your misunderstanding.
But according to DiAngelo, there is another way to look at our own racism. With openness and humility. With recognition that our racism supports this culture of white supremacy. With a willingness to learn about racism, and its impact, and not by asking the nearest person of color to explain to us how to stop it. Racism is a white problem. Black people are not responsible for it. Nor do they own us any kind of explanation. Fortunately for us though, many of them, like Ta-Nehisi Coats have written about race—DiAngelo quotes him and other black writers throughout the book. She includes a reading list at the end of her book for those who do wish to learn more.
A self-identified progressive, she has written this book for us, her fellow progressives:
None of the white people whose actions I describe in this book would identify as racist. In fact, they would most likely identify as racially progressive and vehemently deny any complicity with racism. Yet all their responses illustrate white fragility and how it holds racism in place. These responses spur the daily frustrations and indignities people of color endure from white people who see themselves as open-minded and thus not racist. This book is intended for us, for white progressives who so often—despite our conscious intentions—make life so difficult for people of color. I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color. I define a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the “choir,” or already “gets it.” White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived. None of our energy will go into what we need to be doing for the rest of our lives: engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual antiracist practice. White progressives do indeed uphold and perpetrate racism, but our defensiveness and certitude make it virtually impossible to explain to us how we do so.
We have to get past our own “defensiveness and certitude” in order to make any progress at understanding our own bias, changing that, and eventually changing our society in a way that will help us to form that more perfect union. Because if we don’t, no one else will.
Editor's note: This article was originally run at the Daily Kos, which specifies that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified."