Robin DiAngelo, a Seattle-based speaker and trainer who focuses on racial justice, has just published her third book, “White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.”
You’re white. You’re educated and open-minded. You’re a good person! And you’re anything but a racist. Right?
You don’t care if someone is pink, purple or polka-dotted. In fact, you were raised to not even see color.
And you need to stop, Robin DiAngelo says. Stop saying things like that, for they are completely insulting. Human beings aren’t purple or polka-dotted, and we should see color.
Doing so is one of the first steps white people can take toward improving race relations, according to DiAngelo, a white, Seattle-based speaker and trainer who focuses on racial justice, and whose third book, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” is released today. (She will speak about her book on Saturday, June 30, at Urban Grace Church in Tacoma.)
I sought DiAngelo out — and read her new book — because I have had my own struggles with racism.
A year ago, I wrote a column about Columbia City that implied the historically black community only hit the map when a Pagliacci Pizza and Rudy’s Barber Shop moved in. I apologized, and have made it my mission to understand that whiteness is something I wear every day. It influences how I interact with the world.
I learned from DiAngelo’s book that my biases began when I was born white. From there, I was raised with a privilege that I never earned, but that came from biological fate, and generations of oppression and segregation — some forced, and some inherent. It is my responsibility to deconstruct those biases.
I don’t even think about my race, DiAngelo said, while people of color are reminded of it every day, be it with slights, discrimination or abuse. They pay for it with stress, health problems and even early death. (The death rate for African Americans was generally higher than whites for heart diseases, stroke, cancer, asthma and diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control.) All this while being asked to explain to white people what they can do to make things better.
And if they try to explain, well, most times well-meaning white people challenge them with talk of polka dots. They get defensive, angry, afraid or go silent — reinforcing the “white equilibrium,” which gets us nowhere.
That’s white fragility.
“Most white people cannot answer the question, ‘What does it mean to be white?’ with any depth or complexity,” DiAngelo told me. “(White people) are not raised to see ourselves in racial terms, and bring that inability to answer that question to the table with us.
“And people of color know that (white people) can’t answer that question, that we have no awareness of ourselves as racial beings,” she continued. “That’s part of what they have to navigate with us. If I have no idea how my race shapes me, I am probably not going to be open to any feedback about how your race shapes you. And so we end up minimizing and invalidating them.”
So ask yourself, DiAngelo says: When was the last time you had a person of color at your dinner table? When did you risk “ruining dinner” by challenging a relative who made a racist comment, when the comment itself should do that on its own? And are you aware of the ways in which your whiteness has made your life so easy that the color of your skin barely crosses your mind?
To help me understand how white people sometimes ask people of color to explain their experience, and minimize their role in it, DiAngelo substituted sexism for racism.
“It would be like a man walking up to a female co-worker and asking, ‘So, talk to me about sexism. What has happened to you?'” DiAngelo said. “It’s putting an emotional and political burden on them. And it’s unfair.”
Instead, we should strive to build authentic relationships across race.
“Being in each others lives, seeing what has happened,” DiAngelo said. “Take the initiative and look things up like anything else that matters to you. And you have to be willing to listen.”
You also have to be willing to speak up when we see racial inequality in acts big and small.
“Break with solidarity,” DiAngelo said. “That’s what we have to do as white people: Be courageous.”
DiAngelo received her doctorate in multicultural education from the University of Washington, was a tenured professor in that subject at Westfield State University and focused her research on Whiteness Studies and Critical Discourse Analysis, “explicating how Whiteness is reproduced in everyday narratives,” according to her bio.
And while those credentials give her the expertise to speak about race, her own whiteness benefits her as well.
“Whether we are aware of it or not, the power of implicit bias is that white people tend to be more open to engaging with that question when it is coming from a fellow white person,” she said. “Implicit bias grants more legitimacy to their white voice.”
And if we are going to challenge implicit bias, she said, we have to build our capacity to listen.
We also have to be accountable to people of color, DiAngelo said. Hers can’t be the only voice. That’s one of the reasons she asked Georgetown University professor and author Michael Eric Dyson, who is black, to write the foreword to “White Fragility.” In it, Dyson called the book ” … a bracing call to white folk everywhere to see their whiteness for what it is and to seize the opportunity to make things better now.
“DiAngelo joins the front ranks of white anti-racist thinkers with a stirring call to conscience, and most important, consciousness, in her white brothers,” he wrote. “White fragility is a truly generative idea … an idea whose time has come.”
Indeed, since the election of Donald Trump, people have been emboldened and validated in their racism.
“It has been given more permission,” DiAngelo said. “I think a lot of the eruption of racism is the umbrage people took at not being able to express it openly.”
DiAngelo knows of 12 book groups in Seattle reading her last book, “What Does It Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy.” She appreciates that, it’s definitely progress. But she has a question: “How will people of color know you read my book?”
“Niceness is not courageous,” DiAngelo said. “Niceness will not get racism on the table. It takes breaking with white solidarity, and resisting the forces of white fragility.”
So, white people, we need to check ourselves. Stop defending ourselves. Only then will we learn.