I AM white. I have spent years studying what it means to be white in a society that proclaims race meaningless, yet is deeply divided by race. This is what I have learned: Any white person living in the United States will develop opinions about race simply by swimming in the water of our culture.
But mainstream sources — schools, textbooks, media and anecdotal evidence — don’t provide us with the multiple perspectives we need. Yes, we will develop strong emotionally laden opinions, but they will not be informed opinions. Our socialization renders us racially illiterate.
This illiteracy was evident in the debate about the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society production of “The Mikado” and its casting of non-Asian actors in 40 Japanese roles.
To understand the crux of white racial illiteracy illustrated by the debate, consider a typical computer user. The user is proficient and knows all the basics — Word, email, spreadsheets. But when the user has a technical problem and tries to explain it to the IT department, communication breaks down. The user gets defensive, feeling talked down to by tech support. Tech support gets frustrated because the user doesn’t know how computers actually work and can’t comprehend its instructions.
Like a nontechnical user trying to understand a technical problem, our racial illiteracy limits our ability to have meaningful conversations about race.
Mainstream dictionary definitions reduce racism to racial prejudice and the personal actions that result. But this definition does little to explain how racial hierarchies are consistently reproduced.
Social scientists define racism as a multidimensional, highly adaptive system — a system that ensures an unequal distribution of resources among racial groups. The group that controls the institutions controls the distribution and embeds its racial bias into the fabric of society.
In the U.S., while individual whites might be against racism, they still benefit from their group’s control. Yes, an individual person of color can sit at the tables of power, but the overwhelming majority of decision-makers will be white. Yes, white people can have problems and face barriers, but systematic racism won’t be one of them.
This distinction — between individual prejudice and a system of unequal institutionalized racial power — is fundamental. One cannot understand how racism functions in the U.S. today if one ignores group power relations.
While the following do not apply to every white person, they are well-documented white patterns and beliefs that make it difficult for white people to understand racism as a system:
• Segregation: Most whites live, grow, play, learn, love, work and die primarily in racial segregation. Yet, our society does not teach us to see this as a loss. Pause for a moment and consider the magnitude of this message: We lose nothing of value by not having cross-racial relationships. In fact, the whiter our schools and neighborhoods are, the more likely they are to be seen as “good.” This is an example of the relentless messages of white superiority that circulate all around us, shaping our identities and perspectives.
• Individualism: Whites are taught to see themselves as individuals, rather than as part of a racial group. It follows that we are racially objective and thus can represent the universal human experience, while people of color can only represent their race. Seeing ourselves as unracialized individuals, we take umbrage when generalizations are made about us as a group. This enables us to ignore systemic racial patterns.
• Focus on intentions over impact: We are taught that racism must be intentional and that only bad people commit it. Thus a common white reasoning in cross-racial conflicts is that as long as we are good people and didn’t intend to perpetuate racism, then our actions don’t count as racism. But racism doesn’t depend on conscious intent. In fact, much of racism is unconscious. Further, when we focus on intent we are essentially saying that the impact of our behavior on others is irrelevant.
• White fragility: In a white dominant society, challenges to a white worldview are uncommon. The racial status quo is comfortable for us. We haven’t had to develop the skills, perspectives, or humility that would help us engage constructively. As a result, we have very little tolerance for racial discomfort and respond poorly.
Putting this all together, you get the outcomes we see in “The Mikado” controversy.
When actors audition, they are most often judged by white people, using white standards for roles written by white writers and intended for white audiences. The outcomes of a specific audition are the cumulative result of this historic control.
Precisely because the system reflects white interests and worldview, white people will not see any of this in racial terms. They are confident that we can represent all of humanity — if no Asian actors apply, we don’t question casting efforts.
Because the egregious depictions of Asians in the opera are not intended as racist (and because so many whites enjoy these depictions), the racist impact is denied. When racism is pointed out, umbrage ensues.
The understanding of racism as a social system of unequal power is generally termed antiracism. An antiracism framework will help any white person become more racially literate and navigate most any racial conflict. We can begin by acknowledging ourselves as having a particular and necessarily limited perspective on race. That acknowledgment engenders humility rather than certitude.
Thinking in terms of structures and patterns, not individual acts or good and bad people, is foundational. Putting ourselves in situations that challenge and stretch our racial worldviews, while uncomfortable, builds our racial stamina.
Finally, we need to focus on impact rather than intent. On Aug. 18, the Seattle Repertory Theatre and the City of Seattle are holding a community dialogue about “The Mikado.” This is a great opportunity for whites to practice these skills.
Let me be clear. I don’t see myself or other whites as bad. Racism is a system that we did not create, but it’s one that we did inherit. We must take responsibility to see and challenge it both within and around us. The first step? Have some humility and listen.
Robin DiAngelo is an associate professor of education at Westfield State University in Massachusetts. She teaches and writes extensively on whiteness. Her latest book is “What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy.”