White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo

Gabriel Solis/Penguin

Whenever Robin DiAngelo speaks to white people about racism and her 2018 book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, she gets asked the same thing: “What do I do?”

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd on 25 May by the Minneapolis Police, that question has taken on increased urgency. Seeking answers, people have flocked to books, and it shows: at the time of writing, eight of the top 10 books on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list are explicitly about racism.

“I like to push back on and challenge that question,” DiAngelo, an academic and lecturer in discourse studies at Westfield State University, says over a Zoom call from Seattle. “My response is: How have you managed not to know? ”

White Fragility is a book-length answer to that which reveals the ways even well-meaning white people uphold a system that perpetuates racism. It’s a book that anyone who has asked “What do I do?” should read.

Here, DiAngelo speaks on the way that white people are bound to make mistakes, how white guilt isn’t useful until it becomes white action, and why no white person should ever utter the words “I’m not racist” again.

For readers who haven’t yet read your book, might you be able to give a quick definition of the term ‘white fragility’?

‘White fragility’ is meant to capture the predictable response of defensiveness that so many white people have whenever it is suggested that being white has meaning and advantage. For a lot of white people, just saying ‘white people’ will cause great umbrage. But the impact is not fragile at all. It becomes a sort of weaponised defensiveness. Because it marshals behind it the weight of history and institutional control. And ‘white fragility’ ends up functioning as a form of white racial bullying.

White people consistently make it so punitive for people of colour to challenge us, to talk to us about their experiences, that most of the time they don’t bother. Because they risk things actually getting worse for them, not better. And in that way, white fragility functions as a really effective form of white racial control. And that maintains our positions of advantage within a society that is set up to advantage us.

There’s sometimes reluctance on the part of white people to speak up for fear of ‘getting it wrong’. Would you call that a form of ‘white fragility’?

Some defensiveness, some fear of making mistakes – these things are natural. But we need to move through them and not use that as an excuse for inaction. If you are so afraid to make a mistake that you never break with silence, you never in any way take a risk in service of challenging racism, you’re supporting racism.

I would really like white people in this particular moment, in 2020, looking around at what’s going on, I would ask us to remove the claim ‘I’m not racist’ from our vocabulary. It is not possible to avoid internalising a racist worldview, patterns and investments. Most of us have been taught that a racist is an individual who consciously doesn’t like people based on race and is intentionally mean to them. That definition exempts virtually all white people from that system, and requires no further action of them. It’s the root of virtually all white defensiveness, because it makes being a good person and complicity with racism mutually exclusive. 

It is liberating to start from the premise that, of course, you’ve observed racist ideology. So you can stop defending, deflecting, denying that and get to work actually trying to identify how that’s manifesting in your life – and changing it. I don’t struggle with guilt, because I didn’t choose to be conditioned in this way. But I was. What I feel, maybe what I struggle with, is responsibility for the outcome. I was conditioned this way and I’m responsible for the outcome of that conditioning.

 

A lot of white people respond to events like George Floyd’s murder with ‘shock’. But in your book you write, ‘racism is the norm, rather than an aberration’. 

Even that shock itself is an indicator of our privilege, our isolation. I would say you actually have a deep well of potential insight in asking yourself: ‘What does it mean to be white?’ ‘How has my life been shaped by being white?’ ‘What messages have I received as a result of being white?’ It’s such a rich starting point for self-reflection that will lead to more understanding. 

All too often, when we go to Black people and ask them to teach us about race, we have the audacity, the arrogance, to then sit back and determine whether we think what they've said is legitimate. So we’re supposedly innocent when we want that information, but suddenly we feel fully qualified to determine whether the information they give us is valid. You know, there’s a reason that Reni Eddo-Lodge called her book Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race. We say that we want that information and then we put them through the wringer, just playing devil’s advocate.

We will never learn what we need to know about racism by only listening to white people, but for all too long, the white voice has been missing from this conversation. And that just reinforces that we are outside of race. And plenty of Black people are willing to teach white people! They write books, they do training, videos. They’re paid for that labour, and should be paid for that labour. The issue is going to any Black person [for free] and expecting that.

Right now, it feels like there’s a lot of trying, on the part of white people, to take positive action. And that action has led to sometimes-embarrassing outcomes. The black squares on Instagram, for example, which were well-meaning but widely seen as detrimental.

To the degree that people find my ability to articulate racism effective, that comes from 20 years of making mistakes. And I just made a big one in front of 1000 people last week. I am not going to be free of this conditioning. I am never going to get to where I don’t make mistakes. The key is learning from my mistakes. I think it would behove white people to see themselves as a little less progressive than they think they are. I don’t believe there’s any such thing as ‘preaching to the choir’. There is no white choir. 

I'm going to mess up, but I can learn to make fewer mistakes and do less harm. That is one of the ways you make fewer mistakes and do less harm – you continuously seek a stance of humility. For what it’s worth, I don’t call myself an expert. I say I have expertise. And even right there, because ‘expert’ implies that, you know, my learning is finished. I am confident to say that I have expertise.

What do you think of the backlash against the Black Lives Matters protests? Are calls for 'a return to peace' another example of white fragility?

‘Return to peace’ for white people is a return to status quo, in which people like Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd are murdered and it’s not brought to their attention. Where they don’t have to be inconvenienced by witnessing that. That’s ‘peace’. The status quo of racism is peaceful for white people. We have to get to where it’s not peaceful within ourselves. I would ask white people, what are the rules in your mind for how people should protest their open murder in the streets with no consequences? How would you protest your son being murdered in that way? In that cavalier way? How would you protest that?

There’s also… if you don’t understand systemic racism, you’re not going to understand what you’re seeing and where your attention is being drawn. Let go of a few people breaking windows, especially since we actually don’t even know who they are or what they’re connected to – there’s too much going on there. And put your focus on the vast majority of the protest going on. Ask yourself why so many white people start their sentence with ‘Well, it’s terrible that George Floyd was murdered, but… ’ And the moment you put the ‘but’, you just minimised what was before it and amplified what comes after it. And what comes after it is always hand-wringing about property. I would ask white people, what other type of protest has made a difference?

Like what happened to Colin Kaepernick...

There you go. The explosion of outrage over the respectful taking of a knee. The explosion of outrage over just three words: “Black lives matter.”

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