Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism-Beacon Press
One metaphor for race, and racism, won’t do. They are, after all, exceedingly complicated forces. No, we need many metaphors, working in concert, even if in different areas of the culture through a clever division of linguistic labor. Race is a condition. A disease. A card. A plague. Original sin. For much of American history, race has been black culture’s issue; racism, a black person’s burden. Or substitute any person of color for black and you’ve got the same problem. Whiteness, however, has remained constant. In the equation of race, another metaphor for race beckons; whiteness is the unchanging variable. Or, to shift metaphors, whiteness has been, to pinch Amiri Baraka’s resonant phrase, the “changing same,” a highly adaptable and fluid force that stays on top no matter where it lands. In a sense, whiteness is at once the means of dominance, the end to which dominance points, and the point of dominance, too, which, in its purest form, in its greatest fantasy, never ends.
To be sure, like the rest of race, whiteness is a fiction, what in the jargon of the academy is termed a social construct, an agreed-on myth that has empirical grit because of its effect, not its essence. But whiteness goes even one better: it is a category of identity that is most useful when its very existence is denied. That’s its twisted genius. Whiteness embodies Charles Baudelaire’s admonition that “the loveliest trick of the Devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.” Or, as an alter ego of the character Keyser Söze says in the film The Usual Suspects, “The greatest trick the devil ever played was to convince the world that he didn’t exist.” The Devil. Racism. Another metaphor. Same difference.
Robin DiAngelo is here to announce, in the words of evangelicals—and rappers Rick Ross and Jay-Z—“The Devil Is a Lie.” Whiteness, like race, may not be true—it’s not a biologically heritable characteristic that has roots in physiological structures or in genes or chromosomes. But it is real, in the sense that societies and rights and goods and resources and privileges have been built on its foundation. DiAngelo brilliantly names a whiteness that doesn’t want to be named, disrobes a whiteness that dresses in camouflage as humanity, unmasks a whiteness costumed as American, and fetches to center stage a whiteness that would rather hide in visible invisibility.
It is not enough to be a rhetorician and a semiotician to deconstruct and demythologize whiteness. One must be a magician of the political and the social, an alchemist of the spiritual and psychological too. One must wave off racist stereotypes and conjure a rich history of combatting white supremacy and white privilege and white lies—a history that has often been buried deep in the dark, rich, black American soil. DiAngelo knows that what she is saying to white folk in this book is what so many black folks have thought and believed and said over the years but couldn’t be heard because white ears were too sensitive, white souls too fragile.
DiAngelo joins the front ranks of white antiracist thinkers with a stirring call to conscience and, most important, consciousness in her white brothers and sisters. White fragility is a truly generative idea; it is a crucial concept that inspires us to think more deeply about how white folk understand their whiteness and react defensively to being called to account for how that whiteness has gone under the radar of race for far too long. DiAngelo is wise and withering in her relentless assault on what Langston Hughes termed “the ways of white folks.” But she is clear-eyed and unsentimental in untangling the intertwined threads of social destiny and political prescription that bind white identity to moral neutrality and cultural universality.
DiAngelo bravely challenges the collapse of whiteness into national identity. No less an authority than Beyoncé Knowles recently remarked, “It’s been said that racism is so American that when we protest racism, some assume we’re protesting America.” DiAngelo proves that Beyoncé is right, that the flow of white identity into American identity—of racist beliefs into national beliefs—must be met head-on with a full-throated insistence that what it means to be American is not what it means to be white, at least not exclusively, or even primarily. This nation is far more complicated in its collective self-understanding. DiAngelo, in a masterly way, takes apart the notion that identity politics is a scourge, at least when it involves people of color or women. She blows down the house of white racial cards built on the premise that it can, or should, rest on something beyond identity politics.
DiAngelo forces us to see that all politics have rested on identities, and that those identities are critical features of wrestling with how we have gone wrong in the effort to set things right—which too often has meant make them white. We cannot possibly name the nemeses of democracy or truth or justice or equality if we cannot name the identities to which they have been attached. For most of our history, straight white men have been involved in a witness protection program that guards their identities and absolves them of their crimes while offering them a future free of past encumbrances and sins.
Robin DiAngelo is the new racial sheriff in town. She is bringing a different law and order to bear upon the racial proceedings. Instead of covering up for a whiteness that refused to face up to its benefits and advantages, its errors and faults, she has sought to uphold the humanity of the unjustly maligned while exposing the offenses of the undeservedly celebrated.
White fragility is an idea whose time has come. It is an idea that registers the hurt feelings, shattered egos, fraught spirits, vexed bodies, and taxed emotions of white folk. In truth, their suffering comes from recognizing that they are white—that their whiteness has given them a big leg up in life while crushing others’ dreams, that their whiteness is the clearest example of the identity politics they claim is harmful to the nation, and that their whiteness has shielded them from growing up as quickly as they might have done had they not so heavily leaned on it to make it through life. White Fragility is a vital, necessary, and beautiful 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. Robin DiAngelo kicks all the crutches to the side and demands that white folk finally mature and face the world they’ve made while seeking to help remake it for those who have neither their privilege nor their protection.
The United States was founded on the principle that all people are created equal. Yet the nation began with the attempted genocide of Indigenous people and the theft of their land. American wealth was built on the labor of kidnapped and enslaved Africans and their descendants. Women were denied the right to vote until 1920, and black women were denied access to that right until 1964. The term identity politics refers to the focus on the barriers specific groups face in their struggle for equality. We have yet to achieve our founding principle, but any gains we have made thus far have come through identity politics.
The identities of those sitting at the tables of power in this country have remained remarkably similar: white, male, middle- and upper-class, able-bodied. Acknowledging this fact may be dismissed as political correctness, but it is still a fact. The decisions made at those tables affect the lives of those not at the tables. Exclusion by those at the table doesn’t depend on willful intent; we don’t have to intend to exclude for the results of our actions to be exclusion. While implicit bias is always at play because all humans have bias, inequity can occur simply through homogeneity; if I am not aware of the barriers you face, then I won’t see them, much less be motivated to remove them. Nor will I be motivated to remove the barriers if they provide an advantage to which I feel entitled.
All progress we have made in the realm of civil rights has been accomplished through identity politics: women’s suffrage, the American with Disabilities Act, Title 9, federal recognition of same-sex marriage. A key issue in the 2016 presidential election was the white working class. These are all manifestations of identity politics.
Take women’s suffrage. If being a woman denies you the right to vote, you ipso facto cannot grant it to yourself. And you certainly cannot vote for your right to vote. If men control all the mechanisms that exclude women from voting as well as the mechanisms that can reverse that exclusion, women must call on men for justice. You could not have had a conversation about women’s right to vote and men’s need to grant it without naming women and men. Not naming the groups that face barriers only serves those who already have access; the assumption is that the access enjoyed by the controlling group is universal. For example, although we are taught that women were granted suffrage in 1920, we ignore the fact that it was white women who received full access or that it was white men who granted it. Not until the 1960s, through the Voting Rights Act, were all women—regardless of race—granted full access to suffrage. Naming who has access and who doesn’t guides our efforts in challenging injustice.
This book is unapologetically rooted in identity politics. I am white and am addressing a common white dynamic. I am mainly writing to a white audience; when I use the terms us and we, I am referring to the white collective. This usage may be jarring to white readers because we are so rarely asked to think about ourselves or fellow whites in racial terms. But rather than retreat in the face of that discomfort, we can practice building our stamina for the critical examination of white identity—a necessary antidote to white fragility. This raises another issue rooted in identity politics: in speaking as a white person to a primarily white audience, I am yet again centering white people and the white voice. I have not found a way around this dilemma, for as an insider I can speak to the white experience in ways that may be harder to deny. So, though I am centering the white voice, I am also using my insider status to challenge racism. To not use my position this way is to uphold racism, and that is unacceptable; it is a “both/and” that I must live with. I would never suggest that mine is the only voice that should be heard, only that it is one of the many pieces needed to solve the overall puzzle.
People who do not identify as white may also find this book helpful for understanding why it is so often difficult to talk to white people about racism. People of color cannot avoid understanding white consciousness to some degree if they are to be successful in this society, yet nothing in dominant culture affirms their understanding or validates their frustrations when they interact with white people. I hope that this exploration affirms the cross-racial experiences of people of color and provides some useful insight.
This book looks at the United States and the general context of the West (United States, Canada, and Europe). It does not address nuances and variations within other sociopolitical settings. However, these patterns have also been observed in white people in other white settler societies such as Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.
WHAT ABOUT MULTIRACIAL PEOPLE?
Throughout this book, I argue that racism is deeply complex and nuanced, and given this, we can never consider our learning to be complete or finished. One example of this complexity is in the very use of the racial categories “white” and “people of color.” I use the terms white and people of color to indicate the two macro-level, socially recognized divisions of the racial hierarchy. Yet in using these terms, I am collapsing a great deal of variation. And though I believe (for reasons explained in chapter 1) that temporarily suspending individuality to focus on group identity is healthy for white people, doing so has very different impacts on people of color. For multiracial people in particular, these binary categories leave them in a frustrating “middle.”
Multiracial people, because they challenge racial constructs and boundaries, face unique challenges in a society in which racial categories have profound meaning. The dominant society will assign them the racial identity they most physically resemble, but their own internal racial identity may not align with the assigned identity. For example, though the musician Bob Marley was multiracial, society perceived him as black and thus responded to him as if he were black. When multiracial people’s racial identity is ambiguous, they will face constant pressure to explain themselves and “choose a side.” Racial identity for multiracial people is further complicated by the racial identity of their parents and the racial demographics of the community in which they are raised. For example, though a child may look black and be treated as black, she may be raised primarily by a white parent and thus identify more strongly as white.
The dynamics of what is termed “passing”—being perceived as white—will also shape a multiracial person’s identity, as passing will grant him or her society’s rewards of whiteness. However, people of mixed racial heritage who pass as white may also experience resentment and isolation from people of color who cannot pass. Multiracial people may not be seen as “real” people of color or “real” whites. (It is worth noting that though the term “passing” refers to the ability to blend in as a white person, there is no corresponding term for the ability to pass as a person of color. This highlights the fact that, in a racist society, the desired direction is always toward whiteness and away from being perceived as a person of color.)
I will not be able to do justice to the complexity of multiracial identity. But for the purposes of grappling with white fragility, I offer multiracial people the concept of saliency. We all occupy multiple and intersecting social positionalities. I am white, but I am also a cisgender woman, able-bodied, and middle-aged. These identities don’t cancel out one another; each is more or less salient in different contexts. For example, in a group in which I am the only woman, gender will likely be very salient for me. When I am in a group that is all white except for one person of color, race will likely be my most salient identity. As you read, it will be for you to decide what speaks to your experience and what doesn’t, and in what contexts. My hope is that you may gain insight into why people who identify as white are so difficult in conversations regarding race and/or gain insight into your own racial responses as you navigate the roiling racial waters of daily life.