Dr. Robin DiAngelo discusses ‘White Fragility’

my name is Misha Stone and I’m a Reader
Services Librarian in the reader services department and before we begin
this evening I would like to acknowledge that we are gathered together on the
ancestral land of the Coast Salish people so together let us honor their elders
past and present we thank them for their stewardship of this land welcome to the
library and thank you for joining us for this reading with Dr. Robin DiAngelo.
D’Angelo’s essays and talks have been so important and revelatory to me I know
that I’ll be reckoning with my own internalized racism with my own
socialization and trying to reduce harm throughout my entire life both
personally and professionally and what I love about the book ‘White Fragility’ is
that it crystallizes so much of what I’ve heard her say and write all in one
place in a way that I can continue to move through it continue to reference it
so I’m so honored to be here for the book launch for White Fragility so we’re
all here tonight for White Fragility and there’s a lot of buzz about this book
already it’s only been out for two days and I think it’s testament to the fact
that this topic’s time has come. poet Claudia Rankine said Robin DiAngelo’s
White Fragility brings language to the emotional structures that make true
discussions about racial attitudes difficult with clarity and compassion
DiAngelo allows us to understand racism as a practice not restricted to bad
people in doing so she moves our national
discussions forward with new rules of engagement and Michael Eric Dyson who
wrote the lovely foreword called it a vital necessary book a bracing call to
white folk everywhere to see their whiteness for what it is and seize the
opportunity to make things better now please welcome Dr. Robin DiAngelo thank you so much okay that was such a
rush before I launch in, the way I’m gonna do this is I’m gonna read a little
bit riff a little bit kind of guide you along with some slides but but I do want
to reiterate that this is talk is happening on the ancestral
territories of indigenous peoples and I believe very very deeply that if we
don’t know our history if we cannot trace the past into the
present we cannot explain current conditions in ways that are
transformative rather than than victim-blaming and I think today it’s
very very clear when we see struggles around water rights at Standing Rock the
Duwamish yet again denied federal recognition which denies treaty rights
and sovereignty these these struggles are never separated from the present at
the same time a piece of white fragility is that white people are not taught
their history we don’t know our history so I want to acknowledge that I want to
position myself of course as a white person and I’m talking to a very talking
and addressing a very very specific dynamic this is arguably the most
complex nuanced social dilemma since the beginning of this country and there are
myriad roads in and all of them are essential but so consistently left off
the table is whiteness right so we often learn about this group in that group and
their struggles and their triumphs and their heroes and heroines and yet we
don’t ask ourselves struggles and triumphs in relation to whom right and
so again I’m going to focus on white folks and white people I do use humor
and I want to say a little bit about why I use humor some of it is my style and
also because there’s so much tension and so much anxiety and so much charge and
so much defensiveness and on and on for white people around race that we can
when we begin to get challenged we can shut down really quick
or glaze over or tune out and all of those of course function to protect our
positions and hold our worldviews in place and so the laughter can help
release some of that if we can laugh at this and mock it a little bit to be to
be direct it can help us then step back and not take ourselves so seriously and
hopefully again open it up and I want to say that this is killing people of color
right this is very very serious so my humor is not meant to trivialize
that but it is a strategy and one of many that I use in order to try to to air
this out and open it up so I want to start by reading a bit from the
beginning white people in North America live in a society that is deeply
separate and unequal by race and white people are the beneficiaries of that
separation and inequality as a result we are insulated from racial stress at the
same time that we come to feel entitled to and deserving of our advantage given
how seldom we experience racial discomfort in a society we dominate we
haven’t had to build our racial stamina socialized into a deeply internalized
sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to
ourselves we become highly fragile in conversations about race we consider a
challenge to our racial worldviews as a challenge to our very identities as good
moral people thus we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of
racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense the smallest amount of racial
stress is intolerable the mere suggestion that being white has meaning
often triggers a range of defensive responses and these include emotions
such as anger fear and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation silence
and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation these responses work to
reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge
return our racial comfort and maintained our dominance within the
racial hierarchy I conceptualized this process as white fragility the white
fragility is triggered by discomfort and anxiety it is born of superiority and
entitlement white fragility is not weakness per se in fact it is a powerful
means of white racial control and the protection of white advantage in my
early days of work of what was then termed a diversity trainer I was taken
aback by how angry and defensive so many white people became at the suggestion
that they were connected to racism in any way the very idea that they would be
required to attend a workshop on racism outraged them they entered the room
angry and made that feeling clear to us throughout the day as they slammed their
notebooks down on the table refused to participate in exercises and argued
against any and all points I couldn’t understand their resentment or
disinterest in learning more about such a complex social dynamic as racism these
reactions were especially perplexing when there were few or no people of
color in their workplace and they had the opportunity to learn from my
co-facilitators of color I assumed that in these circumstances an educational
workshop on racism would be appreciated after all didn’t the lack of diversity
indicate a problem or at least suggest that some perspectives were missing or
that the participants might be undereducated about race because of
scant cross racial interactions it took me several years to see beneath these
reactions at first I was intimidated by them and they held me back and kept me
careful and quiet but over time I began to see what lay beneath this anger and
resistance to discuss race or listen to people of color
I observed consistent responses from a variety of participants for example many
white participants who lived in white suburban neighborhoods and had no
sustained relationships with people of color were absolutely certain that they
held no racial prejudice or animosity other participants
to simplistically reduce racism to a matter of nice people versus mean people
most appeared to believe that racism ended in 1865 with the end of
enslavement there was both knee-jerk defensiveness about any suggestion that
being white had meaning and a refusal to acknowledge any advantage to being white
and over time I began to see what I think of as the pillars of whiteness the
unexamined beliefs that prop up our racial responses I could see the power
of the belief that only bad people were racist as well as how individualism
allowed white people to exempt themselves from the forces of
socialization I could see how we are taught to think about racism only as
discrete acts committed by individual people rather than as a complex
interconnected system and in light of so many white expressions of resentment
toward people of color I realized that we see ourselves as entitled to and
deserving of more than people of color deserve I saw our investment in a system
that serves us I also saw how hard we work to deny all this and how defensive
we became when these dynamics were named in turn I saw how our defensiveness
maintained the racial status quo and none of the white people that I identify
whose actions I described in this book would identify as racist in fact I think
they would most likely identify as racially progressive and vehemently
deny any complicity with racism yet all of 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 progresses caused the most daily damage to people of color
and I define white progressive as any white person
who thinks he or she is not racist or is less racist or is 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 we have it we’re gonna put all
of our energy into making sure you think that we have it and none of it into what
we need to be doing for the rest of our lives right 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 so I’m pretty sure I’m
speaking to a room filled with white progressives so let me just be clear you
are not the choir there is no choir I am NOT the choir that when I say there is
no choir it’s because my learning will never be finished and this moment I
think I’m the choir I think I’m gonna be done and I’m gonna have certitude I
often joke but and some of the some levels it’s kind of true when I first
applied to be that diversity trainer back in the early 90s I I thought well
course I’m qualified to lead a discussions on racism I’m a vegetarian
how could I be racist now I would need to be vegan today but you know in the
90s I was pretty that was pretty alternative right I even go what got
called a communist once when I said no I’m a vegetarian but you know my point
is I just thought it was all about open-mindedness and alternativeness
and let me just say that you know I love Seattle and everything I learned about
why fragility I learned here working with white progressives so chapter one challenges to talking to
white people about racism alright I have never met a white person who did not
have an opinion on racism have you if you are not sure that all white people
have opinions on racism just bring it up the next time you’re around a bunch of
white people maybe tonight when you have a drink in Ballard after the talk and
see how that goes not only do we all have opinions but they tend to be very
emotionally charged and that has nothing to do with whether they’re informed or
not I have an opinion on virtually everything that does not make them
informed I don’t believe you can grow up or spend any significant time in the
United States without developing opinions on racism and they will be
emotional and strongly held and again that has nothing to do with whether
they’re informed and in fact if you are white and you have not devoted years of
sustained study struggle and focus on this topic your opinions are necessarily
very limited and no a trip to Costa Rica multiracial nieces and nephews right
these are not sustained study struggle and focus now now how can I say that
when I don’t know most of the people in this room and this of course is the
first thing that tends to trigger white fragility generalizing about white
people as a sociologist I’m really comfortable generalizing about white
people social life is predictable and patterned you know in in really
observable ways and we’ve got to grapple with those patterns but I can say this
that your opinions without sustained study struggle focus you know mistake
making relationship build and repair their superficial because nothing
nothing in society gives you the information you need to have more than
that in fact you can get through graduate school in this country without
ever discussing racism can you not you can get through teacher education in
this country without discussing racism and if you have a if you’re in a
progressive teacher education program you’ll have one required multicultural
education class but that doesn’t mean you’ll be talking about racism you might
just be talking about how to introduce ethnic authors in February all right you
can get through law school you can get so through social work right you can be
seen as qualified to lead a major or minor institution in this country to
lead a group of people to supervise people you could be seen as qualified to
do those things with virtually no ability whatsoever to engage with any
complexity or nuance in the issue of racism can you not all right so that is
the first challenge humility the second is individualism I apparently
white people do not understand socialization because we really think
that we are exempt from it and of course with the irony of that is because we’re
socialized to value the individual we put a lot of effort there but we think
that you know just because I say I am or want to be I could be exempt from these
forces so so that is another challenge and again generalizing suggesting race
has meaning for white people will often trigger white fragility we think if we
don’t see it it isn’t there and you haven’t explained it to me yet enough so
that I understand it so I’m not really sure that could be valid and we tend to
use our reactions as a way out there is no way we’re gonna get where we need to
go from a place of white comfort and I am comfortable racially virtually 24/7
so that is not my goal but we will often use that lack of
comfort as a sign that something’s been done wrong rather than something
probably has been done right and that we need to use that as a way in
to the deeper framework that would cause such upset rather than use it as a way
out and we don’t understand racism as a system so this is another key challenge
which leads me to chapter 2 which is racism and white supremacy racism is a
system not an event and it’s the system we’re in and none of us could be and
none of us were exempt from its forces but the way we’re taught to think of
racism functions beautifully to not only obscure this system but to exempt us
from its forces all right or to have us believe we are exempted from its forces
now as a white person I was raised to be racially illiterate and I actually think
all white people are raised to be racially illiterate in this culture and
in gaining racial literacy I have had to understand not just the collective
dynamics and dimensions of racism but how racism impacts different
groups who are perceived and defined as people of color how it impacts them
differently right so not all peoples of color experience racism differently the
thing is I’ve internalized about different groups is different where and
how they are positioned to always in relation to whiteness or far away from
whiteness and how that manifests right all of that must be understood but after
a good 20 plus years of talking day in and day out to white people about racism
I feel very confident to say that there is something profoundly anti-black in
this culture and that nothing seems to turn white people’s cranks of resentment
like thinking black people got something over on us that they didn’t deserve and
a deeper belief is that they’re inherently undeserving I believe in the
in the white mind black people are the ultimate racial other right and that
there are these bookends and again you’re perceived proximity to
each end of that impacts how you’re going to experience your racialization
so having said that and not really having time to do history I just want to
give you one glance at the trajectory of anti-blackness in this in this country
since its beginning and this slide will be deliberately dense we can literally
think about it as state-sanctioned organized crime but at least
discrimination against African Americans from the beginning and it starts with
kidnapping in 300 years of enslavement torture rape and brutality and it
carries on and about a quarter of the way in you see bans on testifying
against whites which made it technically legal to murder black people in this
country and you are now in my lifetime and I’m gonna say it again because I get
a lot of white people seem to think it ended a long time ago
we’re in my lifetime about a quarter of the way through that slide and then we
see about two-thirds of the way through employment discrimination and we are in
2018 with copious empirical evidence right so let’s pick it up there
employment discrimination educational discrimination biased laws and policing
practices white flight subprime mortgages mass incarceration the school
to prison pipeline disproportionate special ed referrals and punishments
testing tracking school funding biased media representation historical
emissions and so much more it is a system not an event it’s the system
we’re in and none of us could be and none of us were exempt from its forces
we want to be unique in special individuals then we need to figure out
how whatever we see is special and different about us set us up into that
system because it did so I’m talking I I know white people really well I’m
talking X and you’re like hah I was Y right okay you were Y most whites are
X how did Y set you up it did the question is not if it’s how
I’m gonna repeat it it’s a system not an event and how do we cope with the moral
trauma of what I just read to you Resmaa Menakem has a beautiful book ‘My
Grandmother’s Hands’ where he talks about racial trauma there’s a trauma I
believe to white people of racism but I don’t think it’s it’s a different it’s a
moral trauma and it’s a piece of white fragility not being able to face our
complicity in this system well historically were projected our sins
onto the black body right lazy shiftless criminal we projected our sins onto the
black body today in addition to doing that we obscure the system of racism
that we uphold and we exempt ourselves from its forces and we do this in a way
that appears to be progressive right that that race doesn’t matter to us this
is the board after the grand champion college Jeopardy round right and for me
it just it just speaks volumes right not not again knowing our history and being
able to trace it into the present is one of the the volumes that speaks another
one is that is the history of this country it is not their history didn’t
happen in a vacuum so one of the aspects of institutional
power is the ability to disseminate your worldview to everyone to position it is
objective and and universal right and to tell the story right the story of the
other when we are not in relationship with the other so I want to give you an
example of the power of the story and I want to do it through the Jackie
Robinson story you all know Jackie Robinson right so
Jackie Robinson was has been quite celebrated for doing something what’s
the tagline that goes with Jackie Robinson he he broke the color line
right now so let’s do a little discourse analysis because every every year on the
anniversary we celebrate him breaking a color line so think about what that
invokes right he was exceptional he was special he did it finally one of them
had what it took to break through and play with us
up until him nobody had what it took so subtext inferior group right but he did
it and of course the day he did it the day he broke the color line racism and
sports ended so imagine if we told a story like this Jackie Robinson the
first black man that whites allowed to play major league baseball and I want
you to notice the difference in that story one that’s the truth it didn’t
matter how exceptional he was and I actually don’t believe he was the first
most exceptional but if he did if we didn’t say he could play he couldn’t
play if he walked out onto that field before we said you can walk out on the
field the police would have removed him it wasn’t up to him right now the reason
I want us to tell the story the second way is one because it’s true and two
because I need role models right how did how did white people get organized what
did they do behind the scene what barriers did they face what challenges
right what strategies did they use and could we use any of those today and
adapt any of those today it’s not about me wanting to point out how bad white
people are so chapter three looks at racism after the civil rights movement
and after the civil rights movement it made a brilliant adaptation so a
post-civil rights racism got reduced to the following formula a racist is an
individual who consciously does not like people based on race and is
intentionally mean to them always an individual must be conscious
be intentional and that definition exempts virtually all white people from
the system of racism this definition I believe is the root of virtually all
white defensiveness on racism have you guys noticed any white defensiveness on
racism yeah it makes it virtually impossible to talk
to the average white person about the inevitable absorption of a racist
worldview that we get from being socialized in a racist culture in which
white supremacy is the bedrock because you suggest that anything I have done is
racially problematic in any way and I’m gonna hear a question to my moral
character and I’m going to need to defend my moral character you know we’ve
probably seen this a million times right so that that definition actually
functions to protect racism even as it looks like a progress right right racism became bad post-civil rights so this this sets up what I think
about as the good/bad binary that kind of it’s either/or right racists are bad
not racists are good and we know how to fill that in don’t we ignorant bigoted
prejudiced mean-spirited definitely old and when we die off they’ll be no more
racism you know I’ve been working with a lot of these tech companies that that
when I walk around I think to myself god I guess you have to be under thirty to
work here and I’m telling you they cannot think critically about race and
the people of color that work with these young people are in so much pain right
no I get asked all the time do you think young people today are less racist oh
actually the question usually begins with don’t you think and just a heads up
if you approach me with don’t you think the answer’s no because that’s not an open question but
no I don’t actually think young people today are less racist or because
because that consciousness hasn’t changed our outcomes in fact they’re
getting worse right okay so southern for sure don’t you think
around here I’m pretty sure they live in Fife I never been to Fife but on the way
that Tacoma I see Fife I’m like whoo boy it looks like racists live there and when I’m on way up north it’s like
Smokey Point okay all right not racists are good we’re educated
progressive open-minded well intended we’re young we’re northern we live on
Phinney Ridge but we’re all moving to Portland really soon because Whole Foods
is so corporate now again the this this is the root of
virtually all white defensiveness and it’s it just functions so so beautifully
to exempt us so we just we just have to get rid of it and when white people hear
me and they feel angry and pissed off and defensive can I just say this now
that you guys are loosening me up and when you laugh at my jokes I’m gonna
keep getting looser and looser damn white people are pissy about racism we
are so pissy on this topic we’re mean on this topic right and so if you’re
sitting here feeling that just see if it isn’t rooted in if in this definition
and if you cannot let go of this you’re just not going to be able to move
forward so aversive racism is a form of what sociologists call new racism right
and so it’s it’s racism that progressive whites are most likely to hold but
because it conflicts with their identities as good people were most
likely to be in denial about it so let me find that piece it’s a manifestation
of racism that well-intentioned people who see themselves as educated and
progressive are more likely to exhibit it exists under the surface of
consciousness because it conflicts with consciously-held beliefs of racial
equity and justice aversive racism is a subtle but insidious form as aversive
racists enact racism in ways that allow them to maintain a positive self-image
e.g. I have lots of friends of color I judge people by the content of the
character not the color of their skin and whites enact racism while
maintaining a positive self-image in many ways for example rationalizing racial segregation as unfortunate but necessary to access good schools
rationalizing that our workplaces are virtually all white because people of
color just don’t apply avoiding direct racial language and using racially-coded
terms such as urban underprivileged diverse sketchy and good neighborhoods
denying that we have few cross- racial relationships by proclaiming how diverse
our community or workplace is and attributing inequality between
whites and people of color to causes other than racism consider a
conversation I had with a white friend she was telling me about a white couple
who she knew who had just moved to New Orleans and bought a house for a mere
twenty five thousand dollars of course she immediately added they also had to
buy a gun and Joan is afraid to leave the house I immediately knew they had
bought a home in a black neighborhood this was a moment of white racial
bonding between this couple who shared the story of racial danger and my friend
and then between my friend and me as she repeated the story through this tale the
four of us fortified familiar images of the horror of black space and drew
boundaries between us and them without ever having to directly name race or
openly express our disdain for black space
notice that the need for a gun is a key part of this story it would not have the
degree of social capital it holds if the emphasis were on the price of the house
alone rather the stories emotional power rests on a why a house would be that
cheap because it’s in a black neighborhood where white people
literally might not get out alive yet while very negative and stereotypical
representations of blacks were reinforced in that exchange not naming
race provided plausible deniability in fact in preparing to share this
incident I texted my friend and asked her the name of the city her friends had
moved to I also wanted to confirm my assumption that she was talking about a
black neighborhood I shared the text exchange here Hey what city did you say
your friends had bought a house in for twenty five thousand she replies New
Orleans they said they live in a very bad neighborhood and they each have to
have a gun to protect themselves I wouldn’t pay five cents for that
neighborhood I reply I assume it’s a black neighborhood yes you get what you paid for I’d rather
pay 500,000 and live somewhere where I wasn’t afraid I reply I wasn’t asking
because I want to live there I’m writing about this in my book the way that white
people talk about race without ever coming out and talking about race she
had a very interesting response to that I wouldn’t want you to live there
because it’s too far away from me notice that when I simply asked what
city the house is in she repeats the story about the neighborhood being so
bad that her friends need guns when I ask if the neighborhood is black she’s
comfortable confirming that it is but when I tell her that I’m interested in
how whites talk about race without talking about race she switches the
narrative now her concern is about not wanting me to live so far away this is a
classic example of aversive racism holding deep racial disdain that
surfaces in daily discourse but not being able to admit it because the
disdain conflicts with our self-image and professed beliefs
now readers may be asking themselves but if the neighborhood is really dangerous
why is acknowledging this danger a sign of racism research and implicit bias has
shown that perceptions of criminal activity are influenced by race white
people will perceive dangers simply by the presence of black people we cannot
trust our perceptions when it comes to race and crime but regardless of whether
the neighborhood is actually more or less dangerous than other neighborhoods
what is salient about this exchange is how it functions racially and
what that means for the white people engaged in it for my friend and me this
conversation did not increase our awareness of the danger of some specific
neighborhood rather the exchange reinforced our fundamental beliefs about
black people Toni Morrison uses the term race talk to capture quote the explicit
insertion into everyday life of racial signs and symbols that have no meaning
other than positioning African Americans into the lowest level of the racial
hierarchy unquote casual race talk is a key component of white racial framing
because it accomplishes the interconnected goals of elevating whites
while demeaning people of color race talk always implies a racial us-and-them folks who have seen me present
before know that I use this metaphor and I do tend to think in metaphors and as I
do the work that I do and I talk on a daily basis to white people I literally
got this image in my mind of a dock or a pier and and what it signifies for me
are two things one how surface or superficial are narratives are but
also the dock if you look from above appears to be floating on the water but
it’s not there is an entire structure submerged under the water that props
that dock up it rests on literally pillars anchored into the ocean floor
and everything I do in my work is trying to get us off the top of the dock and
under there to examine those pillars because despite all the bull—- on top
of the dock our outcomes have not changed right so we have to ask ourselves
what’s going on so as I listen to these narratives I think about them in two
overall categories color blind and color celebrate right so let’s start with the
first set color blind probably the number one color blind racial narrative is I was
taught to treat everyone the same anybody ever heard that one okay we just
tell you when I hear this from a white person and I hear frequently there’s a
bubble over my head and it has a few things in it the first thing is oh this
person doesn’t understand basic socialization this person doesn’t
understand culture who this person is not particularly self-aware and I need
to give a heads up to the white folks in the room when people of color hear us
say this they’re generally not thinking all right I am talking to a woke white
person right now usually some form of eye rolling and actually a recently
co-facilitated with a with a black woman who said that is the most dangerous
white person to me so it it’s not functioning the way we think it is and
and this is another piece of humility for us we are the least qualified to
determine whether we understand this or not because so often the things that we
think convey that are not conveying that and all of these are within that
you know it’s in the past no just everyone struggles my parents
weren’t racist that’s why I’m not racist to all my parents were racist that’s why
I’m not racist it doesn’t matter really what we say first what comes to next
must be I’m not racist so-and-so just happened to be but it has nothing to do
with race and it also has nothing to do with why no one in the office gets along
with her and this is another one I actually asked white folks to remove
from their vocabulary oh by the way along with reverse racism which there’s
no such thing all right all right remove to vocabulary anything on the
topic of race as it begins with just happen to be regardless including that
your neighborhood just happened to be white right yes but at the human level
we make that move right get race off the table and let’s position some kind of
shared universal experience there isn’t one in this physical plane that we live
in in a society deeply separate and unequal by race so I call these
color blind because they basically say I don’t see it and if I see it it has no
meaning and there’s a question that has never failed me in my efforts to uncover
how we pull this off and that question is not
is this true or is this false because if we apply that question we’re gonna argue
and argue and argue the question that has never failed me is how do these
narratives function in the conversation how does it function and if we ask that
question we can see that all of these narratives function to exempt the person
from any part of the problem all of them take race off the table
all of them close rather than open the exploration and in doing that all of
them protect the current racial hierarchy in the white position within
it it doesn’t have to be your intention and I’ll just be blunt I’m not
interested in your intention I’m interested in how this functions what is
the impact of these narratives they are closers not openers well probably the
folks in this room we’re beyond colorblindness right what do we say
right where’s my little clicker here it is okay we say things like this oh I
work in a very diverse environment if we can’t say that and many of us can’t
we’ll come up with some kind of proximity okay I have people of color in my
family me I’m not racist I used to live in New York this one will get used
interchangeably with I’m not racist I’m from Canada I’m not racist I’m from
Hawaii I’m not racist I’m from Europe I’m not racist I was in the military
apparently there are no racism in any of those places when I hear that one I
used to live in New York I think oh my god you walked why people covered and didn’t
lose your shit that’s amazing okay so how many of you in a
conversation of the white person have heard some version of those narratives
right there those three okay all right and I’m gonna be really
honest we’ve said some version of these narratives right that last one
sociologists actually have a term for it it’s called the inoculation case I’ve
been near people of color and it’s stripped me of my racism and I want you
to notice how often white people invoke proximity as evidence this this is
important because it helps reveal what’s under the dock
it helps reveal what we think racism is that we would invoke proximity to show
that we’re not racist and I need to understand what I think racism is if I’m
going to unpack my role in it right so let’s do some discourse analysis let’s
think critically about these three narratives when a white person invokes
one of these narratives in a conversation about racism they’re giving
you their evidence right racism comes up I say this this is my evidence in my
mind what’s that my evidence of what I want to make sure you know I’m not
racist all right so in order to be good at evidence it must distinguish me from
a racist so apparently a racist cannot do these things or this wouldn’t be good
evidence so racist cannot work three cubicles down from a person of color
could not have people of color in their family and would find living in New
York intolerable even though I could think of at least one racist still lives
in New York so now I have yet to let go of that little
joke because I do enjoy it but it does rest on the good/bad binary I’m on the
same continuum the person I’m thinking of is on just want to be clear about
that okay so I’m gonna just ask a rhetorical question to the people of
color in this room and I’m gonna look at my dear friend Asia over there and Paula
and I’m gonna say could a racist work three cubicles down from you oh yes all right
people of color do you have white people in your life who you love deeply and who
on occasion reveal their internalized racial superiority their their
internalized racist assumptions about the world other white people do you hear
that could you even be married to them and they could still it doesn’t
disappear the day they fall in love with you okay all right
so I hope, I mock it a bit because it’s ridiculous right but it but it’s so
ubiquitous so we really just got to ask ourselves what do I think it is and what
am I saying and how is that functioning right and clearly this rests on that on
that simplistic definition apparently a lot of a lot of white people think that
a racist cannot tolerate any proximity even the sight of people of color and
and so if there’s any friendliness across race there cannot be racism this
is another thing that makes us so difficult in these conversations so I’m
gonna I’m just gonna put it right out here as a result of being born and
raised as a white person in this culture I have a racist worldview I have deep
racist biases I have developed racist patterns and I have investments in a
system that has served me very well and is very comfortable for me and really
helped me get over sexism and classism that I struggle with and I also have
investments and not seeing any of that for what it would mean for my identity
and what it would require of me in action right I didn’t choose it don’t want
I got it and it’s actually incredibly
transformative and liberating to begin from that premise so that you can begin
to think well how is it coming out in me so that I might be able to stop that or
ameliorate that rather than it it’s not coming out in me
I sometimes think if I if I went into the bathroom and I came out in the back
of my dress was hiked into my pantyhose my ass was showing
I sure hope you’d let me know and I wouldn’t say to you how dare you suggest
my ass is showing and you better proceed as if it isn’t and yet you know the
worst fear of a white progressive is that we’re gonna say or do something
racist but by god don’t you dare say that I just said or did something racist
rather than thank you you know I didn’t I didn’t see myself doing that and now
you know I can do something different all right I was in the Peace Corps I
marched in the 60’s I voted for Obama I’m on the equity team I could go on I
already know all this I told you I’ve been to Costa Rica and tutored there for
a week with the little children and this is a real Seattle one we don’t like how
white our neighborhood is but we had to move here for the schools what could we
do I think it’s very disingenuous I think we do like how white our
neighborhoods are and now that’s another conversation all right so these are not
color blind user colors celebrate I love it right and I’m gonna just say this I
love it in the right doses I like it in the Montessori school with the children
of the international workers that come from Microsoft so again if we apply the
same question not true/false or right/ wrong but how do these narratives
function in the conversation we get the same answer
they all exempt the person from any part of the problem they all take race off
the table they all close rather than open and they all protect
the current racial hierarchy in the white position within it they’re
actually in practice and impact not any more progressive and they have not
changed our outcomes so we have to get under here and see what’s going on and
what I think is going on what I think of as the linchpins of new racism it’s the
good/bad binary and that one’s really effective deep implicit bias which you
can’t help but absorb this precious ideology of individualism at the same
time this idea that we don’t speak from any particular position but speak for
all of humanity and people of color speak for their group and when we’re
interested in hearing about that we’ll ask them but we’ll cover everything else
any people of color it has to be on the equity team automatically when it’s not
even necessarily your interest or okay internalized superiority which you
cannot help but have if you are raised white in this culture and in some level
an investment in not seeing this and finally the power of segregation to hold
it all in place the profound I think for me the most profound message of all is
that I could call a white neighborhood good I could call a school filled with
all white teachers and white children a good school that the fundamental message
is that there’s no inherent value in the perspectives or experiences of people of
color so these messages are raining down on us relentlessly 24/7 and we don’t
have umbrellas and nothing could and nothing did exempt us from their forces
it’s on us to figure out how they shape us not if so all of this sets up some
patterns right preference for racial segregation lack of understanding what
racism is seeing ourselves as individuals
not understanding that we bring our history with us history matters it’s a
history of harm assuming everyone is having our experience arrogance lack of
humility unwillingness to listen dismissing what we don’t understand
apathy towards racial justice you know after again 20-plus years I think most
white people are pretty apathetic about racial injustice inability to or lack
of interest in sustaining relationships with people of color wanting to jump
over the hard personal work and get to solutions confusing not agreeing with not
understanding is it possible that you’re not actually informed enough to disagree
you ever had somebody say no you misunderstood no you misunderstood what
if the person understood you perfectly in fact they even understood what you
meant and you don’t understand how what you meant comes from a racist framework
a need to maintain white solidarity that’s the unspoken agreement amongst
white people that will keep each other comfortable around our racism highest priority is
saving face I always you know when I do a caucus group or something and the
white people are afraid I might think they’re racist I think you’re racist I
do okay I think I am too right but let’s be done with that and actually your
carefulness and you’re hiding yourself and you’re not contributing to the
conversation won’t actually change that assessment at all and people color don’t
find that to build trust defensiveness of course and a focus on intentions over
impact so when any of this is triggered we get off our white racial equilibrium
so what what is white racial equilibrium well racial comfort that’s for sure
seeing ourselves as individuals seeing ourselves as just human obliviousness
it’s this funny there’s like a stew inside of white people that makes us
really irrational on this topic and and I’ve tried to kind of identify some of
those pieces but one of them is that we really are taught not to see this so if
you’re a person of color scratching your head thinking how can they not see this
like I just don’t believe they don’t see this we actually really don’t see it oh
and hell yes we know it and we do see it but we cannot admit that it’s both these
things are actually true we don’t see it and we do see it but can’t admit to it
and it it’s part of what makes us so irrational apathy dominance control I’m working on this huge
contract with racial justice for a large organization and where they asked us to
take the word white out of all the slides that’s a great example isn’t it
of white fragility so don’t name white don’t name that
that’s our racial equilibrium right and entitlement to people of colors’ bodies Resmaa Menakem talks about it’s really
been only in the last couple of decades that that people of color have had
dominion over their own bodies and so so entitlement of people of colors’ bodies
comes out in lots of ways right from just from just violating the
space to touching the bodies to expecting you to carry the emotional
burden of race you know all of that but you want to know it for me like a really
great example of the white fragility triggered when my entitlement our white
entitlement to black bodies is is a man quietly solemnly and respectfully going
on one and the eruption right the
criminalization right the great example of white fragility and it connected to
this last bullet here is the eruption of umbrage and criminalization when a black
man simply went down on one knee respectfully talking about Colin
Kaepernick what an example so what interrupts our racial equilibrium well
if you challenge objectivity if you talk openly about race if you challenge white
entitlement to racial comfort if you challenge to the expectation that people
of color will serve us and do our work for us if you break with white
solidarity you challenge white racial innocence hmm oh and by the way you can
download all this on handouts from my website
Oh oh wait a minute and it’s in the book all right challenge individualism
challenge the meritocracy challenge to white authority challenge
to white centrality challenge to universalism right suggesting that maybe
in fact we don’t speak for all of humanity we speak from a particular
perspective and it’s deeply limited ok so this leads to white fragility we
actually have the poster boy for white fragility right here in the front row
because I’m married to him and I made him pose in the kitchen he’s like
everyone’s gonna think I’m an asshole now yeah they are open the dictionary
look of white fragility they’re gonna see your picture ok so back to something
more serious sorry I couldn’t resist um so when all of this insular coddled
environment builds an inability to to bear witness to to inability to have
capacity to hold the discomfort I’ve been thinking lately that part of what
it means to be white is to never have to be never have to bear witness to the
pain of racism on people of color and never having to bear witness to the pain
I’ve caused to people of color never having to be accountable to that pain
right and in all the ways that I push off accountability right and so when I
thought of this term white fragility the fragility part we’re fragile in that we
can barely tolerate the slightest challenge right I mean I’ll show you my
emails just the suggestion that being white has meaning will set off us off
but there’s a continuum and so we’re fragile in that way but
it’s not fragile at all in its impact it’s really effective right I need you
to stop I need to get back into my position and my entitlement and my
comfort and I will do what I need to do to get you to stop and I think that
white fragility functions as a kind of white racial bullying we make it so
miserable for people of color to talk to us about their experiences to call us in
that most of the time they don’t because it’s not worth getting punished more you
trust me they take home so much of it because it so rarely goes well right and
I’m just asked a rhetorical question people of color in the room how often
have you tried to talk to white people about our inevitable and often racist
behaviors and have that go well for you okay I mean literally like not even once
right and so and so it it it’s weaponized defensiveness it’s weaponized
hurt feelings it’s weaponized by a denial and
obliviousness and so I’m not the I’m not the 1% I’ve never even been a
manager but I can control the people of color in my orbit through white fragility
right and so I also think of it as a form of everyday white racial control
you you can be in my orbit and I’ll use you as diversity cover as
long as you keep me comfortable but if you challenge me you’re gonna become a
personal problem and you’re gonna be ejected and boy do we see this in the
workplace we want you on the committee we’re not gonna pay you anymore but we
do want you on the committee as long as you don’t actually do what we asked you
to be on the committee to do right oh I got to read a piece from I got a story that I really want to read okay so I was working with a group of
educators who had been meeting regularly for at least eight sessions the group
was composed of the equity teams for a public school system self selected by
people who wanted to support equity efforts in their schools I had just
finished an hour-long presentation titled ‘Seeing the Water: Whiteness in Daily Life’ this presentation is designed to make visible the relentless messages
of white superiority etc the room appeared to be with me open and
receptive with many nodding along and agreement then a white teacher raised
her hand and told a story about an interaction she had as she drove
alongside a group of parents protesting the achievement gap in her school and
she then proceeded to imitate one mother in particular who offended her you don’t
understand our children this mother had called out to her as she drove by by the
stereotypical way that the white teacher imitated the mother we all knew that the
mother was black the room seemed to collectively hold its breath
at her imitation which was bordering on racial mockery while the teachers
concluding point was that on reflection she came to realize that the mother was
right and that she really didn’t understand children of color the
emotional thrust of the story was her umbrage at the mother for making this
assumption for the room the emotional impact was on her stereotypical
imitation of an angry black woman as this story came to a close I had a
decision to make should I act with integrity and point out what was
racially problematic about the story after all making racism visible was
literally what I had been hired to do further several African American
teachers in the room had certainly noticed the reinforcement of a racist
stereotype to not intervene would be yet again another white person choosing to
protect white feelings rather than interrupt racism a white person who
builds herself as a racial justice consultant no less yet I would be taking
the risk of losing a group given the likelihood that the
woman would become defensive shut down and the room would split into those who
thought I had mistreated her and those who didn’t that this happens every time
you actually call it out in the moment in the room right and I decided to do
what would maintain my integrity and I called it out and I called it out as
diplomatically as I could I just said oh you know teachable moment I’m gonna ask
you not to tell that story again here’s why here’s how you could tell it in a
way that doesn’t reinforce that we went back and forth a little bit but to make
a long story short of course the room did erupt in twos she left the group she
quit the group this was the eighth session for equity teams and again all
the focus was on had I or hadn’t I mistreated her right and this is this is
often what happens so whites receiving feedback of above and below right what
what feelings do white people have when we often try to give them feedback on
our racist patterns right tell me if you don’t recognize these attacked silenced
shamed accused insulted judged angry scared outraged yeah now how do we act
when we feel this way right well we withdraw we cry we go silent we
argue we deny we focus on our intentions we seek forgiveness we explain we insist
there was a misunderstanding and so what and what kind of claims do we make to
justify behaving this way and feeling this way
I know people of color I march to the 60’s I took this in college I was a
minority in Japan the real oppression is class you misunderstood me you’re
playing the race card if you knew me or understood me you know I can’t be racist
this is not welcoming to me you’re making me feel
guilty I want to say something about um shame whenever white people jump to a
narrative really quickly on racism I’m always suspicious of it and shame is one
we jump to really fast white progressives really really like to lean
on how much racial shame they feel and I I would actually ask you to think about
on a daily basis how often do you if you are white feel racial shame seriously
well first of all probably just when racism comes up and even then so maybe
two percent of the time I was in New York recently and I stepped over a
homeless man who was black on my way into Whole Foods and I felt shamed for
just a minute but then Rainier cherries are in season and I I forgot all about
it I mean I’m serious like that that’s how
that functions I I really don’t think we feel that shame that much but even if we
do then you have to ask yourself how is it functioning what does it do for you
what is the cultural capital that you get from that and if you if you can’t
answer that it’s it’s somehow moving you forward in your anti-racist efforts then
you’re gonna have to get through it all right okay it’s just one little innocent
thing some people find offence you hurt my feelings this is political
correctness I don’t feel safe I’ll just really quickly say the words
safe coming out of the mouths of white people on topic of racism is
illegitimate because what a safety mean from a
position of social historical institutional cultural power and
privilege no it’s generally we don’t we don’t feel comfortable but that doesn’t
have as much cultural capital it’s not as precious problem is your tone and I
know what it is to be oppressed so so if we think about the dock right the
feelings the behaviors the claims what could be the underlying assumptions that
would lead us to make these claims right as a white person I will be the judge of
whether racism has occurred my learning is finished I know all I need to know
racism can only be intentional not having intended it cancels it out white people who experience another form of oppression can’t experience racial
privilege if I’m a good person I can’t be racist my unexamined perspective is
equal to an informed one I’m entitled to remain comfortable so you have made a very serious social breach as a white person I know the best way to challenge racism and you’re doing it wrong nice people cannot be racist
if I can’t see it it’s not legitimate if I have any proximity to people of color I can’t be racist
if I have no proximity to people of color I can’t be racist because I’m
racially innocent I would make a case that white people who grew up on farms
and rural environments are there no people color around actually are less
sheltered from racism because you are left to rely on the most problematic
sources for your understanding of people of color my world view is objective and yours isn’t
I don’t know what else could be functioning under there all right
so how does all that function maintains white solidarity
closes off self-reflection minimizes silences the discussion makes white people the
victims protects a limited world view takes race off the table focus is on the
messenger not the message rallies more resources to white people protects racism
I could get into this really deep but here’s what I just want to say
about this the reason I like this picture when I when I do presentations
is because for me this is an amplified visual of institutional power and if I walked in that room as a woman
because that would be the salient identity for me in that room I would it
would be visceral to me the lifetime of entitlement exuding out of these men’s
pores right and so if you can see that if you can see not only a lifetime of
entitlement but if you were to suggest to them that maybe they should have some
women or people of color in that group I can’t know but I believe to my core they
would feel contempt because they don’t see the perspectives of women and people
of color as that valuable I believe that to my core I don’t know them but I’m
pretty damn sure if I can see it in them then and I don’t relate to them right
but what version of that is coming from my pores what version of that is
visceral for people of color when I’m in the room right so women of color you
want to be the one that goes in there and helps those white women see their
racism that sound good all by yourself they need some diversity all right so my
point is I can be in this room experiencing sexism and patriarchy and I
can be in this room perpetrating racism right white women don’t actually land
anymore softly on people of color and I think when we don’t back people of color
the betrayal and a hurt is deeper because we have a potential way in
and we use it often as a way out if you don’t think I’m not I’m an angry
feminist ask the poster boy for white fragility over here but our resentment
about sexism can cause us to not back people of color and actually collude
with the benefits of whiteness to get a little bit ahead right okay so I’m gonna
end by just bringing this question up so that I can preempt it cuz I really don’t
like this question and if this is the question you have right now if you’re
white and this is the question you have right now then I have one for you
what has allowed you to remain ignorant about how to interrupt racism
why in 2018 is that your question and that’s actually a sincere
challenging question because if you really start to map it out you’ll have
your answer so I wanna I want to share what could be under that dock if we had
a transformed framework but before I do it I want to give an example of a moment
of racism that I recently perpetrated and instead of reading it from the book
it is written in the book but it’s easier for me to just say it I used to
be the director of equity for a large nonprofit and on the equity team there were three people myself the co-director and executive assistant and Deborah and
Marcia were black women so there were three of us two of us were black one was
white and we hired a consultant the organization had a consultant to come in
and design the web page and the website and so she was going around setting
meetings with all the departments to find out what we did so she could build
each departments particular page so she scheduled a meeting with the equity team
and it was 3:00 in the afternoon and we went in and it turns out that she was
also a black woman I will call her Angela and right away she had this
survey that had lots of questions about what we do but I was the afternoon I
found the survey kind of annoying and it didn’t it was tedious and it didn’t
really speak to what we do so I kind of shoved it aside and I said let me
explain we go out into the different satellite offices and we lead you know
racial justice trainings in fact we went up to the you know far north one
recently and Deborah was asked not to come back I guess her hair scared the
white people make this little joke right because Deborah has long locked hair the
meeting ends and I wish I could tell you that I realized what I had said but I
didn’t so a few days later Marsha came to me and said Angela was really
offended by that joke you made about black woman’s hair and you know that I
immediately I know better right and so I immediately understood and said thank
you for letting me know and so I followed a series of steps to repair
that and the first thing I did is I called a friend of mine another white
woman named Christine and said I need to process something with you and you know
I vented my anxiety my embarrassment and then when I kind of got that off we put
our heads together and it’s like let’s think about how your racism was
manifesting in that meeting getting really clear okay I got clear and I
felt ready to then come back to Angela so I called her and I said would you be
willing to grant me the opportunity to repair the racism I perpetrated towards
you in the meeting last week and she said yes
now she could have said no and I was prepared in fact I thought she was gonna
say no I thought she was gonna say whoa are you a hypocrite and if I could not
hold that then I was not gonna be making an authentic repair right so she didn’t
say no however she said yes and we met and I said I just want to own
that racism and that joke and so we talked about it and she basically said I
don’t know you I have no relationship with you I have no trust with you and I
do not want to be joking about black woman’s hair and a professional work
meeting with a white woman I don’t know I said I’ll be really clear so that
white folks understand that piece of it the other piece that I owned was that in
my cockiness I was being the the woke white person and making fun of the white
people who didn’t get it so I was making that move I was credentialing myself so
I owned that and then because I knew that Christine and I as two white people
would probably have missed some things I said Angela is there anything I missed
and she said yes that survey you so glibly shoved aside I wrote that survey
and I have spent my life justifying my intelligence to white people okay that
was just like a I’m because I immediately got it never occurred to me
she wrote the survey you know looking back at how I just dismissed it so I
owned that I apologized and then next up I took was is there anything else that
needs to be said or heard that we might move forward and she said yes the next
time you run your racism at me I want to pause right there notice that she didn’t
say if she basically said if we’re gonna be working together I know you’re gonna
run your racism at me again so the next time you do it
would you like your feedback publicly or privately yeah I loved her for that and I said Oh
publicly definitely right like I think most why people would have said oh god
no privately but it’s really really I told her it’s really important that
other white people see that I am not free of these patterns I run them less
I’m not defensive when I run them notice I never explained my intentions I have
very good repair skills but I have these patterns and it’s important other white
people see that and that I have the opportunity to model non-defensiveness
and so anything else no are we good yep let’s move on do we moved on and
actually there was more trust there cuz one of the things she said to me is what
you did in the meeting happens to us every day this what you’re doing right
now this has not happened thank you what I’m looking for is where can I go with
you right repair so I want to end with what could be under that dock if we had
a transformed frame because we can’t get where we need to go from where we are
right now all right being good or bad is not relevant right
racism is a multi-layered system infused in everything whites have blinders on
racism I have blinders on racism
racism is complex I don’t have to understand it in order for it to be valid white comfort
maintains the racial status quo discomfort is necessary and important I
must not confuse comfort with safety I am safe in discussions of race the
anecdote to guilt is action I bring my group’s history with me history matters
I might see myself as just an individual the people of color in my life see
me as a white individual the question is not if but how nothing exempts me from
the forces of racism whites are unconsciously invested in racism I am
unconscious invest in racism I want you to imagine if if if white people
internalize this framework how revolutionary it would be right
bias is implicit I don’t expect to be aware of mine without a lot of effort
right feedback from people of color indicates trust because it is a huge
moment of risk across a deep history of harm right feedback on white racism is
really difficult to give how I receive it is not as relevant as the feedback
itself you bring it to me upset bring it to me upset there are no rules for
how you should tell me that I’ve harmed you it takes courage to break with white
solidary how can I support those that do how can i back if I’m not willing to
step out and take a risk how can I back other white people who do instead of
tearing them down finding that one thing that I said in this talk tonight that
you can grab onto so that you don’t have to look at yourself given socialization
it’s more likely that I am the one who doesn’t understand the issue can you
imagine white people were coming from that place racism hurts even kills people of color 24/7
interrupting it is more important than my feelings ego or
self-image thank you I only have time for two questions so here’s the one I’m
gonna answer will your book be available in audio yes okay um this one how can a
person of color navigate around white fragility in the workplace when direct
confrontation usually ends in retaliation yeah I mean the first thing
I just want white people to understand how much psychic and emotional labor
people of color go through to to walk on eggshells around us you know white
people so bitterly complained oh you mean I can’t say anything anymore I have
to walk on eggshells please the emotional labor and the knots people of
color tie themselves into so they don’t trigger us it is
just heart-wrenching and so so I guess the first thing I want to say is I want
I want us just to knock this nonsense off so that this doesn’t have to be the
question but it is the question so there are there are different strategies I
actually think that choosing not to address it for people of color can be an
empowered choice I got to get through the day I’m not throwing my pearls
so I’m going to let it go and that’s actually a choice I’m making and it’s empowered
choice another strategy can be to elicit one of those white
progressives who says they are an ally and then say then step up and not not to
take care not to take care of you but there are times when that’s a really
good strategy is so much of my training came from women of color saying you go
talk to that person that’s giving us a hard time in the training they’re gonna
hear it from you better and you know I I’m from Seattle I miss conflict
avoidant as the rest of us who are white but that really built up my stamina
right so just just really quickly those those are some strategies and and
because I know it’s late and because of time I’m gonna I’m gonna close so so
just thank you guys all our work will never be finished

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