Dr. Robin DiAngelo, author of the bestseller White Fragility, has built a career around making White people uncomfortable. Her work concentrates on tearing down the social protections that allow Whites to cry their way out of talking about race.
Those tears may soften some hearts, but that fragility has real consequences, causing Blacks to tie themselves in knots to maintain White comfort, said DiAngelo from the lectern at Western Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis last Thursday.
DiAngelo spoke as part of the YWCA’s “It’s Time to Act” four-part forum series, designed to get people past discussing race — which, given White fragility, is hard enough — and taking what they learn out into the world, influencing their actions.
The series is designed to help go beyond conversations around race, faith and social justice issues. These forums, even one as seemingly straightforward as one on fragility (and filled with White progressives all too eager to be “less White) has to begin with an in-depth argument that there is a problem.
“I’m done having conversations about race,” Rubén Vázquez, YWCA vice president of racial justice and public policy, told the MSR. “I want us to start taking action.”
The only way to have beneficial race talks — or action — said DiAngelo is through Whites getting over themselves and toughening up.
According to her, the first challenge of unflinching race conversations is White humility. Racism is not individual; it is systemic, “embedded in all institutions and also in cultural definitions of who’s normal, whose stories are told, whose stories are not told, who tells the story…who behaves professionally, who is intelligent, etcetera.”
This messaging is perpetuated through everyday socialization. While growing up, if Whites were involved in a discussion about race, said DiAngelo, it wasn’t about Whiteness or how it operates. It was instead about the inherently substandard characteristics of other races as compared to them.
And, using conventional defenses as evidence of not being racist, such as “I work with Black people,” or being nice, or not being southern — “makes it impossible to talk” to White people about their inevitable, system-baked racist worldview.
She also noted that culture is specifically structured so that White people have the choice to remain stuck in their ignorance. “You can get through graduate school without ever discussing racism,” she said, adding the same applies to teacher education, medical school, social work education, law school, and the requisite qualifications for any office or administration or leader.
“If you are White and you have not devoted years of sustained study, struggle and focus on this topic, your opinions — you’ll have them — they’ll necessarily be uninformed and limited and superficial,” DiAngelo said.
White progressives do it too, she pointed out, and because they are most likely to spend the most time with people of color, she said it’s White progressives that do the most daily harm. “[White progressives] can be incredibly arrogant and certain, and be very defensive when someone tries to talk about our patterns.” So, confronting White progressives with their inherent bias is hardly a case of “preaching to the choir.”
“You are not the choir. I’m not the choir. There’s no choir,” said DiAngelo. “The moment I think I’m the choir, I’m going to be complacent.”
Racism, she reiterated, is not a single event, but a system that cultivates people “with something profoundly anti-Black” — even among Blacks. The right question to ask, instead of “is something racist?” said DiAngelo, is how does racism manifests in that particular situation.
“All space is White space,” she added. What a Black person must take into account before driving down a road or walking into work or a store requires more thinking about race than White people may undertake in their lifetime.
Some of her punch lines on the absurdity of White fragility and inflexibility — like the idea that she’d be qualified for a racial ethics committee because she’s vegetarian — landed like a release valve, with the overwhelmingly White crowd in attendance roaring with delight. But when DiAngelo struck more sensitive chords, her lines echoed through a room of awkward silence.
Acknowledging there is a problem and understanding every detail of it are two different things. Granted, fully grasping the tools of the master’s house will help the oppressed in dismantling it, as DiAngelo pointed out in referencing Audre Lorde’s famed quote. But, just talking about discomfort and ignorance can be nothing more than a stalling tactic.
The YWCA has sensed this obstruction in organizing this series, but judging from DiAngelo’s insights and the audience response, it’s going to take more than a carrot and stick to jumpstart these conversations into true action.
The next forum, “Before Jesus Was White: Unlearning Our Truths,” featuring Rev. Dr. Curtiss DeYoung and Anthony Galloway, will take place Thursday, April 11 from 6:00 – 8:30 pm at Westminster Presbyterian Church, 1200 Marquette Avenue in Minneapolis.
For more information, visit ywcampls.org.
Solomon Gustavo was a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.