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This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism
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Publisher: Beacon Press
Lauded by some as eye-opening and criticized by others as simplistic, “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo became one of the most talked-about books in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, sparked by the killing of George Floyd. Get ready to find out why!
“White people, I don’t want you to understand me better,” said once Seattle-based Nigerian American author and activist Ijeoma Oluo. “I want you to understand yourselves. Your survival has never depended on your knowledge of white culture. In fact, it’s required your ignorance.” DiAngelo agrees wholeheartedly with this notion: “Being white,” she says, “shapes our perspectives, experiences, and responses.” And it does so in such subtle and imperceptible ways that most white Americans scoff at the very idea that they might be privileged. But they are – because they share eight “aspects of being in this world” that no person of color has ever experienced:
Most people misunderstand the idea of “white privilege;” or even worse, they understand it in quite a simplistic manner. Of course, “white privilege” doesn’t entail the understanding that all white people have it easy – there are many who start at the very bottom and are forced to work hard to even survive in the highly competitive American society. But that’s a class problem, a problem of inequality, and one that affects everybody. “White privilege,” on the other hand, is a problem of race – one that doesn’t affect white people.
There are many other terms that people don’t understand or use incorrectly when talking about racial issues. To understand their nature and complexity, you need to be able to distinguish between them. Let’s do that.
Contrary to popular belief, racism doesn’t begin in biology, but in society. However, the belief that race and the differences associated with it are biological is so deep-seated that the following sentence might sound strange to many people: as we know it, race doesn’t really exist. The differences we see with our eyes, such as eye color or hair texture, are superficial and the results of geographical adaptations. Or rephrased a bit more scientifically, “the external characteristics that we use to define race are unreliable indicators of genetic variation between any two people.”
However, that’s not what the Founding Fathers thought. They may have created the first country in history based on the idea that all men are created equal, but most of them were slaveowners at the time. Their way of dealing with the discrepancy between their ideals and their actual practices? Finding scientific basis for their prejudice. For example, in “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Thomas Jefferson – the principal author of the Declaration of Independence – suggested that there were natural differences between the races and asked scientists to find them. And they certainly did do that – after inventing them. In reality, they never even bothered asking the question “Are blacks (and others) inferior?” Instead, they asked, “Why are blacks (and others) inferior?”
So, in less than a century, Jefferson’s suggestion of racial difference turned into a “scientific” fact, giving European Americans both the moral and legal right to exploit African Americans. And that’s how the ideas of “whiteness” and “blackness” emerged. They were never meant to denote genetic or racial differences, but differences in status and power. “There was no concept of race or a white race before the need to justify the enslavement of Africans,” explains DiAngelo. “Creating a separate and inferior black race simultaneously created the ‘superior’ white race: one concept could not exist without the other. In this sense, whites need black people; blackness is essential to the creation of white identity.” Ironically, belief in racial inferiority is not what triggered unequal treatment – it was the other way around. “The idea of racial inferiority was created to justify unequal treatment,” DiAngelo says. Ta-Nehisi Coates phrases this even more pithily: “Race is the child of racism, not the father.”
Though established on the notion of equality, the United States had to go through several major transformations to produce a legal framework more aligned with its radical founding ideas. In 1865, slavery was abolished. But even afterward, one had to be legally classified as white to have citizenship. So, as bizarre as it might sound, many people racially categorized as non-whites began to petition the courts to be reclassified. With the help of a scientific witness who substantiated their claim that they were “Caucasians,” Armenians won their case and the right to be deemed white people in the 1920s. Though also classified as “Caucasians,” Asian Indians didn’t. “To justify these contradictory rulings,” explains DiAngelo, “the court stated that being white was based on the common understanding of the white man. In other words, people already seen as white got to decide who was white.”
After the civil rights movement and its resulting landmark legislation, overt political racism stopped being politically palatable. Nowadays, virtually nobody claims to be racist anymore. So, why are so many academics claiming that racism still exists and that it permeates society? What are they talking about precisely? Surely, they are not thinking of white supremacist groups! Because, after all, at the Unite the Right anniversary rally in August 2018, there were no more than 50 people. As problematic as it is, the overt racism of those 50 people isn’t what scholars are calling attention to in most cases. It’s the modern adaptations of racism they are worried about – because though not as violent and obvious, they are as unjust and bad:
All in all, white people have a simplistic understanding of what racism is, linking it almost exclusively to white supremacists. Precisely because of that, they become unaware of their racial bias which leads them to choose schools and neighborhoods based on whether they are populated by whites or people of color. It also leads them to rationalizing these decisions in ways unrelated to racial politics. Simply put, most whites deem themselves “good” because they never discriminate against people of color consciously. In their eyes, racists are “bad” people whose racism is ingrained in intentionality. This simplistic idea that racism is limited to “individual intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic.”
And that’s what white fragility essentially is. “If I believe that only bad people are racist,” explains DiAngelo, “I will feel hurt, offended, and shamed when an unaware racist assumption of mine is pointed out.” As a result, in response to this “racial stress,” I will rebel with self-justification and “outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt,” or “behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.” According to DiAngelo, the central problem of it all is that the attempt to prove one is a good person is also an attempt in reinstating the “white racial equilibrium.” Because, in reality, having racist assumptions as in individual – as we demonstrated above – is inevitable. Not wanting to admit them surreptitiously upholds the position of power and moral superiority that has been granted to white people historically.
In the United States, this problem is exacerbated by a few fundamentally American philosophies of life, such as individualism, meritocracy, and objectivity. Together, these three constantly push white Americans into rationalizing their racial prejudices, and believing they are objective in their rationalizations. A person of color is in this or that situation not because of the well-documented and systemic racial bias passing through both the past and present, but because of some lack of qualities or skills. “When we move beyond the good/bad binary, we can become eager to identify our racist patterns because interrupting those patterns becomes more important than managing how we think we look to others,” concludes DiAngelo. Coming clean is the first and crucial step, because then – and only then – white people might start feeling gratitude when their unaware racist assumptions are pointed out. The process of changing them, by definition, cannot start before.
In its attempt to expose the dangerous and to-a-fault simplistic understanding of racism in modern days, Robin DiAngelo makes a few simplifications herself.
Even so, “White Fragility” is an important and valuable book – if merely for the numerous debates it sparked immediately after publication.
Stop thinking of racist acts as intentional and perpetrated by bad people. Face your implicit racial bias.
Robin J. DiAngelo is an American academic with decades of experience in diversity training. Between 2007 and 2015, she worked as a tenured professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University. Since then, she has been an affilia... (Read more)
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