Before I Read the Book: Listening to Robin DiAngelo Speak About White Fragility

I recently went to see Robin DiAngelo speak. I first of heard of her last year when her book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, was released.

At the time I heard about the book I was not only too afraid to speak about race. I was even too afraid to read the book. Now after seeing her, I’m ready to take the next step. I’m ready to read the book.

I know, having heard her speak, that this slow process I am taking is a privilege of my whiteness. We live in a racial hierarchy where as a white person, I am at the top of the pyramid of power. The racial status quo makes it comfortable for me to support racism 24/7.

Intentionally Uncomfortable

I know these words are shocking. The thing about DiAngelo is that she, a white woman, was able to deliver her message with humility, honesty, and even a few jokes. She warned the mostly white audience that we would feel uncomfortable with her message. But that was okay since we live our lives in comfort every day.

To reduce racism she told us we needed to be less white. And that didn’t mean to be more of whatever European race we were, Luxembourg- American in my case. She said we could not be less white by being more ethnic. The way to be less white and to oppose the racial hierarchy was to be more humble and practice more humility.

Redefining Racism

DiAngelo defines racism as a system of sanctioned discrimination against people of color, not individual events between individual. She displayed a slide with examples of this system of discrimination against African Americans in the United States that go far beyond slavery to many examples today from educational discrimination to historical omissions. This goes against the mainstream definition of a racist as an individual who consciously does not like people based on race and who is intentionally mean to them.

She says racism is not one event between two individuals, but the system we live in. As a white person raised in our society, I cannot help but have a racist worldview and racist biases that I am invested in. As a white person, the system of racism benefits me. It helps me stay comfortable and overcome any barriers I do face.

She asked the audience to think about the question, “What are some of the ways in which your race has shaped your life?”

She often gives people one minute to answer this question. People of color never have a problem answering this question or filling the time. White participants often cannot answer the question or fill the time, even though being white has played a part in every moment of our lives from where we were born to where we lived and went to school. She says when we cannot understand what it is to be white, we cannot understand what it is to not be white.

DiAngelo says this leads white people to become uncomfortable with the thought that they are racist. This leads to what she calls White Fragility, or the inability of white people to handle racial stress. It’s the feeling of “What can I do?” or “I’m doing my best.” She says this leads to people pushing back and feeling hurt and becoming outraged against the thought of racism.

Practice Humility and Learn

There is no easy answer, DiAngelo says, and you can’t solve racism by being nice to people of color. Her suggestion? Internalize a framework of humility. She says we need to acknowledge what we don’t know and try to learn. She recommended her website as a start. There are loads of resources there including a number of videos where you can hear DiAngelo speaking about her book and its topics and a Reading Guide to the book.

Her book is also a start, so I purchased it and will read it too. I hope to learn much more.

7 comments

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  1. Michelle

    An important topic. I give kudos to you for your willingness to explore this subject. I have found that my black friends are understandably frustrated when so many whites are oblivious to systemic racism. And yet I believe most whites are not intentionally racist on a day to day basis. Or a one to one basis.

    • Catherine Lanser

      I get very nervous even talking about race so going to the talk and writing about it is a big step for me even though I know it’s not a lot.

  2. Christine Malkemes

    thank you for sharing. I spent over 20 years in the military (Vietnam Era Vet) and faced the realities of discrimination as a white woman in this man’s Army. it humbled me. I like the term “sanctioned” because racism needs to be thought okay or it would be widespread. My momma always said, “Cut us and we all bleed red.” She reminded me we’re the same – all God’s creation.

  3. Louisa

    This sounds like a very interesting albeit book to read. I think we don’t even realise we have benefited from white privilege until someone stops and points it out to us #mmbc

  4. Justin Florey

    I read a bit of the essay this book was based on online. Obviously, no one wants to be called a racist, particularly white people. Harder still than talking about racial justice is actually doing something about it. You won’t build a coalition to address this issue politically talking about white privilege, which I believe exists. The term by definition is racist as it assumes something about someone based on skin color. Everybody is “fragile” when it comes to those kind of assumptions.

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