Life

White Lies

Why whites are still “irrational” on race.

A white woman with an "End Racism" sign hugs a Black woman.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Sabrina Bracher/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Listen to A Word … With Jason Johnson:

“I’m not racist”: Many self-proclaimed white allies say this to shut down conversations about how racism affects our society. Black people have been calling BS forever, but Robin DiAngelo, author of the 2018 bestseller White Fragility, has emerged as the leading white voice on the issue. The book gained a whole new audience during the so-called racial reckoning after the murder of George Floyd last year. DiAngelo is now arguably the most prominent white voice calling for white people to be held accountable for racism. She has made it her mission to demand that white people face their role in perpetuating and benefiting from racism.

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DiAngelo and I recently spoke as part of the Crosscut Festival, an online conference that took a hard look at the people, policy, and events that shape our lives. On Friday’s episode of A Word, we shared a portion of that conversation. I started by asking her whether she was surprised that Derek Chauvin was convicted on all counts in the murder of George Floyd. This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Robin DiAngelo: I was surprised that he was found guilty on all three accounts, just because watching the trial, it seems absolutely undeniable and indisputable that he’s guilty on all three accounts, [but] based on the history of our criminal justice system…I didn’t expect that to come through on all accounts. Symbolically, it is profound and of profound importance, but as Carol Anderson so powerfully argues using White Rage, every inch of racial progress has been met by a white backlash. We can see at the same time those forces growing really strongly. It is a potential beginning, but if we relax around it, that’s all it will be, I think.

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Jason Johnson: So the day of the ruling, my first reaction is I was not surprised and I wasn’t particularly happy. I had long predicted that Derek Chauvin was going to be found guilty and the reason why is because I felt like white supremacy in America occasionally has its sacrificial lambs. How do you respond to that take, that it’s like, “Well, of course, the system will get rid of this one bad guy after a year of protest,” but does it speak to the fact that we may see changes when it comes to the other officers being held accountable? Or the half a dozen other shootings that we’ve seen just during the two or three weeks of the trial?

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Yeah, well, all systems of oppression can accommodate exceptions, but the rule will remain consistent and the exceptions will be used to negate the rule. We saw that during Obama’s presidency: ‘We’re post-racial now.’ It was actually harder for me to do my work during Obama’s presidency than it is today because I don’t think anybody is in denial that we are so not post-racial. Not only could the system accommodate that exception, but it gave it an infusion of racism, an infusion of explicit racism. It got more legitimacy to express than it had before. We’re going to have to be really careful as always—dot every i and cross every t, and still … the question that keeps coming to me is: what a price to pay. What does it take to get white people to see this? Is that what it took, nine and a half minutes, three minutes beyond no pulse, in order for us to say, “Well, maybe he didn’t do something.” And that’s what we’re going to be up against in every case.

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How did you get into this kind of work? How did you get into this formally in talking to white people about white people and about racism?

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I fell into it. I was an unqualified white person who, like millions of other unqualified white people, got a job I wasn’t qualified for. I sometimes wonder if Black folks aren’t amazed at the mediocrity that white people get away with.

We’re no longer amazed by it. We’re used to it, but please continue. This is cathartic.

I was your classic white progressive, or “liberal” as I called myself at the time. One, I thought, “Of course, I’m qualified to go into workplaces in cross-racial teams and help primarily white employees grapple with racism. I’m qualified because I’m an open-minded white person.” And two, “That’s going to be really fun. Who wouldn’t like to have those conversations? Aren’t they cool, isn’t this interesting?” On both counts, I was in for the most profound learning of my entire life.

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So basically I answered a job announcement for a diversity trainer. I had just graduated with a degree in sociology, had no idea what I could do for a living, saw that ad, and applied for the job and got it. Everything about it was fish out of water. I’m a nontraditional student, so I was in my 30s at this time when I graduated with a bachelor’s, and I could be that far in life—college educated, a parent—and never had had my racial worldview challenged, and certainly not in any sustained way by a significant number of people of color, but we were working in cross-racial teams. So that was the first fish out of water.

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The second one was the hostility, the meanness of white people to this conversation. You don’t have to scratch very hard on white progressives to get them quite resentful. I was a lot like a deer in headlights in the beginning, but it became so predictable. It really is a lot like a script. I imagine this happens for you. Like, “OK, here it goes. I know exactly what this person’s going to say right now.” So I actually went on to get my Ph.D., so I’m a little bit different in that I went from practice to theory, rather than theory to practice, but that’s how I ended up here.

Why is it that white people have so much difficulty talking about whiteness even amongst themselves? Because Black people have no problem talking about being Black amongst ourselves.

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There are several threads. The first one that comes to my mind is it serves us not to have these conversations. It serves us to be too uncomfortable, to have such delicate sensibilities that we can’t tolerate it. There’s a function to that. That’s not just a natural response. So, that’s one piece. Another piece is the paradigm we’re using. I don’t think you could have come up with a more effective way to protect racism as a system, and the way that white people benefit from it, than to define it as an individual act of conscious meanness. And as long as you define it that way, you guarantee denial and defensiveness. Often when white people take umbrage to what I’m saying, I say, “Hey, if that’s how I was defining racism, I agree with you that it would be offensive for me to suggest that you’re automatically racist, just because you’re white when I don’t know you.” But that is not the sociological definition. That is not the understanding of the framework that those of us who really engage in this work are using.

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When you understand it as a system, things like guilt just become moot. I did not choose to be socialized into a racist ideology, into a white supremacist ideology, internalization of superiority. I would never have chosen that, but I wasn’t given a choice. What I do feel now is responsible for the outcome. I was socialized into that and now it’s on me to challenge that.

So when someone comes up to you and says, “Hey, I don’t individually do mean things. I hired a Black intern and my brother’s, cousin’s, sister’s, next-door neighbor’s, college roommate actually dated a Black guy once.” When you hear that from people, what is your counter to get them to realize, “No, you still actually have individual responsibility, even if you haven’t individually been hostile to somebody.”

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Well, first of all, I would question whether they had not individually been hostile to somebody or hurtful, because I would imagine the thousand daily cuts that are so exhausting for Black folks in primarily white environments, as I imagine you are aware, they’re not conscious or intentional, but they have an impact, nonetheless. So, that goes back to that question of not if I’ve been socialized into this, but how. My racism doesn’t look like a white nationalist’s racism, but it looks like something. If you grant that the society is built on, rooted in, and permeates with a white supremist ideology and racism, that it is a system in all institutions, then you know you’re a part of it and you can change your question to, “OK, how am I a part of it? What does mine look like? How do I know how well I’m doing?” One, “Do I even have relationships?”

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It always surprises me, white people who live pretty much completely segregated lives, as most white people do, and yet are totally confident that they have no racism, no bias, would never do anything. But on the occasion when they got feedback that they have, how have they responded? If they never got feedback again, odds are, that doesn’t mean they’re doing great. It means they respond in a way that said they can’t hear it. So the relationship just isn’t as authentic as they think that it is. I can’t probably come out and directly say that to somebody who’s saying, “I don’t do mean things,” but that’s what I would try to have them understand and I would also use an analogy that they might be able to relate to. This one’s easy for anyone who identifies as female: to imagine that any man could be untouched by patriarchy. What little boy doesn’t know that it’s better to be a boy than a girl, and things are going to go better for you if you don’t do anything that’s associated with girls or girl-like? It’s really similar around race. We know at a very early age that it’s better to be white. So how is the internalization of that coming out?

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But what I find interesting is that white fragility can manifest itself differently in men versus women. A white man’s fragility comes in terms of really his sense of masculinity. Like, “Hey, I’m a white man. I’ve done this, I’ve earned this, I’ve earned this, I’ve earned this, and I think Halle Berry’s hot, so I’m not a bigot.” Then a white woman is like, “Well, hey, I’m already a woman. How could I be an oppressor because I’ve already been denied opportunities.” What’s the process internally in breaking down those sort of gender biases that people have to get them to look at their racial biases?

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Well, I might say, “Yes, you’ve worked really, really hard, but there’s a major barrier you didn’t face, so that impacted the outcome of your hard work.” I often use swimming in currents in the water. When you swim with a current, not only does it impact the outcome of your effort, you’re moving your arms, you’re working, but it’s paying off in a way that you don’t even see or feel. When you swim against the current, you’re acutely aware of it. That’s why I would try to go in somewhere where they might relate to being against the current. If the question is ultimately, how do you get white people to engage and see this without defensiveness? That’s the million-dollar question. There are strategies, but it’s hard.

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What do you say when you are doing seminars or doing training and you meet white people who say, “I have a Black spouse. How can I be racist if I love this man, or I love this woman?” or “we have adopted Black children.” How do you get to those white people to get them to understand that diverse Cheerios commercials do not mean racism is over?

I actually have a piece under a chapter called Common Patterns of White Progressives. It’s basically making sure everyone knows you’re married to a Black man. That pattern. And the point is not that you can’t share it. If I was married to a Black man, what an incredibly potential source of deep understanding. But I say “potential,” because so many white women married to Black men don’t demonstrate that, because if you are using your marriage as proof that you’re not racist, you don’t understand systemic racism. If anything, what you come away with is, “This is lifelong and ongoing. It’ll never be finished. I have so much more awareness. I have so much more skills, and I still step in it on occasion.”

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How do people like you, with privilege, make space for people whose knowledge and lived experiences are not as valued because they’re people of color? How do you actively center and not erase their perspectives and voices?

Yeah. That’s a deep tension. I have struggled with that tension my entire career. None of us are outside the system, and there’s no clean way to do any of this work, that’s for sure. I try to use that. That is the reality, based on all we’ve been talking about, based on deep implicit bias, white people are a tad more open to being challenged by someone who it’s harder to deny. There’s a little bit of that, “Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Hey, you know and I know” that gets me in to crack that open. I think about it as tilling the soil. Let me soften this up a little bit so that folks can hear you and can listen to you.So to not use this platform or this position for me is not acceptable. As I use it, yes, I’m also centering whiteness and I’m interrupting whiteness, because it stays centered by being unnamed and unmarked. Here we’re back to the tension.

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We will never understand racism as white people who are only listening to each other, but I don’t think we’ll ever fully understand if we only listen to Black folks and other folks of color, right? And for far too long, we’ve offloaded all that labor with all the risks and all the costs and all the punishments and all the backlash. What that does is it reinforces this idea that we’re innocent of race. We are not racially innocent. We are a part of this puzzle. It’s just like, “I’m so sad that happens to you, but apparently it happens in a vacuum that has nothing to do with me.” No, it’s coming from me, and I have got to be at the table, also engaged in this conversation and this work, and hopefully do it in ways where I use my platform to amplify Black voices.* I hope that I’ve already demonstrated that just in our conversation.

Listen to the entire episode below, or subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Correction, May 17, 2021: Due to a transcription error, this post originally misquoted DiAngelo as saying she uses her platform “to amplify Black racism.” She said she uses her platform “to amplify Black voices.”

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