There have been a lot of disturbing poll results over the past several years, but none more than this one: According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, 57 percent of white Americans believe that discrimination against white people is “as big a problem” in America as discrimination against minorities. Several months after the survey was conducted, of course, Donald Trump went on to win the presidency by getting well over half of the white vote. In a new book called White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, Robin DiAngelo examines how a large chunk of white America got to a place where it is constantly feeling besieged and victimized, and why she thinks even white progressives are so unwilling—or unable—to acknowledge their own racism.
I spoke recently by phone with DiAngelo, a lecturer affiliated with the University of Washington who has been conducting workshops about diversity and racism for two decades. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed racism on the left, whether there is value in scolding people for their bigotry, and whether the word racist should only apply to people who intend to discriminate.
Isaac Chotiner: What led you to this concept of “white fragility”?
Robin DiAngelo: Well, I was a classic white progressive, which meant I was clueless about racism, which meant I could not answer the question, “What does it mean to be white?” I thought I was not racist and I really didn’t have anything more to learn. I applied for a job as a diversity trainer, and I was in for the most profound learning curve of my life. It was a parallel process. One, working side by side with people of color who were challenging the way that I saw the world and my place in it. Part of being white is that I could be that far in life, be a full professional, educated adult, and never have had my racial role be challenged in general, or by people of color in particular.
The other part was going into the workplace and trying to talk to overwhelmingly white employees about racism. The hostility was incredible. After just years of that, I got better and better at not only understanding how white people pull this off—how we claim racial innocence in a society that is so separate and unequal by race—but also at articulating [that privilege] in a way that white people could hear.
What is racism, and how do people who are white progressives perpetrate it?
We’re taught to think of racism as individual acts of intentional meanness across race. That it’s always an individual, it has to be conscious, and it must be intentional. That definition exempts virtually all white people from the system that we’re all in and that we’ve all been shaped by. It is the bedrock of our country. That changes the question from “If I’m racist,” [to] which most white people would answer “No,” to “How is this manifesting in my life?” Because it is. It’s on me to figure out how.
What’s a specific example?
I think the inability to answer with any depth whatsoever the question of what it means to be white is actually not benign. People of color know that most white people cannot answer that question. [If] I can’t tell you what it means to be white, I am not going to be able to hold what it means not to be white, what your experience is. I’m going to end up invalidating, minimizing, dismissing, and not believing. That’s what white progressives do every day.
So then what does it mean to be white?
It means many things, but it means not ever having to bear witness to the pain of racism on people of color. It means not being held accountable for the pain that you cause people of color. It means not knowing the history of this country and being able to trace that history into the present. It’s being relentlessly reinforced in superiority and then not ever being able to admit that.
OK, but are you saying that a white person is, almost by definition, part of this system, or that white people, because of their role in this society, just tend to be more clueless and lazy because they’re in positions of privilege?
I might say the first one leads to the second one. I don’t think any of it is benign. I don’t think white people are racially innocent, as we often like to position ourselves to be. There’s a kind of refusal to see or to know or to believe or to hear that allows us then not to have to act.
What could a white person in America in 2018 do to not be racist, or do you believe that’s impossible?
Well, I have to ask you a question I forgot to ask you earlier. What is your racial identity?
I’m white. My family’s originally from Eastern Europe.
OK. All of us have been shaped by the cultural water that we swim in. All white people have internalized a racist worldview. Let me own that. As a result of being raised as a white person in this society, I have a racist worldview. I have deep racist biases. I have developed racist patterns, and I have investments in not only the system of racism that has served me so well. It’s so comfortable. But I also have an investment in not seeing any of that because of what I believe it suggests about my identity as a good person. The way that I think about it is, “How do I be a little less white, a little less racist quite frankly, less defensive, less arrogant, less certain, less complacent, less passive?”
When they ask me, “What do I do?” I have to ask a couple questions back. The first thing is “How have you managed not to know? It’s 2018. As a white person in 2018, why is that your question? How have you managed not to know what to do about racism when good information is everywhere and people of color have been trying to tell us forever?” That’s meant to be a challenge. The first thing you have to break with is the apathy of not taking initiative.
Are there things that you think that white people should do, like, more actively, in the community, besides awareness? The things you have talked about so far seem more about consciousness.
Oh, god, yeah. If that awareness does not lead to action, then it’s meaningless.
Do we have to be careful about labeling people with good intentions a certain way, especially if, as you said, this is about building relationships?
I would say that we have to move beyond intentions to impact.
Obviously when I say “white supremacy,” I’m connecting it to me, I’m not talking about someone in a robe, right? Get up to date. If you have better language that captures the systemic nature of racism, then I’m open to it, but right now we don’t have better language. You have to change the way you understand what those terms are, not demand that people don’t use terms that you don’t like and find ones that are so neutral and comfortable that we’re back to protecting the status quo.
I’m all for strategy. I do want to move the white collective forward. I want us to cause less pain, suffering, and damage. I’m all for whatever strategy would do that. There are many, many styles, and all of them are important. While I may be talking very bluntly to you or in an interview, if I was doing a presentation … I mean, I assume you read my book. I hope it doesn’t come across as scolding, but there is a kind of directness that I think is necessary. For many people, my directness is what completely changes them. For other people, my directness shuts them down. Great. Go over to somebody else somewhere. Don’t use that as a reason not to engage.
That I agree with. People who claim to be offended by what you are saying should toughen up.
I’m with you on that.
So what are your strategies, then, when you are doing workshops?
I hope my directness was illustrated in the earlier claim I made that I have a racist worldview, patterns, and investments. That is a pretty bold claim in this society for a white person to make. I’m very clear and comfortable making it, but I point that finger towards myself if you notice that. That helps other white people. If they identify with what I’m saying and they see me owning it, they’re more able to own it in themselves. Right? I try to point the finger inward, not outward.
I also try to overwhelm them with evidence that makes it undeniable. I do use humor. There’s a little bit of mocking the narratives, the evidence that white people give for their lack of racism. If we can laugh at it a little bit, if I can go, “Oh, my God, I’ve said that. Now I do see how silly it is,” maybe there’s a little space there. The laugher helps loosen that up. Hopefully, they’ll think more deeply next time they’re compelled to say something like that.
What you’re saying will redefine racism in the minds of a lot of people. Their definition of racism would be different. Their definition would be Richard Spencer, David Duke, or, dare I say, the president. What—
Do you ever wonder what qualifies as racism in the white mind, seriously?
What do you mean?
Even just “dare I say the president?” Yes, you may say the president.
That was a joke.
Again, that’s an aside. It’s like, “What the hell qualifies as a racist for most white people?”
OK, well, what is a good word for that type of racism?
For the Donald Trump type?
Yeah, or Steve Bannon or whoever.
I just call that “avowed racist.” I’m not an “avowed racist.” I’ve named my racism, but I am committed to challenging it. They are not committed to challenging it. I say they are committed to perpetrating it. I just say “avowed racist” versus me. Does that make sense?
I don’t know if I agree. I think we might want a different word, rather than just adding “avowed.” It seems like if we’re re-conceptualizing what racism is, or at least how it’s commonly defined, maybe you want a different word for racist politicians versus KKK members. Or maybe you don’t because it’s all part of a gradation. Or maybe it’s not. I’m just thinking out loud.
I want to be clear. I don’t see myself as redefining the term. I want to change the way the average white person understands what racism is, but I am using the sociological definition. You asked me, “What would you call the difference perhaps between Trump and me?” But I actually think, yeah, we both are racists. I see that as a continuum that I’m on and will be on for the rest of my life. In any given moment, I have to ask myself, “How am I doing on this continuum? What end am I behaving closer to? How do I know?” He and I may be on different spots on the continuum, but we’re both on it. I don’t tend to distinguish between the two of us, which probably shocks some readers, but if you’re asking me to somehow identify that difference, I would say “avowed” versus maybe “implied” or “implicit.”
So you consider yourself a racist right now?
Yes. I will always have a racist worldview and biases. The way I look at it is I’m really clear that I do less harm than I used to. I perpetrate that racism less often. I’m not defensive at all when I realize—whether myself or it’s been brought to my attention—that I’ve just perpetrated a piece of it. I have really good repair skills. None of those are small things because they mean I do less harm. I have many more authentic, sustained cross-racial relationships than I ever had before. I can, with confidence, say there are people of color in my life who see me as a supportive and trustworthy person. I had none of that before.
How do you think about minority groups in America who face racism and discrimination but who may also have racist attitudes and have benefited or are benefiting from the same system that keeps other people, especially African Americans, down?
After 20 years of talking day in and day out to overwhelmingly white groups of people, I’m really clear that there is a profound anti-blackness in this culture. In the white mind, black people are the ultimate racial other. I used to shy away from “Oh, don’t make it a black-white dichotomy,” but I feel really clear. There are bookends. White is on one end, and black is on the other. Your relationship, where you are positioned between those two bookends is going to shape how you experience your life. Right? The closer you are to whiteness—the term often used is white-adjacent—you’re still going to experience racism, but there are going to be some benefits due to your perceived proximity to whiteness. The further away you are, the more intense the oppression’s going to be.
You mean whiteness both in terms of skin color and in terms of whatever habits or ethnicities white society values?
Skin color’s really interesting because I was just going to move to that. Even within a group of what we call black, there is colorism. Anti-blackness goes across that entire spectrum. Within all groups of color, the closer you are to white, the more benefit and the closer you are to black, the least benefit, right? I think that white-adjacent groups have to ask themselves a really hard question, which is “Who have I aligned with? Have I aligned with whiteness, or have I taken up and aligned with black people in this struggle against racism?” Most of those white-adjacent groups have not challenged anti-blackness within their own communities.
If I try to be self-reflective about my privileges, the main things I would think about are being white, being male, and being American. Because most of the things that you have just said about white people, I think a lot of people in the rest of the world would say are true of Americans. We have incredible privilege. We often don’t know about or think that we have this privilege. Our worldview is shaped by a certain type of supremacy. How do you think about what being American means in this context?
I’m just trying to get it organized in my mind. There are absolutely all of those things that go with [being] American. A friend of mine who’s African-American or black traveling somewhere else in the world is going to have what we might call that kind of … what Peggy McIntosh called the “invisible knapsack,” right? They’re going to have the status of that American citizenship and, likely, depending on the context they’re in, they may also be dealing with anti-blackness that’s been exported worldwide. In some ways, it’s kind of what are they leading with first? What’s the first thing somebody’s responding to? Those are questions I never have to ask myself.
I think it’s like saliency. I mean, that’s the way I think about the multiple identities that I carry—that, in some context, one or the other of those identities is more or less salient. I’m a white woman. I’m a cisgender woman. I’m an angry feminist and I have been for a long time, but that does not mean that I don’t perpetrate racism towards women of color. And that I can experience sexism and patriarchy and misogyny, and I do and still perpetrate very similar dynamics onto somebody else. Right? That’s where saliency comes in.
How much of this role of whiteness we’re talking about is about whites being the majority here the way whites are the majority in France or Hindus are the majority in India, and how much of this is really about America itself?
I actually don’t think it’s about numbers. I think it’s about power. White men are approximately 34 percent of the population in the U.S. and control virtually all institutions. Women are the majority of not just the country but the world, and the poor are the majority of the world. It’s about institutional power. That’s why with the so-called browning of America, there will be adaptations, but the institutions will continue to be controlled by those who currently control it.
Have you noticed any differences in discussing these issues in the last three years? It feels like there’s been a combination of this very big white backlash, not just in the election of Trump but against what people see as P.C. culture. But that is coupled with more of a realization of the importance of diversity, the importance of hearing different voices, the importance of understanding structural forces, than at any other time in my life, even just five years ago.
Yes. On the one hand, way more permission for explicit racism, right? But also a kind of urgency from more moderate people to engage and to understand what is happening. I think that the outcome of that election just shocked a lot of white people. I find that my work is actually easier. While I get more hate mail and I get more threatened and I feel like my life is at risk in a way it wasn’t before, I also find generally white people much more receptive because I think we’re scared. It’s like that election freaked us out and we definitely want to understand what is happening and what do I do. That very, very thin veneer of post-racial bullshit has been ripped away. Right? It’s clear as a bell we’re not post-racial.
Post–Obama’s election, you mean?
Yes. That’s what I was up against then, just this complacency that we were post-racial. That’s gone. People that were complacent about it are not anymore. I find them more receptive.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus