White Here, White Now

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S1: This is a word, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. I’m not racist. Many self-proclaimed white allies and actual racists say this to shut down conversations about how racism affects our society. Black people have been calling B.S. forever, but Robin D’Angelo, author of White Fragility, has emerged as the leading white voice on the issue.

S2: You don’t have to scratch very hard and progressive to get them quite resentful and a lot of hostile anger. And you can come out.

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S1: Robin D’Angelo coming up on a word with me, Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to a word, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson, Robin D’Angelo, twenty eighteen bestseller White Fragility gained a whole new audience during these so-called racial reckoning after the murder of George Floyd last year. She is now arguably the most prominent white voice in calling for white people to be held accountable for racism.

S2: I think white people are the most irrational, the most angry, right. And yet we position ourselves as the validators of whether your experience is legitimate or not.

S1: Robin D’Angelo has made it her mission to demand that white people face their role in perpetuating and benefiting from racism. She and I recently spoke as part of the Crosscourt Festival, an online conference that took a hard look at the people policy and events that shape our lives. Today, we’re bringing you a portion of that conversation. I started by asking her whether she was surprised that Derek Shervin was convicted on all counts in the murder of George Floyd.

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S2: 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 based on the history of our criminal justice system in relation to cases like this. I didn’t expect that that to come through on all accounts is symbolically it is profound and of profound importance. But as we’ve seen every inch of progress, as Carol Anderson so powerfully argues, in white rage, every inch of racial progress has been met by a white backlash. And 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.

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S1: I think 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 Derrick Shervin was going to be found guilty. And the reason why is because I felt like white supremacy in America occasionally has its sacrificial lamb. How do you respond to sort of that? Take that. It’s like, well, of course, the justice 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 a two or three weeks of the trial?

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S2: Yeah, well, all systems of oppression can accommodate exceptions, but the rule will rule remain consistent and the exceptions will be used to negate the rule. Right. Right. I mean, we saw that during Obama’s presidency. We’re post-racial now. I mean, 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 them than it had before. You know, we’re going to have to be really careful, as always, every I and cross every T and still. Right. I mean, 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 where it took nine and a half minutes, three minutes beyond the polls in order for us to say, well, maybe he didn’t do something right then and that’s what we’re going to be up against in every case.

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S1: How did you get into this kind of work? Like how did you get into this formerly in talking to white people about white people and about racism?

S2: Well, pretty much any any answer I give you is going to be on some level a strategic answer. I am an educator, but 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. And I sometimes wonder if black folks are kind of amazed at the mediocrity that white people get away with. Let me just say we’re

S1: no longer amazed by it. We’re used

S2: to police. This, you know, and I was your classic white, progressive or liberal, as I called myself at the time, right. When I thought, of course, I’m qualified to go into workplaces and cross racial teams and help primarily white employees grapple with with racism. I’m qualified because I’m an open minded white person and to that’s going to be really fun. Who would like to have those conversations? Aren’t they cool? Isn’t this interesting? And on both counts, I was in for the most profound learning of my entire life. So basically I just I answered a. Job announcement for diversity training or I just graduated with a degree in sociology, had no idea what I could do for a living, I saw that ad and applied for the job and got it. And everything about it was fish out of water from from having my racial worldview challenged by folks of color in a way that I’m a nontraditional student. So I was in my 30s at this time when I graduated with a bachelors and I could be that far in life. And at that point, college educated a parent and never had had my racial worldview challenged. I needed to tell you I had a racial worldview 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. And the second one was the hostility, the meanness of white people to this conversation. And 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. And I imagine this happens for you, right? Like, OK, here goes. I know exactly what this person’s going to say right now. And 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 writing rather than theory to practice. But that’s how I ended up here.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more of my conversation with Robin D’Angelo. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. If you’re enjoying a word, please subscribe rate and review. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson. Today we’re talking with Robin D’Angelo. I am amazed at your comfort in talking about your whiteness, because you can say with not a hint of self-deprecating humor or condescension. Like, I was a mediocre white person, I stumbled to this job, but now I’ve done X, Y and Z. And that is a level of candor that most white people seem incapable of having about themselves. 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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S2: There’s a there’s several threads, right? There’s not just one. 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. And there’s a function to that that’s not just a natural response. So that’s one piece. Another piece is 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. Right. 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, the framework that those of us who really engage in this work are using. When you understand it as a system, I mean, things like Gils just become moot. Why did not choose to be socialized into racist ideology, into 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.

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S1: So when someone comes up to you and says, hey, I don’t individually do mean things, I hired a black intern and my brothers, cousins, sisters next door neighbors, college roommate actually dated a black guy once. When you hear that from people, what is your counter to get them to realize? Like, no, you still actually have individual responsibility, even if you have individually been hostile to of.

S2: 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. They’re not conscious or intentional, but they have an impact nonetheless. So so that that goes back to that question of. Not if I’ve been socialized into this, but how, right, my racism doesn’t look like a white nationalist racism, but it looks like something if you grant that the society is built on, rooted in and permeated with white supremacy, 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? What have I what do I even have? Relationships. I’m always surprises me. People who live 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? And 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. And 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 things. But that’s kind of what I would try to have them understand. And I would also use an analogy that they might be able to relate to. And this one’s easy for for anyone who identifies as female is to imagine that any man could be untouched by patriarchy, by this. 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. And it’s really similar around race. Right. We know at a very early age that it’s better to be white. And so how how is the internalization of that coming out?

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S1: But what I find interesting is that sort of 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 summer and this. And I think Halle Berry is hot. So I’m not a bigot. And 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 because I had somebody try me to me at my first seven jobs. What’s the process internally in breaking down those sort of gendered biases that people have to get them to look at their racial biases?

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S2: 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. And I think you said it’s swimming in currents in the water. When you swim with the currents, not only does it impact the outcome of your efforts, 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. And 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. And there are strategies, but it’s hard.

S1: 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 OK?

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S2: I actually have a piece under a chapter called Common Patterns of White Progressives and is basically making sure everyone knows you’re married to a black man. Oh, God, yes, that pattern. And the point is not that you can’t shoot. 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. Right. If anything, what you come away with is this is a 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.

S1: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more of my conversation with White Frigidity author Robin D’Angelo. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson. Today, we’re bringing you my conversation with Robin D’Angelo, author of White Fragility. We recently spoke as part of the crosscuts festival. And this section, we discuss questions that came from the audience. How do people like you with privilege make space for people whose knowledge and lived experiences are not as valued because they are people of color? How do you actively center and not embrace their perspectives and voices?

S2: Yeah, that’s a deep tension. I have struggled with that tension my entire career. It is a both. And there is none of us are outside the system and there’s no clean way to do any of this work, that’s for sure. What 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, you know, and I know that gets me in to crack that open. And 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. And as I use it, yes, I’m also centering whiteness and I’m interrupting whiteness because it stays centered by being unnamed and Mark. And here we’re back to the attention. We will never understand racism as white people who are only listening to each other. Right. But I don’t think we’ll ever fully understand if we only listen to black folks and other folks of color. 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. And what that does in addition to that 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 so sad that happens, too. But apparently it happens in a vacuum that has nothing to do with me. No, it’s coming from me. Right. 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. And I hope that I’ve already demonstrated that just in our conversation.

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S1: You speak of white people getting away with mediocrity, how do we help give a hand up to people of color without being demeaning or diminish?

S2: I guess you don’t think about it as helping them. OK, this is a great big moment for me to actually ask you that question. I mean, here’s an opportunity to hear your perspective on how would you see how would you experience somebody doing that?

S1: So first off, it’s interesting because the language itself, like I said, I find demeaning, like how do I know you can even give me a hand up? I may be more qualified than you. I think the most important thing that white people can do in a workplace environment prior to any interactions with jobs, try to develop your own sincere framework of what you think qualifications are and then hold to those regardless of who you happen to be interacting with. Because all too often what happens is people have an idea of what they think is qualified, but they meet this young white guy who was like, oh, gosh, you know what? He reminds me of my best friend Luke back when we were in school. I spent a couple of years screwing around, too, and then I got myself together. Or suddenly standards melt away when white people want to find opportunities to bring more of themselves into opportunities. Quite frankly, when you’re in these these mostly white spaces, you got to tell people, hey, we need to expand where we’re looking.

S2: Thank you. And here’s one that I like to add. You actually make anti-racist skills and awareness a qualification. If you’re not going to make it a qualification, then do not put on your website for your business that you value diversity. And then, you know, you’re putting the onus, also pressure on white people if you want to change a culture. And this is one of the things that organizations often do if they just ask, right, let’s add some color. Great. And then they think they’ve accomplished it. But if you haven’t simultaneously been addressing the consciousness of those who, let’s be honest, have always controlled the tables, still control the table, and it’s up to them whether you even get a seat at the table, if you’re not simultaneously working with them, you’re adding people into hostile water. And then you wonder why. Why did they say so? You should have filtered through threaded through all your interview questions, questions designed to get at what is this person’s basic orientation to these issues. And you don’t have to be an ethnic studies professor to get the job, but there should be some basic orientation that you have that’s demonstrable. I can’t tell you the impact I think it would have if if we saw that today in twenty twenty one, how could we not see it as a qualification to be successful, to have some ability to engage in these conversations.

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S1: Robin D’Angelo is the author of White Fragility. She and I spoke as part of a crosscuts festival. Check out our show page for a link to the full, unedited conversation. And that’s a word for this week. If you’re enjoying a word, please subscribe rate and review. Did you know you could be listening to this show ad free? All it takes is a slate plus membership. It’s just one dollar for the first month. And it also helps us keep making our podcast sign up now at Slate Dotcom a word. Plus, the show’s email is a word at Slate Dotcom. This episode was produced by Ayana Angel and Jasmine Ellis. Aisha Solutia is the managing producer of podcast at Slate. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts late June. Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for word.