As I was working on this post, I realized that I’ve read several books by black authors in the last few months. Unsurprisingly, the number has increased even more in the last three weeks. But even though I’ve read several, I’ve not written about books written by black authors, and the book that I’m talking about today is written by a white woman too. I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot. Why don’t I choose these books to write about? A lot of them are classics, they are great reads and they have taught me about other people’s experiences.
My hypothesis about why I’m not writing about these books is that I don’t feel qualified to comment on black people’s experiences and I’m scared to get it wrong. I’m afraid of being called out for getting it wrong. But not writing about books by black authors is a form of racism too. And not wanting to be called out for having racially problematic ideas is part of my White Fragility and what the book with the same title by Robin DiAngelo is about.
Our society is inherently racist. It’s in our institutions and our unconscious. Because our society is inherently racist, we are all socialized to be racists too. You can’t escape it even if you try. Yet if we’re centrists we feel that the people protecting statues, waving confederate flags, and shouting abuse at black people either online or in real life are racists. When we’re progressives we feel that people saying that all lives matter are racists. Yet if you ask the people in both of these groups if they are racist they will probably say that they aren’t. We see racism as a thing of the past. Slavery was ended a little over 150 years ago and we feel that inequality also ended back then. Being called racist triggers a strong defensive response in all of us. Even Trump claims that he is not a racist.
Most of us find it hard receiving critical feedback regardless of the topic. With racism, this feeling is even stronger. I find it hard to receive critical feedback of any kind and I would be mortified if I were called out about having said or done something that’s racially problematic. We have learned that racists are bad people. This means that we feel that a good person can’t be a racist. And surely we’re good people?! When someone informs us that something we said or did was racially problematic we get defensive, angry, or upset. We often retreat into silence and we feel anxious.
By thinking that all racists are bad people, we’re creating a false dichotomy. For most white people, racism is like murder: the concept exists, but someone has to commit it for it to happen. This limited view of such a multilayered syndrome cultivates the sinister nature of racism and by making it impossible to talk about it, it perpetuates racist phenomena rather than eradicates them. Racism isn’t black and white. Even if we’re good people with good intentions we might say or do things that hurt black people or people of color. Even black people or people of color themselves might have internalized racist ideas because that is what society has taught them.
We must get used to the idea that we all have been socialized to be various levels of racist. Not seeing the color of someone’s skin and not wanting to talk about racism also means we can’t recognize the inequality in our society.
Robin DiAngelo is a diversity coach. She works with groups of people (mostly at the request of the companies they work for) to talk about diversity, racism, and equality. In the book, she explains that as long as she’s talking about racism in a general and abstract sense, white people might get uncomfortable, but they can bear it. However, as soon as it’s pointed out to them that something that they said or did was problematic, the anger comes. There might be tears. People might walk out of the training or retreat into themselves. I can understand that response. But I can also see why that’s not a helpful reaction. If we would be able to receive feedback on our problematic racial patterns we could use it to learn and grow.
Because we have been socialized in a racism-based society, we have a racist worldview and deep racial bias. There’s no point feeling guilty about this. We didn’t choose to live in this society or for society to be based on these racist ideas. We had no way of avoiding our biases. This doesn’t alleviate us from the responsibility to work to unlearn our behaviors. We should try to identify our internalized feelings of superiority and how they are manifesting themselves. We have to be willing to get racially uncomfortable and be willing to examine the effects of our racial engagement. This includes not indulging in the anger, defensiveness, or self-pity that is often our knee-jerk reaction to a racially uncomfortable situation.
Let’s get away from the idea that there’s a good/bad binary when it comes to racism. Let’s accept that we all have a racial bias instead of seeing this claim as a deep moral blow, and let’s work to disrupt it.
I think all white people should read White Fragility.