I’ve been reading a book by Robin DiAngelo, a white sociologist, entitled White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People to Talk About Racism. It’s a fascinating book, written by a white woman who has dedicated her life’s work–or, at least a significant part of it–to cultivating meaningful discussions about whiteness and what that means in a world heavily skewed by Western countries that have historically and continue to push white supremacist ideology.
DiAngelo’s book and DiAngelo herself was surprising to me because rarely do I find serious, eye-opening consideration of race theory by a white person. I’ve only encountered one discussion on race driven by a white person; it was an informal lecture-style presentation on a white professor’s research, upon which he had based a class he was teaching that semester. It focused on the intersection of race and cartography, specifically mapping historical racial divisions in D.C. neighborhoods. Let’s just say that I was less than impressed by his performance and found myself questioning his methods and motivations throughout the presentation. There were a few reasons for my discomfort, the primary one being that the lecture was offered through a program that is overwhelmingly white, given by a white professor, about a class with an overwhelming majority of white students. I believed this by itself was cause for concern because often in those situations, things can often go wrong and discussions can often be biased.
My larger issue, however, came in the professor’s delivery of the information. It was academic, clinical, utterly unfeeling. I understand that this was an academic setting in which excessive displays of emotion was inappropriate, but considering the subject at hand, some tact was called for. I had also hoped for some practical solution or discussion considering the very real and very serious historical and future implications of the professor’s research, but instead, the information was only displayed as a kind of abstract, something interesting for him to look at and research. In short, I was bothered by the indulgent nature of the research and the absolute separation the professor was able to put between it and himself. I was bothered by the fact that he could observe it as something interesting or pretty to look at, yet do nothing with that information. He could separate himself from the hard work of dismantling the structures that allowed that “phenomenon” to take place in the first place, despite that hard work being the exact thing he should be engaging in.
This was the only serious, academic setting I had encountered in which a direct discussion of race was driven by a white person. But I have had many encounters with white people in less serious settings, in more conversational settings with friends or acquaintances, in which race became a topic of discussion. However, the root of my discomfort in more conversational situations mirrors the root of my discomfort in academic ones. White people, especially “woke whites” (which is an actual term I’ve heard a white person use), have a habit of separating themselves from racist structures, thereby absolving themselves of any guilt and the responsibility to dismantle those structures. They believe because they have obtained some limited understanding of racism or because they have friends who are people of color, they have maintained a static status of “wokeness.” As the “enlightened white progressive,” they believe they have already done the work in gaining that limited understanding of racial dynamics–obtaining the basest level of human empathy–and therefore their work is done.
When I roll my eyes and describe someone as “relatively okay, but clearly a white liberal,” this is what I mean.
DiAngelo is out of the ordinary because she holds white people accountable for maintaining the status quo that allows structures of racism to persist. In her introduction she says,
I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color. I define a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the ‘choir,’ or already ‘gets it.’ White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived. None of our energy will go into what we need to be doing for the rest of our lives: engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual antiracist practice. White progressive do indeed uphold and perpetrate racism, but our defensiveness and certitude make it virtually impossible to explain to us how we do so (p.5).
(Note: Emphasis in original; any first person references are directed to white people.)Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018)
This, by the way, is the problem with white people who refer to other white people as white people. When a white person hears something atrocious or frustrating that another white person has done and responds with, “White people, am I right?” they are contributing absolutely nothing to the conversation. What they are doing, however, is separating themselves from the rest of their race. They’re saying, White people suck, and I understand that they suck, but don’t worry, I’m not one of them. I get it. And they might–broadly, they might understand that white people, as a collective institution, severely complicate the lives of other people because of socially constructed ideas about superior physical qualities that have nothing to do with genetics. But by separating themselves from that collective institution, they only empower that institution to continue on as it always has. Without taking responsibility for whatever small or large part they may play, they will always be empowering that institution, without doubt or failure.
DiAngelo’s book is focuses on the process that she encapsulates in the phrase white fragility. White fragility is the result of white people’s ignorance of structures of racism and, if informed or alerted to it, denial that it exists. It describes white people’s knee-jerk reaction to be defensive and offended when under racial stress, and ultimately results in reinstating the status quo and maintaining ideals of white supremacy. The book is unique because its audience is not people of color, but white people. DiAngelo directly addresses white people and calls to them to be more aware of the racial sphere and their part in it. She explains that if one is not consciously trying to dismantle it, they are by default supporting it. There is no grey in this scenario; it is all black and white.
Upon reading her book, I decided to reach out to one of my white friends who I have known for years and generally trust. He is an incredibly intelligent person majoring in engineering at a respected school, but he is woefully ignorant of racial dynamics. This is a friend who, when I casually referred to intersectional feminism in a conversation, asked me to clarify and thought I had said “intersexual feminism.” This is a friend who, when I tried to explain my racial angst that surfaced from the racial dynamics on my college campus, said, “Racism, in such a diverse campus in in D.C.?”
It was an awkward conversation, if not as painful as I feared. It mostly consisted of me explaining things and him asking questions and playing devil’s advocate, which I, at times, wanted to strangle him for. There were many qualifiers in which he said, “Obviously I’m not a racist…” or, “As a white male, I’ve obviously never experienced this…” His understanding of racism was surface level at best, referring to shootings he sees on TV and throwing in academic buzz words like “political-economic oppression of black people.” But overall, it was an unsurprising and relatively consonant exchange.
This is, until I asked him this question: Being a white man, studying to be apart of a heavily white male dominated field, and in a time of strenuous racial tensions, did he not feel it was his duty to educate himself and be an ally for people of color?
He balked at this.
“Of course I feel like it’s my duty to be an ally,” he said. “But race relations just doesn’t really interest me. I would never read White Fragility on my own. But if something were to come up, if I were to notice something–a person of color being mistreated, a bigoted bias in the classroom–of course I would step up and be an ally.”
On some level, I understand this. I am uniquely interested in and pulled towards race theory. My perfect morning is lying in bed with a cup of coffee reading Roxane Gay. I understand that not everyone is like this, nor do I expect everyone to be.
There is a reason for this that goes beyond my trivial interests. One of the reasons I push myself to be more racially aware, to read books like White Fragility to expand my horizons and facilitate better, more meaningful discussions about race, is that a significant part of understanding my identity as an Asian American, and particularly as East Asian American, is understanding how my race affects how I interact with and am perceived among other racial minorities. A significant part of my Asian American identity is understanding my privilege. Despite being a person of color, I can recognize that the scrutiny on East Asian Americans is much less in this day and age, compared to that of African Americans, those in the Latinx community, and South Asian Americans. Despite being a person of color, and despite feeling the significance of that every day in how I experience the world, I can recognize my privilege and seek to understand it better. Because with understanding comes the ability to make change, to be a better ally, to empower myself and others.
With this being such an integral part of my racial identity, it frustrates me to no end when people reject it from theirs. White people often make the mistake of believing they do not have a racial identity. This is unequivocally false. They do have a racial identity, and it rests in the pervasive and continuing belief in white being the norm and the most revered and desired trait and the institutions that upholds it.
Being an ally does not just mean reacting to the most obvious, most surface level displays of racism. Being an ally means taking an active role, being proactive in addressing the racist roots of institutions, standing against the mundane, quiet displays of racial bias, and constantly educating yourself to deepen your understanding of a system that is so large and so abhorrent it is almost incomprehensible.
My conversation with my friend ended with our musing for the upcoming year. “I think it’ll be better than last year,” I told him. I have a better understanding of the environment, a better support group, more concrete and achievable goals. “It’s just so hard,” I said. I told him that despite the frustration, I wanted to walk into it with a better attitude, to be better at resisting my initial reaction of shutting down and not dealing with it. I want to make it more of a learning experience, to be more patient and outspoken, and try to widen some horizons rather than revoking my perspective to spite them. “It’s so frustrating to feel like the work of diversification is the responsibility of the ‘diverse’ people, you know? It’s just so hard.”
To which he responded, “Well, the oppressors can never liberate the oppressed,” like he’s Paulo f*cking Freire, or something.
I’ll never be as eloquent as Robin DiAngelo, but there was never a moment in which I could have stolen her words more.
White supremacy is something much more pervasive and subtle than the actions of explicit white nationalists. White supremacy describes the culture we live in, a culture that positions white people and all that is associated with them (whiteness) as ideal. White supremacy is more than the idea that whites are superior to people of color; it is the deeper premise that supports this idea–the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as a deviation from that norm.
Naming white supremacy changes the conversation in two key ways: It makes the system visible and shifts the locus of change onto white people, where it belongs. It also points us in the direction of the lifelong work that is uniquely ours, challenging our complicity with and investment in racism. This does not mean that people of color do not play a part but that the full weight of responsibility rests with those who control the institutions (p.33).
(Note: Emphasis is mine.)Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018)
Here’s the short of it: White people need to be better allies. They need to be more conscious of the racial dynamics around them. They need to think about race because it does affect them; it’s just in the positive rather than the negative. We’re never going to get anything done or make anything significantly better if the only people making a racket are people of color from outside the institutions that govern change. We’re only going to get things done if we have white allies who are absolutely, undeniably, unshakably committed and who respect and prioritize the voices of people of color.
So, this is a beacon, I guess, for any white allies out there. Because right now, my search is yielding limited results.