Why it’s so important for white people to talk about racism
It’s never easy to learn about what we’re doing wrong. It’s not easy in two ways. Firstly, self-awareness is harder to achieve than relationship harmony over domestic chores. Secondly, going through that process to realise we might actually be, cough, cough, wrong? What? Surely, it’s always someone else doing the bad stuff?
Well, eh…No. Enter White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.
White Fragility is a book that I have seen mentioned in passing on IG over the past six months. But more, it is a phrase that has resounded through the posts that I follow. Understanding the impact of colonialization and the role of white people in oppression throughout modern history has always been part of my education. Recently, with following racial tensions in Trump America and the unfolding implications of Brexit, it seemed a good time to catch up on modern texts about race and nation. I ordered it online when I needed to make up the free delivery total and put it aside with the others that came, feeling virtuous. Then, when Toni Morrison died in August, I felt keenly aware that I had no right to mourn her. That her loss, like her work, belonged to the people she wrote for, and as a white woman, I should exclude myself from that. Over the week that followed many accounts posted comments, quotes, memories about the great writer, and some of her old interviews were shared. Most notably, one in which she rebuffed the racist bent of a white female interviewer’s questions. But the quote that spoke loudest to me was ‘it’s not my job to educate the colonist’, and right there, right then, White Fragility was sat on my tbr pile. So, I picked it up and started. This was the only way I felt I could pay homage to her work.
This book sets out quite clearly with a simple target, laid out on the front cover, to tackle ‘Why it’s so hard for White People to talk about Racism’. So, if you want to understand the answer to this, if, as a white person, you have doubts about how you think and speak about people of colour, or your own feelings towards race, both in individual and generic terms, this book sets out to explain that racism is not a thing which ‘bad people’ do. Racism is a structural edifice of society which we are all enmeshed in. If you can’t face your own role in this, be prepared to find this book difficult.
This is not a big book. You might be forgiven for thinking it would take a light reading over one session to make sense of. I think most white people might find themselves shocked at just how deep the thinking process goes with this book. It took me several weeks to finish it, because I had to keep pausing, thinking about my own experiences, about my own perspective, about my own role. DiAngelo sets about systematically pulling apart the edifice of our whiteness. She makes no bones that we assume our own superiority, that we have been raised, fed and nurtured on this. That as children we are innocent of our own supremacy and as adults complicit in it. She does not pull any punches, but argues with persistent, consistent logic, repeating again and again the ways in which we are completely unaware of our indoctrination in a system that sustains racism. She does not condemn, except in using herself as an example. She does not despise, except in counting her own failures. She situates our everyday racism as an end result of structural, cultural racial divide. She peels back the layers of her experience in the field of professional equity training, giving one example after another, from both sides of the fence, to show how high, how wide and how deep the foundations of that fence are. She calls out the covert ways in which many liberal progressives accept their own individual lack of racism as good enough effort whilst they are doing nothing to break down the fence on a social level.
It struck me while reading, how appropriate, how resonant, that Trump has built his campaign and presidency on the erection of an impenetrable wall to keep out foreign immigrants. All the while continuing to endorse a system inside the wall that persistently repeats the pattern of white domination over a racialised society.
The central argument is that racism is not something only ‘bad people’ do, but something which we all engage in. DiAngelo takes excuse after excuse, inaction after inaction, and uses them to hammer home the central message. If you are white you have work to do. To be honest, if at the end of this book you’re still arguing the toss with her, then you need to take a long hard look in the mirror. The set up in this book is the hope that her message will pay off and cause people to start working.
My wish here is for more. It’s that simple. The book leaves you wanting more. Solid ways in which to make change, work forwards. But no book can do everything, and the whole point DiAngelo makes is that this work, these changes, are not a ten-point bullet list you can tick and feel better about. It is about engagement, with yourself, your society and your life. Always.
This is a book that left me with much to think about. It is a book that sets out to do just that, and it achieves it. But why does it achieve it? So much of what I read about racism I seek out from the perspective of black activists. I am aware of my own predominantly white, rural lifestyle, more so by nature of having grown up in a multi-racial city. But what this book did for me was explain racism from a white critic who could take up the troubled parts of my thoughts and experiences and put them into a perspective that held it together. DiAngelo gives us a way to own our own position, and to work away from that, by first owning it herself. Acknowledging that the work is NOT done. That being non-racist is not the same as being anti-racist. That my own ‘lack of racism’ is optimistic and far, far, below the minimum needed. White Fragility gave me a way to understand conflicts I have in my own social sphere and my role in them. Ways in which I sustain racism. Ways in which I assume my own racial safety. But beyond this, it took my anger at others and turned it round full focus where it belongs, on myself.
Inspired by the reading list in the back, by the works of Toni Morrison I have yet to explore, by the Instagram accounts of many people of many backgrounds and the deep sense of dissatisfaction in my own life and my own actions, this book gives you plenty of avenues to choose to walk down. Layla F. Saad’s Me and White Supremacy is the next book I want to pick up, available from February 2020. It’s an active workbook towards changing habits and exactly what I need now.
The question I find interesting is, how many people will do so? Like changing our habits on plastic waste, on energy use, on equality between genders, how much of our society is formed on patterns of habit that remain deeply ingrained? How can I explicitly make myself change my own habits, awareness, behaviour? To this effect I decided to read more proactively from multi-racial authors. I have decided to seek out ways in which I can improve my cross-racial experiences and awareness, both online and in real time. I have decided that whenever I go travelling, I will look at the history of the country I am travelling to in terms of my white colonial heritage. I have found an excellent company in the UK, Equality and Diversity UK, who offer training courses. Most importantly, I will keep asking myself how many ways I am assuming my own race, rather than acknowledging it. Asking in the situation I am in, how would this feel to a person of colour? This space, this task, this company, these people, this me?
It’s hard to read a book that makes you feel bad. It’s even harder to keep feeling bad after you’ve finished reading it, because that sense of discomfort can manifest either as guilt or as responsibility. No, we cannot change the past. But we can change the way that the past echoes in this present, and how far into the future we allow it to reach. We can do this for our own lives, for the lives of others, and for the life of our planet. In small, essential, daily ways. To not do this is to say; ‘it’s too big, no one can make a difference’. Well, I’m pretty sure I know what Greta and Toni would say to that.
My rating system might seem a bit odd, but got to be honest, I couldn’t decide between an ‘out of five’ or ‘out of ten’ system and realised I didn’t like either. Reading and writing is about words, so why use numbers to rate books?
Structure and topic. Concise and deep.
Set up to pay off. Above and beyond.
Emotional punch. Enlightenment in a right hook.