'People Will Insist That They are Not Racist': Robin DiAngelo on 'White Fragility' and the Way Forward

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Thousands of vehicles lined up at the Port of Oakland before departing to Oakland and Lake Merritt on Sunday May 31, 2020 afternoon to take part in a caravan protesting the killing of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of the police. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

"I'm going to assume most white progressives would acknowledge structural racism. And yet individually, most white people will say, 'I'm not racist. I have nothing to do with it,'" says Robin DiAngelo.

DiAngelo, a San Francisco-born social justice educator, is the author of "White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism". Her exploration of white people's defensiveness in the face of their own biases was originally published back in 2018, but after ongoing protests against the killing of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police, the book was included in many recent reading lists on race. It's now #1 on The New York Times nonfiction best sellers list.

To DiAngelo, white people's unwillingness to see themselves as complicit in a racist system and their ensuing "fragility" on the subject — is actively hampering the anti-racism movement. As she says, true progress can come only when they acknowledge their own biases. "That idea that 'I'm not racist,'" she said, "is not changing racism. We have to come from a fundamentally different paradigm."

DiAngelo appeared on KQED Forum to discuss how admitting to ingrained racism can be "liberating," what's wrong with the term "ally," why poverty doesn't cancel out privilege and why white people need to "get uncomfortable," as soon as possible.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity

Why focus on the idea of 'white fragility'?

The 'fragility' aspect speaks to how little it takes to cause so many white people to erupt in that kind of defensiveness and anger. And for many white people, just using the term 'white people,' proceeding as if we could know anything about anyone 'just because they're white,' will cause that. What I think of as a 'meltdown,' but it's not fragile at all in its impact — because it marshals behind it the weight of history and legal authority and institutional control.

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Yes, all white people are complicit with racism. There will be umbrage and upset. People will insist that they are not racist. That I don't know them ... 'I've traveled a lot. I speak lots of languages ... I had a Black roommate in college. I'm a minority myself.'  This is the kind of evidence that many white people used to exempt themselves from that system. It's not possible to be exempt from it.

And actually, that's liberating. It's liberating to start from that premise because then you can change your question from 'if I'm complicit with racism' ... to 'how am I complicit?' That sets you on a lifelong path.

On why she doesn't call herself 'an ally'

Of course, I strive to be an ally, but I do not call myself an ally. I don't even call myself 'an anti-racist white person.' I say that I'm 'involved in anti-racist work,' because that really is for people of color to decide if, at any given moment, I'm actually behaving in anti-racist ways. I am the least qualified to make that determination; the most invested in actually not seeing the ways I may be complicit.

Ashley Williams and Dujuanna Archable stand during a protest against police violence at 14th and Broadway in Oakland on June 3, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

But for those striving to 'be an ally,' I'm always going to turn it back to you. I'm an educator, and I believe deeply that the more we can see what it is within ourselves, the more effective we will be at helping others.

On what's wrong with 'not seeing color'

[Color] has profound meaning in this society. And when white people say that, I just have to let let them know it's not convincing — and it's absolutely not convincing to Black people.

Erin Trent Johnson is a Black woman I often co-lead [workshops] with. And she says, 'you know, when I hear white people say that, what I'm thinking is this is a dangerous white person. This is a white person who's going to deny my reality, who will have no critical thinking about race, who will have no self-awareness about how their own race shapes other experiences in the world. This is not conveying that this person is a safe person.'

On why the idea of 'white guilt' is unproductive

I am clear that as a result of being raised in this society, I have a racist worldview. There's simply no way I did not absorb that. I have racist biases. I have racist behaviors at times and I also have an investment in the status quo — which is racism — because it's comfortable and because it has served me. It has impacted the outcome of my efforts and it has impacted my ability to manage the struggles that I do face, because, of course, I face struggles, but not racism.

And I don't feel guilty about anything I just admitted to. I didn't choose that socialization ... What I feel is responsible for the outcome of that socialization. How is that manifesting in my life? And if you're living in a neighborhood in Oakland that is diverse, it is most likely in the process of gentrification. And if you're insisting that, 'we're all one and we just need to see each other as one,' it just reminds me of standing [next to] a Black man once, and a white woman said to him, 'I don't even see you as Black!' And his response was, 'Well, then how are you going to see racism? Because I am Black. I know that you see that. And I'm having a different experience than you are.'

Why white people's personal circumstances don't cancel out white privilege

I was raised in poverty [in the Bay Area] and I mean that explicitly ... homelessness, periods of living in our car, periods of foster care. I didn't go to college until I was in my thirties. I had a deep sense of shame.

Robin DiAngelo, author of 'White Fragility' (Gabriel Solis)

I always knew that I was white. I knew that it was better to be white, and that being white is a large part of what helped me navigate poverty and classism. I don't have less racial privilege because I grew up poor. Now, I don't have more either. I just learned my place in the racial hierarchy from a different class position than I would had I been middle class. But I learned it. I could be queer and non-binary: I still have white privilege. And that impacts how I experience my gender identity ...  As race scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw has taught us, these are intersecting identities.

On being the white author of a book about racism

I am speaking as a white person to white people in a way that only I can. So let me be really clear: we white people will never understand what we need to understand about racism if we are not listening to Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color. But for all too long, we have been missing from the conversation, as if we are outside of race and they are the holders of racial knowledge. And that's problematic for many reasons.

I'm very clear that Black people understand everything I'm writing about — most likely to a degree that I never will. But as an insider, there is a way that I can name it that is harder to deny. And so to not use that platform, that reality that I might be heard a little more openly? To not use that, for me, would be unacceptable.

On why white people being 'nice' to Black people doesn't mean they're not racist

It can come across as a kind of objectification or exoticism, right? A kind of over-smiling, over-extension. And still, what's at the root of it: 'I need you to know that I'm not racist. I need you to think that I'm not racist.'

Demonstrators marched on Broadway in Oakland on May 29, 2020 during a protest over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

In my experience, most Black people start from the premise, as do I, that of course white people have internalized racism. We have a racist world view. There's no way we couldn't. It's everywhere. We're born into a society in which it's the bedrock. And so when we overextend ourselves, it doesn't come across as sincere or genuine ... We're not particularly relaxed and we're just trying a little too hard, which only ends up amplifying that sense that this person is different to you.

On acknowledging how personal bias feeds the system

Everyone has bias. There is no human objectivity. And most of the bias is unconscious, not conscious. So implicit racism is what happens when you back one group's collective — in this case racial — bias with legal authority and institutional control that transforms that into the system. It becomes the default. It's not dependent on any one individual.

On why white people need to 'get uncomfortable'

The default of this society is racism. That's the default. It's not an aberration. It is the norm. It is reproduced 24/7, 365 through all of our institutions. And as a white person, I move through a society in which racism is the default in racial comfort. I'm comfortable, racially, virtually every day. It's an exception for me to be outside of my racial comfort zone.

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I mean, really take that in. I live in racial comfort, in a racially unjust society that benefits me. So we're not going to get where we need to go from a place of white comfort.