Fifty-one years ago, when I was a senior in high school in a small town in south Texas, the local newspaper reported that a classmate had hung himself in a jail in Victoria, a nearby town. I didn’t know him well. I don’t remember his name. He was black, and a friend of his told me he had not been suicidal. I suspected, as did others, that he was killed in the jail by the police. There is no way to know what happened and probably no way I will ever know his name. I couldn’t find his picture in the yearbook and wondered if his family could afford to pay the yearbook photographer. There were untold others, anonymous George Floyds, who died this way in the intervening 51 years. What did we not do in the last 51 years that enabled this secret, pernicious violence, mostly against black men, to continue?
Thinking about this question, I noticed a 2018 book, White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, a consultant and trainer on issues of social justice. The author asks a basic question, “Why is it so uncomfortable for whites to talk about race?” She says that we white people, including especially those of us identifying as progressive, have a large blind spot about the many ways we’ve been imbued with racist thought. Our reluctance and defensiveness in talking about this system helps to hold it in place and prevents us as a country from moving forward.
So, I can tell you how I might have once reacted when I read a statement about the extensiveness of racism. Something like, “Yeah, yeah…I know…I grew up down there. Trust me, I know. You are preaching to the choir.” It turns out, as DiAngelo shows, that many of us white folks have our own version of that “I’m different” response. Many of us are sure we don’t carry the flaw of racism for our own unique set of reasons.
Growing up white, whiteness was for many of us seen as the norm or standard for being human. We thought of ourselves as just people. Our whiteness was rarely if ever mentioned. The phrase “white people” would have jangled in our ears. We were the universal norm; our race didn’t need a name. Having no name presumed our unquestioned importance and centrality.
DiAngelo explains that racism is erroneously seen as consisting of individual intentional discriminatory acts committed by unkind people. She points out that it is instead much broader and deeper. It is a many-centuries-old system set up to perpetuate domination of one group by another. The system still pervades all aspects of the 21st Century cultural soup we swim in. We white folks, all of us, are prone to racist acts of one sort or another which harm people of color. We benefit from a system that always thinks of us as the human norm. It is hard for us to acknowledge the strength of these forces. We avoid it, get defensive, sluff it off as something we already know, and feel upset if we are personally reminded of our own privilege and racism. Hence the term “white fragility,” which can show up as anger, shutting down, tuning out, hurt feelings for example, when our own racist assumptions or acts of privilege are pointed out to us. DiAngelo makes the case that good people can be racist too; the cultural soup subsumes us all. White privilege can be very translucent to those of us who benefit from it.
The 21st Century configuration of structural racism isn’t hard to find. As I look around different organizations to which I belong–a condominium association, two professional psychotherapy organizations, and an aging-in-place support group–almost everyone looks like me. DiAngelo would have me take a hard look at that, ask how did this happen, and find ways to address it. The first step is to acknowledge my aversion to even talking about it in the first place, the fear of controversy or judgment.
The book deals with a difficult subject. It is urging us to dig very deep and think about how we think. To change patterns of thought set that deeply in our psyches is no small task. So, some of her admonishments to evaluate nuances of personal interactions to the nth degree and examine our motives and thoughts can sound unrealistic and harsh, not to mention time consuming. Sometimes they sound like what I imagine the Cultural Revolution was like in China, or any situation where people have attempted to introduce and support new thought. But these changes in my mind are worth making. We can do it in small steps. We have to start somewhere to reverse the sanctioned violence and injustice of this outdated and toxic system that ultimately costs people their lives. White Fragility is worth the effort.