If you have ever wondered why some people respond to the suggestion that something they’ve said is racist with outrage over the implication that they could ever be racist rather than with a desire to understand why, make amends and educate themselves, this book will help you understand.
White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for White People to talk about Racism is written by Robin D’Angelo, a white person with decades of experience delivering racial justice training to organizations. Throughout that experience she has met with responses that are familiar to me, and probably many other people. These responses generally go along the lines of ‘I define myself as not-racist, so therefore nothing I say or do could possibly be racist’ and ‘You saying something I said or did was racist is far, far more offensive and harmful to me than the racist thing I said is harmful to someone else, and therefore it is much more important for me to defend myself than to entertain the idea that I inadvertently said something racist’. What we’re not talking about here is the overt sentiments and statements of someone who consciously identifies as a white supremacist. We’re talking about progressives, moderates and conservatives who truly believe they are not racist (and certainly don’t intend to be) but who do not understand how growing up in historically racist societies have embedded attitudes and language that have their origins in racist ideology.
For me, knowing that I grew up in a country with an imperial legacy that used racist ideology to justify its exploitation of non-white peoples, some of which was enshrined in law, and lots of which was embedded in literature, art and other cultural media, makes it seem pretty obvious that I enjoy privileges that I wouldn’t have if I weren’t white, and pretty obvious I might not be fully aware of all the racist opinions and beliefs I’ve absorbed from my culture. Of course I would be horrified if someone told me I’d said something racist and probably my first instinct would be to be defensive (isn’t it always?). But I like to think I could move past that to apologising and figuring out what was behind what I’d said so that it didn’t happen again.
D’Angelo’s book pulls apart the various factors that lead to a different response and it’s illuminating. Central is the idea that we like to see ourselves as good people and the definition of a good white person currently includes not being racist. This means that being called out for saying something racist is an identity threat – to which people tend to respond with some emotional heat.
I found the discussion on how white people are taught about their own history or, more to the point, not taught interesting. When I was at school I learnt about a sanitised, positive British empire focused on exploration, adventure and discovery, and it wasn’t until reading more as an adult that I began to understand what empire was really all about. Even if a white person grows up in an area where there are lots of non-white people, that doesn’t mean we understand anything about the social construct of race and how it impacts people, because it is not openly talked about in the arenas most white people get their information. Also interesting is the information about how classifications of someone as white – in order to determine who was eligible to own property – developed and how convoluted they became, all in the service of restricting wealth and privilege to a small minority.
Reading White Fragility gave me a lot of insight into why it is actually so hard to shift the systemic disadvantages/privileges associated with race and to create more equal outcomes and opportunities for people. It also gave me better ways to talk about these things. Highly recommended.