Here is a book recommendation primarily for my white friends, and it is neither a comfortable nor easy read. This is especially true for my more left-leaning progressive white network – those of us who feel comfortable talking about race, have friends from many ethnicities, and generally see ourselves as part of the solution to injustices and disparities in the world. Robin DiAngelo is a white scholar with a Ph.D. in Multicultural Education from the University of Washington and a researcher in the field of Whiteness Studies. She argues that white progressives are the primary voices in America that are keeping the structures of racism in place. Yes – that said progressives, not neo-conservatives. The term she coined for why this is happening is “white fragility.”
White fragility is the inability of white people to tolerate racial stress – a disbelieving defensiveness that whites exhibit when their ideas about race and racism are challenged. This is particularly the case when whites are implicated in white supremacy. For many whites, it is difficult to talk about racism whatsoever. Many of us would rather see ourselves as colour-blind. When the topic of race emerges, we may become overly sensitive, and in fact, DiAngelo’s research demonstrates that we often do. Her research establishes that we have a tendency toward weaponizing our hurt feelings and becoming defensive when confronted with racial inequality and injustice. “But I’m not a racist. I don’t say the N-word.” The mere suggestion of racism can cause more outrage among white people than the racism itself. “And if nobody is racist,” she asks, “why is racism still America’s biggest problem? What are white people afraid they will lose by listening? What is so threatening about humility on this topic?”
The original essay reflecting on these ideas was released in a paper in 2011. This book emerged after the term went viral, and it remained on the New York Times bestseller list for months. A central point of her argument is that being nice to people of colour is not enough. Whites hold institutional power in the structures of America, and this is arguably the case in Canada as well. In the western colonial context, racism is a system and not just a slur. It is prejudice plus power. The structures in place benefit whites over people of colour, and this can be demonstrated in just about every economic and social measurement.
The current pandemic is a case in point. Right now, today, more black and brown Americans are dying per capita than white Americans from COVID-19. Similar trends are occurring in Britain. This is being described as a crisis within a crisis, and the causes are relatively clear. Before the crisis, people of colour had a higher chronic disease burden and higher levels of obesity tied to racial health disparities linked to structural racism. Institutional biases exist in how people of colour are treated in care – this has been thoroughly researched and established. Additionally, because there are limited coronavirus tests available, the categories determined to administer a test put people of colour at a disadvantage. Not as many black or brown Americans have travelled abroad, nor do they know people who have. Entire communities lack access to testing. PBS ran a helpful segment on this earlier in the week.
The racially divided statistics of morbidity in this pandemic offer clear evidence that America has what DiAngelo describes as a “white supremacist culture.” And, BOOM – These kinds of statements are what tend to kick whites into our mode of defensiveness, as we picture radical neo-Nazis and want to be sure that everyone understands this is not us. “Now breathe,” she requests of her readers. “I am not saying that you are immoral. If you can remain open as I lay out my argument it should soon begin to make sense.” She asserts that racism is a white problem that was constructed and created by white people, and the ultimate responsibility lies with white people. “For too long we’ve looked at it as if it were someone else’s problem, as if it was created in a vacuum. I want to push against that narrative.”
DiAngelo provides steps for whites to reduce fragility and use racial discomfort as a mechanism to understand structural racism better. The book is eye-opening, especially for those who have not thought about structural racism and white privilege. It is a worthy and very timely lockdown read.