Dr. Robin DiAngelo is the author of “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.” At our first-ever Conversations with Chanda event, Chanda and Robin discussed her book, the counterproductive reactions white people can have when talking about race, and the steps white people need to take to challenge racial inequities.
Chanda Smith Baker 00:00
Hello there. My name is Chanda Smith Baker and I’m the Senior Vice President of Community Impact here at the Minneapolis Foundation. What you’re about to listen to is the first-ever Conversations with Chanda event where I talked with the author of “White Fragility,” Dr. Robin DiAngelo. As you will hear at the beginning of the talk. These conversations are not easy for me when talking in front of a diverse audience. I believe in order to make change and build community, these conversations are imperative. Overall, the conversation was tough, reflective and raise important points for consideration. So here’s my conversation with Dr. Robin DiAngelo. I invite you to listen with an open mind, and to continue your learning journey on issues of race and equity beyond this conversation. One of the things that I care most about is tackling issues in this community, I think are key for bringing me on over to the Minneapolis Foundation. I was leading Pillsbury United Communities, an organization that I love living in a neighborhood that Breaking Bread is in, in North Minneapolis, where I have been raised and raising my children, and one of them is right there. And where my family’s lived for five generations, and so I’m often sitting in a lot of spaces where the conversations that I hear are not necessarily the conversations that have been my experience. And I do care quite a bit about every single child, every single person, every single community flourishing and having opportunity, and we talk about them often is underestimated or underestimated by a lot of people for the potential and the power and the resources that exist. And in this role with this platform, I’m really, really pleased to be able to bring some of the conversations that I think we need to do to just get right underneath that what is the iceberg to get underneath the surface and dig out a little bit conversations that we need to have. And so that’s really the effort that will be leading over the next time with you, we’ll have other conversations coming up. And I just want to just point out to you that I am on this journey with you. And this conversation I shared with some of you as I walked around the room, conversations like this are not easy. They’re easy for me when I’m talking to other black people. They’re not easy for me to be able to do that in front of an audience that is diverse. I am talking with Robin, we’ve known each other for a few minutes. She is white, I am black. And I am going to try and do this out in a way. Right, and knowing that some of the things that we’re going to talk about are things that I have personally experienced. So I just want you to go with me with that and know that I am learning and navigating this space, there is no judgment here. There is what I imagined only Brill’s sincere interest in how do I do this better? How do I interact with this diverse world? How do I serve people in this community better? And that is what it’s all about. And that’s what we’re about at the Minneapolis Foundation. We’re about how do we serve this community better? And the only way we do that is if we’re continually asking the questions. And so this is not an effort to have you learned from us what we know you need to learn. This is an effort of us digging out things that we’re hearing in community and concerns that we have experienced ourselves and saying, how do we experience this together for the greater good of this city. And that’s where we’re at. So we have about an hour to have this conversation. I’m gonna sit down. And we’re just gonna go right in. You had a great conversation this morning, we were very pleased to be the lead sponsor for Teach for America’s event that they had this morning at 7:30 am. At the Guthrie with about 1,000 people, that got out and I hear it was phenomenal. And being with teachers and others, and I heard that it made some people snap their fingers and head nod and some people were like a little bit, you know, uncomfortable. So how was your experience this morning?
Robin DiAngelo 04:15
There’s something different that happens, I can feel a group, right, even though I’m on a stage off, and I’m not actually interacting, but there’s a feeling. And when you have that many people who choose to come and are willing to pay a nominal fee to come. There’s a kind of openness and I felt it immediately and then I’m affected by it because then it opens me up and I’m a little looser, and I’m I go a little deeper. And so it was a very good synergy and it felt wonderful. And I have to say, I got a standing ovation, which was really a rush in the Guthrie Theater. So yeah, that’s cool.
Chanda Smith Baker 04:49
You know, we’re in the land of friends. And you know, we know what data and I just assume everybody knows you. And so because I know you so well that there’s no introduction needed, but why don’t you just provide just a bit of introduction of who you are and how you got in this work?
Robin DiAngelo 05:02
For the people in the back, I want you to check me out for a minute. Okay. There I am. Alright. So I am a former professor, I’m currently an affiliate faculty member at the University of Washington but not teaching. By I am a full-time speaking, writing and presenting on issues of racial equity with a particular focus on white racial identity. So the question, there are a few questions that drive my work. And one is, what does it mean to be white? In a society that says it doesn’t really mean anything? And yet is profoundly separate on an equal by race? How do we pull that off? And what are the consequences of it? That’s one question. Another question is, why is it so consistently difficult to talk to white people in any authentic direct way about race, right? How do we come to be so often both so oblivious, and I’m just going to be blunt, ignorant, and yet so certain, and so complacent that it isn’t us? How do we come to be so difficult to talk to and to share your experiences within to bring your authentic self to? And what are the consequences? And so in 2011, I wrote an article called white fragility, if you heard that term, I coined the term. And just to try to put language to this dynamic that’s so recognizable, and by the way, white progressives are my specialty. And I suspect I’m in a room full of white progressives. I suspect that’s true. Talk about that for a minute. Why are you my specialty, because I’m a huge, white progressive. And I absolutely get the consciousness of white progressives. And when I say that, I don’t mean Oh, you’re Republican, or you’re Democrat, I mean, any white person sitting in this room right now, who basically thinks it’s not me. Any white person sitting in this room right now thinking, Gosh, I know a white person who really should have been here today. Any white person who’s sitting here and thinking and going to as we continue on of all the ways that you are exempt from everything we’re talking about? At any moment, where you ask yourself, I wonder if it’s me, it’s you. I’m just gonna tell you straight up. It’s you. And I know it’s you. Because I know it’s me. And I think that white progressives, you know, those of us who think it’s not us, or we’re, it’s less of where woke? I think we’re the most difficult. And I think we cause the most daily toxicity to people of color living and working in overwhelmingly white environments. Yes, there are extreme and horrific, violent acts. But day in and day out, you’re going to work with me, you’re going to deal with me. And the degree to which I think I’m good to go. For all the reasons, I’m going to want to make sure you understand that I’m good to go. I mean, I was in Teach for America. And I’ve been to Costa Rica, and I have multiracial nieces and nephews. I am going to be the most defensive because my identity is so rooted in this incredibly problematic understanding of what it means to be racist. Yeah.
Chanda Smith Baker 08:26
What does it mean to be racist?
Robin DiAngelo 08:29
I can tell you what I was taught was it means that I can tell you what I feel confident that most white people sitting in this room have a deeply internalized sense of even if your intellectual self understands it differently. We tend to respond from this deeper definition, which is it was probably the most brilliant adaptation of the system of racism, post Civil Rights was to reduce a racist to this formula, an individual, always an individual, not a system, who consciously has to be conscious for it to count apparently, who consciously doesn’t like people based on race, and is intentionally mean to them. Because if you’ve ever noticed if White people didn’t, didn’t mean to do it, it apparently is not supposed to count. So individual conscious intent. Does that show up? Like my intention? Oh, absolutely. Oh, it shows up when you have a meeting and they have ground rules, and one of them is assume good intent. I mean, that’s better than bad intent. But honestly, your intentions are irrelevant. put a comma, and then right focus on impact. Right. So individual conscious mal intent across race is is the mainstream definition. And by that definition, virtually every white person in this room is exempt. It sets up this either-or that nice people cannot engage in racist acts or behaviors or collude in or benefit from the very system we live in. And I think it’s the root of virtually all-white defensiveness. Have you guys noticed any white defensiveness just checking? Right? Because if that’s my definition, and you suggest anything I’ve said or done is racially problematic, much less God, I didn’t say or do anything, but just by being white. I’m going to hear you say, I’m going to hear that as a question to my very moral character. And now I need to defend my moral character. And I will. So it just so perfectly protects the system while looking like a good thing, because of course, it’s not. It’s not good to be racist, right? Yeah.
Chanda Smith Baker 10:34
Could you just set the ground for us a little bit on what does white fragility mean?
Robin DiAngelo 10:41
So there are many, many threads that go into having us react in particular ways whenever our positions are acknowledged, right? To suggest that what we have isn’t solely from our hard work, right? That to suggest that there’s no way we could not have absorbed implicit racial bias, right, these kinds of things. We, we become very defensive, right? Or we feel unfairly accused, or we have hurt feelings. How could you think that about me, if you must not know me, because if you know me, you know, I couldn’t have or I’m a white female. So I’ll cry, right? Whatever it takes to repel the challenge, and regain my position within an unequal racial hierarchy. So when I got the term fragility, it was meant to capture how little it takes to cause white people to meltdown on this topic. And so for many white people, two really simple ways you could trigger white fragility. One, keep saying white people as if it mattered. So prepare yourself, I’m gonna say about 100 times and to generalizing about white people. We do not like to be generalized about. Individualism is a very precious ideology for white people. And of course, we’re the only group racially that’s granted individuality. And so we will take great umbrage as if someone is perceiving as if they could know something about us just because we’re white, right? So I want to say, as a sociologist, I’m really comfortable generalizing about groups of people. Okay, social life is patterned, and predictable and describable in observable ways. And I am simply describing an incredibly consistent white racial pattern, and then offering a theory about how you know, how it came to be and how it functions. So again, the fragility is meant to capture how little it takes, but our responses are not fragile at all, in their impact, right. So you challenge me and I meltdown in any kind of way. And I have to understand that my responses are backed with the weight of history, legal authority, and institutional control. And so it becomes a kind of weaponized hurt feelings, weaponized tears, weaponized sense of misunderstanding, and powerfully propels you to back off, I’m going to ask a rhetorical question to the people of color in this room. How often have you tried to give a white person feedback on our inevitable and often unaware racist patterns? And had that go well, for you?
Chanda Smith Baker 13:36
Robin DiAngelo 13:38
Right? I mean, honestly, many, many, many people say never, if ever, or rarely. Yeah, rarely. So. So. So that’s chapter 11. Right of your book. 1011. Yeah. But I just want to say you can just assume that the people of color living and working overwhelmingly white environments take home way more daily indignities and slights from well-intended white people, then they bother talking to us about because their experience is if they try to talk to us about it, they will get more punishment, it will get worse, not better. And so yay, take it home. And I think it has something to do with the difference in how long we live. And so I see it as functioning as a kind of everyday white racial bullying. Because we make it so miserable for people of color to talk to us about their experiences are the patterns that most of the time they don’t. And that serves the status quo beautifully.
Chanda Smith Baker 14:36
Yeah. So in chapter four, the book, you talk about the patterns of white fragility, so you touched on a couple of them. Can you give some other examples of like, what are the set of patterns that show up? And I wrote them down.
Robin DiAngelo 14:53
Chanda Smith Baker 14:54
I can trigger it here on my thing, so that you write the socialization and gender — there’s a common set of racial patterns. And these patterns are the foundation of white fragility. Examples include preference for racial segregation or lack of sense of loss about segregation, a lack of understanding what racism is, assuming everyone is or is having our experiences, dismissing what we don’t understand. Wanting to jump over the hard personal work to get to solutions. Confusing disagreement with understanding I got to that one I was like…
Robin DiAngelo 15:33
Man, okay, so so she’s reading from a list of like, kind of these are any interruptions to those will often trigger white fragility. So you give me feedback. And I insist that it was a misunderstanding, it had to be misunderstanding, because fundamentally, what’s under the under the iceberg is, it’s not possible for that to be racism, because I cannot be racist. So, therefore, you had to have misunderstood me. And what I would offer is no, what if, what if you understood me perfectly, you even understand what I really meant. And what I don’t understand is how what I really meant is coming out of a racist framework, because I have a racist framework because I was conditioned and socialized and grew up swimming in racist water. In a country who, whose foundations who the bedrock of this country is racism, of course, I have internalized a racist framework. And so the nature of an assumption is you don’t know you’re making it, of course. But I reveal that to you. You try to tell me that what you see, and I just insist you had to have misunderstood me.
Chanda Smith Baker 16:43
And you talked a little bit about the consequences of disrupting. But can you share a little bit about how that shows up in our institutions and our schools or in our relationships at work? When brown or black people are interrupting those patterns, right, when they are dressing them?
Robin DiAngelo 17:00
The investments in white… Oh here I know, I’m out the gate pretty strong, because I only have an hour and we got to wake up.
Chanda Smith Baker 17:07
And we fed you well. We tried to butter you up.
Robin DiAngelo 17:10
I just gotta say our outcomes are not changing. So all the narratives that you hold as a white person about how why you’re not a part of the problem, that’s not changing outcomes, right? So we have to change that fundamental understanding of what it means. And so we need to change the question from if I’m racist, or if I’m part of the problem, too. How am I? Right? Are our policies racist? No. How? How is it manifesting in this particular situation? So Ibram Kendi who wrote a national board book award-winning book “Stamped From the Beginning” beautifully argues in his book, a racist policy is any policy that has a racially inequitable outcome. If you truly believe all people are equal, the only explanation for racially inequitable outcomes is discrimination. And by that definition, basically, probably every policy in every institution represented in this room is racist. So we got to get them on the table. But, this triggers another idea that when everybody won, that there could ever be neutral policies. Yeah, that policies could just be applied across the board. And as long as everybody’s getting the same, it’ll be fair, those don’t account for power. And the difference in where people are starting, right, so some people are going to get more, and some are going to get less, right. Until we reach that if we ever do. So trying to get racism on the table. You are going to see so many moves to get it off the table. So how about this? Well, yeah, but then we got to talk about, you know, gender binaries, and we’re going to have to talk about ableism. And we’re gonna have to talk about antisemitism, and we’re going to talk about heterosexism. So let’s get everything we can on the table. So basically, nothing can be done in-depth, and definitely racism won’t be looked at. That’s one move. Another move is though the real oppression is class. Here’s, here’s my guide. Because I don’t think we’re ever going to get to is it true or is it false that the real oppression is class.nAnd by the way, I grew up in poverty. I always knew I was white. Come on, I don’t know how anyone can say to be white and poor and to be black and poor is the same experience. There’s no way I can talk about growing up in poverty without also been talking about having been white and being white. And boy, being white is sure helped me overcome poverty. Right? So rather than which one is the true one, or the most important one, I would just ask how does it function when we’re trying to keep race on the table and then you put in the real oppression is class, right? Or there’s lots of narratives. This is a very diverse workplace. Right? And so we don’t really have those issues.
Chanda Smith Baker 20:09
Robin DiAngelo 20:11
It’s a wildly seductive system and white people cannot be trusted to determine how well we’re doing.
Chanda Smith Baker 20:20
Okay. Okay. So in the book, and I believe he talked about this morning, just in terms of who’s controlling the narrative who’s controlling decisions in this country? I don’t know if you know, the stats off the top of your head. But can you say a bit about that, just so that we really understand who’s controlling the narrative, the decisions, and the powers in this country?
Robin DiAngelo 20:44
I don’t think it dips lower than 70%. And for the most part, it’s upwards around 90. Every every position of power from the judges to the Congress, we know that presidents were like 99%. White, yeah. And, and mostly male. So well, I don’t want to exempt myself. Because as a white person, I am fully represented. It’s hard to separate out race and gender when you get to the halls of power. And yet 31% of the population are white men. I’m gonna I’m just gonna go for it. Do you ever just wonder about the mediocrity white people get away with?
Chanda Smith Baker 21:29
Yes. Yes, yes, yes. And it’s something that’s talked about a lot, right. This was a conversation that we have, when we’re by ourselves, having this conversation around the expectations of people of color, right? And we’ve seen it in movies, and people will call it the black tax. Like there’s a black tax — twice as good. You hear it sometimes with women as well. But it is for sure a common conversation behind the scenes that people may or may not understand. And so yes, I’m very familiar with that. Yeah.
Robin DiAngelo 22:00
I mean, maybe a great example is one that just I just have, I don’t want to distract us with those kinds of racial controversies of the moment. But what just happened with these very, very wealthy celebrities, paying to get their mediocre children into really good schools, right? That just has to land as just wow.
Chanda Smith Baker 22:19
Well, it landed with me as though it’s not a surprise, like, I totally wasn’t surprised by it. If anything, I was surprised by a couple of celebrities in it. This happens every day. At every level.
Robin DiAngelo 22:30
And white progressives.
Chanda Smith Baker 22:32
And white progressives. It happens every single day, we see it in terms of how we’re balancing our schools. My son played football, highly recruited for football, I’ve watched people pass them up on the football field because they gave a million-dollar donation, or donations or whatever, like or other kids, not just him as a student. Juxtaposed to this story is the black woman who went to jail for giving a false address so her kid can get into a better school. She’s in jail. And this has happened to parents in Wisconsin. And so this is what we’re talking about in terms of the system. I highly doubt that these folks go to jail. And maybe they do base on what they lied on, you know, the papers. But yeah, yeah, this is a type of hypocrisy that I think we’re living in that yields anger, right? Like the angry black woman. Like there are days where people will say that and I’m like, “Well, don’t, don’t we deserve to be a little angry?”
Robin DiAngelo 23:31
The way I think about that is… People of colors’ distrust in our institutions, and especially our schools is rational. It’s rational, that they mistrust our institutions.
Chanda Smith Baker 23:43
Can I just say that that’s the first time that I’ve heard that?
Robin DiAngelo 23:48
Chanda Smith Baker 23:49
Robin DiAngelo 23:49
Yeah. They are delivering their precious children into an institution that has not done right by children of color who doesn’t know, one that schools are not equal. Schools are fantastically efficient sorting mechanisms to sort children into unequal places in life. And we all know that we wouldn’t care what schools our children went to, but do we care? Oh, boy, do we care? Right? And so parents of color, reasonably and rationally mistrust that institution. And so rather than get our backs up, “Well, why would you think I’d be biased? You don’t know me, right?” We need to say, “Absolutely. Until I show you I’m different. You go ahead and assume that I’m not going to be different than any other white person you’ve ever worked with. I need to earn your trust not demand it.”
Chanda Smith Baker 24:50
Well, wow. So we talked a little bit about the intersections and how people can dismiss a conversation about race, and they bring in the other isms. And that is a common reaction. And I think we are all, all of us that are trying to break through that conversation has experienced that reaction. Another common thing that I hear is, “I don’t see color and I was raised to treat everyone well.”
Robin DiAngelo 25:25
Thank you for handing me that one. I want to talk about that one. So in my area of scholarship is critical discourse analysis. And that’s the critical examination of language and framing and that words and phrases are not just neutral descriptors of something, they shape how we view that thing. And so as I listen to the narratives white people use when racism comes up, I see I literally saw in my mind this, Doc, and I use it in my presentations, a picture of a dock. And it signifies two things, one, how superficial these narratives are. But that dock looks like it’s just floating on the water. But of course, it’s not. It’s resting on an entire structure submerged under the water. And despite all the things we say, our outcomes aren’t changing. So I see them these narratives and two overall categories, colorblind and color celebrate. And probably the number one colorblind one is I was taught to treat everyone the same, some version of that. You’ve all heard it, if you’re going to be honest, many of us in the room have said it. So you ready? Not one single person in this room or any room was taught to treat everyone the same. You were not. You could not be and you do not. You can be told I can lecture you and lecture you, and you can’t do it because you are human. And you make meaning through the cultural framework you were conditioned to make meaning through. And it’s a socio-political framework is no objectivity. Let me give you an example. You all know it’s also not nice to judge, right? So no judging is going on right now. We’re good. All right. So when I hear a white person, say some version of I was taught to treat everyone the same, there’s a bubble over my head. And there’s a couple of things in it one, oh, this person doesn’t understand basic socialization. This person doesn’t understand culture. This person is not self-aware. And I need to give a heads up to the white people in the room. And you can check me if I’m wrong here. When people of color hear a say some version of that they’re generally not thinking all right, I’m talking to a woke white person right now. I mean, usually some version of eye-rolling is going on. A dear friend of mine…
Chanda Smith Baker 27:46
My air bubble is usually, “Oh, honey.”
Robin DiAngelo 27:50
Oh, honey. Well, a friend of mine, who I sometimes lead with — a black woman named Erin Trent Johnson says when I hear a white person say that what I’m thinking is this is a dangerous white person. This is a white person who’s going to need to deny my reality. It’s just, it’s just not doing what we think that it’s doing. Right? Oh, no. And then there’s the those are the colorblind narrative, then there’s the color celebrate a little more. We like… the progressives like those. So those are things like this. I work in a very diverse environment. I have people calling my family. Me? I’m not racist. I used to live in New York. That will get used interchangeably with I’m not racist. I’m from Canada. Now what’s important about looking at those narratives, and I do want to mock them a little bit. I mean, I think we need to really look at kind of like what am I have I ever thought critically about what evidence I’m using? Right? And what framework it’s resting on and how it’s actually functioning. Because we usually don’t ask. Notice how often white people will use their evidence of a lack of racism. It will be based on proximity. So, you know, my neighborhood was really pretty much all white, but there were two families of color and they were our best friends. Pretty much every teacher I’ve ever had was white, but my third-grade Spanish teacher wasn’t and she was my favorite. Right? Any, any chance we can to get proximity in. It’s very important to us. So if my evidence that I’m not racist, is that I can be in relationship with people of color. In order for that to be good evidence, a racist must not be able to do it. So racists can’t live in New York City apparently, and Canada is racist-free. Ask the indigenous people about that. Apparently, racists can’t have people come their family or work three cubicles down from a person of color. So now I’m gonna ask another rhetorical question that people of color in the room, could erase this work three cubicles down from you? Even one on the equity team? I’m all for equity teams. But some of the most obstructionist gatekeeping oblivious and harmful white people are involved in equity work. I need to say that some really, really effective people or two, it’s anything we think certifies us, has us stopped growing. It has us complacent and certain and then typically arrogant, resistant, and defensive.
Chanda Smith Baker 30:49
So how do we help these people? What do we do? I mean, seriously, like, because part of it is like this invisibility. Right? Like there’s an invisibility issue here that you don’t see, you don’t see me, you don’t see the issues that I’m raising, we just confronted something racial, I’m trying to have a conversation, it shut down. So now the issue is like moved over this invisible way. And, and I don’t see my role in this, right. Like there’s, there’s a level of privilege and arrogance in that. But if you were raised that way, and socialize that way, without a lot of diversity or challenge, right, because I think the fragility pieces, is also not having the muscle in the ability to work through when people challenge the concept of who you think you are. Right? So how do we, how do people, what are things that they can do to look in the mirror, listen better understand the role, like, I think people might want something tangible?
Robin DiAngelo 31:54
Well, I want to map out as many moves as I can and make it harder for us to make those moves. Okay. So I want to add that when you try to call a white person in, they may kind of avoid you and kind of but they may go the other direction, where now you become the aggressor, and I become the victim. Right, you have unfairly attacked me and so we’ve seen that dynamic too, I just want to I want to put that in the room. And everything I’m doing is my best attempt to kind of push us, white people, out of denial, make it really hard for any white person in the room to exempt themselves because we’re going to want to do that. And then fundamentally, we have to change what we understand it means to participate in racism. As long as we think that only individual intentional mean, people do it, we cannot get where we need to go. We just I just don’t think we can, when you change your understanding of it. So let me just put it really bluntly, as a result of being raised as a white person in this society. And just in case I have anybody in Germany from the room in Germany, you could be also raised this way. And Australia and South Africa, basically, any western or white settler colonial context as a result of being raised here. I have a racist worldview. There’s just no way it’s embedded in everything. And so step one, if you don’t know how you have that, or how it’s embedded to get to work, right? And whose job is that? Oh, hold that, okay. I’ll try to hold it. Alright. I have a racist worldview. I have racist biases. I have developed racist patterns as a result. And I have investments in this system, because it’s, it’s comfortable, I’m sorry to say that the default of this society is racism. And as a white person that’s comfortable for me. And I, so I have investments in it. It’s also helped me overcome my barriers I have faced, and I also have investments and not seeing anything that I just said, For what it would suggest to me about what kind of person I am, if I’m operating from the mainstream definition, and what it would actually require of me. I didn’t choose to be socialized into that. But I was I had no choice. I was I don’t feel guilty about it. Guilt is not necessary. It’s temporary, I think it comes up. But if you don’t move through it, then it just functions to excuse your immobilization. I feel responsible for how I was socialized, right. And I cannot tell you how liberating it is to start from that premise. It’s so liberating. I don’t I don’t have to defend, deflect, deny, explain away. I can actually just get to work aligning what I profess to value with how I’m actually leading my life. And I can try to figure out so how is all that socialization coming out in my relationship? In my workplace, right? Again, because it is. Right? And that’s freeing.
Chanda Smith Baker 35:11
I think this morning you talked about if someone went to the doctor, and they heard that they had an ailment they would Google.
Robin DiAngelo 35:16
Oh, you want to hear?
Chanda Smith Baker 35:17
Yeah, I do. I do.
Robin DiAngelo 35:19
Well, the number one… There are three top questions I get whenever I do a talk. So I’ll do them in the order. So one would be, how do I tell so-and-so about their racism? This is from a white person, right? You’re going to want to know how am I going to talk to my coworkers? Or how am I going to? So here’s, here’s my response to that question. Well, how would I tell you about your racism? And then I just passed because notice that question always presumes it, isn’t you. That’s the first place white people want to go is okay, how do I wake everybody else up? Right? What about you? A second question is how do I raise my children? Some version of how do I raise my children? I’m always thinking, Are you seriously asking me how to raise your children? Wow. Okay. But just for that I have a section on my website called resources for parents. But the number one question I get is, okay, okay. Okay. Now, what do I do? That question has bothered me for a really long time, because I think it’s disingenuous. I think a lot of white people have never thought about this deeply in their lives. And an hour later, they want the answer. I think it’s, it’s a form of colonialism, quite frankly. And honestly, in my experience, I’m really sorry to say the following… Most white people in this room are going to do nothing different other than continue to smile at black people, when you walk by them, and go to lunch on occasion. You’re not gonna do anything different. And I’d love you to prove me wrong but white apathy is really, really deep. So my response to that question, what do I do is, what about your life has allowed you to be a full functioning professional, adult in leadership and not know what to do about racism? Why in 2019, would that be your question? When people of color been telling us forever? When the informations everywhere? How have you managed not to know? And what would you do about anything you had the mildest interest in? And you wanted to find out more you’d Google the shit out of it? I’m watching a movie. Is Keanu Reeves still alive? And I’m okay, what should I do about racism? And honestly, for a lot of white people, actually just taking the initiative to go seek some resources is a huge break with the apathy of whiteness, and most people aren’t going to do it. So the way that I speak back to that question is meant to challenge that apathy. But also, it’s a sincere question. Because if you take out a piece of paper and you start writing down, why you don’t know what to do, you’re going to have a map, and nothing on it will be easy, or quick. But you weren’t educated. Okay, there you go. You don’t. But that leads to your question. Are y’all gonna rush over to Chanda and ask her to educate you know, that’s a really, really problematic dynamic, there are plenty of people of color, who write and speak, and teach and make movies who choose to do that, who choose to educate, and who often hopefully get paid to do it. Right? You have to have a trusting relationship, it’s really problematic across a line of power, to just say, give you open your guts. You take all the risk here, you do all the emotional work, and just give me the fruits of your labor. And you know what I’m going to do, don’t you, I’m going to decide what which of those fruits is legitimate and which isn’t. But I’m never going to give you anything back. I’m not gonna open my guts and be vulnerable. That means this is the dynamic. So that is not for us to do to you.
Chanda Smith Baker 39:15
Yeah. Can you talk a bit about the difference between… So I think you talked about understanding comfort and safety as we address these issues because sometimes there’s a dismissiveness or saying “I’m not safe,” and really, it’s about comfort level. Or it could be about a lack of understanding. Can you just talk a bit about those two?
Robin DiAngelo 39:40
Yeah, I mean, because I’ve been in many workplaces and things where, you know, you have these dialogues, and you have these workshops, and there’s a lot of effort spent to make sure that white people feel safe or I need to feel safe or I didn’t feel safe. So my question to white people who are asking to feel safe in a dialogue about racism is what does it mean to need to feel safe from a position of social, historical, institutional, cultural power, and privilege?
Chanda Smith Baker 40:13
Sounds safe to me.
Robin DiAngelo 40:14
You are perfectly safe. And it perverts, the actual, historic, and ongoing direction of violence and harm, and the true direction of that harm. To use that language, when we’re merely talking about race. We’re perfectly safe. What we really want to be asked, this is what I think we really want to ask. But we know we can’t quite get away with it, we really want to say how are you going to keep me comfortable in the dialogue? But that’s not quite as legitimate. As soon as I say, I need to feel safe. Oh, everyone should feel safe. Right? So being this is where discourse analysis comes in, how does language function? You know, the things that we say and ask for are really, really powerful. So I really just think that’s a term that should be taken from our vocabulary Oh, along with reverse racism, because there’s no such thing.
Chanda Smith Baker 41:11
Can you? Can you say why they’re not a thing? Please, just like for me,
Robin DiAngelo 41:19
All people have racial bias, you have racial bias, and you could just on-site dismiss me as a clueless white woman. By the way, that would be actually a very smart thing to do. I mean, based on probably years of experience, but nonetheless, we could say she doesn’t know me, that was bias, not fair based on race. Everyone has racial bias. When you back one group’s racial bias with legal authority and institutional control, it is transformed into a far-reaching system. I have a slide I show up just the trajectory of anti-black racism from the beginning to the current, it’s just dense, and African Americans are not and have never been in a position to do any of that to white people. And we have always been and continue to be in a position to do it to you. And so, there’s just no such thing as reverse racism. And so I reserved that term sociologist reserve the term racism to include how the impact is transformed when there’s legal authority, institutional control behind it. Here’s the example I use rarely simply, women got the right to vote in 1920. And hang in there, and I’ll add the other piece, women got the right to vote in 1920. Women could be as prejudiced as they wanted against men. Right? Only men could literally deny every woman in society their civil rights, right? So women could have personal power, one on one women could discriminate against men, they couldn’t grant themselves their own civil rights, they couldn’t even vote on the right to vote, much less speak in many public forums. And so when you use these terms interchangeably, as it’s as if it’s all the same, you take the weight of power off the table, right, just want to be really clear. You see that difference? That is profound. That is the difference between individual prejudice and institutional power, what happens when your group’s bias is backed by the control of everything. And of course, it was white men who gave white women complete access to the right to vote. So this is another dimension of institutional powers that dominant groups experience is held up as universal. So there’s no more a universal woman’s experience, or we’re going to go feminism here in a minute. Then there is universal human experience. On the spiritual plane, probably, but we don’t live on the spiritual plane, we live in the physical plane, and the physical plane, there’s not a universal human experience. Even though 99% 99 of the top 100 grossing films of all time… 99 were directed by men and 95 of them white. By definition, institutional power is the ability to disseminate your worldview and position it as human worldview. So that Mike Lee is a filmmaker who speaks to the human condition. And Spike Lee is a black filmmaker who makes black films.
Chanda Smith Baker 44:39
Yeah, I’m taking that in. I hear ya. And the Voting Rights Act came when? When.
Robin DiAngelo 44:47
Came with? Oh yeah. 1964. And we’ve almost dismantled it. This is the other thing, right? These things are not set and secure. it’s being picked away slowly and we are returning to voter suppression.
Chanda Smith Baker 45:03
Yeah, if you want evidence, look at what happened in Georgia. And Florida. And, and, and and, right? Um, okay, so we have a few minutes left. Have I touched everything I need to touch? Actually, I have one more question. I have two more questions. And I had some questions mailed, emailed in, and I’ve tried to get to them. And you’ve gotten to some of those answers. One of them was from someone who says, I want to be in these conversations, and then I’m in them, and I might language wrong. I might say something, something incorrectly, and I’m getting interrupted and corrected. So how do I push past? How do they push past? Kind of the shutdown of trying to do the work?
Robin DiAngelo 45:51
And I’m assuming that’s a white person, right? I mean, there’s a lot going on this one. I think the sincere kind of worst fear of a white progressive is that I might accidentally say something racist. And yet, how do we respond when someone lets us know that indeed, we have just said something racist? Don’t you dare tell me I just said something racist. Right? So what we ended up doing when we’re really careful, I’m not going to say anything in case, how are you going to find out right, what you’re really doing is protecting your blind spots that way, you know, it’s not comfortable to have them pointed out. But I couldn’t articulate an eighth of what I can today, and my learning will not ever be finished. If I hadn’t made countless mistakes, and learned from them, and hopefully integrated the lessons and kept moving forward. It can’t be the reason to not engage. And yes, ideally, somebody would tell you diplomatically and kindly, but you know, how about it’s on us to toughen up and not on them to tie themselves in knots trying to just get it so right by us?
Chanda Smith Baker 46:59
So get the correction, right, our tone, right, our body language, right. What else?
Robin DiAngelo 47:04
I wrote this, I wrote this piece called white fragility and the question of trust, right, like, kind of what are the rules? So apparently, there’s a set of rules white people have for how people color are supposed to give us feedback. And the cardinal rule, the cardinal rule for giving it to us correctly, is don’t ever give it to us. That the only way you’re ever going to get that right. But if you must, well, then let’s just go down this list. And I just want to ask is, where’s that list come from? Let me just repeat. Yes, it’s easy, easier to take. But I think we have to ask ourselves, in some ways, that you are not moving through every day, in every moment. expressing your rage is a miracle. Okay? Yeah. Um, and I honestly have a question for white people, why aren’t our hearts breaking? Okay, so if somebody brings something to you, maybe it takes them to be that upset to push through all the all the fear of backlash, and all the years of just, it’s a moment of incredible trust, across a deep history of harm. They probably saw something in you that said, I’m going to take a risk and go here. And how that person responds is going to dictate whether we have an authentic relationship or not. I’ve had so many people color say to me, one, we do not expect you to be free of your conditioning, you know, and we’re not going to give up on you. We need you in the struggle. If we gave up on you, every time you showed your stuff, we’d really be isolated. What we’re looking for is in those moments when it surfaces, where can we go with you? And if we can’t go there, if we can’t work towards repair, we’re not having an authentic relationship.
Chanda Smith Baker 48:58
Would you mind sharing? We just have a few minutes, but can you just share in the book, you describe an incident you said something, you were working with a consultant. You heard that you offended her, you came back. Can you talk about that conversation… How that conversation went to just illustrate moving through it?
Robin DiAngelo 49:20
Yeah. So I used to be co-director of equity for a large nonprofit. It was an interracial team. So the other person Deborah was a black woman. And then we had an executive assistant, another black woman named Marcia, a three-person team. And one day, the company hired a consultant to design a new website. She said meetings with all of us all the teams to find out what we did so she could design our page. I go into this meeting, oh, turns out the consultant is also a black woman. So now I’m in a room with three black women, two of whom I know very, very well and one who I don’t know at all. And the first thing the consultant does, I’ll call her Angela is handed us a survey to fill out about what we do. I start to fill it out. I find it template and tedious and definitely doesn’t capture the nuances of anti-racist work. So I set it aside and I say, let me explain. We go into the satellite offices, we do these anti-racist trainings. They’re supercharged they don’t always go well. In fact, Deborah was just in this office up north with all white people, and they said, they never want her back in the building. And then I said, her hair must have scared the white people. Just long lock braid. So let’s just freeze and see what I did right there. I told an insensitive an inappropriate joke about a black woman’s hair. And ironically, I did it as a form of credentialing myself, that I was the cool white person, and they were the clueless. So two moves, common moves. And I wish I could tell you I realized I was making this was I didn’t. And it meeting ended. And a couple days later, Marsha, our assistant came and said, Angela was really offended by that joke you made about Deborah’s hair. So I think, you know, I, I immediately understood and recognized it. Thank you, Marcia. Okay, so now I need to repair it. And I followed a series of steps. First one called my friend Christine, who’s white, but would not go into agreement with me that Angela was too sensitive. I get emails when people read my book to tell me that Angela, that wasn’t racism. I just forgot to say that. I call Christine. And I said, I need to vent. Right. And because I cried, I was mortified. I felt terrible. But I did not want to bring those feelings to Angela, and put her in a position to hold those or absolve me. So I kind of got all that out. And then Christina and I put our heads together and said, Okay, let’s be really clear about what was racist about your behavior. Okay, I think I got it. Then I called Angela, and these were my words, when she picked up the phone, Angela, would you be willing to grant me the opportunity to repair the racism that I perpetrated towards you in the meeting last week?
Chanda Smith Baker 52:02
Robin DiAngelo 52:04
And I was prepared for her to say no, actually, I thought she probably would. And if I couldn’t hold that no and not freezer out, or then I wouldn’t have been ready. She said yes. But I want you to notice I’m packing these steps because they reveal a framework that I have today. That’s very different than the one that I was socialized into. I put it like that to her on the phone because she could assume Marcia had told me and that’s why I was calling. And I had behaved like an asshole. In that meeting. Director of equity Robin DiAngelo, I had behaved that way. For all she knew I had showed her nothing different. For all she knew I was going to subject her to more I was going to explain, explain, explain what I really meant. Okay. So I wanted her to know where I was coming from. So she could make an informed decision about whether she wanted to throw her pearls. She said yes. And we sat down. And I apologize. And we talked about it. And I’m going to I’m going to pull out kind of key points. She said, I don’t know you. I have no relationship with you. No trust with you. And I do not want to be joking about black women’s hair in a professional work meeting with a white woman that I don’t know. I hear you. I see that I apologize. And then I asked a really important question. Is there anything I missed? That’s because Christina and I are both white. And probably there’s something we missed. And she said, Yes. That survey you so glibly shoved aside wasn’t nuanced enough for your work. I wrote that survey and I’ve spent my life justifying my intelligence to white people. That was like a punch in my gut, because I just, oh, I got it. I know enough about the history to know exactly what you meant. And, and how you kind of pull out of yourself and just like, oh, how arrogant or was that your survey wasn’t nuanced enough for my racial analysis, and never occurred to me that she had written it, you know, all of it. So I apologized for that owned it. And we talked about it. And then my final question was, is there anything else that needs to be said or heard that we might move forward? And she said, Yes. If we’re going to be working together, you’re going to run your racism at me again. So the next time you do would you like your feedback publicly or privately? Do you love this woman? I mean, I was just like, gosh, that was generous of you to give me the choice. But actually, I would like to believe that she had demonstrated enough that she knew she could be that direct and I would understand it. So basically, what she was saying was your wife and your, if we’re going to be working together again, this stuff’s gonna come out. And so when it does, how should we proceed? Right? For me here, she’s saying, for me, these are two options I’m going to give you, which was very generous. And so I said, in my case, please publicly. It’s very important that other white people see that I’m not free of these patterns. And it gives me the opportunity to receive the feedback without defensiveness. So what I can say as a result of doing this work is I do less harm. I still do harm, but I do less. And that is no small thing because that can be one more hour on someone’s life, that they didn’t take it home and try to figure out whether it was worth it to talk to me. I do less harm. I’m not defensive anymore.
Chanda Smith Baker 55:49
How long did that take?
Robin DiAngelo 55:50
I have really good repair skills.
Chanda Smith Baker 55:53
Yeah. How long did that take?
Robin DiAngelo 55:55
Chanda Smith Baker 55:56
Like so it’s not an overnight thing, right? No one’s gonna read your book, get the steps and then be not defensive tomorrow.
Robin DiAngelo 56:04
No. It takes, you know, it’s like water dripping on a rock because everything outside this room will push everyone in this room, not to see anything we’ve tried to make visible. Everything outside that room will not only push you not to see it will kind of penalize you for trying to see a name what we’ve been talking about. And so the force is pushing back. On every inch, you try to challenge you have to be relentless. And you have to put something in place to keep you accountable.
Chanda Smith Baker 56:38
Our conversation ended with this story from Robin and what I took away from it was the courage it took for both people to be honest and willing to have that tough dialogue. I also took away from Robin, how she appreciated getting feedback in public and in real-time and how important that was for her to demonstrate true partnership and commitment to issues related to equity. I spent in time over the weekend reflecting on this conversation and what we’re setting out to do here at the Minneapolis Foundation. I also asked Dr. DiAngelo to share with us her reading list for those interested in continuing this work. You will find her recommendations on the Minneapolis Foundation website. There are more Conversations with Chanda events coming in 2019 so keep an eye out. And I thank you very much for listening.Close Transcript -
Robin DiAngelo is an American author, academic and lecturer who received her Ph.D. in Multicultural Education from the University of Washington. She has more than 20 years of experience being a consultant and trainer on issues of racial and social justice. Her book, “White Fragility,” was released in June 2018 and debuted on the New York Times Bestseller List.
Learn more about Robin on her website. You can see photos from this event on The Minneapolis Foundation’s Facebook page.