There have been a lot of comments about this book on this site and references to it in reviewing other books, but surprisingly no actual review! So here we go.
I was originally attracted to this book as a way of understanding white people. To be clear, I am white. But as a Jew, an immigrant, and a person raised in relative poverty, I’ve never felt the sense of implicit belonging Diangelo speaks about. I spend a lot of time thinking about race and racism and have dedicated no small portion of my life to anti-oppression work. I don’t say all of this to sound defensive but to make clear that I found the book useful, even with all these caveats.
This book is useful in two ways:
- Navel gazing!
Diangelo targets the book broadly at white audiences, but her real target is white progressives, who she sees as often causing the most damage, as they confidently navigate the world as “woke allies” that don’t actually do the hard, usually unrewarding work of anti-racism. And though I do work on anti-oppression, a lot of what Diangelo said still rang true of my own behaviour and thoughts. Notice above how I used other markers to differentiate myself from “other” white people. Diangelo specifically speaks to this in her book, and how those other markers, while potentially creating types of friction, are not racial friction. Because while I am all those things, my skin colour still protects me from directly witnessing most racial inequality and certainly from experiencing it. I’ve never been asked where I’m from though people with a good ear do notice my accent. My husband has been asked more than once if he’s a “Syrian refugee” (he was born and raised in Canada).
I think this is absolutely key, because most white readers will likely feel defensive reading this book, and it is critical to get past the mental block. Indeed, even as an immigrant who was raised in the middle east, this book helped me see the ways in which white supremacy had been at the periphery of my vision. That’s because racial conditioning is subtle by design, and most people don’t even participate in it deliberately. This book will be valuable to white people hoping to have a better understanding of racial politics – even if you grew up poor, even if you are an immigrant or don’t live in the US, even if you have other inter sectional identities that affect how you interact with public spaces.
But while Diangelo says you should set these other identities aside, I don’t agree. These other identities are, I think, crucial building blocks in the development of empathy. In my experience unearthing my own prejudice and that of others, I find it much easier to make the leap from knowing that discriminatory structures (such as patriarchy) exist to another another (such as racism) existing than adopting something entirely novel. Use whatever experiences you have with prejudice to really reflect on what Diangelo is saying.
- Doing the work
The other way this book is very helpful is if you are actively doing anti-oppression work. Confirmation bias works both ways, guys. I see so many memes and so many one liners at activist meetings where people will reiterate facts like the fact that black people are more likely to get stopped by police/ be incarcerated or have a harder time buying property in “nice” areas, and while those things are true, they don’t get to the actual root of the problem. And if you can’t explain WHY these things are problems, it’s left to the racist you’re talking to to explain it away as “well of course they’re stopped more often, they’re more likely to be criminals – look at how many black people are in jail!” or “well of course they don’t live in nice neighbourhoods, they’re lazy and hate work!” (things I have actually been told)
It’s important to understand the history of why things look the way they do. Otherwise you’re never going to get past the identity politics of “my family was treated badly when we moved here too, we sucked it up and now we’re doing great” arguments that you’ll get from a lot white people who come from immigrant backgrounds (whether they are immigrants themselves or not). Diangelo provides a good basis for that history lesson. She doesn’t go into a lot of depth, which is fine, I think of it as a primer on learning what to google. The book focuses on the US, but from the view of knowing what to google, it’s just fine for folks in other colonized countries. Here in Canada, this is a great starting base to start that history lesson. Yup. Canada has lots of racism too. Sorry.
In the end, the purpose of this book is to help white people who are already at least somewhat aware and interested in race issues to confront their own privilege, the first step in making meaningful strides towards confronting white supremacy. And only the first step. All this book will show you is how to see your own racism and work past the defensive response towards a productive resolution. I don’t think it will help you deal with other racists and I don’t think it’ll help people of colour manage racists any better than you already do.
Most importantly, this does not (nor does it claim to) replace learning about the history and present of racism, and learning it from the people actually experiencing it. There are plenty of books and articles written by people of colour about this, and that should really be the next step.