Robin DiAngelo is a white woman writing about racism. I was a white woman reading a white woman writing about racism. Right out of the gate, I’m thinking “Wait, is she supposed to be talking about this? Is it okay that I’m looking to her as an authority on this topic?” DiAngelo tackles it all head on. At the start of the book, she slowly goes through the reasons why she has chosen to be a diversity advocate, and how her voice is helpful in the conversation (as a white person she can speak to white people about being white). What she is NOT doing is speaking for the experiences of people of color but rather offering contextualization about what she has defined as “white fragility” and our (white people’s) inability to constructively talk about racism. It is a heavy topic but DiAngelo breaks it down as simply as she can.
I used to think that the song “Everyone’s a little bit racist” from the Tony Award winning musical Avenue Q had hit the nail on the head with it’s cheeky analysis of racism.
Everyone’s a little bit racist, sometiiiiiiimes.
Doesn’t mean we go around committing hate criiiiiiiimes.
Look around and you will find, no one’s really color-blind.
Maybe it’s a fact we all should faaaace.
Everyone makes judgments… based on race.
It rhymes, it points the finger to say that racism isn’t just for white hood wearing nutjobs, but that everyone can be racist, due to stereotyping based on how certain races may act/look. And everyone CAN be prejudiced. But prejudice and racism aren’t the same. The song is leaving out one important ingredient: power. DiAngelo stipulates that bigotry and prejudice exist across cultural and racial lines, but for white people to claim to be victims of “racism” or “reverse racism” is missing the point. “When I say that only whites can by racist, I mean that in the United States, only whites have the collective social and institutional power and privilege over people of color. People of color do not have this power and privilege over white people.”
Now that I’ve looked through the lens of DiAngelo’s book, I see that “everyone is racist,” is the flipside to “I don’t see race” which is equally problematic. Here she talks about feedback from people of color when they hear a white person claim to have been taught to treat everyone the same, “They are not thinking, “All right! I am now talking to a woke white person!” Quite the opposite; some version of eye-rolling is taking place as they sign the white person off as unaware and brace themselves for yet another exchange based in white denial and invalidation.”
I did not invent racism. I don’t singularly have to carry the weight of white fragility, and white privilege, but by denying the problem I am upholding the system. People who say they don’t see race are removing themselves from the equation and blinding themselves to the issue, just as if “everyone is racist” you have created a shrugging scapegoat for your behavior. I mean, everyone is doing it, so then it’s not that wrong, and also, what can I do about it? The problem becomes insurmountable. And to take that one step further, if everyone is doing it, then no one is really culpable, than no one will take responsibility for fixing it.
Where this concept of everyone being racist CAN be helpful though, is if white people in America could come to terms with the fact that because of long-standing cultural tradition, all white people ARE “a little bit racist, sometimes” we could start to destigmatizing it so that we can talk about it openly and learn how to be better and make better choices and be advocates.