In a way, it’s like the setting of a science-fiction story: A place so perfectly designed for the benefit of one group that their children grow up blissfully unaware of the ways in which its system is optimized for them. It’s always been that way as far as they know, and its bias is therefore invisible. Do fish see water?
It’s not science fiction, though. It’s essentially the story of everyone born white in the U.S. Privilege is so second-nature to white Americans that the only time it’s even considered is when it’s challenged. When it is, the reaction is likely to be so virulently defensive that non-whites — people of color — think twice before speaking up in the first place, or before deciding to pursue a difficult conversation that all too often takes a painful or even threatening turn. Author and Associate Professor of Education at the University of Washington Robin DiAngelo laments, “We make it so miserable for people of color to talk to us about our inevitable and often unaware racist patterns.”
DiAngelo calls this defensiveness “white fragility,” which is also the title of one of her books. In her seven-part Big Think Edge masterclass Confronting Racism, she explains the ways in which white fragility stands in the way of true inclusion and diversity, as well as solutions to the racial divide that’s plagued the U.S. for hundreds of years. DiAngelo offers strategies for transcending white fragility, for seeing one’s own unconscious biases and the role they play in interactions with people of color, and for becoming more like the person you always assumed you were.
To be clear, DiAngelo means specific things by “white people” and “people of color”:
- “White” refers to a person of European descent.
- “Person of color” refers to any person who is not of European descent.
A delicate equilibrium disrupted
For whites in the U.S., race is not an everyday consideration. DiAngelo asks in her first Big Think masterclass video, “Confronting Racism: Getting Race on the Table,” “How do so many of us who are white individually feel so free of racism and yet we live in a society that is so profoundly separate and unequal by race?”
The answer is simple: Most people are largely focused on their own needs or those of people they know and care about. For whatever moral issues may be attached to the racial imbalance in the U.S., white Americans are lucky enough to spend most of their lives in a white bubble, or what DiAngelo calls a “racial comfort zone.” Things can get nasty when people are suddenly forced out of it.
One major trigger, asserts DiAngelo, is the mere suggestion that one is the member of a distinct and separate group of people about whom generalizations may be made. Whites in the U.S. are typically raised to see themselves as unique individuals, not a race — that’s other people. Yet, says DiAngelo, “We can literally predict whether my mother and I were going to survive my birth and how long I’m going to live based on my race, and are discomfited by any assertions of the opposite.” And one thing that can surely be said of whites in the U.S. is that they have it better than people of color.
The power of white fragility
The most likely things an American white is likely to say in response to being forced out of the racial comfort zone are:
- “We’re all just individuals.”
- “I was taught to treat everyone the same.”
- “It’s focusing on race that divides us.”
- “I have friends of color.”
All of these statements may be true, but they’re not really to the point. In fact, when invoked, their effect — though it may be unconscious and unintentional — is to “exempt the person from any further engagement. And in doing that they function to protect the current racial hierarchy and the white position within it.”
The conversation ends, or maybe awareness of its likely outcome has prevented a person of color from openly raising an issue in the first place, as DiAngelo says, “because their experience is they’re going to risk more punishment. They’re going to lose the relationship. They’re going to have their experience minimized, explained away. They’re going to cause the person to feel attacked or hurt. And in that way, white fragility functions as a kind of everyday white racial control.”
What can be done to do better?
If we all long to see an end to America’s destructive racial divide, and in a more immediate context see our diversity and inclusion programs finally succeed, DiAngelo’s masterclass presents a necessary first step: A clear-eyed self-examination that leaves participants smarter and better prepared to succeed at inclusion and diversity. There’s a lot here to think about.
The seven videos of DiAngelo’s Big Think Confronting Racism masterclass are:
- Getting Race on the Table
- Understanding What It Means to Be White, Challenging What It Means to Be Racist
- Acknowledging Racial Resentment
- Thinking Critically About Our Words and Their Impact
- A Thoughtful Approach to Educating Ourselves About Racism
- What You Can Do
- Keeping the Work Going Within Our Organizations