Letter 2: Admitting Internalized Racism
Dear White America,
Today, I finished listening to the audiobook version of Robin DiAngelo's White Fragility: Why It's So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism. I know, that title may feel a bit aggressive upon first read. But stick with me here. I promise it'll be worth it.
I am white. Light-eyed, sunburn-prone, visually and unmistakably a White Person.
I also really enjoyed White Fragility.
Were there parts of the book that gave me pause? Yes. Were there moments in the book that had me replaying and reflecting upon scenes from my past? You bet. Was that uncomfortable? Of course. Most definitely. You betcha. And maybe that's the crux of the book's subtitle - it is hard for white people to talk about racism because it is hard to acknowledge that we have been complicit, especially if that complicity was unintentional.
My own experience with racism is that of a bystander and ignorant contributor. I grew up as a white girl in Texas and was surrounded by all sorts of mixed messaging about Latinx people. I hardly had any contact with Black people outside of TV and movies (so, you know, a whole lot of negative stereotypes being perpetuated). I am guilty of having told a Black friend that they were a "white" Black person because of their interests and voice; of having questioned how vocal a group of girls in middle school were about their Latina pride; of having felt concerned for my safety as I approached a group of Black men standing near the sidewalk where I was walking. This list could continue. None of these are examples of overt violence, but all of them speak to how I have absorbed ideas of racism and white supremacy from the world around me. And because I did not want to be labeled a "bad person," I was hesitant to acknowledge any of this as "racism." Until now.
It is easy to say "It was just a mistake" and "I did not intend to be hurtful." It is pretty much reflexive to say, "I'm not racist." But what if we challenged ourselves to engage with and learn from our mistakes instead of brushing them off as unavoidable blips? What if we committed ourselves to putting aside our intentions (and consequently our pride) in order see the reality of our impact? And what if, in doing this, we pushed past the antiquated idea that "Racist = Not Good" and "Not Racist = Good", in order to allow ourselves to see that we can be both good people and have racist thoughts... at the same time?
These are all topics discussed in White Fragility. DiAngelo is herself a white woman, and weaves her experiences as a race and social justice educator and facilitator into a deeply moving and challenging work to guide white people into introspection on their relationship with race. In DiAngelo's own words, she “grew up poor and white. While my class oppression has been relatively visible to me, my race privilege has not. In my efforts to uncover how race has shaped my life, I have gained deeper insight by placing race in the center of my analysis and asking how each of my other group locations have socialized me to collude with racism. In so doing, I have been able to address in greater depth my multiple locations and how they function together to hold racism in place. I now make the distinction that I grew up poor and white, for my experience of poverty would have been different had I not been white.”
White Fragility is structured into the following chapters:
The challenges of talking to white people about racism
Racism and white supremacy
Racism after the civil rights movement
How does race shape the lives of white people?
The good/bad binary
Racial triggers for white people
The result: white fragility
White fragility in action
White fragility and the rules of engagement
White women's tears
Where do we go from here?
Those chapter titles may seem... loaded. Or frustration? Insulting? Confusing? So, here is a two-cent teaser to pique your interest into the content within those chapters:
The idea of "whiteness" does not exist without "blackness." "White" cannot exist without the concept of race. Being white is a racialized identity - whether or not we talk about it (which we white people usually don't).
White people don't tend to identify with their race. We live removed from our race being a predominant factor in the way our daily lives function.
We have been taught that "racist = not good" and "not racist = good", instead of the reality that (a) we have all been raised in a racialized society and therefore (b) are not untouched by racism, but (c) can still be good people.
It is impossible to "not see color." Race is everywhere, seeped into ever part of our society. To "not see color" is to not acknowledge a person's racial experience - be that the effects of Blackness or the effects of Whiteness.
If you are a woman, and you marry/date/befriend a man, would you say that your life is gender-free? No? Then, if you are white, and you marry/date/befriend a Black person, why would you say that your life is race-free?
"When a white woman cries, a Black man gets hurts." This speaks to the historical gravity of how white women have wreaked havoc on the lives of Black men (for example, read about Emmett Till; for an illustrative example in fiction, revisit the plight Tom Robinson, Atticus Finch's client in To Kill a Mockingbird). Even though you may feel emotions deeply, white tears (both literally and figuratively) have deep, traumatic ties to racial violence. White tears have no place in racially-mixed rooms.
Wanting to learn about dealing with racism requires pushing through the discomfort of being called out when we ourselves are racist (again: racist ≠ bad person).
When you feel yourself getting offended by or defensive during a conversation on race (especially if that conversation is led by a BIPOC*), pause before you react. Ask yourself, "Why are the words of the speaker making me feel this way? What about my life experience is causing me to want to defend myself? Is there something I have been missing? Is this a learning opportunity?"
The messenger and the message are not one and the same. If you receive feedback in a way that makes you uncomfortable, consider the message and not how it was delivered.
When talking to other white people about race, you are likely to get pushback. That pushback is encapsulated by the coined term "white fragility": discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequality and injustice. If you are experiencing discomfort or are feeling defensive reading through this post, that is also a manifestation of white fragility. AND THAT IS OKAY... because we have named it, are engaging with it, and are working through it.
Acknowledging "I am racist" is, at best, incredibly difficult. It feels like a sucker-punch to the gut because we've been taught that "Racists are bad." We've also been taught to associate the word "racist" with overtly racist groups such as the KKK and white nationalists and violent rhetoric such as racial slurs and lynching. However, covert racism is present daily - in my life, in your life... really, it's inescapable... from colorblindness, the assumption good intentions are enough, and claiming reverse racism, to racial profiling, cultural appropriation, and the school-to-prison pipeline.
While my conditioning (and your conditioning and our collective conditioning) by a culture built in white supremacy was unavoidable, we have the present and urgent choice to DEcondition ourselves through UNlearning and RElearning. I have taken DiAngelo's words to heart: that being a good person coincides with recognizing my own racist thoughts and working to unlearn how I've been conditioned. I make mistakes, daily. We all do. I invite you to join me in this internal work, no matter how difficult, embarrassing, stressful, or emotional it may be along the way. Remember, fighting racism is a marathon, not a sprint. We all have a lot of personal unlearning to do, myself included, that will slowly but surely impact the world around us. (Remember, it has been 400 years since the first slaves were brought to America... that's a lot of work to undo. White people - I include myself in this statement - have to make a lifelong commitment to doing the internal work in order to pass anti-racist practices to the next generations.)
To start reading White Fragility, either purchase an audiobook version or buy a hardcopy from a Black-owned online bookstore!
*BIPOC is an acronym for "Black, Indigenous, Persons of Color"