Since last summer, like many other white people conscious of their need to learn more about race and racism, I have been reading more novels by black writers (see my blogs on The Nickel Boys, Girl, Woman, Other, Queenie and My Sister the Serial Killer) and books about how to tackle racism (see my Blogs on The Person You Mean to Be and Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race). Next on my list was White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism by Robin Diangelo.
Diangelo writes from her experience running diversity training as a white woman. The context is North America, with its different historical context to the one that we have here in the UK, but many of the lessons and experiences translate. She starts by laying out the challenges of talking to white people about racism, arguing that we (being white people) don’t see ourselves in racial terms, our opinions are uninformed, we don’t understand socialisation (how much we’ve been exposed to shared messages about race), and that we have a simplistic understanding of racism. I read this just before the week in which the row about racism experienced by Meghan Markle erupted, and all of these issues rang true in the UK response to the allegations.
Diangelo goes on to talk about the social construction of race and introduces the concept of white supremacy, not only as a label for individual ‘alt-right’ white nationalists, but also as ‘an overarching political, economic and social system of domination’. She lays bare the statistics (from the US) on the proportions of white people who rule key institutions and argues that white supremacy decribes the culture we live in and how people of colour are seen as a deviation from a white norm. She then shines a light on the conversations that white people have with other white people that negatively stereotype black people in what they consider to be a ‘safe’ and private space and in a way that they wouldn’t consider to be racist.
The book then examines how white people experience race and goes on to examine how many white people fall into a good/bad binary when they think about race, seeing racists as bad, bigoted, prejudiced and so on, whilst believing that open-minded, ‘good’ and well-intentioned people cannot be racists. Diangelo details anti-blackness specifically and then looks at the racial triggers for white people. All of this leads to white fragility as the end result, which shuts down a serious discussion about racism or any serious examination of what white people can do to tackle racism. She shows how hard it is to give white people feedback before white fragility kicks in, and points out that every white person needs to start by being actively open to receiving feedback on racism, knowing that from a position of social, cultural and institutional white power and privilege they are safe and can handle it. And if they can’t, then Diangelo argues it’s on them to build their own racial stamina. There is also a focus on the history and power of white women’s tears. Diangelo ends by saying ‘niceness is not courageous. Niceness will not get racism on the table and will not keep it on the table when everyone wants it off’ and that ‘This is a messy, lifelong process, but one that is deeply compelling and transformative’.