I knew soon after starting White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo that I wanted to write some kind of reaction post to it. And that is what this is, a reaction post. It is not a book review as I didn’t read it closely enough for that purpose and I’m not an expert in this field. Yet, there were a few points the author made that really stayed with me.
Before reading this book, I would say that while I’m not racist, when I hear about specific racially-motivated events trending online, a small voice inside my head wonders if I was there would I have understood what was going on? Or would I have contributed to someone’s pain through my ignorance and obliviousness?
After reading this book, I think a more accurate statement is that I don’t want to be racist. I don’t want to contribute to behaviors and systems that hurt so many people. Nevertheless, you can’t grow up white in a racism-based society and not develop racist patterns, bias, and a skewed worldview.
An important way to break out of those harmful patterns is to talk openly and honestly about them. However, there is an overarching pattern to how white people talk about racism that stops this dialogue dead in its tracks. We view racism as binary. A person is racist, or a person is not racist. Or, as preferred by most social media networks, a person is a Nazi, or a person is not a Nazi. It makes us think that since we are not an official card-carrying member of the Klan then everything is fine, and we have satisfied the one requirement necessary for peace on earth. It also leads us to ignore, make excuses for, and otherwise sweep under the rug any troublesome behavior our friends, family, and co-workers exhibit. Mary Jane So and So should not have made that comment, but I don’t want to say anything and make people think she is a racist.
We (white people) have to stop looking at the world that way. If we can’t acknowledge that we’ve participated in and benefited from the status quo, if we can’t share when we’ve modified our thinking or actions after learning better, then we leave no space for improvement. Of course, this only applies to white people. Non-white folks, the persecuted, can feel and talk about racism however they want, which leads me to the second point the author made which I want to explore.
White women tears are bad.
Ok, that simplification doesn’t sound good. Even with the authors well-articulated points about how dangerous, harmful, and unhelpful white people’s grief in regards to race-relations can be to non-whites, I can see how this concept would be controversial.
No one is saying you aren’t entitled to your feelings. Of course you can feel anger, grief, and sadness over racially-motivated crises. What matters is how you express those feelings and to whom. I think a great tool that can help is Ring Theory. I came across this recently and found it really helpful in explaining both what I should do in a crisis and why I dread interacting with certain people in my life when I’m at the center of a crisis.
With Ring Theory, you put the people most aggrieved in the center circle. Then you place the people closest to the aggrieved, maybe a parent or a spouse, in a larger circle around the first one. Continue making outer rings to represent the next closest people. How you express your feelings depends on the ring you belong to and who you are talking to. If you are talking to someone in an outer circle farther from the center, then you can say anything you want. If you are talking to someone in an inner circle, then you shouldn’t dump your feelings on them. Provide comfort and practical help inward. Keep your unwanted advice to yourself (yes, I have been guilty of this).
When it comes to anything relating to racial inequality, as a white person I generally sit in the largest circle, furthest removed from the center. I need to act accordingly.
DiAngelo had many other points about white fragility and how it protects the current state of things, as well as how to open up better cross-racial conversations. I highly recommend this book.