'I don’t see colour’, ‘I believe in hard work’, ‘I see people as individuals’, ‘My partner/best friend is a person who is not white’.
I’m sitting in a workshop on white fragility in Sydney’s inner-west where American writer Robin DiAngelo is, in her own words, using her ‘insider whiteness’ to break down uncomfortable truths about the realities of institutional racism.
We are deconstructing sentences on how racism is denied and trivialised by well-intentioned white people to credential themselves against charges of racism.
“I need to get white people out of denial. I show them a concentrated dose of that. I show them the banality of white as ideal,” DiAngelo tells me during an interview in her Sydney hotel room, ahead of the workshop.
“I overwhelm them and make it undeniable. I take that fish out of the water!”
DiAngelo is in Australia promoting her book White Fragility, a term coined to describe how difficult it is to talk to white people about race and racism and how easily they become 'unsettled, upset and defensive'.
“The fragility part was meant to capture how little is takes to set white people off into outrage, umbrage and hurt feelings and claims of being attacked. For a lot of white people merely suggesting being ‘white’ will set us off,’’ DiAngelo says.
DiAngelo is the first to admit being lauded as a white expert on race is a ‘frustrating’ symptom of her own white privilege, one she feels informs a duty to educate, with a percentage of profits from her workshops funneled back into racial justice causes.
Her reasoning is that racism, like sexism, is an area where the toll inordinately falls to those personally experiencing it to dismantle, rather than confronting those who benefit from it.
“I have been effective. Yes because I’m white but also because I’m an insider,” DiAngelo says.
“We have to work really hard to shut out what you’re trying to tell us and show us. It takes a lot of effort. The information is all around us, but we don’t actually want it, so it’s a kind of willful ignorance.”
DiAngelo has the no-nonsense affability of a school teacher.
She’s measured, thoughtful and efficient. She patiently rolls off definitions honed through years of dealing with recalcitrant students. She speaks in the low, serious tones of professionalism and academia – in other words, she is peak whiteness.
Racism, DiAngelo explains, is part of the air we breathe in white settler colonial societies. It goes beyond good intentions and the relationships between individuals. Most importantly, the measuring tools of the offending dominant group cannot be used to define it, because it automatically discounts the lived experiences of people of colour.
DiAngelo says white people have an antenna that tunes them into the frequency of taking what other white people say about racism more seriously than people of colour.
“That’s another aspect of being white, the individualism and being seen as somehow outside race and being objective of it.”
DiAngelo argues, just as sexism is a male problem, racism is a white problem, that white people need to understand and fix.
“I know why you might feel some resentment for a man who might be able to break through to other men, but god damn where are the men talking to other men?”
The pain white people cause
DiAngelo has a background as a diversity trainer, a position she later realised she was employed in because of her white privilege, despite being unqualified.
It was here she began to be challenged on her own racial biases by trainer colleagues of colour, a process she says remains a continuing and humbling evolution. She also spent time reading and educating herself with the works of writers of colour like Audre Lorde and Ijeoma Oluo.
Part of her work was to go into overwhelming white workplaces to talk to white people about racism, with a co-facilitator of colour. She remembers being stunned with the “mean-ness, the hostility, the insensitivity”, she encountered in discussions of institutional inequality.
“They (co-facilitators) never cried in front of those white people. They cried in the car on the way home,” she says.
“I was bearing witness for the first time and part of being white is we never have to bear witness to your pain and we are never held accountable for the pain we cause.”
What’s up with white women?
DiAngelo says being a progressive feminist both helped and hindered her journey in understanding blinders in her own perspective. On one hand, using her frustration discussing sexism in male environments, helped her understand the parallel challenges people of colour face in white environments.
But despite her disadvantage growing up poor, DiAngelo says she, like many white women, remained unaware of not only how she was inoculated from racial inequality, but also from her participation in it. It was this race loyalty that often led white women to sacrifice solidarity with other women for the privileges of race.
“Many white feminists use sexism as a way out. White women have a lot of resentment about patriarchy. I didn’t get mine, what about me? Sexism, misogyny, rape culture, these things are real. White women are oppressed on these axis also, but sadly our resentment about that oppression does not look at places we are oppressive,” she says.
DiAngelo said the complex socialisation of white women as simultaneously victimised but also complicit in white patriarchy through their bargained relationship with white men, made them a kind of challenging frenemy to women of colour.
“There’s a knife in your back, but I’m smiling right at your face because my internalised (racial) superiority is coming out. It can’t be admitted. I’m not going to be direct about it. We can be very undermining and not be conscious of it,” DiAngelo says.
Women of colour may then paradoxically be punished for vocalising this unease.
“Everyone else is socialised to take care of white women, the damsel in distress. So as soon as I cry, all the resources will come back to me, and you will become the aggressor and I will become the victim. It’s a form of white fragility that deflects what you tried to call me in on.”
Crucial to dismantling racism, DiAngelo says, is acknowledging history and starting to label ‘whiteness’, a process many of the workshop participants feel deeply uncomfortable with. It’s the first time their ethnicity has ever been named, breaking the invisible default that has positioned ‘white’ as the universal human experience.
Other ethnicities can be categorised, DiAngelo says, but naming whiteness is met with resistance, because it starts to provide a language for racism to be challenged.
There are 30 people in the workshop, split roughly between people of colour and white people. Many are DiAngelo’s favourite target audience – white progressives like herself, who form equity teams and work in multicultural organisations.
DiAngelo argues her fellow liberals can be the most oblivious, with the potential to do the most damage, because of their close proximity to people of colour who have otherwise filtered out overtly racist networks and environments.
There’s discomfort, but also hugs and moments of awareness as we gather in groups. We’re asked to think about the racial make-up of our teachers and neighbourhoods growing up, and consider how this impacts how we move in the world. Mary* starts crying as she recounts her country upbringing in regional Australia, where the only people of colour she encountered were Indigenous people living on a nearby mission.
There are sobering visual statistics on the largely white and male seats of power across politics, judiciary and mainstream media. We are battered with white images of Australian society from magazine covers to halls of power.
“White fragility functions as a kind of everyday white racial bullying, quite frankly."
Moving beyond defensiveness
By the end of the three-hour session, the white people look tired. There’s been tears, group reveals, and enough emotion to fuel a Hallmark movie.
The session’s aim, DiAngelo says is not to convince us that people in white colonial settler societies embody racism , but rather affirm it as a given. The ultimate goal is to understand how to go beyond defensiveness, to acknowledge and affirm how we are implicated and benefit from institutional racism.
In many ways it feels like a therapy session – fraught with confession and guilt. It’s reflective of the heavy weight Australia still carries when it comes to unresolved questions of Indigenous sovereignty and race, and the deep curiosity and thirst for healing in a country where honest and confronting conversations about race relations are rare.
“White fragility functions as a kind of everyday white racial bullying, quite frankly,” Di Angelo says.
“We make it so miserable for people of colour to talk to us about our inevitable and often unaware racial patterns, perspectives and investments, so most of the time they don’t.”
I find myself nodding vigorously, unloading experiences I have never spoken about. The experiences of exclusion, of being ripped off in white feminist spaces, of feeling the burden of representation in all-white work environments, of a lifetime of glib and clueless comments, and anaesthetising myself with a kind of chin-up amiability.
“We make it so miserable for people of colour to talk to us...so most of the time they don’t.”
“These discussions can take an incredible emotional toll and emotional labour and so often the way they are set up is, ‘you teach me’, which reinforces this idea that I’m racially innocent,” DiAngelo says.
DiAngelo says racial awareness in white people is simultaneously unconsciously registered and consciously ignored.
“White people are not racially innocent…oh hell yes we know. We know, but we can never admit it, because of what it would mean for our identities. It’s a very confusing consciousness, think of it as a refusal in a way.”
When I leave her hotel, I feel tears coming on. DiAngelo is like an affirming therapist. She hugs me and her eyes are full of understanding.
“People of colour in white environments, it’s almost like being in a mild trauma state. All the energy it takes to navigate it,” she nods.
“On behalf of my people I apologise. I’ve committed myself to help white people stop the nonsense.”
I feel lighter than I have in years.
Robin DiAngelo’s book ‘White Fragility’ is available from Penguin Australia, $24.99
You can download educational materials from DiAngelo’s website here.