The issues surrounding race and racism in America envelop the nation’s inhabitants like an intricately woven wool cloak. It is at times hot and heavy, often unbearably so, and people of color can’t seem to ever escape its suffocating grasp. White people, as many scholars of critical race theory have stated, have the privilege of its warmth. They are protected, more often than not, from the danger that racism precipitates and, if they so choose, can ignore its existence altogether.
Robin DiAngelo, scholar and author of the book What Does it Mean to be White, says, “Our society continues to reproduce racial inequity. Across every institution and every measure, Black and Brown people are at the bottom. And yet, the average white person feels exempt from participation in any of this.”
About six in 10 Blacks (61 percent), according to a 2016 Pew Research Study on race and inequality in America, say race relations are generally bad; only about half of whites felt the same way. Additionally, the majority of Blacks (64 percent) were more likely to say that Blacks are treated less fairly in America than whites are.
So what does this say about what it means to be white?
“To be white is to see oneself as outside of race,” said DiAngelo. “To be white means to be socialized to be functionally illiterate on the topic of race. To be white is to see racism as a simple matter of the difference between good people and bad people.”
DiAngelo shared that she grew up in an impoverished household, and though she was ostracized from the trappings of middle-class, white American life, it did not preclude her from gaining a certain level of implicit bias against people of color.
”I don’t think that I have internalized less implicit racial bias because I grew up poor. I just learned my place in the racial hierarchy from a different class position,” she said. “When poor or working class white people use their class in a conversation of race, it functions to take race off the table and exempt them from any further engagement,” said DiAngelo.
The educator said that growing up poor, she would often go hungry and without basic necessities. Unattended food, or even an unoccupied space, would be tempting to a young Robin, but her mother forbade her from touching anything for fear that it may be tainted by a Black person.
“You don’t know who sat there,” she said, recalling her mother’s statements. “It might have been a ‘colored person.’ That was the language that was used at that time. It was really clear that had a ‘colored person’ sat in that space or touched that food, it was dirty. The irony was that we were dirty and unkempt.”
DiAngelo said she realized later that her family used Black people “to cleanse themselves” by projecting their position, and dirt, onto people of color. “In those moments I was not poor anymore. I wasn’t less-than anymore. In those moments I was aligned with the mainstream middle-class white culture that my poverty had separated me from. In those moments I was just white, and to be white was inherently superior.”
It is from this foundation that DiAngelo has built her work. She travels around the country leading workshops and lectures formulated specifically with white participants in mind. Personally, the journey required a lot of individual work and also seeking help from people of color.
“It took a lot of study and reflection and guiding mentorship from people of color to realize how (racism) had functioned to still provide me with a sense of internalized superiority,” she said.
DiAngelo, who received her Ph.D. in multicultural education from the University of Washington in Seattle in 2004, has been a consultant and trainer for more than two decades on issues of racial and social justice. She was appointed to co-design the City of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative Anti-Racism training and has worked with a wide range of organizations including private, nonprofit and governmental entities.
On Saturday, July 22, from 9 a.m.–4 p.m., DiAngelo will present a one-day seminar on “what it means to be white” in our current American society at All Souls Unitarian Church, located at 5805 E. 56th St. Tickets are $50 each and can be purchased on eventbrite.com.
When asked about the significance of white people instructing other white people on these topics, DiAngelo stated that one reason is the fact that most whites are illiterate on the topic of racism.
“We aren’t given good information; we can get through graduate school in this country without ever discussing racism, and we don’t have much nuance or complexity in our thoughts on the subject. Yes, we all have opinions about it, but we can have an opinion without being informed,” she said. “When people of color try to talk to us about racism, we end up doing more harm. When we talk to each other, we kind of move that layer of harming people of color. The cost of talking about racism for people of color is very, very great, and while it isn’t easy for me and I, too, get resistance when trying to talk to my fellow white people about racism, it does not compare to the cost for folks of color.”
Victoria Haley, a member of the local chapter of SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), shared that she saw the act of educating herself and then sharing that knowledge with others as an obligation.
“It is our responsibility to educate ourselves,” she said. “Sometimes, white people when they are unsure or guilty of their whiteness … will refuse to be educated by people of color. People of color will perform that emotional labor over and over again for white people to not listen. I think there is value in someone like Robin DiAngelo saying, ‘OK, I will do this part. I will talk about whiteness and what it means and do studies on it.’”
Haley said she first got involved with SURJ because, after seeing multiple instances of police-action shootings against unarmed Black people, she wanted to do something of significance to help.
“Everyone has a breaking point and a threshold where you think, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to do something more than sit on Twitter and have a good Twitter game and be angry about Black Lives Matter,’” she said. She got online and saw three separate protests going on that week in response to the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, one of which was hosted by SURJ.
“The idea of SURJ focusing a lot on education as well as providing resources when needed to organizations led by people of color felt like an appropriate place to be,” she said.
Haley added that in working and serving as an ally, she has learned that as a white woman, she still carries a certain amount of privilege.
“I had these ideas that I was a good white person because I cared. I have since then decided … that maybe the best white person is one that recognizes that there are no ‘good’ white people,” she said, adding that she credits the work of Black female writers in helping her to formulate this stance.
“I could walk away from any of this this afternoon, and for the most part I wouldn’t see any consequences for my life.”
Haley also noted the work of writer and Black Lives Matter member DiDi Delgado in helping her and other SURJ members to understand that, without taking proactive measures to make sure their efforts were aligned with the needs of people of color and that their spaces were completely inclusive, their work could potentially be harmful to the people of color they seek to be allies to.
In “Whites Only: SURJ and the Caucasian Invasion of Racial Justice Spaces,” Delgado pens the following:
“White-led anti-racism groups have existed for hundreds of years, and they’ve often been problematic, counterproductive, and just f@#%^&* weird since their inception.
“There are no perfect individuals or organizations, and I think SURJ and similar outlets need to acknowledge that from the onset. If they believe there’s a ‘right’ way to perform whiteness within a white supremacy they’re sadly mistaken. You cannot be a member of an oppressive group without inflicting harm on those you oppress. The objective for allies should be to inflict as little harm as possible. And the way to do this is through accountability. But who are white-led anti-racism groups accountable to? And what does that accountability look like?”
“Before that article,” said Haley, “We had an understanding that people are welcome even if they are people of color. After that article, we thought we should be very explicit that everyone is welcome all the time. If at any point people of color feel excluded from a racial justice space, even it is not geared toward people of color, we are doing something wrong.”
She added that core members of the group have experienced changes in attitudes and thoughts of friends, family members and acquaintances that they have invited to events.
“I think what we’re doing is productive,” she said. “As a white person, I don’t have any say in what Black liberation looks like or what liberation for indigenous people looks like, but maybe I have a say in convincing other white people around me not to cause harm in the meantime.”
DiAngelo said her whiteness does make it more possible for some other white people to really hear what she’s saying.
“This brings up the great dilemma of this work for me as a white person talking about racism,” said DiAngelo. “Even though I believe that I am challenging racism, I am also centering the white voice. At the same time, the power of implicit bias is that I will be seen by other white people as more neutral and I will be heard more openly. If I can be heard more openly, then I am going to use this position to challenge racism. For me to be white and not use that position, is to really be white. That is classic whiteness.”