Who remembers the first time they understood some people were a different race than you? I was in 4th grade. I liked a boy named Danny, and he liked me. He was my boyfriend until our parents found out and threw a hissy fit because he is white, and I am black.
The current racial reckoning in our country has caused a boom in books written to address America’s racial inequality. White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, is based on the author’s experience as a diversity consultant. It reached Number One on The New York Times non-fiction best seller list in June 2020, and learned about it in a Zoom book discussion that I wanted to join. This topic interested me especially, since I had participated in developing and delivering diversity training at my job for over ten years.
My take on the book’s premise is racism exists in America because white people respond defensively when told that they benefit from racism or that they are behaving in a racially problematic way. With this kind of resistance, their behavior can’t be changed or corrected. The author dubs this “White Fragility” and argues racism should be addressed by proactively challenging white people.
I was pleased to see all races represented on the Zoom call. My friend had prepared a variety of discussion questions for us to consider.
Question 1 — For white people: Share when you let a racial stereotype scare you that turned out to be wrong.
One woman described her fear when an unrecognized African-American teenage male wearing a hoodie knocked on her door. Turned out it was her neighbor’s son, home from college, needing to use a phone because he was locked out of the house.
Question 2 — For people of color: Share a professional instance where a white person was surprised to find out you are black.
Here’s my story. As an attorney for a bank regulatory agency, I often counseled bank presidents and high-level bank examiners over the phone. The unofficial rule among my co-workers of color was to stall meeting certain individuals in person as long as possible. We felt sure their perception of our advice would change if they knew we were black.
In contrast, white people aren’t socialized to see themselves in racial terms. The author argues white Americans don’t have to worry about how others feel about their race, nor do they worry much that their race will be held against them.
In my early teens, my parents sanctioned play dates with white girls, but I still couldn’t date white boys. This distinction was confirmed at church, which confused me even more. Doesn’t the Bible say we’re all equal? But we’re really not?
In 10th grade, I transferred to a private, college prep high school where the white parents wanted their children to know people of color and made an effort to get diversity into the institution. My parents also became more racially tolerant. I made many cross-racial friends, some of whom I am still in touch with today.
But even white people who have a close black friend or significant other can’t have a “get out of jail free” card. Ms. DiAngelo says close cross-cultural relationships don’t block out the dynamics of racism in the society at large. The white person still receives white privilege even when the two people engage in activities together.
She suggests if a relationship between a white person and a person of color has a measure of trust, they should be able to talk about racism. I am fortunate to have friends who willingly solicit my views on this issue.
In her interview with Esquire.com on June 6, 2020, Ms. DiAngelo offered recommendations on what white people could do to battle their racism without involving people of color:
“Take Eddie Moore’s 21-Day Racial Equity Habit Building Challenge. https://www.eddiemoorejr.com/21daychallenge. It’s active, it’s daily, it was co-designed by a black man. It will set you on the path.
Then do Layla F. Saad’s Me and White Supremacy https://www.meandwhitesupremacybook.com. It’s a book that you do, not that you read.”
A growing number of Americans, of all colors, are fed up and eager to prove that they are not racist. However, I agree with advocates who point out there is a difference between simply being not racist and being anti-racist.
Action is the key.
On the book-discussion call that evening, I took a step toward becoming an anti-racist. I opened up with a group of men and women willing to talk about uncomfortable situations and learn from them.