This morning, seconds after my son and I left our house, we were hit by a sudden downpour. We laughed about it, walked as quickly as we could to his school, and arrived just as the hail started coming down. We laughed as we got in; despite having umbrellas, we were both soaked up to our thighs. The wind had blown the rain so hard in our direction that it was as though we had been wading through a stream.
I helped him into his classroom, changed his clothes, and ran back home to change my clothes and get him a different pair of shoes. When I realized that if I wanted to stay dry, I’d need to drive, I drove the half block to his school. I waved at the security guard, brought in his other shoes, and then drove a few blocks to park closer to my favorite coffee shop.
This is what privilege looks like.
- When I walked in, no one gave us the side-eye, though we were both filthy and soaking. No one judged my almost-sheer maternity leggings that I will #nevergiveup on.
- My son had a second pair of shoes that were right around the corner.
- When I returned to school to give him his shoes, the security guard didn’t ask any questions.
- And when I realized that I wanted to keep my second pair of maternity leggings dry, I drove to a spot that I didn’t have to pay for because I have the “right” parking pass, and then sat down to enjoy my $3.50 macchiato.
As a white woman, I walk in privilege every day. I have all of my life. However, I didn’t fully understand what this meant until I read the book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. This is one of those rare books that I listened to on Audible and then purchased the physical copy of.
If you are white, you should read this book. Below are the reasons why.
- DiAngelo dispels unhelpful half-truths. Specifically, one of the foundations of her book refutes the idea that because a person exhibits problematic racial behavior, the are inherently an evil person. This is not to say that racism isn’t wrong; it is. DiAngelo’s point is that an easy way for white people to dismiss racism as “not a problem I need to worry about” is to associate it solely with radicals and murderers.
- She challenges the idea that Western culture is the best culture. This one is particularly helpful if you find yourself as a patriotic white citizen of the United States. DiAngelo writes, “We make sense of our perceptions and experiences through our particular lens. This lens is neither universal nor objective…” While some may claim that the United States is the greatest country on earth (where everyone can make it if they only try!) and that we can be bias-free if we’d all just shut up and be friends, DiAngelo focuses on the error in these assumptions by naming them. Individualism and objectivity are not universally accepted truths. We are collectively influenced by the negative aspects of the dominant Western culture that is all around us from the day we are born; we are therefore not independent, rogue actors and cannot claim to be bias-free. The sooner we acknowledge this, the sooner we can get to the work of solving some of society’s most pressing problems.
- She takes the time to clearly define core concepts. DiAngelo makes crucial distinctions between terms such as prejudice, discrimination, and racism. Most white people lump these into the part of their brains reserved for “things I don’t want to think about,” so it’s helpful to think about them and understand what they are – and what they are not. She also takes time to explain why “reverse racism” is a nonsensical term… and I’ll let you read through that explanation on your own (page 20).
- She asserts that white folks cannot be immune to the influences of the system of racism… while acknowledging that “stating that racism privileges whites does not mean that individual white people do not struggle or face barriers.” That’s worth repeating. No one is saying that because you are white you do not suffer. But this book isn’t about white suffering, so try to move on from that so that you can focus on her points.
- She states the oft-refuted obvious in ways that are very difficult to refute. For white people who feel threatened by those who are different from you, DiAngelo reminds us that “Whites control all major institutions of society and set the policies and practices that others must live by.” She then cites statistic after statistic proving white dominance. As of her writing, the ten most wealthy Americans are white, the U.S. Congress is 90% white, all of the top military advisors are white, and many of the people who control the media we consume are white. In a country as diverse as ours, this is a problem, and it also refutes the idea that we are a post-racial society.
- She asks you to embrace the spectrum of possibilities. In a chapter that I found particularly helpful called “The Good / Bad Binary,” DiAngelo writes quotes that she often hears from white folks and then proceeds to explain why they are illogical or unhelpful. Most of the statements are the result of white people using logical extremes (which any therapist will tell you is an unproductive way to live.) For example, one of the quotes that DiAngelo hears the most is, “I marched in the sixties [therefore I can’t be racist.]” Participating in a march 50 years ago does not make you error-free today; there are always more opportunities to learn and grow.
- She acknowledges that she is on her own learning journey. DiAngelo accepts her own status as a learner. She writes, “Interrupting the forces of racism is ongoing, lifelong work because the forces conditioning us into racist frameworks are always at play; our learning will never be finished.” She also relates stories that show that she is still learning, and calls for others to continue reading, talking, and trying to be better.
- She reminds us that guilt is not a useful emotion. In a training I did with the Center for Equity and Inclusion, I learned about the Cycle of White Empowerment. One of the earlier stages in this Cycle is Guilt. If you’re like me, you’ve certainly felt guilty. If you’re like me, you’ve also probably heard that guilt is not a useful emotion. DiAngelo writes about white guilt toward the end of her book, stating, “When we are mired in guilt, we are narcissistic and ineffective; guilt functions as an excuse for inaction.”
For me, this book was a call to action. I hope you’ll join me in reading it, talking about it, and being open to learning more.