Robin DiAngelo on “White Fragility”

Michel Martin interviews author Robin DiAngelo, author of “White Fragility,” to talk about what she recognized as her own unconscious bias.

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MICHEL MARTIN: So what’s white fragility? That’s the title of your book is White Fragility and the subtitle is Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism? Why White Fragility and how do we recognize it?

ROBIN DIANGELO, AUTHOR, WHITE FRAGILITY: The fragility part is meant to capture how little it takes to set white people off, to set us off into defensiveness. So for many white people, the mere suggestion that white has meaning will cause us to erupt in defensiveness. For many of your listeners, the fact that I’m generalizing right now about white people will set off the defensiveness. Individualism is a really precious ideology for white people, and we do not like to be generalized about.

MARTIN: So let’s back up for a second and talk about how you got interested in this work and in this subject. I know that you’re in academic. I know that you’re a lecturer and also you’ve done, what would you call it, anti-racist training.


MARTIN: Used to be called diversity training. Maybe it isn’t called that anymore.

DIANGELO: I think of myself as somebody who came from practice to theory, rather than a lot of academics who go from theory to practice. So I applied for a job in the early ’90s for a diversity trainer. That’s what we called it at the time. Of course, I’m qualified to go into the workplace and lead people on discussions of race. I’m a vegetarian. How could I be racist? I had that really classic, liberal, open-minded kind of idea about what it meant to be racist. And I saw myself, of course, outside of that and felt qualified and I got the job. And I was in for the most profound learning of my life. It was a parallel process. So two key pieces were, one, for the first time in my life, I was working side-by-side with people of color who were challenging the way I saw the world. And part of being white is that I could get that far in life. I was a parent at that point. I was in my 30s and never had I had my racial worldview challenged, one. Two, definitely not by a significant number of people of color and not in any kind of sustained way. And it worked like a mirror, right. I was like a fish being taken out of water. I would not have been able to tell you I had a racial worldview because as a white person, I was raised to see myself as just human. Now you’re a particular kind of human. I’m just human. And if we’re going to be talking about race, I expect we’re going to be talking about your race, not my race.

MARTIN: You tell some very interesting stories in this book. For example, you talked about leading a seminar where 38 out of the 40 people in the room were white and then one of the participants literally pounds the table, yelling “White people can’t get a job.” And everybody who had a job here was white.

DIANGELO: It’s a kind of delusion. I think that some people have said when you’re used to 100 percent, 98 feels oppressive, right. I mean as a white person I was just raised to expect the world to be mine in absolutely any field. I see myself represented. I see myself represented in all my teachers and my curriculum and my heroes and heroines. And so just even a suggestion that we need to make sure we’re being fair and including other people seems to set the white collective off.

MARTIN: Tell me some of the things that you saw in these workshops that led you to this theory.

DIANGELO: It’s a lot like water dripping on a rock, right. I didn’t get it the first, second, third but it’s so consistent and so patterned that it’s like a script. And after a while you can just stand there and say, “I can predict what this white person is going to say right now” and, sure enough, they say it. So I was taught to treat everyone the same. I have people of color in my family. I was in Teach for America. I marched, in the ’60s. I taught in a diverse school. The evidence that white people give for their lack of racism is very revealing to what we think racism is and everything I do is to try to get us off the surface which is all these narratives and get under there to the underlying framework. Because despite all those narratives, I was taught to treat everyone the same, I don’t see color, our outcomes haven’t improved. By virtually every measure, there’s racial inequality in this country. And by many measures, it’s increasing and not decreasing.

MARTIN: You speak very frankly in the book about how you’ve stepped in at yourself if I can use that phrase. Can you give an example of where you experienced your own white fragility?

DIANGELO: So I’m in a room with three black women, two of which I’m very close to and one I don’t know at all. And she gives us a survey to fill out, and it’s tedious to me, it seems kind of template. It doesn’t capture the nuance of what we do. So I pushed it aside and say, “Let me explain. We go out into these different offices and we do these anti-racism trainings. In fact, Debra here was asked not to come back when she went to such and such office. I guess her hair scared the white people.” She has long locked braids. So what you don’t notice what I’m doing, not only am I making a joke about a black woman’s hair which is a sensitive issue and I do know better, but I’m positioning myself as the cool white person and they’re all the clueless white people. And I wish I could tell you that I recognized that I was doing that. I didn’t. Meeting’s over. A couple of days later, the assistant marshal comes to me and says, “Angela was really offended by that joke you made about black women’s hair.” And I immediately, “Oh God, thank you.” And I called Angela and I said, would you be willing to grant me the opportunity to repair the racism that I perpetrated towards you in the meeting last week? She said, “Yes.” We sat down. We talked about it. And she said, “I don’t know you. I have no relationship with you. I have no trust with you. And I do not want to be joking about black women’s hair in a professional work meeting with a white woman I don’t know.” I hear you. I apologize. And then I asked, is there anything I missed? And she said, “Yes. That survey you so glibly shoved aside, I wrote that survey, and I have spent my life justifying my intelligence to white people.” On that apologize, asked, is there anything else that needs to be said or heard that we might move forward? And she said, “Yes. If we’re going to work together, I’m sure you’re going to run your racism at me again. And so the next time you do, would you like your feedback publicly or privately?”

MARTIN: Interesting.

DIANGELO: I said, publicly, in my case, please. It’s really important that other white people see that I’m not free of this but it gives me an opportunity to model non-defensiveness.

MARTIN: You said you don’t want white people to feel guilty which is exactly what I think some people listening to our conversation will feel and will think that you want to evoke. So why do you say you don’t want white people to feel that?

DIANGELO: Well, because you didn’t choose your socialization. You didn’t choose your conditioning. You were born into a society that set you up in these ways. You don’t need to feel guilty unless you know that and you’re not doing anything about it.

MARTIN: What about the people who voted for Obama and then voted for Trump?

DIANGELO: I think that Obama, it was symbolic. I think what Obama did was allow us to feel really good about ourselves under very narrow terms, right. If the word racism ever came out of his mouth, I don’t know what would happen, right. He had to be the perfect black man, the safe black man. He’s also brilliant and clear and educated and so also at the same time, that allows me to feel good about myself. There’s also a little bit of challenge there in how powerful a black man he is. And I would ask any white person who voted for Obama and sees that as kind of their evidence that they’re free of racism to ask themselves how did it change your life on the ground? How did Obama’s presidency change the live experience for black people in this country day in and day out? I don’t think that it did. It was important symbolically but mass incarcerations, school to prison pipeline, these things have not diminished, right. In many ways, they’ve increased.

MARTIN: Do you see Trump as a reaction to Obama? And, if so, why?

DIANGELO: I see Trump as a reaction to Obama because Trump gave permission to the resentment that was roiling under the surface.

MARTIN: Resentment of what?

DIANGELO: Of black advancement, of black uppityness. To use a Jim Crowe analogy, you will step off the curb when I come down and you will not look me in the eye. His racism is explicit and undeniable and that wasn’t a deterrent. I think white people have to look really hard at why was that not a deterrent to you?

MARTIN: Robin DiAngelo, thank you for talking with us.

DIANGELO: You’re welcome.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour interviews Barbara Boxer, former U.S. Democratic Senator; Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwean President; and W. Kamau Bell, comedian and host of CNN’s “United Shades of America.” Michel Martin interviews Robin DiAngelo, author of “White Fragility.”