By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Lit Writer
Robin DiAngelo is the author of the book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, a fixture on the New York Times best seller list for 93 weeks and counting. When the protests sparked by George Floyd’s death began and white people started hitting the virtual bookstore, ‘White Fragility’ was at the top of everybody’s list. In accessible prose, DiAngelo breaks down the racist systems and institutions that underpin much, if not all, of American society. For white people who want to work to end deeply entrenched, pernicious racism, this is an essential read.
DiAngelo spoke with the Current via telephone in early March in anticipation of an April lecture, before the coronavirus hit the east coast. As a result, she didn’t discuss the racial inequities in health care that have been exposed by the pandemic, or the global protests. Pittsburgh Art & Lectures has re-scheduled DiAngelo for a virtual lecture on September 10. (Answers have been lightly edited for length.)
You write about interrupting racism. I think it’s a really interesting use of the verb, ‘interrupt.’ Can you talk about what that means?
It rests on the premise that racism is the norm, not an aberration. We live in a society that teaches us racism only occurs in isolated moments and is only perpetrated by very bad people who intend to mean harm. Yet so much of the daily harm people of color feel comes from well-intentioned people. That’s on the inter-personal level. On the institutional level, all of our institutions effectively and efficiently reproduce racial inequality. There is clear and empirical evidence and I think most people know that.
To interrupt it means that you recognize it as always at play. The status quo is the reproduction of racism — then the term interrupting that status quo makes more sense. It’s not just waiting for somebody to say something that you recognize as a racist joke or comment. It’s looking at policies and practices. It’s looking at who is at the table and who is not at the table. It opens up a much wider set of possible strategies.
Interrupting racism reminds me of the early days of the AIDS crisis when ‘Silence = Death’ became our rallying cry. I feel like what happens for white people in this paradigm is, silence equals death, but not for us, so we don’t care, or we care less.
There is a kind of, I don’t care that they’re dying because it’s their fault: there is something they’ve done that is wrong, there is something inherent to this group of people. We have those messages with Black people, too. There is empirical research data which shows, when you have a white person and a Black person go in front of the judge — we see it in the opioid crisis, right? So there is something inherently bad or wrong with Black people. They must have done something wrong. It’s their fault. They’re not granted essential innocence. This gets to anti-Blackness. This is going to be provocative, but I just think white people, at the collective level, fundamentally hate and hold deep contempt for Black people.
You quote J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, a researcher who wrote, “racism is a structure, not an event.”
If you don’t understand that, then everything I’m trying to say is not going to make sense. That’s why I spend so much time in my work, in my written work, in my presentations, on ‘what is systemic racism?’ Because we are taught to see racism as individual, conscious, intentional acts of meanness across race. That is what the average white person is going to think that it means to say that something is racist. I don’t know that you could have come up with a more effective way to protect the system of racism than that definition.
Most of the racism I’ve perpetrated is not conscious at all, and (by this definition) if it’s not conscious then it doesn’t count. And it also has to be intentional in order to count. Most of the harm I have done in my life, at the individual level, has not been intentional either. Although we have laws that say it is illegal to discriminate, you have to prove intent. Even the Richard Spencers of the world will deny that they’re racist. It’s become so simplified into this formula and they know that they need to distance themselves from that definition.
My grandmother used to always say that the road to hell was paved with good intentions.
Exactly. I’m at a place where I think my intentions are somewhat irrelevant. I hope that they are good. What’s really important is the impact of my actions. All of this focus on intentions allows us to lose focus on the impact. Yes, I didn’t mean to hurt you, but I did hurt you. Am I willing to engage with that? It tends to function as a ‘get over it, I didn’t mean to and that’s all that matters.’
It also leads to the non-apology-apology.
“If you thought that was racism, I’m sorry. I’m sad you thought it was.”
One of the things you write about really well is the fact that white people are taught we miss nothing of value by living in white neighborhoods. Pittsburgh is my hometown and I love it and it is a tremendously segregated city. I wonder if you can talk about racism, segregation and property.
If this is too provocative, people get crazy. But we live in a fundamentally anti-Black culture and in the white mind, Black people are the ultimate racial other. That is so deep, anti-Blackness is so deep. But living together — the only time that happens is if a neighborhood is moving. It’s rare. Racism is so embedded and inscribed in geography in this country. In some ways, that’s the true measure. It’s not an accident. People say, ‘I just happen to grow up in an all-white neighborhood.’ You didn’t just happen to. That’s not a natural phenomenon. That is the result of decades and decades of policies and practices. De jure in the past, de facto in the present.
I interviewed a writer who is a fiction writer who wrote a brilliant novel set in Western Pennsylvania. She writes about race in a really conscious way, as a white person from a white place.
white people have an unracialized identity so that we don’t see race or see white space as racialized. Race is only at play if people of color are present. The subtext of that is white racial innocence, right? It allows us to position ourselves as innocent of race. They are the holders of race, which means that they are the holders of any problems around race, right? white people are not innocent of race. There is so much that we can speak to on how we were socialized into a sense of racial superiority, why we feel no loss, why we prefer segregation. There’s so much we can reflect on and offer in those conversations. It’s not benign — that idea that we don’t have race and they do.
The way you write about the invisibility of white supremacy in the book makes me think of the Silicon Valley catch-phrase — it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.
The way I put that is — it’s the norm, it’s not an aberration. My training in sociology has been invaluable to me and there is a question that has never failed me is — how does it function? In other words, how does it function to see it as an aberration rather than the norm? It protects the racist status quo and our place within that status quo. There’s a reason we choose one narrative over another, there’s a reason we choose to see it that way. It also requires nothing more of me.
Do you ever get a sense of despair? Do you ever just get overwhelmed and want to quit?
After all these years, I just believe that most white people don’t care about racial inequality. That racial inequality serves us. I don’t care if somebody else has an inferior education, in fact I need them to have an inferior education, so that my child can have the best possible of everything. I will say that and if it gets a white person’s back up, great, show me different. It is really discouraging. But as a white person, I cannot succumb to hopelessness. It ultimately serves my position, my privilege, my advantage to feel hopeless. So I have to pull myself out and say, to the best of my ability, I was in my integrity. I aligned what I professed to believe with how I actually acted in the world today. That’s a daily process. I don’t say I have arrived. But was I an ally in each moment today? Or was I not? That’s a moving target.