I have been searching for resources to guide conversations about race. My search reminded me of the “Vital Conversations” videos published by the General Commission on Religion and Race of the United Methodist Church (GCORR). I zeroed in on the video “Deconstructing White Privilege” by Dr. Robin DiAngelo. After watching the video, I visited Dr. DiAngelo’s website, read everything on it, and ordered her book, What Does It Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy.
Dr. DiAngelo is a white sociologist who has worked for decades in racial and social justice education. Her work has given me a framework to understand the reactivity of some white people when issues of race are raised. “I am not a racist!” is a common reaction from white folks when racism is mentioned. When we white folk hear phrases like “white privilege,” “white supremacy” or “white fragility” (coined by Dr. DiAngelo by the way), we can become very defensive. The “I am not a racist. I have black friends!” response may decrease white anxiety, but, it blocks additional conversation. There seems to be little hope for confession, repentance, or mutual understanding.
Dr. DiAngelo argues that “dominant society teaches us that racism consists of individual acts of meanness committed by a few bad people” (DiAngelo, What Does It Mean to Be White, 2nd edition, p. 23). Racism then becomes a matter of individual morality. Burning a cross on a lawn is bad. If you burn a cross on a lawn, you are a racist. Not burning a cross on someone’s lawn is good. If you don’t burn a cross on someone’s lawn, you are not a racist.
The narrative becomes an either/or: “racist=bad or non-racist=good.” When I, as a white person, am challenged to examine my racism, I think someone is calling me a bad person. I am not a bad person; I am a good person. Therefore, I cannot possibly be a racist.
The either/or narrative eases white anxiety because it allows distancing from blatant acts of bigotry and prejudice. When I see white nationalists marching in Charlottesville, I am able to call them “bad people” and distinguish them from me. Remember, I am a good person. I can criticize the bad people. If we can just get rid of the bad people, the logic goes, we will all be fine.
Racism is more than matters of individual morality. Racism is “a form of oppression in which one racial group dominates others. In the United States, whites are the dominant group and people of color are the minoritized group. Thus, in this context, racism is white racial and cultural prejudice and discrimination, supported intentionally or unintentionally by institutional support and power, used to the advantage of whites and the disadvantage of people of color. ” (DiAngelo, pp. 107-108).
Seeing racism as group prejudice backed by institutional power changes the conversation. Instead of reactively defending individual morality, we can name how systems have been set up for hundreds of years to privilege white people over people of color. We can think deeply and talk honestly about how racism has affected each one of us: white, black, brown, female and male.
Dr. DiAngelo reminds us white folk in America that each one of us is born into an environment of racism. I did not ask to be born American, and–to a certain extent–I had nothing to do with creating the racist culture of white supremacy in which I live. What I can do is work for racial justice and racial equity. I can listen with humility to the stories of those whose experiences have been very different from mine due to the coloration of their skin. I must dwell in the spaces of pain and suffering where black and brown bodies have been exploited at great cost to humanity. I can use my voice to challenge rather than to comply with white supremacy.
To paraphrase the poet, Mary Oliver, what am I going to do with my one wild and precious life?