Why do we whites refuse to admit we’re racists?

[3/13/2021]  The original video links on this post died.  I put up some new ones.

Robin DiAngelo has spent more than 20 years conducting diversity workshops in which she tries to explain to white people that they are intrinsically racist.

By her own account, she has been unsuccessful.  But she does not see this as an example of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

She maintains in her new book, WHITE FRAGILITY: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (2018), the the stubborn refusal of white people to admit their racism just goes to show how racist they are.

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Historically, racism was an ideology that said that humanity was divided into races, and that the white race was superior to the black race.  It came into existence to justify slavery and colonialism.  

Woodrow Wilson and Winston Churchill, among others, were proud racists.

Racist ideology fell into disfavor after the war against Nazi Germany and the 1960s struggle against segregation.  

DiAngelo says racist attitudes persist in the form of unconscious prejudice, even among liberal white people who think we’re anti-racist.

She says a white person can have black friends, be nice to black people and oppose to racial discrimination in any form and still have false derogatory opinions about black people and behave in ways that make black people feel uncomfortable and stressed.

This is true—as far as it goes.  

It is true of me.  

White people, myself included, ought to welcome feedback on how we are perceived by black people and what we may be assuming that isn’t true.  To the extent that she provides this, she is doing a good thing.

The book’s main value consists of DiAngelo’s many stories of ways in which white people unknowingly insult or condescend to black people, and the lessons to be learned from this.

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Why do liberal white people resist her message?

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One problem is her vocabulary.

When you accuse white people of being “racist,” you are putting them in the same category as the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Brotherhood.  I don’t react well to that, and neither do most white people.

DiAngelo says this is a misunderstanding.  When she calls people “racist,” she says, she does not intent to imply that we are bad people, and she we shouldn’t react as if she was.

But it is her choice to use such highly-charged words as “racism” and “white supremacy” rather than milder words such as “implicit bias” or “racial insensitivity.”  Such language puts people on the moral defensive, and I’m pretty sure that’s her intent.

She says she is not making a moral statement, but she is saying is that (1) whites—all whites—harbor attitudes that produce great evils in the world, (2) we need to change, but (3) in fact we never can—not completely.  

This is akin to the theological doctrine of original sin.  For her, being a racist, like being a sinner, is something you are, not something you do.  In the Christian context, awareness of sin and repentance is followed by redemption.  But for DiAngelo, there is no redemption.  Whites can diminish, but never eliminate their inherent racist sinfulness.

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Another problem is the power dynamics of diversity training.

People who are compelled to attend diversity training are a captive audience.  By definition, they are in a subordinate position in regard to the trainer.  It is very likely that the trainer is the highest-paid person in the room.  The diversity trainer is typically paid by a corporation or a powerful institution, and serves the goals of management, not the people in the room.  

It is to the interest of the heads of institutions that responsibility for racial discrimination be spread among white people in general rather than those persons in the power structure who make decisions about hiring and firing, pay and promotion, prosecution and incarceration and so on.

A diversity trainer whose critique was aimed upward rather than downward would not be re-hired.

In such a situation, it is hard for an audience to accept a message that they are powerful oppressors.

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DiAngelo wrote about the power dynamics between a hypothetical receptionist and custodian in a public school, and how their relative status and power is not just based on their jobs, but their identities as male and female, white and fact..

In fact, a white female receptionist and a black male custodian are in the same position in regard to the power structure.  They are subordinate to school principal, or whoever it is that makes the decisions on hiring, firing, pay and promotion.

To them, it matters only slightly whether this decision-maker is black or white, male or female, because he or she has to serve the goals of the organization.

The principal is subject to a Superintendent of Schools and a Board of Education, which is responsible to the political and economic power structure of the community.  School boards operate within constraints set by a city or county government, a state legislature and the U.S. Department of Education.  

The receptionist and the custodian may or may not like each other or feel comfortable with each other, but their interests are the same.   They can improve their position only by joining forces with others as union and political activists.

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The most important fact about American society is that power and wealth are being concentrated in the hands of a small administrative and financial elite, making up maybe 1/10th of 1 percent of the U.S. population,  which is primarily, but not exclusively white.

The vast majority of the U.S. population, making up maybe 90 percent, is struggling to hang on, without job security or retirement security, making little headway on wages, and burdened by student and medical debt.  They include the vast majority of white people, of black people and of most other American ethnic groups.

There is a prosperous intermediate group between the super-rich and the struggling masses.  Based on the evidence of this work, my guess is that DiAngelo and her colleagues in the diversity industry, both black and white, fall within this group.

Their problems are what’s called First World Problems.  Having to deal with pinprick slights and implied insults day in and day out.is not nothing.  These are a real issue.  But it’s a different level problem than faced by, say, Patrisse Cullers, one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, who from a young age had to struggle for economic survival and to keep loved ones out of prison. 

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Robin DiAngelo quotes statistics on the growing concentration of wealth in the United States, but for her, the main point is that so many of the elite are part of what she calls the “white collective,” which includes all white people—rich, poor and in between.

What she says is true to the extent that, in any given situation, you’re almost certainly better off being white than being black.  A 50-year-old white factory worker who’s been permanently laid off is not in quite as bad a situation as a black factory worker in the same position.  A black corporate lawyer has to put up with a lot of aggravation than a white corporate lawyer does.

The fact remains that two corporate lawyers, one of whom is black, will have more in common than two black people, one of whom is a corporate lawyer.  To say that the only thing that matters about people is whether they are white or black is to blind yourself to reality.

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I think the best way to fight racial discrimination in employment, lending, education and the criminal justice system is to tackle these problems head-on—through legislation, lawsuits, strikes, boycotts, protest demonstrations and whatever other means come to hand.

I think the best way to diminish racial prejudice is for black and white people to work together for the common good—more jobs, higher wages, free or affordable medical care, free or affordable education. 

LINKS

Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism by Robin DiAngelo for The Good Men Project.

Why white people freak out when they’re called out about race by Sam Adler-Bell for Raw Story.

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8 Responses to “Why do we whites refuse to admit we’re racists?”

  1. Fred Says:

    If all white people are intrinsically racist, then you have broadened the definition of racist to the point where it is meaningless. It renders the fight to overcome racism useless. It is universal, invisible, and adheres to the baby in the cradle as much as the adult Klansman. In fact, it is itself a racist statement since it uses race as the sole means of determining guilt.

    With such a broad definition, all of humanity would have to be racist. There might be some anthropological basis for such a statement. All peoples tend to favor those who look like “us” over those who don’t. But that isn’t what she is getting at.

    I wonder if the purpose of the book was to specifically to raise hackles (and sell better)?

    Like

    • philebersole Says:

      Robin DiAngelo says that, in the USA, all white people (herself included) are racist, and no black people are racist, although they can be prejudiced.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fred Says:

        I caught the same refrain in college sociology classes. I consider that assigning a psychological trait to a specific race and categorically prohibiting it from another to be itself supremely racist.

        “Race” itself is a racist concept. All we have are differences that slowly accumulate due to founder’s effects and due to environmental demands in different geographic locations. It is as stupid and unscientific as saying that a white wolf and a black wolf are different races. Someday (I hope) our genes may be all mixed up and represented in an n-dimensional bell curve. When that happens the malicious concent of race will be dead.

        OTOH, what I call other-ism seems to be a universal human trail. What Freud called “the narcissism of small differences”.

        Like

  2. David Gerould Markham Says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful analysis.

    Perhaps Diangelo uses some words that are confusing and muddy the waters. She makes a distinction between prejudice, discrimination, and racism. I think we could also add an increasingly popular word, bias.

    When Diangelo uses the word “racism” she is referring to what use to be called “institutional racism” or “systemic racism.” People participate in the practices of “institutional racism” without even being aware that they are doing so. Their participation is unconscious, below their level of awareness.

    Once the practices of “institutional racism” are recognized, articulated, and acknowledged, people now have a choice about whether to engage in the institutional practices or not.

    Martin Luther King, Jr. said that he didn’t intend to change the attitudes of the prejudiced. He wanted to outlaw their discriminatory behavior.

    “Racism” is not intrinsic to individuals. “Racism” is a description of policies and practices which people consciously or unconsciously engage in and enable if not support.

    The first step in changing racist policies and practices is to help people become aware of them. Once aware they can make a choice. Without awareness they are doomed to continue to engage and support practices which are discriminatory and prejudicial towards other people.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Vincent Says:

    Your title question is what the English legal system calls “loaded”, like the classic example “when did you stop beating your wife?”

    Being white & married to a Jamaican gives me a certain insight. She has many friends & relatives in the States. We don’t see anything differently. Neither of us are what you would call liberals. Here it is rare to encounter discrimination on account of being “Afro-Caribbean”, and fairly easy to avoid such a possibility, especially in this town. But there is prejudice, of course. Everyone prefers their own. Everyone finds it easy to be critical of those who are “not like us”.

    Karleen & I laugh at the hypocrisy surrounding the use of language by people, white or whatever, who think that sensitive labelling is the answer. Indeed, Labelling is itself suspect, as other commenters have pointed out.

    On the other hand, it’s possible to glimpse, even from a distance, the residual bitterness arising from centuries of slavery in US. It generates a desire to make an end, to heal, to be one family.

    All the same, I’d like to know what the point of DiAngelo’s book is. Is it to convince her intended reader? What kind of reader will be attracted, apart from those who already agree with her (intrinsically divisive) thesis?

    Liked by 2 people

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