Mirror Mirror

Let’s call it how it is. 2020 has been a garbage fire. Phase 1 of COVID preceded a phase 2 of COVID that’s grounded in people basically giving zero f***s anymore. Mix this with an unbearable allergy season. Furthermore, our president is more delusional than ever. And sparked by several recorded incidents of police brutality, social tensions are at an all-time high (or maybe we’re just watching and listening now), which begs the question: Are race relations worsening? 

The Black community has always faced prejudice and discrimination in America. They’ve been treated as “others” or less than, and white people as a collective have continually refused to listen and evaluate the role they play in our racist, white supremacist society. The murder of George Floyd seems to be changing the tide: The fog is finally being lifted, the curtain being pushed back on this country’s true history and present reality for people of color.

White people seem more willing to educate themselves on this — myself included. With that comes a bevy of anti-racism literature, most of which has been around for years but is now in the spotlight. This brings me to White Fragility, a book that, although written by a white woman, provides a telling perspective on why it is so difficult for white people to discuss race — which contributes to why white supremacy has reigned for so long in the “western” world — while also providing examples and guidance to challenge it.

White Fragility

I first heard about White Fragility through my friend Hilary, who is incredibly woke and articulate. We were discussing with our friend Dana Little Fires Everywhere on the The Biblio Files, particularly how racism plays a role in the show when it was not part of the book. She had mentioned that the creators were required to read White Fragility before starting the show and bring their notes so they could properly scrutinize every scene and every piece of dialogue.

At the time, I thought “Oh cool. I’ve never heard of that book. But I’m glad they did their research beforehand.”

Because racism, police brutality, and a myriad of related social issues have permeated many a conversation these past few months, I have since realized it’s not just the responsibility of creators or people in the public eye to educate themselves. It’s all white people’s responsibility; that includes me. And after being silent for too many years on the matter (reminder: silence is complicity) and not checking my own racism and prejudice, I needed to start ASAP.

Part of that education was buying books that would force me to wake up and that I could share with others. Isn’t that the power of having a platform even if it’s just a small book blog? So I, like so many others, immediately ordered the first books I’d heard of. White Fragility was one of those. But I failed to research and listen, which is a fault I must correct. I didn’t realize White Fragility was written by a white woman.

In a recent Instagram post, public academic, writer, and lecturer Rachel Cargle commented that author Robin DiAngelo, as a white woman, should be held accountable for the work she’s doing on issues of race. She should “be held accountable for the money she’s making off of antiracism work (and her book White Fragility) holding her accountable for whether she is being transparent and intentional about not just intellectualizing race but using the resources she’s gaining off of that book to tangibly support black communities,” Cargle wrote. Is it fair for a white person to profit from anti-racism work when whiteness catalyzes racism?

It’s a question I grappled with while reading this book and after reading Cargle’s post. (She’s incredible by the way, so I recommend you follow her and contribute to her work, and you should listen to this episode of Call Your Girlfriend, which features both Cargle and DiAngelo.)

I fully support Cargle’s statement about DiAngelo. But, as Cargle remarked in the comments, the book is still worth reading. It’s just that, after you finish the book, you should pressure DiAngelo to be more transparent on how she supports black communities.

As a sociologist, DiAngelo has committed her professional life to social justice, to breaking down race issues, and to building an anti-racist society. She is an academic and researches on “Whiteness Studies and Critical Discourse Analysis, tracing how whiteness is reproduced in everyday narratives,” per her website. She’s also worked as a consultant on these topics, often leading workshops on how companies and other groups can break down racist barriers in their communities and at work.

While reading it, I expressed to Dana, who was reading it simultaneously, how I was struggling with the fact that this is a white woman teaching me about racism and my own white fragility. She agreed but added that DiAngelo approaches this very much through a sociological lens. That is completely true. Not once while reading this book did I feel like she was trying to explain a Black person’s experience to me, which she doesn’t have the agency to do.

That sociological perspective and framework is appreciated but also makes the book a little difficult to read at times. I often felt like I was reading a textbook; it could have easily been assigned reading in my sociology classes in college. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, and it even provides the book a firm foundation. My only concern is that it will turn away readers, and they won’t want to finish this book.

But let me reiterate: You should finish this book.

I experienced a lot of light bulb moments while reading it. Some were of the “I’ve seen that” experience, but so many others were “Oh God. I’ve done that.”

Admittedly, when I started reading this book, I held onto the fact that it was really for other white people — conservatives who are openly racist or the “all lives matter” crowd. Because I am liberal and live in a progressive city, I’m free of racism and have little to learn. I don’t contribute to systemic racism and don’t possess white fragility.

Now that I’ve finished it, I recognize that this book is exactly for someone like me. I am guilty of, as DiAngelo calls it, color-celebration. I look for excuses in where I’ve lived and where and with whom I work to validate these claims. I too get defensive when I’m called out or see another white person called out. How many people of color do I actually socialize with? This is quintessential white fragility. This sustains systemic racism.

White Fragility will and should awaken us white people to our own racism and how we have benefitted from white supremacy. Only then can we grow and create meaningful social change. Constructive criticism is the force that allows us to reform. It’s what we need at our jobs and in our relationships, so of course constructive criticism is what tackling racism requires. 

DiAngelo doesn’t just make us white people self-reflect, which is necessary. She highlights key phenomena as to why white fragility exists in the first place, two of which specifically caught my attention:

  • The level to which individualism and meritocracy are ingrained in American culture and the value we place on them; and
  • The good/bad dichotomy we associate with racism.

The first bullet was especially interesting to me because it made so much sense. Nobody had put it in such simplistic terms before. This country was founded on the basis of individual freedoms (and slavery). We like to use “free speech” and other rights to justify racist attitudes and actions and to reject anti-racist policies on the basis of having “earned” our rights and social status. Free thinking started this country, and we’ll use it perpetually to deny our actions and to prove our opinions are correct.

DiAngelo also makes an interesting point that Americans are raised to believe that democracy and capitalism are the only acceptable forms of government and economics, respectively. We are taught to never question them. Having doubts or skepticism toward them makes you un-American, which is hypocritical if you think about the ideals upon which this country was founded.

As for the second bullet point, I still wrestle with the good/bad dichotomy — both personally and with my family. I’ve lived a good-girl, people-pleaser life and to think I could be anything but perfect or accept anything but perfect is hard for me to overcome.

Don’t worry; it’s being discussed in therapy.

I struggle to accept that I have racist thoughts or actions because that implies I am a bad person when I have worked my whole life to be — and even obsessed over being — a good person. DiAngelo doesn’t excuse these actions and thoughts; rather, she emphasizes that this dichotomy simply does not exist. How can we avoid them when prejudice is intrinsic in our society? We have to be willing to listen and grow from our mistakes, though, so that we can topple white supremacist systems finally.

This book — only one of many that should be read on the topic of racism — is meant to put a mirror in front of white people, and it’s meant to make us question our character and interactions. Race is not a “them” issue, something that only Black people have to contend with and something perpetuated by “other” white people. It’s perpetuated by all white people, and that makes it our job to overcome.

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