White people can sometimes become defensive when the subject of racism is discussed, the author of a book on white fragility said. Oftentimes this stems from the dislike of being generalized.
“Individualism is a precious ideology in Western culture," author Robin DiAngelo said. "We take great exception to being generalized. For some white people, the moment we started saying ‘white people’ they were upset, shut down and were not going to engage in any further.”
Robin DiAngelo spoke to roughly 950 students as a part of Purdue’s “Pursuing Racial Justice Together” learning series on Thursday. The virtual event was moderated by Megha Anwer, the director of diversity, inclusion and equity at the Honors College.
Her book, “White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” discusses the reactions white people have when their assumptions about race are challenged, and how these reactions maintain racial inequality.
She said there were many other reasons why white people often react with discomfort and defensiveness when the topic of racism is brought up.
Meritocracy was another reason, DiAngelo said. She said she always believed in the ideology that “only the best and the brightest get to college” and when she got there, she realized the system was set up in a way that guarantees that some groups will end up in college and some won’t, which are based on positionalities like class, race and gender.
In her book, she reiterates the idea that there is no such thing as reverse racism and that it was important to mention because it is one of the first arguments made by white people.
White people are born into the world they racially belong in, she said. An example she uses is the portrayal of God in popular culture.
“Find an image of God that is not white,” DiAngelo said. “Jesus and Mary were real people who were not white. It is just an example of the power of the relentless representation, reinforcement and all the sub-narratives.”
White people come to feel entitled to have it all and to be at the top, she said. When something suggests that people have to share that, they can become resentful, she said. .
“Part of this culture is this idea of scarcity, that if we share, we’ll lose something that’s rightfully ours,” she said.
The point is there is a disconnect and white people don’t have a collective understanding of systemic racism, she said.
Anytime DiAngelo does not understand a piece of racism, she said she changes the roles in her mind and imagines the situation in the context of a man saying it to her, as a woman, to try and better understand the feelings.
Her suggestions to white people who are working to be anti-racist were: learn the history, understand the power dynamics, understand their place within the power dynamics and remain thoughtful about how they engage with the topic.
DiAngelo said she grew up in poverty and graduated college as a non-traditional student — she was a 34-year-old single mom. This shaped her college experience and beyond, she said. For most of her life, she thought about the injustices of classism, patriarchy and sexism but she had never thought about her role in the injustice of racism.
After working side by side with people of color in the diversity training, DiAngelo said the experience could be compared to scales falling away from her eyes.
“And while I do not compare and would never compare the forms of oppression I have experienced with racism, to imagine that I could contribute to anything close to those feelings — that shame, that injustice — that was unbearable for me,” she said
According to DiAngelo, the biggest criticism is the monetary aspect of her job.
“There are those who believe that white people should not be doing this in a public way and should not be paid to do it,” she said, “I clearly disagree.”
In the last two years, DiAngelo says she has been paid well which allows her to do a lot of pro-bono work. It allows her to donate more, and she said she donates a percentage of her income.
Anwer asked how white people could do anti-racist work that did not subscribe to the “white-savior complex,” a term coined by Teju Cole, a Nigerian-American writer. This phrase refers to a white person helping non-white people for their own benefit, rather than out of want to help.
“You don’t do it to help or save them," DiAngelo said. "You do it for your own liberation.”
Her final advice to the audience was to be able to discuss racism.
“In 2021, you are going to be called upon to engage with the concepts of systemic racism in order to be qualified to lead,” she said. “That is the cultural moment that we are in.”