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Robin DiAngelo knows a lot about white privilege – it’s in her DNA. The American academic, author and anti-racism advocate talks about how structures of whiteness and so-called white progressives are continuing to damage the lives of people of colour. ‘I grew up in poverty … I was a feminist for most of my life before I realised I could also be an oppressor. But I draw from my experience of oppression … I think that helps. The key is not to exempt myself from being an oppressor, just because I experience oppression. Ask anyone if they’d rather be poor and white or poor and brown – I knew I was poor, but I also knew I was white.’ By Leah Jing McIntosh.

Robin DiAngelo, an agent of change

Robin DiAngelo
Credit: LEAH JING McINTOSH

“It’s a lot like water dripping on rock, right? I didn’t get it the first time, second time or third time. And still I slip and I slide, if you will.” Dr Robin DiAngelo sits across from me in a soft armchair, knees neatly tucked underneath her. As a person of colour, I am welcome to let her know if she “slips”, she tells me, and she will be grateful for my input. But she doesn’t slip, not once; not within our hour-long conversation, nor in her lecture at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre or during a three-hour workshop the following day. There’s cognitive dissonance, I tell her, in agreeing so wholeheartedly with a white woman on issues of race. “Well, I have been studying this for 20 years,” she replies.

For decades, writers and scholars of colour have maintained that whiteness lies at the centre of racism. In recent years, the growing field of critical whiteness studies has prioritised the study of whiteness in order to challenge, in the words of Aileen Moreton-Robinson, how “white race privilege is invisible but centred”. DiAngelo’s latest book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, first appeared on The New York Times bestseller list within a week of its publication in June, and has remained there for 22 weeks. “A necessary book for all people invested in societal change,” poet Claudia Rankine said.

At the door of her Melbourne hotel room, DiAngelo welcomes me with a hug: “Come in! Come in.” She is open, friendly, the kind of person you would ask for directions. She is quick to smile and has a habit of ending sentences with “…right?” in an American drawl. When I comment on how welcoming she is, she tilts her head back and laughs. “That’s funny. Inside, I feel so confrontational, because these are very bold things that I’m saying.” A white academic working in the field of whiteness studies and critical discourse analysis, DiAngelo is keenly aware of her positionality – she knows her slender, cis-female, able white body holds power. Her work is both consciously and unconsciously supported by the privilege her body holds.

 

“Just so you know, they booked this for us!” DiAngelo says, when she notices me admiring the view from the window of her suite. “I don’t go around looking for five-star hotels.” She laughs. A few days later she will tell a room of workshop attendees about how she grew up below the poverty line, sometimes living in cars, sometimes shunted into foster care. Unable to afford the conventional trajectory of many academics, she first attended college after she turned 30, enrolling at Seattle University. “I grew up in poverty … I was a feminist for most of my life before I realised I could also be an oppressor. But I draw from my experience of oppression … I think that helps.” DiAngelo maintains that the key to her work is to “not to exempt myself from being an oppressor, just because I experience oppression”. Class oppression is not a directly equivalent experience. “Ask anyone if they’d rather be poor and white or poor and brown,” she adds, “I knew I was poor, but I also knew I was white.”

In White Fragility, DiAngelo writes, “We have been taught that racists are mean people who intentionally dislike others because of their race; racists are immoral.” This definition, she says, this dominant framework of racism as a good/bad binary, is deeply problematic. It exempts the majority of white people from engaging with the concept of racism, which she sees permeating every structure of Western society. “Who wrote this definition of racism?” she asks me, before answering herself: “Old white men. When you look up ‘racism’, the definition almost never includes the concept of ‘power’.” Racism, DiAngelo writes, is a “deeply embedded historical system of institutional power”, and thus impossible to avoid; we cannot separate the past from the present. All white people are thus implicated, under her model, on a continuum that stretches from “racist” to “anti-racist”.

It is testament to the supremacy of whiteness that “white fragility” remained unnamed until 2011, when DiAngelo defined it as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”

Something as minor as calling someone “white” or generalising about the “white” experience can trigger this fragility, DiAngelo says, so I ask whether the calm tone in her book is intentional. She nods. “The calm is necessary – white fragility is irrational.” There is a folder in her email full of irate messages from readers. “Some day I might write a book about them,” she says. People often use their reactions as a way out of their discomfort, DiAngelo explains, but she encourages them to use discomfort as a “door in”, to ask, “Why does this threaten me?” or “What do I lose by simply grappling with this idea?” She explains the irrationality of white fragility as akin to an embarrassing incident. “If you came out of the bathroom and your skirt was tucked into your pantihose, and your ass was showing, and someone raced after you and whispered, ‘Your ass is showing!’ Would you be like, ‘Oh, no it’s not! And you better act like it’s not!’? No!” she laughs. “You’d be like, ‘Oh god, thank you!’ And then you’d pull your damn dress out.”

In her workshops, DiAngelo leads without notes, talking calmly as she flicks through presentations heavy with visuals. Her pedagogy is self-referential; she tells you what she’s doing as she does it. “Everything is strategic. Everything that comes out of my mouth has been informed and honed for years,” she says. Her goal is to make her participants’ collusion with white supremacy “undeniable”. During one of her Melbourne workshops, I run into a white friend – highly educated, engaged in issues of race and multiculturalism, a white progressive. About an hour in, I ask my friend whether she’s feeling any discomfort. She shakes her head; she has studied this before. When the workshop ends, though, she turns to me, “You know that question you asked me midway?” she asks, then pauses. “My answer has changed,” she says. “I am so uncomfortable. I have a lot more to learn … there’s so much more work to do.” She tells me she’s convinced her white boss to attend the next workshop.

“I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color,” DiAngelo writes in White Fragility. The white progressive is “any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the ‘choir’, or already ‘gets it’ ” – white readers of The Saturday Paper, this is most certainly you. DiAngelo says the discomfort you may be feeling, confronted by the idea you unknowingly cause damage to people of colour on a daily basis, is a feeling she has herself encountered. She confesses: “I was not raised to see myself in racial terms … nothing in the dominant culture informs us.” This inability to see oneself as white is the very heart of white fragility and the unconscious perpetuating of racism. In her workshop, DiAngelo cites American writer Ijeoma Oluo: “I don’t want you to understand me better, I want you to understand yourselves.” It is not the understanding of the other that white progressives are missing; they are lacking an understanding of their own whiteness.

In her 20s, DiAngelo became a diversity trainer, a job she says changed the course of her life. “I applied for a job I wasn’t qualified for. But because I’m white, I got the job,” she admits. “I have to note … just the mediocrity that white people get away with. I was very naive. I thought, of course I’m qualified because I’m open-minded, I’m not racist.” The experience was profound, by her description. “Never had people of colour challenged me,” she explains. “Part of being white is that you can live your life without ever being challenged by people of colour.” She acknowledges, immediately and with emphasis, that her learning was due to the hard work and patience of her colleagues of colour. Each time I speak with DiAngelo, she underscores the patience and generosity of people of colour to assist her leaning. Her first book, What Does It Mean To Be White?: Developing White Racial Literacy, is dedicated to these mentors. She also donates part of her royalties to racial justice programs.

In the author’s note of White Fragility, DiAngelo recognises that “… in speaking as a white person to a primarily white audience, I am yet again centering white people and the white voice”. It’s a double-bind – by not being named, whiteness stays centred; by naming it, whiteness remains centred. DiAngelo underscores this tension with reference to Audre Lorde’s 1979 essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”, but maintains that refusal to use her privileged position to challenge racism is to “uphold racism”. She has chosen to take a both/and approach. “There are myriad roads in,” she notes in her workshops, “and all of them are critical.”

DiAngelo is cognisant that Australia, though similarly violent to non-white people, has a differing historical context to that of America. But she’s done her research. Speaking to a full house at the Wheeler Centre, she pulls up lists of statistics entitled “Represented: The Halls of Power”. In Australia, 97 per cent of chief executives are white; 95 per cent of senior leaders are white; 97 per cent of our senators are white; our parliament is 99 per cent white; our High Court judges and our Court of Appeals judges are 100 per cent white. The faces of our 30 prime ministers gleam brightly on the next slide as she comments, “… and 100 per cent of your prime ministers have been white”.

It is during this lecture that it becomes clear White Fragility has been written for white people. DiAngelo freely admits this is the case. As I watch her speak with a friend, who is also a person of colour, DiAngelo peels apart structures and shoots off analogies, and the air feels taut. When the majority-white audience laughs in recognition of their own whiteness, I cringe and glance at my friend. Uncharacteristically, he pulls me in for a hug.

In the weeks leading up to my interview with DiAngelo, the concept of discomfort had rattled around in my mind. Naming, interrogating and dismantling structures of whiteness that allow white people to consciously and unconsciously take part in white supremacy would surely benefit our society. But white supremacy benefits from the rejection of this discomfort. So why should, or would, white people read DiAngelo’s book?

“I think it’s incredibly liberating to start from the premise that of course I’ve been thoroughly conditioned into white supremacy. Just start there,” she tells me. “It frees you of all of the denial and the defensiveness and deflection and the working so hard, to establish that you haven’t been impacted by those things. And instead, you can get to work.” She pauses, collecting her thoughts. “Most white people who are defensive will insist they believe in justice. So, it actually allows you to align what you profess to believe, with the practice of your life.

“There’s nothing more intellectually, psychologically, emotionally and perhaps spiritually stimulating than this work, for white people. For me, there’s no point in being alive if I’m not growing, and challenging and contributing. I want you to have less pain. I want us to stop the nonsense. I want you to live longer.”

At the end of her final workshop, DiAngelo comes up to me and asks how I’m going. Though handled with much sensitivity and care, being so close to this, watching white people come to terms with what is part of my everyday, has been exhausting. So, I tell her, “It’s a lot.” I ask her to sign my book and she gives me a hug.

On the tram home, I open the book to see what she has written. “To Leah – it’s not you, it’s us.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 22, 2018 as "Agent of change". Subscribe here.

Leah Jing McIntosh
is the editor of Liminal Magazine.