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In White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, author Robin DiAngelo’s subject is race relations in the United States. As a white woman who grew up in America in the late twentieth century, DiAngelo uses her position to address white people and help them see the racist structures that hold up and to continue to shape American society. DiAngelo’s years of work as a diversity workshop trainer have given her insight into the difficulties white people have talking about race. DiAngelo has witnessed the defensiveness that can immediately surface in some white people during conversations about race. She directs this book at white people, to help them understand the origins of their defensiveness and overcome it. She intends to describe the ways white people can help dismantle the underlying structures of white supremacy that still govern American institutions.
According to DiAngelo, most white people in the United States do not realize that American society is a normalization of white supremacy, because most white people just accept the status quo, which is white. As the dominant ethnic group at the establishment of the United States, European Americans shaped the values and racial makeup of American society today. Most Americans understand that good neighborhoods, good schools, and a good life correspond to white neighborhoods, white schools, and a white life. While there is some mixing of races in these areas, the message to people of color is that the default white life is the ideal to be achieved. White people receive this socialization more subtly, as their privilege tends to allow them to live a white life by default, and without as much struggle to achieve it. White Americans internalize the myth of meritocracy and believe that through hard work, all Americans can achieve the American dream. But many whites don’t understand that they are already many steps ahead of people of color, simply by virtue of the institutions established by white Americans before them, which continue to benefit them.
These underlying racist structures make life slightly easier, more comfortable, and less taxing for a typical white American than for an equivalent person of color of a similar social class. Until white Americans can acknowledge the existence of these structures, they will continue to exhibit what DiAngelo calls “white fragility.” Most white Americans latch onto “the good/bad binary,” which equates racists with people who hurl insults or commit acts of violence against people of color. By implication, all other white Americans are safely in the good camp.
However, because of the structures governing the daily routines of American lives, white people continue to unconsciously support the structures that allow the majority of white and Black people to live relatively segregated lives. Most every American strives to live in a better neighborhood, so their child can attend better schools, and then better universities, which will help them achieve success in life. It is understood that “good” in this sense means “majority white.” Although housing covenants blocking people of color from buying homes in certain neighborhoods were outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, property prices keep many people of color from living in prized neighborhoods. Most public school systems depend on funding from local property taxes. Good schools go hand in hand with good neighborhoods. Many wealthy people also opt out of the public school systems entirely, and put their money and energy into supporting schools that are even further out of reach for people of color. Just by continuing to participate in existing structures, white people perpetuate racist policies.
DiAngelo has been hired by groups and companies to help them improve their hiring diversity or learn how better to retain people of color. She has seen firsthand how talking about race makes white people inherently nervous, because they do not want to be classified as racist. In her workshops, and in this book, DiAngelo tries to help whites understand that it is the wider societal structures governing American society that make certain acts racist, as experienced by Black people.
Once aware of how anti-Blackness sentiments manifest within the wider societal structures, whites can help Black people and people of color maneuver better through the system. Whites can support affirmative action programs, and programs that make it easier to people of color to get loans for college or a home. Understanding systemic racism also keeps whites from becoming defensive when talking about race, and the conversation becomes less about defending perceived accusations of personal racism and more about constructively helping people of color. By acknowledging the existence of the underlying racism on which structures and institutions that benefit them are built, DiAngelo believes, white people can overcome their inherent white fragility and become allies in helping to dismantle these structures.