Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 book Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism is what it says on the cover. DiAngelo is a white woman writing this book for a white audience. It talks about how white people are often anxious and reactive when talking about racism. Often, they are uncomfortable with their role in it, whether they want to or not.
DiAngelo starts by clarifying exactly what she means by racism in her book. She uses the sociological and academic definition, not the colloquial one. She makes sure to clarify the difference between the two. The colloquial definition of racism is clear and visible. Think of the Jim Crow laws, or the events in Charlottesville. The other definition is much harder to see. It’s the long-standing history of subtle bias against people of color. It’s the labeling of neighborhoods as “good” or “bad” depending on how many people of color live there. It’s considering white to be the “default” human.
This book is…uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable. It forces the reader to acknowledge the part that they have played in systemic racism. DiAngelo isn’t speaking to the overt racist here. She’s speaking to the progressive anti-racist. She’s speaking to people that want to do everything that they can to help heal racial inequality. DiAngelo says that white progressives are often ignorant of how they can benefit from systemic racism.
DiAngelo makes sure to point out a false dichotomy that’s at the root of a lot of people’s discomfort. It’s this: everybody that takes part in racism is a bad person, and good people don’t take part in racism at all. Subscribing to this false dichotomy makes it unpleasant to face systemic racism. It’s a line of logic that completely shuts down growth. It makes it seem as if pointing out problematic behavior is a definitive statement on who one is as a person. DiAngelo argues that reality is much more complicated than that. Good people can make choices that have roots in their racist upbringing. White people don’t experience systemic racism first-hand. They often don’t know that some of their actions are racially insensitive. Louis CK isn’t exactly who I would call the best role model, but one of his quotes is especially poignant. When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t. Even if someone’s intentions are good, actions can have unexpected consequences
When looking at reviews of this book, I saw one that said: “so white people can’t have an opinion?” That kind of thinking is what DiAngelo says shuts down important conversations. She said that it’s a response that sees often with the people that she trains. When people get uncomfortable, they tend to shut down. They avoid the cognitive dissonance that comes with not wanting to act in a racist way. It’s difficult to face the unintentional and unconscious racism they participate in. However, she argues that shutting down skews in a way that hinders any useful progress.
As uncomfortable as White Fragility is, it’s thought-provoking and important for anyone that wants to help make progress towards improving racial relations and reducing racial violence. It forces the reader to face some uncomfortable truths that they might have been avoiding. DiAngelo puts her argument forward in a common sense, easy to understand way. I think that it’s a book that everyone should read.