'There Is No Neutral': 'Nice White People' Can Still Be Racist White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo says that the status quo in the United States is racism, and for white people, that's comfortable. "We've got to start making it uncomfortable," she says.

'There Is No Neutral': 'Nice White People' Can Still Be Complicit In A Racist Society

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As streets around the world fill with protesters calling for an end to police violence against black people, some white people are asking themselves tough questions about what it means to be complicit and what it means to fight racism. Robin DiAngelo's book, "White Fragility," tackles some of those questions. It came out a couple of years ago, and it is back on bestseller lists today. And she joins us to talk about the role white people can play in dismantling racist systems that have been built over centuries.

Thank you for being here.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Oh, thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: OK. So you and I are two white people having a conversation about race. To start, why do you think that's important, and why is it rare?

DIANGELO: It's important because we're not going to say or do things that are going to hurt one another. There's not this deep history of harm between us. People of color, black people have an understanding of racism that you and I never will or never could. You know, from the time they were born, it's been coming at them and from us. And yet we do have an understanding of it that they cannot have and that we need to also look at and contribute to the conversation.

SHAPIRO: Can you give us an example of that understanding?

DIANGELO: Well, spend some time - and I will actually say this will be lifelong - really thinking deeply about what it means to be white, how your race shapes your life. You know, we live in a society that turns race over - to people of color, they have a race. We're just people. And so we see ourselves as outside of race, and that's problematic for many reasons. But there's so much potentially rich insight that we can gain from deeply reflecting on our own racial experiences.

SHAPIRO: So how do you define racism in a way that incorporates both the overt and the insidious aspects of it, more specific than just, I know it when I see it?

DIANGELO: Oh, I would actually challenge any white person who says, I'll know it when I see it. I would say, actually, all of the racism I've perpetrated in my life was neither conscious nor intentional but harmful to other people nonetheless.

You know, we all have racial bias. I think the research on implicit bias is very clear there. Racism is what happens when you back one group's racial bias with legal authority and institutional control, when you have overwhelming homogeneity at the tables where decisions are made that affect the lives of people who aren't at those tables. So racism is the foundation of the society we are in. And to simply carry on with absolutely no active interruption of that system is to be complicit with it. And in that way, we can say that nice white people who really aren't doing anything other than being nice people are racist. There's no neutral place.

SHAPIRO: As an educator on racial and social justice, have you found any easy way to open white people's eyes to that and explain that complexity to them?

DIANGELO: Not easy, but effective at this point.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Easy is the wrong word, for sure. Yeah.

DIANGELO: (Laughter) I do have a few things going for me at this time. You know, there's a lot of credibility behind my name at this point in my work. I'm also white. There's a kind of wink between us. Hey, you know and I know - come on, we know you can't really deny that when I'm saying it the way you might if I was a black person saying it. And I can challenge the definitions. So we've been taught to think about a racist as someone who consciously and intentionally seeks to hurt people based on race. And if that's what you think it means to be racist, then of course it's offensive that I would say you were racist. That's not what I mean by that.

SHAPIRO: What are some specific steps that white people can take to see and start understanding our own biases and our own complicity and our own role in these inherently racist structures and systems that you're describing?

DIANGELO: You know, it's a little bit like saying, I want to be in shape tomorrow, right? You're not going to be in shape tomorrow if you're out of shape. This is going to be a process, and there are going to be multiple parts to that process. So I would start with some very deep reflection on what it means to be white. We will never understand racism if we don't listen to black, indigenous and other peoples of color. So start reading what they're writing, listening to their videos, attending their talks and educating yourself.

And then there are two really excellent resources that I offer. One is Dr. Eddie Moore's 21-Day Racial Equity Building Challenge. It'll walk you through a daily practice. And Layla Saad's book, "Me And White Supremacy" workbook. That's a book you do rather than read. That will start us on what is a process, not a moment or an instant.

SHAPIRO: How do you get past the defensiveness that so often comes up in these kinds of conversations?

DIANGELO: I actually think that when you change your understanding of what it means to be racist, you will no longer be defensive. That mainstream definition of individual conscious malintent across race not only beautifully protects the system of racism by exempting virtually all white people from that system because who among your listeners right now would ever say they're consciously, intentionally mean across race? I think that definition is the root of most of the defensiveness. And when you change your definition, it's actually liberating and you can start getting to work actually trying to identify how I've been shaped by the system, but not if.

SHAPIRO: So we've been talking about awareness and understanding. Let's talk about actions. I mean, just to take one specific example, how do you suggest white people can help normalize checking each other when they see racism?

DIANGELO: Well, the first thing is try to point the finger inward, not outward. I hope even in the short time you and I have been speaking that I've been modelling that, that I'm not outside of this. I'm not telling you what to think or feel or believe. I'm just sharing with you what I do. And even if that doesn't shift you, there are two really important things that just happened. You did have to hear a counternarrative, whether you liked it or not, and I was in my integrity by breaking with white solidarity.

SHAPIRO: How do everyday interactions like the ones that we are talking about fit into what we're seeing globally right now - people marching in the streets against state-sanctioned violence against black people?

DIANGELO: Well, we've seen these moments before. I do see these protests being sustained and different kinds of demands coming out of them. That is hopeful. But the key is, what will happen when those cameras go away and when it's no longer, for lack of a better word for white people, anyway, exciting or righteous to go down and protest? The status quo of this society is racism. And I, as a white person, live in that society in comfort. It is comfortable for me as a white person to live in a racist society. We've got to start making it uncomfortable and figuring out what supports we're going to put in place to help us continue to be uncomfortable because the forces of comfort are quite seductive.

SHAPIRO: Robin DiAngelo is author of "White Fragility: Why It's So Hard To Talk To White People About Racism."

Thanks for joining us today.

DIANGELO: Oh, thank you for having me.


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