During DiversityInc’s Top 50 Event on Leadership Accountability on Nov. 4, 2020, Carolynn Johnson, CEO of DiversityInc sat down for a virtual fireside chat with Robin DiAngelo, sociologist, academic and author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.
Since its publication in June 2018, White Fragility hasn’t left The New York Times Best Seller list for nonfiction paperback; as of November 2020, the book has appeared on the list for 115 weeks. At the height of the George Floyd protests in May 2020, DiAngelo’s book topped the list again as many believed it was a crucial text that everyone should read in order to understand the pervasiveness of systemic racism in the United States, as well as to contextualize the collective anger toward the death of Black Americans at the hands of the police and/or other state-sanctioned violence.
Johnson and DiAngelo’s discussion was filtered through the lens of society as well as the business world, focusing on concepts like implicit bias and systemic racism; the role white people play in perpetuating and reinforcing this system; as well as the harm (even if inadvertent) that comes out of performative allyship.
Carolynn Johnson: Let’s dig right in and begin with terms and definitions. Can you explain how you are using terms such as systemic racism and white supremacy?
Robin DiAngelo: Systemic racism speaks to implicit bias. The research is quite clear there, and I highly recommend Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt’s new book, Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do. Systemic racism is what happens when one group’s collective (in this case) racial bias is backed with legal authority and institutional control. That transforms it into a far-reaching system that is beyond the individual. It’s not dependent on my intentions, my friendliness, it’s not dependent on whether I believe in it or agree with it, or even acknowledge it. It becomes the status quo, it’s circulating 24/7, 365 days because it’s infused across the fabric of the society, all its institutions, policies, practices, language and so on.
We are all impacted by systemic racism. When we think about it just in terms of implicit bias, we tend to just look at each individual, which sets up this idea that some people could be outside of this and some people are inside of this. But none of us are untouched by the forces of systemic racism, because we literally live in a culture that is rooted in it.
As for white supremacy, let me first acknowledge that certainly, I was raised to see that as a very charged term, which often signified people wearing white hoods. And it certainly includes people who would wear white hoods, but it is a highly descriptive sociological term for the society we live in, which is a society that holds white people up as the norm for what it means to be the standard of human — the ideal human, the standard everyone else is measured against and, of course, always found to be deficient in the face of it. The system of racism comes out of the ideology of white supremacy.
Johnson: There’s this idea — and it’s not my opinion, we see it in the numbers and we see it in the lack of women and people of color in management — that white men are viewed as prepared, capable, able, whereas white women are viewed as being able to be molded into [the ideal white man professional]. Anything else outside of that likely results in a “no,” or is viewed as a charitable “chance that we’ll take.”
When we talk about white supremacy and being anti-racist, we’re reframing how people understand what has gone wrong all along, so that we can figure out ways to fix it. And your book really does help us to reframe that because it’s honest and it’s vulnerable.
DiAngelo: Thank you!
Johnson: The term you coined that influenced the global conversation on race is “white fragility.” Because everybody has come up with their own definition. I want to hear from you, what is it?
DiAngelo: Well, the fragility part is meant to speak to how little it takes to cause white people to melt down in defensiveness, umbrage, hurt feelings, argumentation and withdrawal whenever our racial positions or advantages are named or acknowledged. It really doesn’t take much, generalizing about white people, or even saying “white people” — white people are not used to being seen as part of a collective. Part of being white is being seen as an individual outside of race. “Race is what you have,” right? If we’re going to be talking about race, [they deflect by saying] “we’re going to be talking about your problems,” as if white people are not a part of that problem.
So, we’re fragile in that it doesn’t take much to cause us to be very sensitive, but the impact of that isn’t fragile at all because it marshals behind the weight of legal authority and institutional control. I see white fragility as a kind of everyday white racial control — the “sociology of dominance,” if you will. How white people maintain our positions, and I’m going to be blunt here, bully people of color into not challenging those positions.
When I say bully, I mean we tend to make it so miserable for you to talk to us about these issues, much less challenge us directly and personally, but primarily in white and white-controlled environments — in almost any corporation you’re going to name is going to get whiter at the top. More often than not, people of color have to make a choice to just endure it rather than challenge it because things tend to get worse, not better. You risk more punishment if you cause a white person to be uncomfortable. And soon you become a problem, you personally have a problem; you’re now the aggressor and I become the victim. So white fragility is really powerful, and none of that has to be conscious or intentional, but the impact of my defensiveness carries all of that with it.
Johnson: You brought up the concept of individualism and the problems associated with a culture that praises this notion, predominantly Western cultures. Can you talk a bit more about that? And as you’re going through that, what are some of the harmful implications or results that individualism leads to?
DiAngelo: Of course, we’re all unique individuals. But we’re also members of social groups. And in this case, to be a member of the social group called the white people is so profound in its meaning for our lives that we could literally predict whether you and I and our mothers were going to survive our Earth. That’s how profound it is to be a member of this social group. And we have to be willing to grapple with the shared collective experience. We’re all in the same culture, swimming in the same water, we’re receiving the same messages, nothing can exempt us from those messages.
It’s similar to gender. I can fight gender binaries, I can try very hard to raise my children to be free of that gender binary, but I will be fighting it. I can never fully inoculate them because society sees them, assigns them, and responds to them based on that gender binary. When we insist that we can only look at one another as individuals, we exempt ourselves from all of that, and it’s something that’s really only granted to white people.
I often use the example of two filmmakers. Mike Leigh is a British filmmaker who makes beautiful films about the human condition, and Spike Lee is always a Black filmmaker who makes movies about Black issues. When we’re interested in Black issues, we’ll go see Spike Lee movies, but when we just want to see “universal stories that speak to everyone,” we’ll go see a Mike Leigh film or Steven Spielberg or Robert Altman or so on.
By always marking Spike Lee’s race but not marking Mike Leigh’s, it grants Mike Leigh individuality, for sure, but also objectivity, and the ability to just be seen as speaking for everyone from no particular position. Spike Lee, however, is always seen as speaking from a limited and biased position.
In conversations about diversity in the workplace, if we’re not asking, “diverse from whom or what,” what is the water that we’re seeking to add people into? If we haven’t also addressed that water, we’re adding people into, at the minimum, a somewhat supportive environment, and at the maximum, a hostile environment.
That’s all to say: We’re not just “individuals.”
Johnson: So, what would you say to those who claim that your work just makes white people feel guilty?
DiAngelo: I would say that is a very disingenuous read of my work. I have a section in the book that’s about the question of guilt. I, to be honest, don’t have a lot of patience for guilt. I do believe it is a natural response of coming to awareness as a white person that not only is there a system, but that I am part of it, I benefit from it, I’ve colluded with it — yes, that is a natural response. Defensiveness is natural, too. The key is whether we move through those feelings or not, because if we don’t move through them, they function to excuse inaction and immobilization.
I’m quite clear: I have been thoroughly conditioned into a racist ideology. There’s no way I could have helped absorbing it, it circulates all the time. I’ve been conditioned into white supremacy, into white superiority, into an entitlement to be seen as an individual.
But I don’t feel guilty, because I did not choose to be conditioned into those things, would never have chosen it, wasn’t given a choice. What I feel is responsible for the outcome of having been conditioned into this system; it’s on me to change my question as a white person from how I’ve been shaped by the forces of systemic racism, to which most white people will say, “No, I haven’t been touched by it. I’m not racist.” Or: “I’m the least racist person in the room.” Or: “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” And so on. We have to change our question from if we’ve been shaped to how we have been shaped. Notice if the question is “if” then the answer is likely going to be no. What further action is required of me? None if I’m not “racist.”
Johnson: Yep, they just keep it moving, right?
DiAngelo: Now, if the question is “how,” well that sets me on a lifelong path. And that hits something else I wrote about, which is the good-bad binary. As long as we define racism as individual acts of conscious and intentional meanness, every single white person that I know is going to be exempt from the system. No racism I’ve ever perpetrated has been conscious or intentional, but it has wounded other people, nonetheless. We can’t get there from this paradigm that says, conscious intentional white hood-wearing people are the problem. Look where we are. Oh, my goodness, look where this country is.
Johnson: I want to talk a little bit about the inevitable difficulty that white people experience when they try to engage and take part in the conversation about race ethnicity. Why it so often hard for white people to talk about racism?
DiAngelo: There are many reasons. One is that we’re not raised to see ourselves in racial terms. Again, I understood that somebody had race, and I expected if we’re talking about race, we’d be talking about, that person’s race, your race. But I was outside of that, and I’m not alone in that. We set race up as what other people have. Thus, there’s a kind of lack of capacity to withstand the discomfort of having to look at ourselves in racial terms and to connect ourselves to a system that we have exempted ourselves from, and that we see as bad, which would mean then that we were bad. You’ve kind of got this vicious cycle.
The status quo of this society is racism. It’s the norm, it’s not an aberration.
As a white person, I live, love, play, work, create in a racist society in racial comfort. I just want every white person listening to hold that. I’m comfortable in a racist society. White comfort comes to be something I feel I should have and that I am entitled to. And so, when I am uncomfortable, I read that as some kind of breach in the social contract, rather than a really necessary piece. We aren’t going to get where we need to go from a place of white comfort. Meritocracy gets challenged, “Oh, yes I worked hard, but there was also a system that paid that work off differently than [people of color’s] hard work?” That’s hard to acknowledge. And perhaps one of the most difficult things for us to admit is internalized superiority.
We’re taught that we have what we have because we’re better people, that we deserve what we have. And I love the way Ibram X. Kendi puts this. He says, “Look, by every measure, every outcome: there’s racial inequality.” I don’t think anyone would deny that by every measure, Black and brown people are going to be at the bottom. And there’s really only two basic explanations for that: Either Black and brown people are inferior and white people are superior, and that’s why we’re always at the top, and you’re always at the bottom, or systemic racism. And if you weren’t going to use systemic racism as the lens to make sense of that, you’re using a racist lens. But we’re not taught to use systemic racism as the lens, we’re taught to see you as a diversity hire, affirmative action and then resentment.
I don’t probably have to invoke all of the narratives and tropes in every election that get re-invoked and reinforce this idea of us being inherently more deserving of what we have. Challenging systemic racism challenges all of that.
Johnson: You have said that white progressives may cause the most daily harm to people of color. Can you explain what you meant by that?
DiAngelo: It’s a provocative statement, and some of that is strategy because there’s so much denial. For white people who are progressives in that they’re involved in diversity work, that denial can be really strong in a different kind of way. We’re the woke ones and we go forth and raise everybody else’s consciousness. Sometimes I think white people involved in this work can be the most difficult, but that’s even one notch above basic progressive. But here’s why I say progressives can be difficult: I am aware that we are in a cultural moment in which white nationalism is on the rise and it is being condoned at the highest levels. It’s serious and it’s real, and that is explicit racism.
The kind of racism I’ve been talking about, that I’ve connected to myself to, is more implicit.
I can only imagine that for you Carolynn, to interact with say a Richard Spencer, someone who absolutely promotes a white ethno-state might be unsettling. But the odds are on a daily basis, you’re not interacting with the Richard Spencers of the world. You’re interacting with me and you’re interacting with all these well-meaning diversity people that are listening right now. We are the colleagues and the coworkers that send so many people of color home on a daily basis. People of color are working in predominantly white organizations, having to decide whether it’s worth it to bring this up or just endure it, because they need to get home.
I’m sure you’ve heard countless Black employees say how exhausting it is to navigate the whiteness of most corporations. And so, who is that? That’s not a neo-Nazi—not that I’m aware of. And at least with a neo-Nazi, you know where they’re coming from. I’m gaslighting you, I’m the one you can’t get your hands on, I’m the person who just undermined you in that meeting.
Any out or exemption a white person can take, in my experience, we will take to get out from under this discussion. “This is not me; this is somebody over there.” We play a part in this. When I say white progressives may cause the most daily harm, it’s meant for us to think, “Well, what’s my part?” It might not look like that extreme stuff, but it looks like something. What does it look like? It has to be coming from me too.
Johnson: With Black Lives Matter being amplified this year — and some people who have joined and supported the movement for very selfish reasons — a lot of doubt has been created recently over some people’s motives for promoting diversity. I’m just going to ask this outright: Why should people listen to you, a white woman, on the topic of race?
DiAngelo: Thank you for asking me that question. It’s an important one to address. So, let me be clear: white people, we will never understand what we need to understand about racism if we are not listening to Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color. And what I articulate comes from years of mentorship and engaging, and scholarship and so forth. And to exempt ourselves as if we are outside of this relationship is very problematic.
For far too long we have offloaded all of this onto Black and other people. You do the race work. You speak to race. You have an understanding of everything I write about — I believe to a degree that I’m never going to have. And, I’m sorry to say, I can still be seen as qualified to talk about race with no understanding of yours by many who continue to show, let’s be honest, no interest in understanding your lived experiences. So that is foundational.
As an insider to whiteness, I have an understanding that you don’t have. We need everyone at the table, so that’s one really key piece. It’s not a zero-sum game where if you listen to me or read my book, that’s it — that’s the only book you’re going to read. I hope it’s the opposite, that it helps you be open to reading and educating yourself more.
One of the ways that implicit bias works is, conscious or not, there’s a lot I can say. And I can say it directly and get away with it, getting much further than a person of color could. It relates back to Audre Lorde’s quote about the master’s tools; using my platform, fair or not, earned or not, to break with white solidarity and call my people in, and in the way that only I as a white person can. I could go on, but those are some key reasons I think it’s really important.
Johnson: For the folks that are listening to our session and that have heard me speak before, I often say don’t believe in unconscious bias. I believe in unchecked bias. I alluded to this earlier — people have done things so long and we’ve made excuses for them and it just didn’t get checked along the way.
We’ve got to make sure that before we end our conversation today — which was awesome by the way— I want to make sure that we talk about some strategies that organizations can engage in to promote racial equity.
DiAngelo: I think that if you truly are committed to diversity, to racial justice, then you have to see it as a qualification to be able to work in whatever workplace you’re in. If you cannot engage with these issues with some nuance, some complexity and some openness, you are not qualified to work here. And if you can do that, you are more qualified. There’s also a recognition that it’s an ongoing process, so the openness is referring to your being open to continually having education and opportunities in your workplace. Every single question on the hiring committee is woven through with the threads of racial justice, so when that person leaves that interview, they are clear. If I’m going to go to work for this company, I’m going to be held accountable. That can be in your mission statement. If you want to rewrite your questions, you need to train your committees to know how to assess good answers.
An applicant doesn’t have to be an ethnic studies professor to pass an interview, but there are certain basic qualities and characteristics you’re looking for. You don’t want to hear colorblind narratives and you don’t want to sense that the person has nothing more to learn. I’m a big believer in racial affinity groups. Oftentimes, workplaces just have them for people of color or other underrepresented groups. White people should also be meeting to work on racism in an environment that doesn’t cause harm to anybody else because it helps us show ourselves a little bit more and get in better shape for the ongoing work. Those are two key strategies to try off the top of my head.
Johnson: Finally, before we end, I need to ask: what do you read? Because I think that will help a lot of people start to educate themselves, because it starts there, right?
DiAngelo: I would urge everyone to take Dr. Eddie Moore’s 21-Day Racial Equity Building Challenge. I love anything that keeps you going, and you can do it with your work team — my daughter did it with her work team at the Gates foundation and it was really powerful. And Layla Saad’s book, Me and White Supremacy workbook. I love it because it’s a book you do, not just read. These two are more for raising white people’s consciousness.
For people of color, I absolutely recommend Resmaa Menakem’s, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. He’s a racial trauma expert, specialist and a Black man. And it’s a beautiful book, for both white people and people of color, but really primarily people of color. Also, I just couldn’t put Charles W. Mills’ The Racial Contract down. It really helps you understand systemic racism, white supremacy and anti-Blackness.
Johnson: I love it. Thank you. For my last question, I want to ask you what do you hope people take away from your work?
DiAngelo: That we can’t be complacent. That we need to check in. We need to set up accountability. That’s how you know how well you’re doing.
Johnson: Robin, this has been amazing. I really do appreciate your time today. And something tells me this is not the last time we’re going to talk, so I’m looking forward to the next conversation.
DiAngelo: Thank you. Can I also note to listeners that there is a reading group study guide that goes with White Fragility. It’s a free download from the website. Carolynn, this was lovely.
Johnson: No, thank you. Thank you. I deeply appreciate the work that you do, that you’ll continue to do. Have a great day. And like I said, we’ll be talking soon, Robin.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.