Why “I’m not racist” is only half the story

How white defensiveness derails progress on racial issues.

Robin DiAngelo: All systems of oppression are highly adaptive, and they can adapt to challenges and incorporate them. They can allow for exceptions. And I think the most effective adaptation of the system of racism to the challenges of the civil rights movement was to reduce a racist to a very simple formula. A racist is an individual — always an individual, not a system — who consciously does not like people based on race — it must be conscious — and who intentionally seeks to be mean to them. Individual, conscious, intent. And if that is MY definition of a racist, then your suggestion that anything I've said or done is racist or has a racist impact, I'm going to hear that as: You just said I was a bad person. You just put me over there in that category. And most of my bias anyway is unconscious. So I'm not intending, I'm not aware. So now I'm going to need to defend my moral character, and I will, and we've all seen it. It seems to be virtually impossible based on that definition for the average white person to look deeply at their socialization, to look at the inevitability of internalizing racist biases, developing racist patterns, and having investments in the system of racism — which is pretty comfortable for us and serves us really well. I think that definition of a racist, that either/or, what I call the good/bad binary, is the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic because it makes it virtually impossible to talk to the average white person about the inevitable absorption of a racist world-view that we get by being literally swimming in racist water.

So let me connect that to myself. As a result of being raised as a white person in this society, I've a racist world-view. I have deep racist biases. I have developed racist patterns. And I have investments in the system of racism because it's served me really well. It's comfortable. It's helped me overcome the barriers that I do face. And I also have an investment in not seeing any of that, for what it would suggest to me about my identity and what it would require of me, right? I didn't choose any of that. I don't feel guilty about it. It is an inevitable result of being raised in this society in which racism is the bedrock.

The question of guilt comes in with 'What am I doing about that?' While we who are white tend to be fragile, in that it doesn't take much to upset us around race, the impact of our response is not fragile at all. It's a kind of weaponized defensiveness. Weaponized hurt feelings. And if functions really, really effectively to repel the challenge.

As a white person I move through the world racially comfortable virtually 24/7. It is exceptional for me to be outside of my racial comfort zone, and most of my life i've been warned not to go outside my racial comfort zone. So on the rare occasion when I am uncomfortable racially, it's a kind of throwing off of my racial equilibrium, and I need to get back into that, and so I will do whatever it takes to repel the challenge and get back into it. And in that way I think white fragility functions as a kind of white racial bullying, to be frank. We make it so miserable for people of color to talk to us about our inevitable and often unaware racist patterns that we cannot help develop from being socialized into a culture in which racism is the bedrock and the foundation. We make it so miserable for them to talk to us about it that most of the time they don't, right? We just have to understand that most people of color that are working or living in primarily white environments take home way more daily slights and hurts and insults than they bother talking to us about. Because their experience is: they're going to risk more punishment. They're going to lose the relationship. They're going to have their experience minimized, explained away. They're going to cause the person to feel attacked or hurt. And in that way white fragility functions as a kind of everyday white racial control.

None of that has to be intentional or conscious, but that is how it functions. And it's actually incredibly liberating and transformative to start form the premise that of course I've internalized all of this and then I can stop defending, deflecting, denying, hoping you won't notice, minimizing, explaining, and I can just let go of that and get to work.

And there's a question that's never failed me in my efforts to unpack, "How do we pull this off?" How do so many of us who are white individually feel so free of racism and yet we live in a society that is so profoundly separate and unequal by race? And the question that's never failed me is not, "Is this true or is this false, is this right or is this wrong," but: "How does it function? How do these narratives that I tell, how do they function?"

When I tell you "Well, I'm just an individual. Why can't we all just be individuals?"

When I tell you, "I was taught to treat everyone the same."

When I tell you, "But it's focusing on race that divides us."

When I tell you, "But I have lots of friends of color!"

Those narratives have not changed our outcome, and they function to take race off the table and to exempt the person from any further engagement. And in doing that they function to protect the current racial hierarchy and the white position within it. It doesn't have to be what I'm intending to do, but it is the impact of those narratives.

  • White guilt is a roadblock to equality, says Robin DiAngelo. It takes race conversations off the table and maintains the status quo.
  • "How do so many of us who are white individually feel so free of racism and yet we live in a society that is so profoundly separate and unequal by race?" asks DiAngelo.
  • Stop feeling bad—that's not productive. Instead, start doing something to dismantle the systemic racism that benefits you at the expense of others.


Live on Monday: Does the US need one billion people?

What would happen if you tripled the US population? Join Matthew Yglesias and Charles Duhigg at 1pm ET on Monday, September 28.

Ultracold gas exhibits bizarre quantum behavior

New experiments find weird quantum activity in supercold gas.

Credit: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • Experiments on an ultracold gas show strange quantum behavior.
  • The observations point to applications in quantum computing.
  • The find may also advance chaos theory and explain the butterfly effect.
  • Keep reading Show less

    Learn innovation with 3-star Michelin chef Dominique Crenn

    Dominique Crenn, the only female chef in America with three Michelin stars, joins Big Think Live.

    Big Think LIVE

    Having been exposed to mavericks in the French culinary world at a young age, three-star Michelin chef Dominique Crenn made it her mission to cook in a way that is not only delicious and elegant, but also expressive, memorable, and true to her experience.

    Keep reading Show less

    3 cognitive biases perpetuating racism at work — and how to overcome them

    Researchers say that moral self-licensing occurs "because good deeds make people feel secure in their moral self-regard."

    Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash
    Personal Growth

    Books about race and anti-racism have dominated bestseller lists in the past few months, bringing to prominence authors including Ibram Kendi, Ijeoma Oluo, Reni Eddo-Lodge, and Robin DiAngelo.

    Keep reading Show less

    A new minimoon is headed towards Earth, and it’s not natural

    Astronomers spot an object heading into Earth orbit.

    Credit: PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek/Paitoon Pornsuksomboon/Shutterstock/Big Think
    Surprising Science
  • Small objects such as asteroids get trapped for a time in Earth orbit, becoming "minimoons."
  • Minimoons are typically asteroids, but this one is something else.
  • The new minimoon may be part of an old rocket from the 1960s.
  • Keep reading Show less

    Only 35 percent of Americans know the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease

    Yet 80 percent of respondents want to reduce their risk of dementia.

    Photo: Lightspring / Shutterstock
    Mind & Brain
    • A new MDVIP/Ipsos survey found that only 35 percent of Americans know the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
    • Eighty percent of respondents said they want to reduce their risks.
    • An estimated 7.1 million Americans over the age of 65 will suffer from Alzheimer's by 2025.
    Keep reading Show less
    Quantcast