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Being nice is not going to end racism

Robin DiAngelo explains how well-intentioned white people uphold systemic racism.

ROBIN DIANGELO: After several decades of doing this work I feel like I know my people fairly well, and most people, most white people are not going to do anything different. Most white people that attend my workshops will say, "Wow, that was really interesting or provocative," if they're open. If they're not open they'll just have their reasons why they have to reject what I said. But even those who are open to the message, if it is not sustained it won't make much of an impact.

I often say when I'm in front of a group, "Everything outside of this room will compel you not to see this anymore." The forces are incredibly seductive. The forces of white solidarity, the forces of keeping other white people comfortable, the forces to not see or name any of this. And if you don't put some kind of structure around yourself to keep you focused there, you're going to slip right back into the status quo.

For so many white people, we think that the answer to racism is friendliness. If you notice the evidence that most white people will give for why they're not racist, one of their top pieces of evidence is, "I know people of color. I have friends of color." If we look at that evidence as a way to understand the deeper structure of meaning, right, it's actually quite revealing. So in order for a claim like that—"I know people of color, I have friends of color"—in order for a claim like that to be good evidence of my lack of racism, a racist can't be able to do that. Otherwise, it's not good evidence. "This is what distinguishes me from a racist. I have people of color in my life. I live in New York City. I was in Teach for America. I went to a diverse school." These are all the claims that white people will make for their lack of racism. Well, that must mean a racist cannot live in New York City, could not know or speak to or be friendly to people of color, could not be in the Peace Corps, et cetera. And I'm hoping you can see right now how ridiculous that evidence is. Because even in an avowed racist can do all of those things. So most white people believe that niceness is all it takes, and the status quo of our society is the reproduction of racial inequality. That's what it does. It's a default of all of our institutions, our norms and our policies. It's what our society does, it's what it's always done.

Our outcomes are not improving. By many measures, our outcomes of racial disparity are increasing. And all this system needs to keep on keeping on reproducing racial inequality—with whites benefiting from it—is for white people just to be really nice. Be really nice. Go ahead. Smile at your coworkers of color, go to lunch on occasion, and do nothing else. And you will uphold that system because niceness is not courageous. Niceness is not anti-racism. Niceness will not get racism on the table and it will not keep it on the table when everyone wants it off the table.

I suppose it's better than not being nice. But it takes strategic, intentional anti-racist action—it is a lifelong process that I will never be finished from.

The mainstream definition of a racist is an individual—always an individual, not a system—who consciously does not like people based on race—must be conscious—and intentionally seeks to be mean to them—must be intentional. And that definition, I believe, is the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic. It makes it virtually impossible to talk to the average white person about the inevitable absorption of a racist worldview that we get from living in a society in which racism is the foundation and the bedrock. And I'm going to use a term here that I understand is charged, and that's white supremacy. I'm very comfortable with the term. Yes, it includes extremists we might think of as white nationalists or neo-Nazis; it also is a highly descriptive sociological term for the water we swim in, for the society we live in. A society that holds white people up as the human ideal, as the norm for humanity, and everyone else as a particular "kind" of human—and a deficient one, right?

So I live in a society that, from the time I open my eyes, in myriad ways both implicit and explicit, has conveyed to me that I am inherently superior because I'm white. The research shows that all children by age three to four understand it's better to be white. All children. Me, I got that message. You got that message. Everyone gets it. You can't miss it. And it's not isolated, it's not singular, it's not dependent on any one person. It's relentlessly circulating.

And so internalized superiority is another great challenge or barrier for white people wanting to push through this or address this. We can talk about individualism and how that functions, and universalism and white solidarity, but I think the hardest one for us to face is internalized superiority. And yet, when you accept that you got that message, that you couldn't help it, you can then get to work trying to challenge that message, rather than inadvertently protect it through your defensiveness and your refusal to engage with it.

And so we simply can't get where we need to go from the current paradigm that says, "Only mean, intentional individuals could ever perpetrate or participate in racism." When you change your paradigm, it's so transformative and liberating. So what we need to do is think very differently about what racism is. To understand that, while I would never use the N word, my racial illiteracy was not benign, right?

My inability to think critically and deeply about racism before I engaged in this work actually ended up creating a hostile climate for the people of color in my life. My defensiveness based on my definition of a racist. Whenever people of color tried to talk to me about unaware assumptions I may be making or unintentional harm I may be perpetrating, I would lash back and refuse that. And that causes harm. So I think I try to be a little less white. I'm really clear that I am not going to be free of my conditioning, and racism is not going to end in my lifetime. The question I ask myself is how do I do a little less harm, and how do I know, right? Am I in any given moment behaving in anti-racist ways? Not "I'm already done, I'm never racist," right. Not "I'm a terrible person, I'm always racist."

In any given moment how am I doing, and how do I know? And that keeps me humble and it keeps me accountable. So for me to do less harm is no small thing, because it could literally be one more hour on a person of color's life who didn't have to take home my nonsense and agonize all night long whether it was worth it to talk to me or they should just suck it up yet again, lest they risk my lashing out in defensiveness.

So for me to be less white is to be less oppressive racially, to be less arrogant, to be less certain, to be less defensive, to be less ignorant, quite frankly. To be more humble, to listen, to believe, to break with apathy, to break with white solidarity. It's not easy. It's a lifelong process but nothing is more rewarding.

  • All that racism needs to keep going is for white people to keep being nice, says Robin DiAngelo. Being nice is better than the alternative, of course—but ask: What else am I doing to end racial inequality?
  • "But I have friends of color" is a deflection device, not a real way to engage in productive dialogue about systemic racism.
  • It's difficult for white people hear and, in DiAngelo's experience, many people will reject the idea of systemic racism and how they may benefit from it simply because it is too uncomfortable.
  • For the white people who want to push through this issue, the biggest thing they can do is recognize internalized superiority.

Remote learning vs. online instruction: How COVID-19 woke America up to the difference

Educators and administrators must build new supports for faculty and student success in a world where the classroom might become virtual in the blink of an eye.

Credit: Shutterstock
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • If you or someone you know is attending school remotely, you are more than likely learning through emergency remote instruction, which is not the same as online learning, write Rich DeMillo and Steve Harmon.
  • Education institutions must properly define and understand the difference between a course that is designed from inception to be taught in an online format and a course that has been rapidly converted to be offered to remote students.
  • In a future involving more online instruction than any of us ever imagined, it will be crucial to meticulously design factors like learner navigation, interactive recordings, feedback loops, exams and office hours in order to maximize learning potential within the virtual environment.
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New study shows white dwarf stars create an essential component of life.

NASA and H. Richer (University of British Columbia)
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How to catch a glimpse of Comet NEOWISE before it’s gone

Unless you plan to try again in 6,800 years, this week is your shot.

Image source: Sven Brandsma/Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Comet NEOWISE will be most visible in the U.S. during the evenings from July 14-19, 2020.
  • After July 23rd, NEOWISE will be visible only through good binoculars and telescopes.
  • Look in the northwestern sky below the Big Dipper after dusk while there's a chance.

UPDATE: NASA is broadcasting a NASA Science Live episode highlighting Comet NEOWISE. NASA experts will discuss and answer public questions beginning at 3PM EST on Wednesday, July 15. Tune in via the agency's website, Facebook Live, YouTube, Periscope, LinkedIn, Twitch, or USTREAM.

Before last evening, July 14, 2020, the easiest way to see Comet NEOWISE — the brightest comet to zoom past Earth since 1977's Comet Hale-Bopp — from the United States was to catch it about an hour before sunrise. Now, however, you can see it in the evening, where it will remain for until the 19th. This is a definite don't-miss event — NEOWISE won't be coming back our way for another 6,800 years. It's the first major comet of the millennium, and by all accounts, it's unforgettable.

NEOWISE just got back from the Sun

Comet NEOWISE is named after the NASA infrared space telescope that first spotted it on March 27th. Its official moniker is C/2020 F3. It's estimated that the icy comet is about three miles across, not counting its tail.

NEOWISE is now heading away from our Sun, having made it closet approach, 27.4 million miles, to our star on July 3. The heat from that encounter is what's given NEOWISE its tail: It caused gas and dust to be released from the icy object, creating the tail of debris that looks so magical from here.

As NEOWISE moves closer to Earth, paradoxically, it will be less and less visible. By about July 23rd, you'll need binoculars or a telescope to see it at all. All of which makes this week prime time.

An evening delight

star constellation in sky

Image source: Allexxandar/Shutterstock/Big Think

First, find an unobstructed view of the northwest sky, free of streetlights, car headlights, apartment lights, and so on. And then, according to Sky & Telescope:

"Start looking about one hour after sunset, when you'll find it just over the northwestern horizon as the last of twilight fades into darkness."

It should be easy to spot since it's near to one of the most recognizable constellations up there, the Big Dipper. "Look about three fists below the bottom of the Big Dipper, which is hanging down by its handle high above, and from there perhaps a little to the right." Et voilà: Comet NEOWISE.

Says Sky & Telescope's Diana Hannikainen, "Look for a faint, fuzzy little 'star' with a fainter, fuzzier little tail extending upward from it."

The comet should be visible with the naked eye, though binoculars and a simple telescope may reveal more detail.

You may also be able to snap a photo of this special visitor, though you'll need the right gear to do so. A dedicated camera is more likely to capture a good shot than a telephone, but in either case, you'll need a tripod or some other means of holding the camera dead still as it takes a timed exposure of several seconds (not all phones can do this).

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