PRO­FILE: Aca­demic and ac­tivist Robin DiAn­gelo.

“For me, there’s no point in be­ing alive if I’m not grow­ing, and chal­leng­ing and con­tribut­ing.” Robin DiAn­gelo

The Saturday Paper - - Contents - Leah Jing McIn­tosh

Robin DiAn­gelo knows a lot about white priv­i­lege – it’s in her DNA. Leah Jing McIn­tosh talks to the Amer­i­can aca­demic, au­thor and anti-racism ad­vo­cate about how struc­tures of white­ness and so-called white pro­gres­sives are con­tin­u­ing to dam­age the lives of peo­ple of colour.

“It’s a lot like wa­ter drip­ping on rock, right? I didn’t get it the first time, sec­ond time or third time. And still I slip and I slide, if you will.” Dr Robin DiAn­gelo sits across from me in a soft arm­chair, knees neatly tucked un­der­neath her. As a per­son of colour, I am wel­come to let her know if she “slips”, she tells me, and she will be grate­ful for my in­put. But she doesn’t slip, not once; not within our hour-long con­ver­sa­tion, nor in her lec­ture at Mel­bourne’s Wheeler Cen­tre or dur­ing a three­hour work­shop the fol­low­ing day. There’s cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance, I tell her, in agree­ing so whole­heart­edly with a white woman on is­sues of race. “Well, I have been study­ing this for 20 years,” she replies.

For decades, writ­ers and schol­ars of colour have main­tained that white­ness lies at the cen­tre of racism. In re­cent years, the grow­ing field of crit­i­cal white­ness stud­ies has pri­ori­tised the study of white­ness in or­der to chal­lenge, in the words of Aileen More­ton-Robin­son, how “white race priv­i­lege is in­vis­i­ble but cen­tred”. DiAn­gelo’s lat­est book, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White Peo­ple to Talk About Racism, first ap­peared on The New York Times best­seller list within a week of its pub­li­ca­tion in June, and has re­mained there for 22 weeks. “A nec­es­sary book for all peo­ple in­vested in so­ci­etal change,” poet Clau­dia Rank­ine said.

At the door of her Mel­bourne ho­tel room, DiAn­gelo wel­comes me with a hug: “Come in! Come in.” She is open, friendly, the kind of per­son you would ask for di­rec­tions. She is quick to smile and has a habit of end­ing sen­tences with “…right?” in an Amer­i­can drawl. When I com­ment on how wel­com­ing she is, she tilts her head back and laughs. “That’s funny. In­side, I feel so con­fronta­tional, be­cause these are very bold things that I’m say­ing.” A white aca­demic work­ing in the field of white­ness stud­ies and crit­i­cal dis­course anal­y­sis, DiAn­gelo is keenly aware of her po­si­tion­al­ity – she knows her slen­der, cis-fe­male, able white body holds power. Her work is both con­sciously and un­con­sciously sup­ported by the priv­i­lege her body holds.

“Just so you know, they booked this for us!” DiAn­gelo says, when she no­tices me ad­mir­ing the view from the win­dow of her suite. “I don’t go around look­ing for five-star ho­tels.” She laughs. A few days later she will tell a room of work­shop at­ten­dees about how she grew up be­low the poverty line, some­times liv­ing in cars, some­times shunted into fos­ter care. Un­able to af­ford the con­ven­tional tra­jec­tory of many aca­demics, she first at­tended col­lege af­ter she turned 30, en­rolling at Seat­tle Univer­sity. “I grew up in poverty … I was a fem­i­nist for most of my life be­fore I re­alised I could also be an op­pres­sor. But I draw from my ex­pe­ri­ence of op­pres­sion … I think that helps.” DiAn­gelo main­tains that the key to her work is to “not to ex­empt my­self from be­ing an op­pres­sor, just be­cause I ex­pe­ri­ence op­pres­sion”. Class op­pres­sion is not a di­rectly equiv­a­lent ex­pe­ri­ence. “Ask any­one if they’d rather be poor and white or poor and brown,” she adds, “I knew I was poor, but I also knew I was white.”

In White Fragility, DiAn­gelo writes, “We have been taught that racists are mean peo­ple who in­ten­tion­ally dis­like oth­ers be­cause of their race; racists are im­moral.” This def­i­ni­tion, she says, this dom­i­nant frame­work of racism as a good/bad bi­nary, is deeply prob­lem­atic. It ex­empts the ma­jor­ity of white peo­ple from en­gag­ing with the con­cept of racism, which she sees per­me­at­ing ev­ery struc­ture of Western so­ci­ety. “Who wrote this def­i­ni­tion of racism?” she asks me, be­fore an­swer­ing her­self: “Old white men. When you look up ‘racism’, the def­i­ni­tion al­most never in­cludes the con­cept of ‘power’.” Racism, DiAn­gelo writes, is a “deeply em­bed­ded his­tor­i­cal sys­tem of in­sti­tu­tional power”, and thus im­pos­si­ble to avoid; we can­not sep­a­rate the past from the present. All white peo­ple are thus im­pli­cated, un­der her model, on a con­tin­uum that stretches from “racist” to “anti-racist”.

It is tes­ta­ment to the supremacy of white­ness that “white fragility” re­mained un­named un­til 2011, when DiAn­gelo de­fined it as “a state in which even a min­i­mum amount of ra­cial stress be­comes in­tol­er­a­ble, trig­ger­ing a range of de­fen­sive moves. These moves in­clude the out­ward dis­play of emo­tions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and be­hav­iors such as ar­gu­men­ta­tion, si­lence, and leav­ing the stress-in­duc­ing sit­u­a­tion.”

Some­thing as mi­nor as call­ing some­one “white” or gen­er­al­is­ing about the “white” ex­pe­ri­ence can trig­ger this fragility, DiAn­gelo says, so I ask whether the calm tone in her book is in­ten­tional. She nods. “The calm is nec­es­sary – white fragility is ir­ra­tional.” There is a folder in her email full of irate mes­sages from read­ers. “Some day I might write a book about them,” she says. Peo­ple of­ten use their re­ac­tions as a way out of their dis­com­fort, DiAn­gelo ex­plains, but she en­cour­ages them to use dis­com­fort as a “door in”, to ask, “Why does this threaten me?” or “What do I lose by sim­ply grap­pling with this idea?” She ex­plains the ir­ra­tional­ity of white fragility as akin to an em­bar­rass­ing in­ci­dent. “If you came out of the bath­room and your skirt was tucked into your pan­ti­hose, and your ass was show­ing, and some­one raced af­ter you and whis­pered, ‘Your ass is show­ing!’ Would you be like, ‘Oh, no it’s not! And you bet­ter act like it’s not!’? No!” she laughs. “You’d be like, ‘Oh god, thank you!’ And then you’d pull your damn dress out.”

In her work­shops, DiAn­gelo leads with­out notes, talk­ing calmly as she flicks through pre­sen­ta­tions heavy with vi­su­als. Her ped­a­gogy is self-ref­er­en­tial; she tells you what she’s do­ing as she does it. “Ev­ery­thing is strate­gic. Ev­ery­thing that comes out of my mouth has been in­formed and honed for years,” she says. Her goal is to make her par­tic­i­pants’ col­lu­sion with white supremacy “un­de­ni­able”. Dur­ing one of her Mel­bourne work­shops, I run into a white friend – highly ed­u­cated, en­gaged in is­sues of race and mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, a white pro­gres­sive. About an hour in, I ask my friend whether she’s feel­ing any dis­com­fort. She shakes her head; she has stud­ied this be­fore. When the work­shop ends, though, she turns to me, “You know that ques­tion you asked me mid­way?” she asks, then pauses. “My an­swer has changed,” she says. “I am so un­com­fort­able. I have a lot more to learn … there’s so much more work to do.” She tells me she’s con­vinced her white boss to at­tend the next work­shop.

“I be­lieve that white pro­gres­sives cause the most daily dam­age to peo­ple of color,” DiAn­gelo writes in White Fragility. The white pro­gres­sive is “any white per­son who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the ‘choir’, or al­ready ‘gets it’ ” – white read­ers of The Satur­day Paper, this is most cer­tainly you. DiAn­gelo says the dis­com­fort you may be feel­ing, con­fronted by the idea you un­know­ingly cause dam­age to peo­ple of colour on a daily ba­sis, is a feel­ing she has her­self en­coun­tered. She con­fesses: “I was not raised to see my­self in ra­cial terms … noth­ing in the dom­i­nant cul­ture in­forms us.” This in­abil­ity to see one­self as white is the very heart of white fragility and the un­con­scious per­pet­u­at­ing of racism. In her work­shop, DiAn­gelo cites Amer­i­can writer Ijeoma Oluo: “I don’t want you to un­der­stand me bet­ter, I want you to un­der­stand your­selves.” It is not the un­der­stand­ing of the other that white pro­gres­sives are miss­ing; they are lack­ing an un­der­stand­ing of their own white­ness.

In her 20s, DiAn­gelo be­came a di­ver­sity trainer, a job she says changed the course of her life. “I ap­plied for a job I wasn’t qual­i­fied for. But be­cause I’m white, I got the job,” she ad­mits. “I have to note … just the medi­ocrity that white peo­ple get away with. I was very naive. I thought, of course I’m qual­i­fied be­cause I’m open-minded,

I’m not racist.” The ex­pe­ri­ence was pro­found, by her de­scrip­tion. “Never had peo­ple of colour chal­lenged me,” she ex­plains. “Part of be­ing white is that you can live your life with­out ever be­ing chal­lenged by peo­ple of colour.” She ac­knowl­edges, im­me­di­ately and with em­pha­sis, that her learn­ing was due to the hard work and pa­tience of her col­leagues of colour. Each time I speak with DiAn­gelo, she un­der­scores the pa­tience and gen­eros­ity of peo­ple of colour to as­sist her lean­ing. Her first book, What Does It Mean To Be White?: De­vel­op­ing White Ra­cial Lit­er­acy, is ded­i­cated to these men­tors. She also do­nates part of her roy­al­ties to ra­cial jus­tice pro­grams.

In the au­thor’s note of White Fragility, DiAn­gelo recog­nises that “… in speak­ing as a white per­son to a pri­mar­ily white au­di­ence, I am yet again cen­ter­ing white peo­ple and the white voice”. It’s a dou­ble-bind – by not be­ing named, white­ness stays cen­tred; by nam­ing it, white­ness remains cen­tred. DiAn­gelo un­der­scores this ten­sion with ref­er­ence to Au­dre Lorde’s 1979 es­say “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dis­man­tle the Master’s House”, but main­tains that re­fusal to use her priv­i­leged po­si­tion to chal­lenge racism is to “up­hold racism”. She has cho­sen to take a both/and ap­proach. “There are myr­iad roads in,” she notes in her work­shops, “and all of them are crit­i­cal.”

DiAn­gelo is cog­nisant that Aus­tralia, though sim­i­larly vi­o­lent to non-white peo­ple, has a dif­fer­ing his­tor­i­cal con­text to that of Amer­ica. But she’s done her re­search. Speak­ing to a full house at the Wheeler Cen­tre, she pulls up lists of statis­tics en­ti­tled “Rep­re­sented:

The Halls of Power”. In Aus­tralia, 97 per cent of chief ex­ec­u­tives are white; 95 per cent of se­nior lead­ers are white; 97 per cent of our se­na­tors are white; our par­lia­ment is 99 per cent white; our High Court judges and our Court of Ap­peals judges are 100 per cent white. The faces of our 30 prime min­is­ters gleam brightly on the next slide as she com­ments, “… and 100 per cent of your prime min­is­ters have been white”.

It is dur­ing this lec­ture that it be­comes clear White Fragility has been writ­ten for white peo­ple. DiAn­gelo freely ad­mits this is the case. As I watch her speak with a friend, who is also a per­son of colour, DiAn­gelo peels apart struc­tures and shoots off analo­gies, and the air feels taut. When the ma­jor­ity-white au­di­ence laughs in recog­ni­tion of their own white­ness, I cringe and glance at my friend. Un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, he pulls me in for a hug.

In the weeks lead­ing up to my in­ter­view with DiAn­gelo, the con­cept of dis­com­fort had rat­tled around in my mind. Nam­ing, in­ter­ro­gat­ing and dis­man­tling struc­tures of white­ness that al­low white peo­ple to con­sciously and un­con­sciously take part in white supremacy would surely ben­e­fit our so­ci­ety. But white supremacy ben­e­fits from the re­jec­tion of this dis­com­fort. So why should, or would, white peo­ple read DiAn­gelo’s book?

“I think it’s in­cred­i­bly lib­er­at­ing to start from the premise that of course I’ve been thor­oughly con­di­tioned into white supremacy. Just start there,” she tells me. “It frees you of all of the de­nial and the de­fen­sive­ness and de­flec­tion and the work­ing so hard, to es­tab­lish that you haven’t been im­pacted by those things. And in­stead, you can get to work.” She pauses, col­lect­ing her thoughts. “Most white peo­ple who are de­fen­sive will in­sist they be­lieve in jus­tice. So, it ac­tu­ally al­lows you to align what you pro­fess to be­lieve, with the prac­tice of your life.

“There’s noth­ing more in­tel­lec­tu­ally, psy­cho­log­i­cally, emo­tion­ally and per­haps spir­i­tu­ally stim­u­lat­ing than this work, for white peo­ple. For me, there’s no point in be­ing alive if I’m not grow­ing, and chal­leng­ing and con­tribut­ing. I want you to have less pain. I want us to stop the non­sense. I want you to live longer.”

At the end of her fi­nal work­shop, DiAn­gelo comes up to me and asks how I’m go­ing. Though han­dled with much sen­si­tiv­ity and care, be­ing so close to this, watch­ing white peo­ple come to terms with what is part of my ev­ery­day, has been ex­haust­ing. So, I tell her, “It’s a lot.” I ask her to sign my book and she gives me a hug. On the tram home, I open the book to see what she

• has writ­ten. “To Leah – it’s not you, it’s us.”

LEAH JING McIN­TOSH is the ed­i­tor of Lim­i­nal Mag­a­zine.

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