Goodwin Insights August 06, 2019

Unprecedented Conversation: “White Fragility” Author Offers Insights on Race Relations

At a time when matters of race and racism are entering the national conversation on an almost daily basis, Dr. Robin DiAngelo makes clear that the topic has been contentious for generations.

“Race relations are arguably the most complex, nuanced, sensitive, charged social dilemma of maybe the last several hundred years, and as you can see they’re not seeming to get any clearer,” DiAngelo said recently while addressing a group of Goodwin attorneys and their clients as the keynote speaker at the firm’s annual Committee on Racial and Ethnic Diversity (CRED) retreat.

What should I be doing?” is something DiAngelo is frequently asked at her talks, and she reminds audiences that they won’t solve race relations in one night. “Try to let go of the pull to get the answer, to be told what to do. In some ways, this is what to do – to have a relatively rare, structured opportunity for deep reflection,” she said.

DiAngelo is the author of the New York Times best-selling book, “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” as well as “What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy.” She is currently Affiliate Associate Professor of Education at the University of Washington and a consultant and trainer for over 20 years on issues of racial and social justice. Goodwin invited Dr. DiAngelo to address the firm as the latest installment in our “unprecedented conversation” series where we host conversations around various diversity and inclusion topics.

“When you swim with those currents, they’re very difficult to see,” DiAngelo said, “If you cannot see them, you cannot challenge them.”

When people come together to discuss or explore issues of race, the tendency is to study particular groups, to try to better understand “them” and what their struggles are. “But what we don’t ask is struggles in relation to whom?”

“Dominant culture – whiteness – is consistently left off the table,” DiAngelo said, “the water in which all of this is occurring.”

And, just as all other white people do, DiAngelo said she moves through the world with a white perspective. “It is not just a universal human experience, as I was taught to see it. It is most particularly a white experience in a society that is profoundly separate and unequal by race.”

“White people make up a majority of the people sitting at the tables making the decisions that affect the lives of people who are not at that table,” she said.

It is not a matter of majority rule. It is about who is in positions of power. From the president and vice president to cabinet positions, Congress, governors, mayors, Fortune 500 CEOs, federal judges and police officers – white men dominate. “This is about power, not numbers,” DiAngelo said. “It is systemic, backed by power and legal authority.”

DiAngelo flashed an image of former House Majority Leader Paul Ryan with a group of incoming Capitol Hill interns behind him, virtually all of them young and white. “These are our future legislators. To be white is to belong, to have advantage, opportunity, network, to sit at those tables making decisions that affect people who not only are not at the table but who you have never been given the message it’s valuable to know or have a relationship with,” she said.

Of particular note is how poorly black people have been treated throughout the history of the United States, and it didn’t end with slavery or the Civil Rights Act of 1964. On her timeline of discrimination, she reached the present day:

“Employment discrimination, educational discrimination, bias in policing, white flight, subprime mortgages, mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipeline, disproportionate special education referrals and punishments, testing, tracking, school funding, biased media, voter suppression, cultural mockery, historical omissions, unaddressed trauma… to name a few.”

“It is a system we are in, and none of us could be, and none of us were, exempt from its forces,” she said. “African Americans have never been in position to do this to the white collective. There is no such thing as reverse racism, so remove that from your vocabulary.”

In her closing remarks, DiAngelo recalled addressing a diverse audience and asking people of color in the room, “What would it be like if you could just give us feedback, when we inevitably step in it or this socialization surfaces, and had us receive that feedback with grace, reflect on the behavior and seek to change it?”

“I will never forget this man of color raised his hand and said, ‘It would be revolutionary.’ And I was like, damn. Revolutionary. That’s how difficult we are, that that’s a revolution? Well, it is a revolution from the current paradigm. But that’s not a very tall order, is it?”