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Examining White Fragility
Episode 53

Examining White Fragility

CI to Eye with Robin DiAngelo

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Robin and Erik talk about why diversity is essential among those who control the art and entertainment we consume. They also discuss combatting white solidarity among our peers, why claiming color-blindness can contribute to a continued bias, and acknowledging white fragility to overcome it.

Erik Gensler: Robin, thank you so much for being here. Your books and interviews have honestly really changed my perception of the world I live in and I’m so appreciative that you’re here and able to chat with me today.

Robin DiAngelo: Wow. Well, thank you so much.

Erik Gensler: Let’s start with a basic question around your work and that is, why is it so hard for most white people to have an honest conversation about race?

Robin DiAngelo: You know, there isn’t just one single reason. I think about it as several reasons all coming together and probably at the foundation is what we believe it means to be racist. We take for granted racial comfort and it becomes something to which we come to feel entitled. You know, as a white person, I move through a deeply racially unjust society with a taken-for-granted sense of comfort. I move through the world racially comfortable virtually 24/7. And while not everyone can say that, certainly white people can say that overall and we come to feel entitled to that comfort and talking about racism’s uncomfortable. So, then we also think, “Well, then something must be wrong if you are suggesting things that, that cause discomfort for me.” So, the mainstream definition of a racist is an individual—always an individual—who consciously doesn’t like people based on race—apparently, it has to be conscious to count—and intentionally would want to be mean or hurtful to them. It also seems to need to be intentional in order for it to count. And so, when I say, “In order for it to count,” apparently, it’s just based on how white people respond when it’s ever suggested that we’ve said or done anything racially problematic. You’ll notice that we tend to insist that we didn’t do that, which would speak to the, “We have to be aware of doing it,” and that we didn’t mean to do it, which would speak to, “It needs to be intentional.” So, based on that definition, a racist is a mean person who would want to hurt someone else based on race. And most white people do not relate to that definition. And so, we end up perceiving a suggestion that we’re complicit with racism as a question to our very moral integrity, right?

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Robin DiAngelo: And so, that’s probably the baseline of our defensiveness. Then, you add a few other dynamics. One is the ideology of individualism, which is connected to another apparent misunderstanding, which is socialization. So, it would appear that most white people don’t understand the process of socialization and believe that they can be exempt from the very cultural water that we live and swim in. Right? And so, to generalize about patterns that are consistent and observable and documentable is perceived as a breach in the social contract, right? Which is, “Everyone must be responded to as a unique individual who could be exempt from these forces just because we see ourselves as exempt or we want to be exempt.” So, individualism and a lack of understanding of socialization are another piece that make it so difficult to talk to us. And I would also add internalized superiority. I do not believe any white person can grow up and not know that it’s better to be white. In fact, the research is very clear that actually everyone who grows up here understands at a very early age, as early as three to four, that it’s better to be white. Nobody misses that message. And really, there’s been no space outside of that message for me in my life and any other white person’s life. But we can never admit to that, right? Because again, that would mean that we were bad people. When you put it all together, it makes for a rather irrational stew-

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Robin DiAngelo: … and white people … I mean, even people who manifest white fragility, I think, recognize how defensive we are on this topic.

Erik Gensler: Right. So, you mentioned racism and you talk about this a lot in the book is defined incorrectly as an intentional act of … that someone’s intentionally doing something bad. What is racism? What is the actual definition?

Robin DiAngelo: Yeah, and let me say it certainly does manifest in those acts, but I would say that they are rather extreme and certainly not the daily kinds of racial slights and indignities that people of color are subjected too. Although, I also want to acknowledge that we’re in a political climate where, I think, the explicit kind of mean-spirited racism is more and more publicly acceptable and that movement is growing. So, all people have racial bias, right? There is no such thing as human objectivity. Human beings are not objective and we internalize preconceived notions or prejudices about social others as defined in our culture. Everyone has racial bias. When you back one group’s collective racial bias with legal authority and institutional control, it’s transformed into a far-reaching system. It becomes the default because of those who control the institution set policies and practices and norms are in the position, conscious or not, intentional or not, to embed and infuse their racial biases into the very fabric of the society. So, it becomes the default. And the example I always use is women being granted suffrage—and let’s be clear, white women were granted access to suffrage by white men in 1920. White women certainly could be biased towards men prior to suffrage, but they couldn’t literally deny every single man in the society their civil rights. But men could and did deny every single woman in society her civil rights because their bias was backed by legal authority, institutional control, which transforms it.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And you write about how the Civil Rights Movement and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 actually had a negative effect on our ability to confront and talk about racism, which I, when I first read that, was surprised and then it made total sense.

Robin DiAngelo: Yeah. I think about it as all systems of oppression, in this case, racism, are highly adaptive and they can adapt to challenges. And I think the system of racism was challenged in the civil rights era and it made a really brilliant adaptation, right? It was no longer, kind of, morally acceptable to explicitly and publicly proclaim your racism, right? The way it had been prior to that. That’s when it kind of transformed into, you know, racists are these people in the south that would beat people at lunch counters and turn fire hoses on them and wear robes and lynch people. That became the image of a racist and what it meant to be racist. So, a racist became a very, very bad person. And on the one hand, it might look like a positive change, right? Because racism is bad, if you will. But how that actually functioned in practice was it was to make it virtually impossible for the average white person to grapple with the inevitable socialization into a racist system that we all have. Right? That is what set up that moral question to suggest that somebody complicit with racism. I mean, it’s just functioning beautifully through white fragility.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Robin DiAngelo: So, it actually protects the system of racism by making it almost impossible to actually examine it.

Erik Gensler: Because I could say, “I’m not racist. I’m not that person.”

Robin DiAngelo: Yep.

Erik Gensler: “I’m a good person and so therefore I’m not racist. So, let’s move on to the next topic of conversation.”

Robin DiAngelo: Right. It became to be a good person, a nice person, and to be complicit with racism became mutual exclusive.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Robin DiAngelo: So, you’ll see that whenever someone … it is suggested that somebody has behaved in a racist manner, the very first thing they’re going to do is get their friends to testify, “Oh, what nice people they are.” So, it would, it would seem that you can’t be a nice person and also participate in racism.

Erik Gensler: I think to really understand this, for me, I had to really take a step back and understand society and my place in it and I was very taken in your book that when you talk about for many white people who grew up in the suburbs, who grew up in a very white environment, race only exists when there is a non-white person present.

Robin DiAngelo: Well, in our minds or in our consciousness.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Robin DiAngelo: Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up because that idea, right, that race is what they have and what they bring and if they are not here, there’s no race here or there is no racism here. In other words, white people have a very unracialized identity, right? And we don’t understand that white environments, one, are not natural. They’re not flukes.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Robin DiAngelo: They don’t just happen and they’re not just because people like to be with their own, right? They’re the result of decades of policies and practices that ensured segregation—de jure in the past, de facto in the present—but there are many, many ways in which white people maintain those boundaries. And white space is teaming with race. Every moment I spend in white space, I’m being deeply reinforced in several key ideologies. We have to understand white space as racially active and that a person of color doesn’t have to enter that space in order for race to enter that space. I can certainly tell you that for a person of color entering white space, it’s profoundly racialized space, right?

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robin DiAngelo: Oftentimes, people will use being very, very segregated growing up from people of color as their evidence that they’re free of racism. So, for example, they may say, “Well, I grew up in a really small town,” or, “I was on a farm,” you know, “The nearest farm was ten miles away, so I just don’t know anything about that.” I would call that the “racial innocence argument.” And I would actually offer that you’re less sheltered from racism because you had to rely on the most profoundly problematic representations of people of color. You certainly did not come to know people through authentic, sustained relationships, right? So, you were dependent on the comments and the jokes and the suggestions and the media and the movies to form your understanding. And so, there’s a series of questions that can pretty easily uncover that. We could start with the Africa. You know, “What did you learn about Africa? What were your impressions? Did you watch Disney movies?” You know, “You knew that Africa existed. What ideas did you have about it?” And then what about black people, right? “At what age did you know they existed?” Right? Five at least? I mean, if you went to the grocery store, you saw Uncle Ben’s rice and Aunt Jemima pancake syrup. I mean please, you knew they existed at some point. So, “Where did they live? What was it like where they lived? How did you know that?” Right? “Were you encouraged to visit places where black people lived? I bet you were not. (laughs) I bet you were discouraged, right? Did you have a negative impression of ‘the cities?’ What were cities like?” Right? There’s just so many entry points to challenge this idea of white racial innocence.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative). A big thing that was popular when I grew up in the 80s was saying—and I remember my parents saying this to me as if it was a good thing—of being colorblind.

Robin DiAngelo: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Erik Gensler: And can you talk about why that is really the wrong approach?

Robin DiAngelo: Yeah, I mean, one, we’re not colorblind. I mean, we’re just aren’t.

Erik Gensler: Right (laughs).

Robin DiAngelo: And most of the time, just before we tell a story about somebody based on race, we’ll make sure to say their race and then say, “But that has nothing to do with it.” Right? There’s just this anxiety, almost, that we just must name their race, ironically, as a way to establish that it has no meaning. We do notice people’s races and they have meaning, right? We live in a profoundly racialized society and one that is profoundly separate and unequal by race. We do notice and we have lots of associations that are driving our responses. So, the research in implicit bias is really, really helpful here. There’s just … You can’t be free of the bias, but the degree to which you think it’s bad to have it, you’re going to be in denial about it. It’s not going to free you of it. It’s going to actually protect you from examining and challenging that bias and certainly set you up to be very defensive when somebody points out, “Oh, your bias is showing.” This is the irony, right? The nature of an assumption is you don’t know you’re making it. So, when someone says, “Hey, you’re making an assumption you weren’t aware of,” we want to be open to that rather than how we tend to respond, which is with defensiveness. But insisting that we don’t see color, I think, indirectly is a way of saying, “I refuse to acknowledge your reality-”

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Robin DiAngelo: … “and where it’s different from my reality. And I’m going to proceed as if we have the same reality when in fact we don’t.” There’s a woman I quote in the book who I think speaks to this really powerfully. She says, “One, please forget that I’m black.” And I think what she’s saying here, “Stop reducing me to that.”

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Robin DiAngelo: “Stop having everything be about that. Stop asking me to speak to that.” And right here use the white people get very excited, “Oh yes, we’d love to have that. That sounds like colorblindness. I’m getting permission to pretend it doesn’t matter.” But then she follows with, “And second, don’t ever forget that I’m black-“

Erik Gensler: Hm.

Robin DiAngelo: … “and that I have a different experience and a different reality than you do that must be engaged with.” So, it’s that tension. How do we not reduce people to that while also never pretending that it isn’t shaping our responses and our experiences.

Erik Gensler: But I think that’s what is so brilliant about the system we live in—and manipulatively brilliant—is that it makes it easy for white people to do that. It makes it easy to not acknowledge your own privilege. You think you got everything you have because of your brilliance or because of something that you earned and it really takes an acknowledgement and frankly, sadly, a lot of work to really uncover that the system is horribly racist. And I have to say, like, I didn’t realize this till very late in my life and it made me very hungry to learn more, but it was so easy to go through life as a white person, as an upper-middle-class white person, and never have to be confronted with this. To grow up in a white suburb, to go to a private college, to go right into a consulting firm that hired mostly white people and just coast through life. And now, I cannot un-see it. I cannot go into a sweet green where everyone on one side of the counter is white and everyone on the other side is black. And it … I almost can’t go into the restaurants anymore because I can’t un-see the inequity.

Robin DiAngelo: Yeah. You know, and that’s operating on us, right? Subconsciously, when consistently people in service positions are people of color, there’s that hierarchy that’s being reinforced. So, I had several thoughts when you shared that. One, of course, it’s just who does it serve to not acknowledge race and racism? So, who did it serve for you not to ever have talked about that or been aware of that? There are certainly people who will say, well, it’s focusing on race that divides us. Right? Which I always think is kind of humorous, right? One, we’re clearly already divided by race.

Erik Gensler: (laughs).

Robin DiAngelo: But you know, what’s social problem would we ever argue that the best response to that social problem is to never speak of it? I want to make it very clear that I’m not saying and I don’t think you’re saying that white people don’t struggle or suffer or face barriers, but we do not face that one. That is a monumental barrier, racism-

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Robin DiAngelo: … and not facing that absolutely helps us with the struggles or barriers that we do face. I grew up in poverty. I’m female. I was raised Catholic. I didn’t go to college till very late in life. I could go on about all the internalized inferiority and shame that I carried and I always knew that I was white. And being white has absolutely helped me navigate classism and sexism. I can’t talk about being … identify as a female and raised in poverty without also talking about being white. And the last I would add, well, because you were saying, you know, you grew up in segregated environments and you didn’t think about this and yet you knew what a good school was and you knew what a good neighborhood was.

Erik Gensler: Right. Totally.

Robin DiAngelo: And let’s face it, it’s the absence of black people that defined schools and neighborhoods as good or the presence that defines them as bad. I mean, I always think that’s a really good example when we want to claim that, you know, we live in a colorblind society and everybody has equal opportunity is, who doesn’t know that schools are not equal? Whose parents do not have energy about what school their children go to? Because schools are not equal. We know that. And the number one determiner for parents, white, middle-class and upper-class parents of whether a school is good or bad is, honestly, the absence of black people in that school.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Robin DiAngelo: We don’t have to go to the school. We don’t have to check out the school. We could drive by the school or hear about the school and that will be the number one criteria. Whether we want to admit to that or not, you know, or articulate it or not.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Robin DiAngelo: I actually believe the most profound message of all that I got living in segregation was that there was no inherent loss to me whatsoever.

Erik Gensler: Hm.

Robin DiAngelo: That I could live my life, that I could go cradle to grave with few, if any, authentic, sustained, cross-racial relationships, and with black people in particular, and no one who loved me or guided me ever suggested I had lost anything that mattered.

Erik Gensler: Hm.

Robin DiAngelo: Anything of value. That is such a deep message, right?

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Robin DiAngelo: That you could grow up in your neighborhood, go to the school you went to, get the job you have, basically live in segregation. Maybe you live in New York City, you walk by people of color, you smile at people of color, but authentic sustain relationships? I would ask any white person listening to this if you’re married, open your wedding album and take a look at your photos. You know, all weddings, big or small are our circles. We overwhelmingly do not live integrated lives and then we call white segregation good. That’s deep.

Erik Gensler: Hm.

Robin DiAngelo: It’s bad when it’s imposed on black people in the South and it’s exactly what makes white people’s lives good. Wow!

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative). You talk about the capitalist system and how whiteness is used to keep people in poverty.

Robin DiAngelo: Yes, yes. Yeah, there’s a chapter in a book, it was written in the 40s by a, kind of, white anti-racist woman, Lillian Smith. It’s called Killers of the Dream. She’s a southern woman writing in the forties about segregation in the South and she’s got a chapter in that book. I just have to tell you the name of the chapter and you’ll get it. “Mr. Rich White and Mr. Poor White Strike a Bargain.”

Erik Gensler: That’s it.

Robin DiAngelo: (laughs). And just like, “Well, I need to exploit your labor. You’re going to be at the bottom, but, of course, you know, any job is better than no job at all and I’ll let you always be better than the black man and the boss of the black man.” I mean, many have argued that the power, if we aligned, you know, our interests are much more aligned with the poor and working class people of color in this country than they are with the upper class (laughs). But it’s been a really powerful way to keep us divided.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, I guess that answers the question is how are poor white people who basically make electoral choices that keep them in poverty? How A) are they making those choices and B) are they responding positively to these racist messages? And that helps answer it.

Robin DiAngelo: Yeah. One piece … Like, I did grow up in poverty and there was periods of homelessness, et cetera, but upward mobility, of course, moved me away. Right? And I think white people who maybe start their early lives in more integrated environments know that if they’re going to improve their lives, they’re going to move away from integration and towards segregation. What I would want to make sure we add is that across the board, white people of all social classes responded to Trump’s, well, I’ll just say it, racist messaging, right?

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Robin DiAngelo: Not just poor white people.

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Robin DiAngelo: Yeah, I don’t know.

Erik Gensler: I won’t … I don’t think I like saying the name, giving him his name in the air.

Robin DiAngelo: I know. Here’s what I want to say, though.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Robin DiAngelo: I often … I’ll stand on a stage in front of hundreds of people and I will say, “I am not any less racist than that person we’re talking about right now.”

Erik Gensler: Right.

Robin DiAngelo: And I know that’s a provocative thing to say, but let me explain. There isn’t really anything that comes out of his mouth that I don’t recognize. I recognize those stereotypes and I can’t say that I haven’t, on occasion, been shocked why the thought that’s flashed across my mind when I pass somebody on the street. I think most white people are being honest, (laughs) recognize that on occasion we have these like, “Wow, that was a really racist thought I just had!” I grew up in the same culture he did. The difference between us is that he embraces and uses that socialization and I believe that I am committed to challenging it.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Robin DiAngelo: So, I see us not on one side or the other as an either/or, but we’re on a continuum.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. Right, yeah.

Robin DiAngelo: And I like to see myself further down the continuum, but I also want to add that that is a kind of given moment. Like, where I am on that continuum is not a fixed location and ultimately, it’s for people of color to determine how far along it I am. Although, I think I can confidently say I’m further along on the continuum than the person we’re talking about.

Erik Gensler: (laughs). I hope so. That’s such an honest in wonderful and just real way of looking at it. Like, right, I have, like everybody, thoughts and you can’t control your thoughts. You can control your actions. You can control what you say. You can control how you treat people. And so, to be honest with yourself about that and to look at it as a continuum where you can try to get a little better every day is really great. I thank you for that.

Robin DiAngelo: Oh, yeah. Sure. You know, I know my people and so, as soon as we kind of go into, “Oh yeah, he’s the real racist,” then we’re going to exempt ourselves, right? And this is why I often say something very provocative, which is that white progressives can be the most difficult and challenging for people of color.

Erik Gensler: Right.

Robin DiAngelo: Surely, I mean, you’d rather probably hang out with me than some of the people that we’re thinking about right now and on a daily basis, people of color are hanging out with me and on a daily basis I express unconsciously my racist conditioning. I certainly do it much less than I was raised to do it because I’ve worked hard. I’m really receptive to feedback. I have good repair skills. But we’re the ones that they are going home at night wondering whether it’s worth it to try to talk to us and the degree to which our identities are attached to this idea of ourselves as progressive, we’re actually going to be more defensive and less open and therefore more challenging. Countless people of color and black people in particular have said to me, “Give me the old school racist any day.”

Erik Gensler: Hm.

Robin DiAngelo: But the white progressive who’s smiling in your face but undermining you everywhere else, whether they’re even aware they’re doing it or not, that’s the gaslighting maddening situation.

Erik Gensler: Right. And I think people have to be aware of it and commit to doing the work and thinking about the work, one of the things that I think I heard you talk about in a podcast interview is where Uncle Bob says something racist and we all keep our mouths shut in order to not ruin Thanksgiving. I listened to that and I was like, “Yes, Erik, you’re going to, like, every time you hear something, you’re going to fight white solidarity and you’re going to do something about it.” And then, I was in a situation where I met somebody new, it was a big group of people, and this new person, who’s close with someone I’m close with, said something about affirmative action and how they didn’t get a because of affirmative action. And then, I sat on that for a second. I was like, “Wait a second.” And the conversation’s going along, it’s moved on almost. So, I’m like, “That’s kind of racist. She shouldn’t say that. You just said you didn’t get a job that you deserve because of (laughing) affirmative … Like, what do you mean by that?” And then like a minute and a half had passed. I’d done that in my head and I wasn’t going to be like, “Can we go back to that thing you just said? I have a real problem with it (laughs) Let’s talk about it.” So, and this is someone who would say that they’re very progressive and since you pointed out white solidarity to me, I just see it all the time and still, it is so hard to jump on it.

Robin DiAngelo: Yeah. So, here’s what I would say. I know those moments, right? You’re like, you kind of are taken aback, you’re not necessarily fully formed how to respond, but I actually don’t think it’s ever too late to go back and that it’s actually can be useful because you have a little bit more control of the situation than you did in that moment caught off-guard. Right? And that when you approach somebody, imagine this, you go back to her, could even be a few weeks later, and just say, “You know, when we had dinner last week, you made a comment that I felt uncomfortable about and it’s taken me a while to get clear about it. Would you be open to revisiting that?” If you came to me in that way, if you approached me in that way, I would probably, “Sure. Like, what was it?” Right? And then you can say, “Well, you made a comment about affirmative action and it sounded like you were saying that the person couldn’t have been qualified and only got the job based on it from reduction. Is that what you were saying?” So, notice all the ways in which I’m kind of giving them an out, but still-

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Robin DiAngelo: … being in my integrity and offering a counter-narrative. That’s what I might do. And then you will be more in your integrity. And I often think about it as, you know, I hope this other person shifts as a result of this, but ultimately this is about my need to break with white solidarity, right?

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Robin DiAngelo: Because it’s unhealthy for me, too. I think we tend to respond like, “Ooh, look what she said and look at her racism.” But we’re actually reinforcing our own also in our silence.

Erik Gensler: Totally. Can you just … Let’s assume everyone knows what white solidarity is.

Robin DiAngelo: I think about it as the unspoken agreement amongst white people that we’ll keep each other comfortable around our racism. I don’t want you to be embarrassed, so, as you did at the table, right, you cringed when she said it, but you didn’t want to cause conflict, so you kept silent. Unfortunately, the way it functions is you colluded with that racism. It reinforced ideas that are circulating all the time for everyone at the table, right? Like, something happened actually for everybody at that table whether were conscious of it or not. And yet, if we asked you why didn’t you say anything, you’d have reasons like, “Well, I couldn’t figure out how to articulate it,” but call me the base reason is the conflict, right? You wanted to avoid conflict.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Robin DiAngelo: And this is the power of white fragility. Really, what you wanted to avoid was white fragility, right? Her getting very defensive or you getting told to lighten up and dismissed and all the tension that would ensue and you can see how what an effective way to silence challenges to racism.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, totally. One of the other areas I want to explore that you talk about really powerfully in your book and what really helps illustrate white supremacy is where you outline the racial breakdown of the people who control our institutions and I just found it so staggering and I like to read some: The leadership roles in government across Congress, the White House governors, all 90% white or more. But more relevant to this podcast and, I think, the listeners who are arts marketers and arts administrators is looking at the media and I thought those stats were really, really staggering. People who decide which TV shows we see: 93% white. People who decide which books we read: 90% white. People who decide which news is covered: 85% white. People who directed the 100 top-grossing films of all time worldwide: 95% white. Now, why does this matter?

Robin DiAngelo: Oh, wow. Because it is a particular worldview, but it is presented as a universal human worldview. So, the example I’ve been using lately is Mike Lee is a film director who, you know-

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Robin DiAngelo: … tells stories about the human condition and Spike Lee is a Black filmmaker who makes films about the Black experience. So, it reinforces a very problematic worldview as an objective worldview, that we’re necessarily going to reinforce whiteness in ways that we tell stories. And media has a profound influence on all of us. Anyone who has children in their lives knows that they’re shaped by film and games and media. Those who tell our stories are our cultural authors and they shape how we see ourselves, how we see them, and how we see ourselves in relationship to them. And that is a very powerful position. And a key piece of institutional power is the ability to disseminate your worldview to everyone and then position it as universal, human, and objective.

Erik Gensler: You talk about how Hollywood associates people of color with crime, which, once you said that I can’t un-see it. The policemen, the judge.

Robin DiAngelo: Right. Even when they’re on the “right side of the law,” they’re always connected to law, law and crime. That connects to what’s problematic about having such overwhelmingly white, kind of, filmmakers and media … those who control media is that also you get the same repetitive, narrow representations reinforced over and over and over and exported worldwide. There are people from Asian countries that say, “I’ve never met a Black person, but before I ever came to the US, I was afraid of Black people and that’s because we watch and consume your films.” And so, we’ve exported white supremacy globally and it circulates globally. You’re in the arts, so you know that these tropes, they’re very, very quick ways to signal a character. And so, you want to show a sketchy—I put air quotes around that—neighborhood. You just have the camera pans, some graffiti, and a group of Black people standing on a street corner and immediately, your audience knows, kind of, where they are and what the atmosphere is. So, as we rely on those shorthand tropes, we re-inscribe them every- more deeply and impacts how people’s lives go. These are not minor outcomes.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. You didn’t put stats in your book about this, but anecdotally, for Broadway—it was just, you know, easy to quantify because there’s only 40 some theaters—I look at who is in charge of that industry, who are the producers, who are the theater owners, who are the directors, and it is shocking that in 2019 for a “progressive field,” when you look on Broadway, I could think of maybe one or two people of color that have directed the shows on Broadway right now. And you look at who owns the theaters, who were the producers, hey are are mostly, I would even have to guess if you put a gun to my head, 90% white men.

Robin DiAngelo: Yup. Yeah, I mean, we have to keep asking ourselves, “So, who tells the story and how does who tells the story then shape what that story is and will be and what it reinforces for everybody listening and watching?” Right?

Erik Gensler: Yeah.

Robin DiAngelo: And we need to add, you mentioned men, I don’t know if I have the statistics there, but I use them in my PowerPoint, is of those 100 top-grossing films of all time, 99 were directed by men, (laughs) 95 of them white. You know, that’s a particular worldview, a particular position, and a particular perspective. It’s not universal (laughs)

Erik Gensler: Right.

Robin DiAngelo: … even though it’s presented as such. And so, it reinforces that perspective on everything and so that has shaped how I see myself as a woman, as someone who is a cis-gendered woman.

Erik Gensler: Yeah. Was it the Bechtel rule of women who aren’t in a scene with men are talking about men in a scene in a movie?

Robin DiAngelo: Yeah. Have you seen that chart? I also use that in my slides. It’s like the 25 Academy Award winning Best Picture films in the last 25 years and it has like a ratio of a character speaking more than a hundred words and it has men and women and just the difference (laughs) in that graph is amazing.

Erik Gensler: It’s like being in a corporate board meeting.

Robin DiAngelo: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Erik Gensler: (laughs) It’s how it actually goes down with the men talking all the time. I have to say, many of our listeners work for regional theaters and performing arts centers and ballet companies and it’s been really heartening to see a lot of these organizations doing this kind of work and making leadership changes. Now, it’s disappointing when you see major institutions not making these choices and I know these are complex conversations and they’re complex and big decisions and the right candidate doesn’t always exist, but even in the last few weeks, there’s been some major institutions who have selected women of color to lead them and that is really heartening. Can you talk about your work with arts organizations? Do you find more of an openness to these types of conversations?

Robin DiAngelo: No. (laughs) Sorry! White is white. White people are white people. And I know- when I go into an organization often people want to have a call with me, make sure, you know, “Here’s what you need to know about our group,” and there are aspects that they think are important for me to understand. And honestly, I don’t need to have the call.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Robin DiAngelo: While they see themselves as specific, the patterns are universal and ubiquitous. I get emails from South Africa, Australia, Europe, from people of color, like, “Oh, my God, your book is exactly what I experience here. Help me.” But when I go to, say, Germany or Australia, all the white folks want to make sure I understand that it’s different there. It’s not, and to the degree that it might be, that’s for white people in the audience to get some skin in the game and figure out how it applies to them, but not exempt themselves because I don’t know exactly every nuance of their field.

Erik Gensler: Hm.

Robin DiAngelo: I want to push back on that because sometimes, white people will use that as their reason to be able to reject what I’m saying as, I don’t know how it’s different there. Well, you figure that out. I can’t know everyone’s work and everybody’s culture, right? But I do know these patterns. The other thought I had when you were talking about … And I do want to acknowledge the progress and the work, but as long as it’s still white people deciding how much progress or what that is, you’re going to have the reproduction of whiteness, right? So, we have to be ever-vigilant. It reminds me … wasn’t it Oprah at the Academy Awards last year, not this year, who was like, you know, “Finally, you know, women are going to do this and women are going to do that.” And I’m thinking, “Yeah, if men say we can.” (laughs)

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Robin DiAngelo: Do you know what I mean? It’s who’s it still ultimately up to whether people of color are given leadership at the table. We’re still controlling the table. And that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be trying. And you know, we kind of have to make room, but organizations often stop at integration, right? So, we just need more people of color at the table. That’s one piece. But if you haven’t fundamentally addressed the consciousness of the people already at the table and who’ve been at the table all along, then you’re basically just putting people of color into the water of whiteness and that is toxic water. So, it has to be a simultaneous process where the white folks are getting their consciousness raised at the same time that they’re making space for people of color. Otherwise, you end up with the million-dollar question, which is, why don’t they stay?

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Robin DiAngelo: Well, they don’t stay because we put them into toxic water.

Erik Gensler: Describe toxic water for people of color.

Robin DiAngelo: Yeah. There’s an exercise I do in my trainings where in small groups of three, timed, everyone has one minute to answer this question: what are some of the ways in which your race has shaped your life? And during the speaker’s one minute the other two people cannot speak. They can only listen. So, they move through and each person answers that question. And I have watched white people not be able to fill 60 seconds on that question, just stand there and flail. And that’s actually not benign or innocent. Right?

Erik Gensler: Right.

Robin DiAngelo: So, there’s three patterns that come up when you asked that question. The first one is, it’s an incredibly uncomfortable question for white people. (laughs) Two, most white people can’t answer it with any depth. And three, when we do answer it, we tend to organize our answers around people of color. So, we’ll tell a story about a friendship or an early experience, you know, where there was somebody across race. You can imagine that, right? So, let’s start with those first two patterns. If I cannot tell you what it means to be white, I cannot hold what it means not to be white. I am going to need to refuse that reality because it so fundamentally not only challenges mine, but makes mine visible in a way that I don’t have the stamina to endure. And we bring that inability to the table with us. So, people of color working in overwhelmingly white space know that most white people that are controlling the table they have to sit at, those white people cannot think critically about their own whiteness and that creates a hostile environment because people of color cannot bring their authentic selves to that table. They’re not going to be able to talk to the people at the table about their experiences, much less challenge the whiteness and the racial microaggressions that they experience at that table. And so, they have to take it home with them and they have to endure it. And so, they’re operating with a huge load, the huge psychic weight that the white people are not operating under. All of that makes for a kind of hostile, toxic environment in which they can’t bring their authentic selves. Does that make sense?

Erik Gensler: Oh, 1000%, yeah. And I look at myself on the other side of doing this work and if you asked me to talk about how race defined my life (laughs), I mean, I would have such a different answer now than had you asked me that question five years ago. Yeah. I think that’s a really, not to make it about me, but that’s such a great answer and I think you have to choose consciously to understand this and you have to, like, really deeply look at yourself before you can, I think, make changes for other people and make changes of how you operate in the world. And this is not easy and it’s also not something that is just dangled in front of us. You have to seek this out, which is a real shame, but … and that’s why I think your work is so important.

Robin DiAngelo: Thank you. This is the power of the paradigm we operate from. I often say, “Emotions are political.” We tend to think of them as just some natural thing that erupts from us, but no, they’re political because they are shaped by the framework of meaning we’re interpreting through. So, put yourself back, say, ten years ago before you had any ability to answer that question critically and now imagine a person call color you working with challenging a racist assumption you were making it didn’t know you were making.

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Robin DiAngelo: The difference between how you would have responded then and how you would respond today, I bet is pretty clear difference. Right?

Erik Gensler: Totally.

Robin DiAngelo: Back thenm you would’ve got your back up and you might’ve even felt attacked and unjustly accused and had your feelings hurt and minimized and explained. And today, you would probably, I would like to think, actually be grateful in recognition of the risk it took for that person to tell you, because most of the time things get worse for people of color who try to talk to white people about our racist patterns, right? Things don’t tend to get better for them. They tend to get worse because most of us are operating from that paradigm that you were operating from ten years ago. Right?

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Robin DiAngelo: This … Again, this is the power of changing what we understand it means to be racist. I do not struggle with guilt. I’m clear that I am responsible for my actions and my participation in the world, but guilt is just not something that comes up for me. It’s so liberating, actually, to start from the premise that, of course, you have these patterns. Of course you do. So, then you could just get to work actually trying to identify and change them. Right? Instead of deflect, deny, and refuse.

Erik Gensler: Right. How un-Catholic of you, Robin.

Robin DiAngelo: (laughs) Oh, yeah. You knew about that part, right?

Erik Gensler: (laughs). What are your thoughts as a white person doing this work? And I’ve been thinking a lot about who to bring in for my team for workshops and how I’m potentially participating in white supremacy by not offering a person of color this opportunity. But, of course, I could find many ways how that thinking is flawed. I’m sure you’ve thought a lot about this, so I’m really curious to hear your perspective.

Robin DiAngelo: Yeah, I have. You know, so, when I get asked to come in for, I’d say three hours or less, I’m very comfortable doing that by myself because people are asking me specifically because I’m speaking about whiteness and white fragility. When they want longer than that, I feel like it’s really important that that’s an interracial team because they just have to have another perspective, right? Because my work is so specific to whiteness, again, I’m comfortable being by myself for that and I think about it as tilling the soil (laughs), that the reality is that there are things that I can say and get much further along—I put it like this, I can get away with saying—that people of color just cannot be heard in the same way. And so, if I can kind of soften that ground a little bit, speak to white fragility, name that, so that the group is more open to follow-up by people of color. That’s, I think, the ideal. I mean, this is one of the dilemmas of the way this works is that, yes, I am reinforcing whiteness (laughs) and the centrality of the white view and perspective and, you know, authority granted my voice by standing in front of groups every day talking about race and to not use this position in that way is for me to really be white. I’d like to be a little less white. And for me, that means less oppressive, less silent, less defensive, more humble and open. So, I’m adding that because being less white doesn’t mean being more Italian-American (laughs).

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Robin DiAngelo: Anyway, that’s how I think about it. And I know it’s a controversial issue in the field. There are certainly people of color who don’t think white people should do this work and overwhelmingly, though, in my experience, people of color want me to be doing this work and find it actually really supportive to the work that they’re trying to do. So, that’s how I think about it.

Erik Gensler: And-

Robin DiAngelo: There are lots of people call her I know who are like, “No way do I want to go into an overwhelmingly white group and do this. You go in there (laughs) and I’ll be with you doing it or I’ll come after, but they need to hear a really strong message from a white person.” I mean, it’s the same way I think about sexism is that men have got to be talking to other men about sexism. I mean, there’s a way in which men will listen to other men. That they’re … conscious are not, are not struggling with internalized contempt and misogyny and they’re also trained to see other men as objective. And men can speak to an experience as an insider that I just can’t speak to.

Erik Gensler: Totally, I buy all of that. You know what’s interesting? In order to really do this work, particularly if you’re someone who is in control or has power, you have to be willing to give up some of your power. And I imagine that that is incredibly hard for some people.

Robin DiAngelo: Yeah, that’s a tricky one, right? Cause I’m not sure how you give it up. I think, maybe, share, step aside. Yeah, I suppose in those ways you’re giving it up.

Erik Gensler: You’re making space for other people where the space used to all be yours. And I’m not saying it’s right or it’s good, but I think how people perceive their … A) you have to admit that you, you had a problematic view point; B) you have to actively take measures to correct that; and C) you have to be willing to give up space that you occupied for other voices and other people. And I imagine that’s hard for a lot of people.

Robin DiAngelo: Yeah, and maybe an example would be this woman that you were talking to that rather than complain and reinforce everybody’s unconscious bias about Black people being less qualified and getting things they don’t deserve, she would actually understand that that person was more qualified than she was-

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

Robin DiAngelo: … because they brought something to the workplace that wasn’t there, that there’s actual value there. I just thought of that as another example of how do you share power or step aside.

Erik Gensler: I want to be respectful of your time, which I very much value, and so, I want to move to our final question and this is your “CI to Eye moment” and the question is, if you can broadcast to the executive directors, leadership teams, staff, and boards of a thousand arts organizations, what advice, based on your expertise, would you provide to them to help them improve their businesses?

Robin DiAngelo: Niceness is not anti-racism. Niceness is not courageous. There’s nothing courageous about niceness and it will not get racism on the table and it won’t keep it on the table when everyone wants it off the table. So, racial justice takes strategic, intentional, courageous action. It doesn’t happen naturally and you can just assume that your policies and practices are reproducing racial inequality and then start to ask how that might be happening. Ibram Kendi wrote a beautiful book, National Book Award winner, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and he argues that the definition of a racist policy is any policy that results in a racially unequal outcome. And by that definition, virtually all our policies are racist. If you keep producing plays and works and hiring people that are white, when it becomes just a special kind of play that doesn’t center whiteness, that outcome would be racial inequality. And so, we have to build our stamina to have these conversations. And I would also add that reflecting is not really much of anything if it doesn’t result in action. So, sometimes, when I end a workshop, you know, you go around and you say, “What’s one thing you’re taking with you?” And white people will say, “Oh, I’m going to keep thinking about this.”

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Robin DiAngelo: “I’m going to keep reflecting about this.”

Erik Gensler: It’s like “thoughts and prayers” with guns.

Robin DiAngelo: Exactly!

Erik Gensler: (laughs)

Robin DiAngelo: That’s where I was going, it’s like thoughts and prayers.

Erik Gensler: Damn, sorry!

Robin DiAngelo: No, but what I have learned to offer back is, “And how will people of color know you’ve been reflecting about this? You know, what will actually be different in action?” So, that’s what I would offer. It’s very complicated. It’s very layered, but there are many, many, many resources out there for kind of how-tos and I think one of the, sadly, most important ways that white people can break with the apathy of whiteness is go look it up like you’d look up anything you had any kind of interest in.

Erik Gensler: Well, I can’t thank you enough for doing this and I can’t wait to get this message out to our community and I can’t thank you enough for writing this book and doing the interviews you do and doing the kind of work you do. I think you just talk about this in such a thoughtful, elegant, and really helpful way. So, thank you.

Robin DiAngelo: Thank you so much and I want everyone to know that we just published a reader’s guide for the book. Every chapter’s followed with reflection questions and even tips on how to facilitate the discussion and that’s just easily, freely downloaded from my website. So, I just wanted to add that as a support to the book and thank you for the opportunity.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. Thanks again.

About Our Guests
Dr. Robin DiAngelo
Dr. Robin DiAngelo

Dr. Robin DiAngelo is the bestselling author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism and Is Everybody Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education. Dr. DiAngelo has been a consultant and trainer for over 20 years on racial and social justice issues.

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