The structure of racism

'White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism' by Robin DiAngelo (Beacon Press), reviewed by Corinne Gurvitz.

Against the backdrop of social movements like Black Lives Matter and various global political upheavals, issues of race are more prevalent in th e public’s awareness than ever before. While we have laws protecting against discrimination and consciousness of racism is growing, Robin DiAngelo powerfully argues that for further progress to be made, it is the responsibility of white people to look inwards to identify how they maintain the status quo.

This book is written through the author’s lived experience as a diversity trainer and addresses objections that she received from white people again and again. Things like ‘I was taught to treat everyone the same’, ‘my parents were not racist, and they taught me not to be racist’, ‘race has nothing to do with it’ and ‘I was the minority at my school so I experienced racism’. While her experiences come from a USA context, these objections will probably be familiar to people in other countries, whether you have made them or been on the receiving end of them. She herself is white and compellingly reflects on her own learning and mistakes along the way.

She writes her book against the backdrop that ‘racism is a structure, not an event’; while someone can act in a prejudiced way and discriminate against someone on a personal level, it becomes ‘racism’ once it is backed by the power of institutions. She defines White Supremacy, something that might be commonly associated with overtly racist groups, as a construct that describes a social, political, and economic system of domination in society at large. It is not just those ‘bad people’ who are racist; DiAngelo argues that in the system we are raised, it is inevitable that we will all be. Yes, that means you too. Even if you are progressive, educated and believe in racial equality and justice. DiAngelo makes the point that the sooner white people realise they have this prejudice, the sooner the necessary reflection can begin. This is a continual, lifelong process.

If you are white, you might have just felt tempted to withdraw on reading the above. You may have had thoughts like ‘that doesn’t apply to me’, or ‘that is such a generalisation!’ or felt a strong emotion such as anger, guilt, offense or denial. This, argues DiAngelo, is a result of White Fragility, which diverts the challenge to the worldview of ourselves as ‘good moral people – and therefore not racist’; this acts to bring you back to a more comfortable place where race ‘doesn’t matter’. White people are not often challenged on race, and so can be quick to feel stressed when it is mentioned. You might have even felt uncomfortable by my specifying ‘white people’ throughout this piece.

This book is a well written and engaging read. If you are white, it will be challenging and uncomfortable, because it will open your eyes to all kinds of dynamics that you had probably never noticed before. It is an essential read: get a copy as soon as you can.

- Reviewed by Corinne Gurvitz, Counselling Psychologist

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