Why Is It So Hard for White People to Talk about Race?

A conversation with White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo, speaking at BU Monday

Robin DiAngelo, author of the New York Times best-seller White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Race. Photo by Gabriel Solis
February 28, 2019
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“I’m white—check me out, everybody,” sociologist and author Robin DiAngelo said as she launched into a talk about race at a recent higher education diversity conference.

DiAngelo has led racial justice training for corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, and educators for more than 20 years. That work inspired her to write the New York Times best seller White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Race (Beacon Press, 2018), and it’s the subject of the keynote address she’ll give Monday at BU, sponsored by the Associate Provost for Diversity & Inclusion office.

DiAngelo wasn’t raised to think about herself in racial terms, but she has come to understand that she moves through the world with a “most particularly white experience in a society that is profoundly separate and unequal by race.”

“People of color from a very early age have to know my reality in a way that I’m very sorry to say, I don’t have to know theirs.”

A University of Washington affiliate associate professor of education, DiAngelo came up with the term “white fragility” in 2011 to describe the way many white people respond when their assumptions about race (especially their own) are challenged—and how that response continues racial inequality.

In advance of her talk, BU Today spoke with DiAngelo about her book and why she thinks people are more open to racial justice work in the post-Obama era.

BU Today: You write in your book that “white fragility is the inability to tolerate racial stress.” Can you talk more about that?

DiAngelo: The fragility part is meant to capture how little it takes to completely unravel us. For many white people, the mere suggestion that being white has meaning will cause umbrage—in particular, generalizing about white people will trigger umbrage.

But the impact of our umbrage is not fragile at all. It’s a weaponized defensiveness. It marshals behind it centuries of institutional power, and so the impact is quite profound. We make it so hard for people of color to talk to us about their experiences that most of the time they don’t, because it tends to get worse for them when they talk to us, rather than better.

What do you mean when you talk about the difference between people who say they’re “color-blind” and those who “color celebrate”?

My area of research is discourse analysis. That’s the critical examination of everyday narratives and how they function. In talking to white people day in and day out for years, I see two general categories of everyday white narratives that white people use as evidence that we’re not racist—color-blind and color celebrate.

Color-blind is probably number one—that’s some version of: “I was taught to treat everybody the same.” When I hear that from a white person, there’s a bubble over my head saying, “This person doesn’t understand basic socialization…this person is not self-aware.”

I need to give a heads-up to white people—when people of color hear us say, “I was taught to treat everybody the same,” they’re generally not thinking, “All right, I’m talking to a woke white person right now.”

No one was taught to treat everyone the same.

White Fragility book cover by Robin DiAngelo

Color celebrate is more popular with white progressives, where our evidence is some version of proximity. We’ll say things like, “I have people of color in my family,” or “I used to live in New York City,” or “I’ve been to Costa Rica.” If this is the evidence that white progressives use to establish their lack of racism, then apparently a racist could not take a trip to Costa Rica or work three cubicles down from a person of color or live in a major city.

How did you get to the point of being able to talk about what it means for you to be white?

I grew up in poverty, under patriarchy… With the feminist movement, I began to have a critical consciousness fairly early about sexism. But I had absolutely no critical consciousness about where I experienced privilege, where I actually colluded with the oppression of someone else. It wasn’t until I started working side by side with people of color in racial justice trainings at the same time that I was trying to talk to majority white groups about racism that my eyes were opened.  It was a parallel process and it was was profound.

I got a job as a diversity trainer, as we called it in the ’90s, and I had no idea what I was in for. The state of Washington Department of Social and Health Services had been sued for racial discrimination, and as part of the settlement the federal government mandated that every employee receive 16 hours of diversity training.

I applied for the job and I thought I was qualified because I was a vegetarian. How could I be a racist? I had that classic white progressive mentality. Here I get this job and I’m working side by side with people of color. They’re challenging me to the core of how I saw myself in the world. Part of being white is that I could be that far in my life—I was in my 30s and college-educated—and never before had my racial worldview been challenged.

My whole world was blown open. I was working side by side with some very strong people of color, but also going into these white workplaces trying to teach white people about racism, and the hostility was just jaw-dropping. I was very intimidated and very inarticulate in the face of it, but I hung in there. I had some amazing mentors of color who hung in there with me, and after years and years of work, it became clearer and clearer how we white people manage to claim race has no meaning in a society wholly stratified by race. Over time, I got better at laying it all out.

Then I got my PhD.  So I could apply all I’d learned; I went from practice to theory. Now, because I’m older, I have a degree of credibility that allows me to push harder.

Has your racial justice work become any easier now, the post-Obama era, as a lot of people seem to have become more aware of structural and systemic racism and inequality?

Yes. That surprised me because I thought it would be more difficult. I think this thin veneer of post racial-ness in the Obama years was just ripped off. I think a lot of white progressives were in shock, and there is a kind of urgency that I didn’t see during the Obama years. That seems to make white people more receptive. At the same time, there is more permission for explicit racism than there was. I don’t think that anyone is in denial anymore that racism exists.

You’ve said that your intention is not to make white people feel guilty and this is not about being a good person or a bad person. Can you expand a bit on that?

As long as we understand racism as individual acts of intentional meanness, we will feel defensive about any suggestion of our complicity. When we understand the systemic nature of racism, however, we understand that our complicity is inevitable. It’s actually liberating to start from that premise, because then we can turn our attention to identifying what our complicity looks like and how we might change it.

I don’t feel guilt and I do not want other white people to feel guilt. It’s a useless emotion, and we are not effective when we feel that way. Quite contrary to guilt, I have found this to be the most intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically rewarding journey I have ever embarked on.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

In her keynote address, Robin DiAngelo: What Does It Mean to Be White? on Monday, March 4, DiAngelo will explore such questions as What prevents us from moving toward greater racial equity? How does race shape the lives of white people? What makes racism so hard for white people to see? She will speak at the George Sherman Union Metcalf Hall, 775 Commonwealth Ave., from 11 am to 12:30 pm. This event is free and sponsored by the Associate Provost for Diversity & Inclusion office. Register here.






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Why Is It So Hard for White People to Talk about Race?

  • Sara Rimer

    Senior Contributing Editor

    Sara Rimer

    Sara Rimer A journalist for more than three decades, Sara Rimer worked at the Miami Herald, Washington Post and, for 26 years, the New York Times, where she was the New England bureau chief, and a national reporter covering education, aging, immigration, and other social justice issues. Her stories on the death penalty’s inequities were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and cited in the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision outlawing the execution of people with intellectual disabilities. Her journalism honors include Columbia University’s Meyer Berger award for in-depth human interest reporting. She holds a BA degree in American Studies from the University of Michigan. Profile

    She can be reached at srimer@bu.edu.

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There are 9 comments on Why Is It So Hard for White People to Talk about Race?

    1. You jealous something. Bet you are. Bet you think we got it easy. Lol. It depend where you live. And what minority there. Anybody can get discriminated against. Yes even white peoples. It true. It does exist especially in Miami, Florida.

  1. hello i want to thank you very much for this beautiful message.
    i have never really looked at this subject. i am a person of colour
    in south Africa. i don’t think i need to tell you of the history of our country and its current conditions. i have not read the book as yet due to lack of money to buy it. but YouTube is saving us well. i have been asked to speak on the subject to people of my colour. i am not sure how to deliver the message to them. that is why i started searching on the subject if they is any help i will are appreciate.

  2. All this conversation is nonsense. I don´t feel white, but it doesn´t mean i feel inferior to them, neither i need protection for non being white, or make white people guilty of their color.

    I´d be glad if universities stop discussing futile issues and devote their resources to what they are for.

  3. I wonder what does she mean when she says “No one was taught to treat everyone the same.”
    Why is that so impossible?
    The idea that we are all born with a double standard stamp we cannot get rid of is as ridiculous as the idea of being born with an “original sin” to be washed away.
    I come from Italy, now live in Canada, had the luck to spend time in many other countries and the way people see and treat race differences are very different depending on culture. The USA race problem is not the same all over. Different problems, different attitudes, different solutions.

    Maybe when discussing certain matters she found “umbrage” only because she starts already with prejudice.
    If someone say that they have been taught to treat everyone the same maybe she should just ask how they have been taught that, she might learn something useful despite her great experience, university degrees and credibility.

  4. What bother me is to classify people by race. There is only one race : human race with all different shade of color, ethnicity , belief.
    I thinking that it is an utopia to think that people are equal by birth because depending where you are born and if you are born in a wealthy family it changes a lot of things on your privilege even for white people.
    Racism exist every where there is not a single country where there is no racism even between white people (example in the UK toward Polish People).
    Everyone needs to admit that worldwide it is true there is a huge racism towards people of color in every single country.

  5. I have been a racial justice advocate all of my life. I helped to advocate for making MLK Jr day a national holiday. The Biden administration just made Juneteenth a federal holiday. Being from Texas, I understand this day is very important for civil rights. I expressed my appreciation for this as a lifelong ally at work to a person of color (who doesn’t know me well). I’m now in danger of losing my job as the intent was misunderstood. Until we can talk safely about these issues, I’m learning that it is better to not talk about it all if you are white. It depends on the type of trauma a person has experienced and not a lot of people feel safe talking about it anymore. It can go sideways really quick.

  6. My black ancestors did not come to this country by way of Ellis Island, but were the only people of color brought to this country more than 400-years ago in chains and against their will. Unlike white European Indenture Servants who worked off their debt under less harsh conditions and is freed. My ancestors did not enter this country with any debt, but were enslaved, tortured, lynched, terrorized and rapped. Ask yourselves white America why this Holocaust of black people remains absent from America’s pages of history? And why such atrocities were viewed so differently and made historically obscure compared to the outcome of white European indenture servants and my enslaved African ancestors? Also ask yourselves why the same spoils of slavery continue even today in a flawed Constitution written by all white men of privilege that dismissed my African Ancestors and continues to dismiss me and all their African American descendant even today? Ask yourselves white America each time you tell yourselves, you had nothing to do with slavery, what have you done lately that disprove that notion? Could this genocidal history be the real reason white American refuse to talk about Race?

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