White Liberal Racism: An Interview With Dr. Robin Di Angelo

08/18/2016 05:18 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2017

White Liberal Racism: An Interview with Dr. Robin Di Angelo
With Carol Smaldino

Robin Di Angelo is a highly regarded scholar on white racial identity, white fragility (a term she coined), and cross-racial relations. She is also white.

CS: Dr. Di Angelo,
We agreed to collaborate on an article about liberal racism, white liberal racism to be exact.
1. First, can you say a few words about your concept of "white fragility"?

RDA: White people in North America live in an insular racial environment. This environment separates us from most people of color (and Blacks in particular) while sending relentless messages of whiteness as superior, as the norm for humanity, as those who are entitled to lead. At the same time, we are taught that racists are terrible mean people and as long as we have no conscious intention to harm people of color (in fact are even friendly to them) then we cannot be racist and have no connection to the system of racism (which we don't recognize as a system at all). On the rare occasion that our worldviews, positions or entitlement are questioned, it throws us so off balance that we basically lose our minds. We become outraged, hurt, offended and so on, and push back with a range of defensive moves (cry, argue, withdraw, refuse to engage). These moves function to end the challenge and get us back on our racial footing. I term these moves white fragility. White progressives can be the most fragile in the face of challenges to our positions because our identities depend on an image of ourselves as racially "open-minded."

2. CS: I'd love your take about how liberal racism - our sense that we are not prejudiced - might be further polarizing at this moment in time.

RDA: Yes, the more we see ourselves as separate from the racism of "conservatives," the more unable we are to address the racism within ourselves. In the present moment, the explicitness of racism on the right (a form of white fragility triggered in part by the "uppity-ness" of the Black Lives Matter movement, the demand for police accountability, having to endure a Black man as president) actually allows the left to go deeper into denial because it reinforces the idea that racism is simply a matter of conscious dislike on the individual level. People who have this conscious dislike are bad - they are racists. If I don't have conscious dislike, I am good - I am not racist. This is actually the most effective adaptation of racism to the challenges of the Civil Rights movement - make complicity with racism and being a good moral person mutually exclusive, and you make it virtually impossible for the average white person to look at racism within ourselves.

3. CS: Do you have suggestions for increasing stamina in realizing our own racism?

First, awareness without action is essentially meaningless. And that is another liberal conceit - that if we are aware of racism and able to acknowledge that it is real, we are exempt from further action because we "get it." So we can see it in the Trump campaign but don't interrupt it in our own lives.

Educate yourself. Get out of your racial comfort zone and put yourself in situations that will do this for you. Take racial risks. Put racism on the table in your workplace, and then try your best to keep it on the table. Push everyone around the table who is white to connect racism to the room you are in rather than distancing ourselves by acting as if it's "out there." Find out what whiteness is and start naming it, beginning with yourself. That alone will push you up against every investment you have in white solidarity and white supremacy.

4. CS: Can you say more about our need to interrupt our own racism. Often we just don't see it.

RDA: Our lack of seeing is not benign. I try to avoid positioning us as oblivious, which reinforces the narrative of white racial innocence. White people are not innocent; our ignorance is willful - a kind of refusal to know, rooted in apathy and a deeply internalized investment in white supremacy. All of the crimes against Black Americans have depended on our "not knowing," what I believe Coates (link Letter to My Son - The Atlantic); means by the lie of the Dream; I just want them kept away from my neighborhoods and my schools. How that happens, I don't really care about and don't want to know about, because then I couldn't reconcile my conscience.

5. CS: What are some ways to go forward without succumbing to feeling always defensive, or victimized by shame or by anger of people who have been oppressed so brutally?

RDA: I try to ask myself how my emotions function racially. So how does my guilt or shame function? If it is functioning to keep me from moving forward, from reflecting, engaging, challenging, then I have to get over it. But if shame and guilt motivate me, then I use it to motivate me. The goal is not to avoid feeling unpleasant feelings; these are necessary to disrupt the comfort of white supremacy because white supremacy is very comfortable for us. Ultimately, we go forward by shifting our paradigm.

It is incredibly liberating to start with the premise that you have been thoroughly shaped by the white supremacist culture that you live in, and of course you have patterns and investments rooted in the status quo of this culture. If you want to break with white supremacy, then you actually begin to feel eager to see where you are complicit so you can interrupt that complicity. The current paradigm has us eagerly working not to see it in and around us because that would mean we are bad people. But being good or bad is not relevant. I did not choose to be inculcated in this system, but I was. It's about taking responsibility.

CS: Thank you so much. I think some of us are eager to interrupt. I hope.