91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'There Is No Neutral': 'Nice White People' Can Still Be Complicit In A Racist Society

<em>White Fragility </em>author Robin DiAngelo says the question white people should be asking themselves is not <em>have</em> I been shaped by race, but <em>how</em> have I been shaped by race? Above, protesters demonstrate in New York on June 1.
Angela Weiss
AFP via Getty Images
White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo says the question white people should be asking themselves is not have I been shaped by race, but how have I been shaped by race? Above, protesters demonstrate in New York on June 1.

For white people who have just recently recognized their own complicity in America's racist systems and are looking to "fix" that — it's not going to happen overnight.

"It's a little bit like saying 'I want to be in shape tomorrow' ..." says author Robin DiAngelo. "This is going to be a process."

DiAngelo is the author of White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.The book came out in 2018 and is back on the bestseller lists as streets fill with protesters calling for an end to police violence against black people.

The status quo in the United States is racism, DiAngelo says, and "it is comfortable for me, as a white person, to live in a racist society."

To sustain the momentum of these protests, DiAngelo says, it must become uncomfortable for white people to continue to benefit from racist systems.

"We've got to start making it uncomfortable and figuring out what supports we're going to put in place to help us continue to be uncomfortable," she says. "Because the forces of comfort are quite seductive."

Interview Highlights

On encouraging white people to reflect on how race has shaped their lives

This [work] will be lifelong: really thinking deeply about what it means to be white, how your race shapes your life. We live in a society that turns race over to people of color. They have a race. We're just people. And so we see ourselves as outside of race. And that's problematic for many reasons. But there's so much potentially rich insight that we can gain from deeply reflecting on our own racial experiences.

On how white people can be complicit in racist systems without recognizing their own racism

Nice, white people who really aren't doing anything other than being nice people are racist. We are complicit with that system. There is no neutral place.

Racism is what happens when you back one group's racial bias with legal authority and institutional control. ... When you back one group's collective bias with that kind of power, it is transformed into a far-reaching system. It becomes the default. It's automatic. It's not dependent on your agreement or belief or approval. It's circulating 24/7, 365.

Racism is the foundation of the society we are in. And to simply carry on with absolutely no active interruption of that system is to be complicit with it. And in that way, we can say that nice, white people who really aren't doing anything other than being nice people are racist. We are complicit with that system. There is no neutral place.

On challenging definitions

We've been taught to think about a racist as someone who consciously and intentionally seeks to hurt people based on race. And if that's what you think it means to be racist, then of course it's offensive that I would say you were racist. That's not what I mean by that. ... All of the racism I've perpetrated in my life was neither conscious nor intentional, but harmful to other people nonetheless.

On suggesting that white people ask how — rather than if — they have been shaped by race and racism

When you change your understanding of what it means to be racist, you will no longer be defensive. ... Who among your listeners right now would ever say they're consciously, intentionally mean across race? I think that definition [of racism as individual, conscious, malintent across race] is the root of most of the defensiveness.

When you change your definition, it's actually liberating. ... It's transformative. You know, you can stop defending, deflecting, denying, explaining away, giving all the evidence for why you are different and couldn't possibly have been impacted by the society you live in.

And you can start getting to work actually trying to identify: All right. It was inevitable that I was socialized into this system. It's inevitable that I will have blind spots. ... And so I'm going to focus my energy on how I've been shaped by the system, but not if.

We have to change our question. If our question is if I've been shaped, the answer will be an easy no. And then what further action is required of us? Nothing.

When the answer is how, well, that sets you on a lifelong process.

On specific steps white people can take

I would start with some very deep reflection on what it means to be white: How your own race shapes your life. ... Our voices, our part in this has been missing for all too long.

But again, we're never going to understand this if we don't listen to black, Indigenous and other peoples of color. So start reading what they're writing, listening to their videos, attending their talks and educating yourself.

There are two really excellent resources. ... One is Dr. Eddie Moore's 21-Day Racial Equity [Habit] Building Challenge — it'll walk you through a daily practice. And Layla Saad's Me and White Supremacy Workbook. That's a book you do rather than read. That will start us on what is a process — not a moment or an instant.

On asking white people to have humility

I've never met a white person who didn't have an opinion on racism. ... That doesn't make it informed. It's so complicated and nuanced and layered. ... So be willing to consider that maybe your opinions are not as informed as you think they are. ...

Most white people live segregated lives. Most of us don't really even know black people. Most of us go cradle to grave with few, if any, authentic, sustained cross-racial relationships and no real sense of loss about that. And yet, we have these opinions that we feel are equal to people who have, you know, studied and struggled and worked on these issues for decades. And so it's a little bit like saying, well, I've been to the Epcot Center, therefore I'm qualified to wade in on a debate with Neil deGrasse Tyson on whether Pluto is a planet.

On the two questions she hears most frequently

There are two top questions I get when I give a talk ... The first one is: What do I do? And when I get that question, I offer one back: ... How have you managed not to know? How have you managed to be a full-functioning, likely educated adult in 2020 and not know the answer to that question? And that's meant to challenge that person that, that's on you. The information's everywhere. Why haven't you sought it out up until this moment? What did it take to get you to ask that question?

So that's meant to be a challenge, but it's also a sincere question. Take out a piece of paper and jot down your answer to why you don't know what to do, or how to get started. And there will be your map. Everything you write on that piece of paper can be addressed. None of it will be quick or easy. But begin with that list.

The second top question that I get is: How do I tell or talk to other white people about racism? ... You notice that that question assumes that it's not us. We're good to go. We're down now. Let's go out and change the world.

It is us. We can never take ourselves out of that equation. And I think actually, the more we work on our own conditioning, the more effective we will be at helping others see theirs.

On maintaining momentum

We've seen these moments before. We thought we were post-racial after the civil rights movement. We thought we were post-racial after Obama's presidency. We are so not post-racial and we have never been. I do see these protests being sustained and different kinds of demands coming out of them. That is hopeful.

But the key is: What will happen when those cameras go away and when it's no longer — for lack of a better word, for white people, anyway – "exciting" or "righteous" to go down and protest? In some ways, that's the easier kinds of actions. What are we going to do to sustain it when we no longer have that kind of pressure, when we're back into our racial comfort zone?

Mallory Yu and Sarah Handel produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.