Completely Rethinking What it Means to Be American with Dr. Robin DiAngelo

Her story – better stated to externalize the conflict, the story changed over time.  It kept changing depending on who was asking and the degree of pressure being applied. Her behavior fit a pattern African America has absorbed and processed into a cultural response. For marketing purposes, the white woman was given an internet-based nickname: Cornerstore Caroline.

 

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A still from the Cornerstore Caroline viral film

 

By now, the content of the story doesn’t matter. The existence of the behavior is what matters. Why? Because it creates racist outcomes in American society.

 

Remember the little girl who was selling bottled water on a hot day? The white woman who called the police on her earned the internet-based nickname: Permit Patty.

 

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A still from the Permit Patty viral video

 

And, the one who started all of this, back in late April, earning the distinquished title of greatest meme of all time: Barbeque Betty.

 

In a small volume, Dr. Robin DiAngelo attempts to explain why these white women behave in this manner. To even have the discussion, she must enter the taboo. She attempts to give her Readers psychological cover. Using her sociological perspective, she asks for enough leeway to grow beyond individualism and speak to behavior patterns among (so-called) White America.

 

A brilliant scholar, Dr. DiAngelo, of Westfield State University is famous for coining the term, white fragility. Peggy McIntosh, of Wellesley College, coined the term, white privilege. Dr. DiAngelo uses her term to point towards a mental landscape of pre-programmed responses demonstrated by white-identifying Americans.

 

On the Frontlines of Identity Politics

And, she is bold, speaking bluntly about a very charged subject. She writes, “This book is unapologetically rooted in identity politics. I am white and am addressing a common white dynamic. I am mainly writing to a white audience; when I use the terms us and we, I am referring to the white collective. This usage may be jarring to white readers because we are so rarely asked to think about ourselves or fellow whites in racial terms” (introduction, page xiv).

 

The idea of a white tribal mentality, of a crack in the dominant cultural idea of individualism is the taboo that Dr. DiAngelo dances inside of. She speaks to the fear response that she observed.

 

“In the early days of my work as what was then termed a diversity trainer, I was taken aback by how angry and defensive so many white people became at the suggestion that they were connected to racism in any way. The very idea that they would be required to attend a workshop on racism outraged them. They entered the room angry and made that feeling clear to us throughout the day as they slammed their notebooks down on the table, refused to participate in the exercises, and argued against any and all points” ( DiAngelo, pg. 2). “It took me several years to see beneath these reactions At first I was intimidated by them, and they held me back and kept me careful and quiet. But over time, I began to see what lay beneath this anger and resistance to discuss race or listen to people of color. I observed consistent responses from a variety of participants. For example, many white participants who lived in white suburban neighborhoods and had no sustained relationships with people of color were absolutely certain that they held no racial prejudice or animosity. Other participants simplistically reduced racism to a matter of nice people versus mean people. Most appeared to believe that racism ended in 1865 with the end of slavery. There was both knee-jerk defensiveness about any suggestion that being white had meaning and a refusal to acknowledge any advantage to being white. Many participants claimed white people were now the oppressed group, and they deeply resented anything perceived to be a form of affirmative action” (DiAngelo, pg. 3).

 

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If you are still reading these words, please breathe and choose to remain with us.

 

The Psychological Barriers to Fruitful Dialogue

I have to agree with Dr. DiAngelo. The number one barrier to addressing the systemic inequality outcomes in American society is the failure of (so-called) White persons to acknowledge how their individual actions directly contribute to a status quo of oppression. The second barrier is the realization by said (so-called) White person, he or she is just as trapped by racial stereotypes as I, a Black man in America, am.

 

Dr. DiAngelo argues two cultural values stand as pillars to prevent the mass acknowledgement of tribal behavior among White America: individualism and objectivity. Both do not stand up to the rigorous tests of sociology as “real.” They are social constructs, upheld by conscious human thought and action.

 

She writes, “The system of racism begins with ideology, which refers to the big ideas that are reinforced throughout society. From birth, we are conditioned into accepting and not questioning these ideas. Ideology is reinforced across society, for example, in schools and textbooks, political speeches, movies, advertising, holiday celebrations, and words and phrases. These ideas are also reinforced through social penalties when someone questions an ideology and through the limited availability of alternative ideas. Ideologies are the frameworks through which we are taught to represent, interpret, understand, and make sense of social existence. Because these ideas are constantly reinforced, they are very hard to avoid believing and internalizing. Examples of ideology in the United States include individualism, the superiority of capitalism as an economic system and democracy as a political system, consumerism as a desirable lifestyle, and meritocracy (anyone can succeed if he or she works hard)” (DiAngelo, pg. 21).

 

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Seven Argumentative Defenses of the Status Quo

This ideology generates a pattern of arguments, which are designed to reinforce the status quo of racial inequality.

 

 

  • I was taught to treat everyone the same.

 

Dr. DiAngelo argues repeatedly all research points towards the idea that the human brain seeks out patterns. Our nervous system is hardwired. You and I, literally, cannot treat everyone the same. Nor, would we want too. A child at six months needs different care at 14 years old. The same holds true with grandparents and those born with disabilities. It is impossible and unwanted to treat everyone the same. This statement upholds the objectivity value of white supremacy.

  • I marched in the sixties.

 

This is a claim to moral authority. It also assumes participation in the Civil Rights movement meant a white person wasn’t racist towards Civil Rights workers.

 

  • I was the minority at my school so I was the one who experienced racism.

 

This reduces racism to an exchange between two individuals. In this perspective, racism is reduced to the act of a bully. It can happen to White people as much as Black people.

 

  • My parents were not racist, and they taught me not to be racist.

 

See the answer to number 1.

 

  • Children today are so much more open.

 

This is the fallacy of perpetual progress in America. It is also the exact same argument used by residents in all-white communities, looking forward to a less-racist society through their children.

 

  • Race has nothing to do with it.

 

This is an attempt at objectivity, which usually fails. It is an attempt to hide behind the good/bad binary used by the dominant culture to deny complicity in racism.

 

  • Focusing on race is what divides us.

 

Somehow, this is the most clever of the arguments. By speaking on the existence of race, the speaker is racist. Meaning, if we just ignore race and its affect upon our lives, it will magically go away. Unfortunately, the results of racist thought and behavior remain among us, despite the purposeful igorance.

 

Social media users can attest to the validity of this list. While not exhaustive, most “arguments” against the reality of people of color’s lived experience, fall into one of these categories.

 

Two reasons make Dr. DiAngelo’s book relevant in the here and now for Southern Oregon. First, on Saturday, October 27 and Sunday, October 28, the Racial Equity Coalition will host the second part of a training on how to have these conversations in the Rogue Valley. Second, every November, Southern Oregon University’s multicultural resources center hosts a Race Awareness Week of programming.

 

Words by Kokayi Nosakhere, who chooses to spend the majority of his time in search of magnificent minds. If you are one of them, please choose to reach out at royalstar907
@gmail.com

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