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Robin Diangelo: “To Be Racist Is Not To Be Inherently Bad”

“White Fragility,” Robin Diangelo

When James Alex Fields, Jr plowed into a crowd of people in Charlottesville, VA, on August 12, 2017, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 40 others, President Donald Trump declared that “there are some very fine people on both sides” of the conflict that precipitated Ms. Heyer’s death.  Needless to say, a whole bunch of people took issue with that statement.  Some more than others.  I mean, did he know who he was talking about?

A Who’s Who of Hate Mongers

On that fateful day that turned out to be the last day of Ms. Heyer’s life, Unite The Right, a right-wing extremist group, gathered together a bunch of pretty unsavory characters.  I’m talking gun-toting neo-Nazis, neo-confederates, neo-fascists, white nationalists and everybody’s favorite hate group – the KKK.  Notables in attendance were: National Policy Institute Chairman and white supremacist Richard Spencer, Former Imperial Wizard of the KKK David Duke, and a whole bunch of other hate-mongers whose names you probably wouldn’t recognize.  I won’t burden you with the names of these “leaders” and their organizations because it’s really not relevant.  Just know that there were a whole bunch of white folks there that had been harboring grudges – to put it mildly – against people of color, Jews, Muslims, et al, for a long time.  Many of them, for their entire life.

And….?

Well, I’ll spare you the ugly details of the conflicts and confrontations that ensued.  I’m sure you are well aware of them.  As I am sure you are well aware of the President’s seemingly absurd declaration that there were “very fine people on both sides.”  His statement was interpreted by many as being sympathetic to white supremacists.  Not just people of color, mind you, but pretty much everybody but his base was aghast at what came across as a callous attitude to some, and to still others, downright racist.  Is this guy completely out of touch with reality?

Well, Yes, and No

It’s complicated.  According to Robin Diangelo, author of White Fragility, amongst that maddening crowd there were indeed some very fine people.  That may be stretching it a bit.  Let’s say that there were some who were not inherently bad, and had the potential to be very fine people.  The sub-title of Diangelo’s book is: “Why it’s so hard for White People to talk about racism.”  Her epiphany is: White people, the whole lot of them, just cannot digest the fact that racism is not the sole property of bad people. Let that sink in.  Good people can be racist.  Let that sink in.

What We’ve Got Here…

Now that there is something to ponder.  Good people can be racist.  Kinda throws a monkey wrench into the game, doesn’t it?  According to Diangelo, racism has been woven into the very fabric of American life and the entire majority population is infected to some degree. She says that white people – not some white people, not most white people, but white people period – are convinced that all racists are bad people and therefore they are unwilling to internalize any serious debate about the subject, since to acknowledge any racist attributes would be to acknowledge that they are a bad person. That is simply not true, she says.  She contends that racism as we know it today is born out of cultural ignorance.  Contrary to current political and social rhetoric, Diangelo believes that rather than focusing on what we have in common, we should be focusing on our differences.

Is A Failure To Communicate

It actually makes perfect sense. Most conflicts between black and white people that are considered rooted in racism revolve around how one or the other “took it.” What appears to be an innocuous action or statement by a white person can be extremely offensive to a Black person. How I “take it” means everything. And how I “took it” is rooted in my experiences, both actual and vicarious.  According to Diangelo, the inability and/or unwillingness to recognize this is born of hundreds of years of racism that has invaded the very psyche of every white person in America.

All Is Not Lost

Yep. The good ones and the bad ones. Diangelo makes a compelling case that until white people can purge themselves of the conviction that all racists are bad people, no meaningful progress on race relations in America will be made. To avoid serious discussions about these “differences” is akin to avoiding the fact that your hair is on fire. I have deliberately avoided going into these differences because I want you to read the book. If you are white,
this book is a must read. That is, if you are really serious about racial reconciliation. If you are a person of color, I strongly suggest you give it a read as well. It will give you some insight into why your white friend or co-worker “reacted like that” when you “took it like that.” The good news, according to Diangelo, is that the barriers to racial reconciliation are not insurmountable, but two things will have to occur: White people must realize and accept the fact that all racists are not bad people, and we all must be willing to embrace our differences.  It can happen, but the question is: Are white people willing to put in the work?

P.S: Fields got life for killing Ms. Heyer and the jury recommended 419 years in prison for a series of other charges related to the incident.