Racism: Bad

I literally agree with almost everything Robin DiAngelo, professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University and author of What Does it Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy, says in this interview about the phenomenon of “white fragility”. Well-meaning people born into a privileged segment of society (for example non-blacks in America’s black/not-black dyad) enjoy advantages that they may be unaware of in a fish-don’t-feel-the-water kind of way. It is useful to remind them of this fact. In the course of doing so some white people may get their feelings hurt, and basically the way to handle this is for those white people to grow a thicker goddam skin.

All that said, I feel like there is often a kernel of disingenuity hiding in structural-racism arguments like this. It’s subtle, and I usually can’t put my finger on it. Here, though, I think I can identify the offending passage. It’s where DiAngelo proposes a more nuanced idea of racism.

For white people, their identities rest on the idea of racism as about good or bad people, about moral or immoral singular acts, and if we’re good, moral people we can’t be racist–we don’t engage in those acts. This is one of the most effective adaptations of racism over time–that we can think of racism as only something that individuals either are or are not “doing”.

This is saying two things at once: one true, and one that I don’t buy. The true thing–echoed elsewhere in this interview–is that social power often manifests subtly and implicitly, and can cause real damage even when no one bears any conscious ill will. The part I don’t buy is that people who concern themselves with these issues use the word “racism” in this technical we’re-all-racists sense, without any sense of moral opprobrium.

If they did, that would be a problem: bearing hostility towards an entire group of people on the basis of fear, meanness, and idiotic pseudoscience really does make you a bad person, worthy of particular scorn. It’s useful to have a nasty-sounding word like “racist” to refer to that. When I say, “My father-in-law is a racist” I mean that my father-in-law mutters darkly about welfare and street gangs, not that he is an admirable, generous guy who unwittingly enjoys the benefits of long-standing structural inequities. If we call clueless whites “racists” what do we call someone who hates black people?

DiAngelo states, literally, that “good, moral people” can be racist. If you thought you were clever and asked her, “So does that mean you are also a racist?” she would say “Why, yes” because I’m betting like me she knows that the first rule of privilege club is that you never deny being a member of privilege club. This may be an insightful account of the way power gets deployed, but it’s not what most people mean when they say “good”. I think there are two senses of “racist” in play here–the my-bigoted-father-in-law sense, and the racists-are-good-people sense. There is no clear distinction between them. Instead we drift between one or the other as suits us rhetorically, which leads to sloppy thinking and miscommunication. For example, someone posts a link to this interview on Facebook. Some white guy takes offense, insists that he’s not a racist because he really, truly has no problem with black people, and then everyone piles on and mansplains how no, racism is actually a more complicated phenomenon. This is fun the first ten times, but then it starts to feel like a waste of energy. At its most perverse, admitting that you are a racist is just a sophisticated way of signaling to everyone that you’re not a racist.

I don’t think DiAngelo is trying to be slippery here: it’s just a tricky subject. But she wants everyone to be able to talk clearly, and I’m on board with that, so here’s my proposal: racism is bad. Structural inequality is also bad. The two are intertwined, but the former requires conscious hostility while the latter implicates us all. We should keep these concepts distinct. It’s useful.

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