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Authors: Robin DiAngelo

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My teacher-education students also engaged in race talk—reinforcing the boundaries between “us” and “them” while positioning us as superior. They engaged in race talk when they expressed fear about being placed in “dangerous” neighborhoods while describing their hometowns as “sheltered.” These depictions are relentlessly strengthened by news stories that position violent crime committed in primarily white suburban communities as shocking, yet claiming that one has grown up in a sheltered environment raises a question that begs to be answered: “Sheltered from what and in contrast to whom?” If we grow up in environments with few if any people of color, are we not in fact less sheltered from racist conditioning because we have to rely on narrow and repetitive media representations, jokes, omissions, and warnings for our understanding of people of color?

Conversely, positioning white spaces as sheltered and those who are raised in them as racially innocent taps into classic narratives of people of color as
innocent. Racist images and resultant white fears can be found at all levels of society, and myriad studies demonstrate that whites believe that people of color (and blacks in particular) are dangerous.

Whites rarely consider how sheltered and safe their spaces may be from the perspective of people of color (e.g., Trayvon Martin's experience
in a gated white community). Because it reverses the actual direction of racial danger, this narrative may be one of the most pernicious.

When you consider the moral judgment we make about people we deem as racist in our society, the need to deny our own racism—even to ourselves—makes sense. We believe we are superior at a deeply internalized level and act on this belief in the practice of our lives, but we must deny this belief to fit into society and maintain our self-identity as good, moral people. Unfortunately, aversive racism only protects racism, because we can't challenge our racial filters if we can't consider the possibility that we have them. Of course, some whites explicitly avow racism. We might consider these whites actually more aware of, and honest about, their biases than those of us who consider ourselves open-minded yet who have rarely thought critically about the biases we inevitably hold or how we may be expressing them.


The body of research about children and race demonstrates that white children develop a sense of white superiority as early as preschool.
This early start shouldn't be surprising, as society sends constant messages that to be white is better than to be a person of color.

Despite the claims of many white young adults that racism is in the past and that they were taught to see everyone as equal, research shows otherwise. For example, polls sponsored by MTV in 2014 show that millennials profess more tolerance and a deeper commitment to equality and fairness than previous generations did.
At the same time, millennials are committed to an ideal of color blindness that leaves them uncomfortable with, and confused about, race and opposed to measures to reduce racial inequality. Perhaps most significantly, 41 percent of white millennials believe that government pays too much attention to minorities, and 48 percent believe that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against people of color. Many in this generation claim that the election of Barack Obama as president
shows that we are postracial. These polls were conducted before the presidency of Donald Trump, but as his election has made clear, we are far from being postracial.

Another significant study that was based on the practices of millennials rather than their claims was conducted by sociologists Leslie Picca and Joe Feagin.
They asked 626 white college students at twenty-eight colleges across the United States to keep journals and record every instance of racial issues, racial images, and racial understanding that they observed or were part of for six to eight weeks. The students recorded more than seventy-five hundred accounts of blatantly racist comments and actions by the white people in their lives (friends, families, acquaintances, strangers). These accounts come from the generation most likely to claim they were taught to see everyone as equal—those who grew up in the age of color-blind ideology after the civil rights movement. Picca and Feagin's study provides empirical evidence that racism continues to be explicitly expressed by whites, even those who are young and profess to be progressive. Consider these examples from their study:

“As I sit in a room with a bunch of frat guys, Phil walks in chanting ‘rotchie, rotchie, rotchie!!' I ask . . . what that term means and I am answered with a giggle and a quick ‘it's slang for nigger, like niggerotchie.' . . . ” [Eileen]

“Robby was there telling a joke. . . . He glanced to see if anyone was around. He starts, ‘A black man, a Latin man, and a white guy find a magical lamp on the beach [racist joke ensues].' I thought it was pretty funny and I wasn't the only one. But, I'm glad he waited till no one was around to tell it. If you didn't know Robby you might misunderstand.” [Ashley]

Several common dynamics are illustrated in the thousands of examples Picca and Feagin collected. The first is how much explicit racism young people are exposed to and participate in. The second is the idea that if someone is a good person, he or she cannot be racist, as
demonstrated in the student's note that if someone overheard, the person might “misunderstand” Robby. This sort of racism makes for a very challenging dynamic in which whites are operating under the false assumption that we can't simultaneously be good people and participate in racism, at the same time that we are dishonest about what we really think and do regarding people of color.

The study also reveals a consistent pattern in how these comments and actions were expressed. The majority of incidents occurred in what the researchers describe as the
—in all-white company. Further, they found that whites involved in these incidents most often played predictable roles. Typically, there was a protagonist who initiated the racist act, a cheerleader who encouraged it through laughter or agreement, the spectators who stood in silence, and (very rarely) a dissenter who objected. Virtually all dissenters were subjected to a form of peer pressure in which they were told that it was only a joke and that they should lighten up.

The researchers document that in front-stage settings (those in which people of color were present), the white students displayed a range of racially conscious behaviors, including the following:

• Acting overly nice

• Avoiding contact (e.g., crossing a street or not going to a particular bar or club)

• Mimicking “black mannerisms and speech”

• Being careful not to use racial terms or labels

• Using code words to talk negatively about people of color

• Occasional violence directed at people of color

In backstage settings, where people of color were not present, white students often used humor to reinforce racial stereotypes about people of color, particularly blacks. Picca and Feagin argue that the purpose of these backstage performances is to create white solidarity and to reinforce the ideology of white and male supremacy. This behavior keeps racism circulating, albeit in less formal but perhaps more powerful
ways than in the past. Today we have a cultural norm that insists we hide our racism from people of color and deny it among ourselves, but not that we actually challenge it. In fact, we are socially penalized for challenging racism.

I am often asked if I think the younger generation is less racist. No, I don't. In some ways, racism's adaptations over time are more sinister than concrete rules such as Jim Crow. The adaptations produce the same outcome (people of color are blocked from moving forward) but have been put in place by a dominant white society that won't or can't admit to its beliefs. This intransigence results in another pillar of white fragility: the refusal to know.


White People: I don't want you to understand me
better; I want you to understand yourselves. Your
survival has never depended on your knowledge of
white culture. In fact, it's required your ignorance.

—Ijeoma Oluo

To understand how white people become so difficult in conversations about race, we need to understand the underlying foundation of white fragility: how being white shapes our perspectives, experiences, and responses. Every aspect of being white discussed in this chapter is shared by virtually all white people in the Western context generally and the US context specifically. At the same time, no person of color in this context can make these same claims.


I was born into a culture in which I belonged, racially. Indeed, the forces of racism were shaping me even before I took my first breath. If I were born in a hospital, regardless of the decade in which I was born, any hospital would be open to me because my parents were white. If my parents attended a childbirth preparation class, the instructor was most likely white, the videos they watched in class most likely depicted white
people, and their fellow classmates with whom they built connections and community were also most likely white. When my parents read their birthing manuals and other written materials, the pictures most likely depicted primarily white mothers and fathers, doctors and nurses. If they took a parenting class, the theories and models of child development were based on white racial identity. The doctors and nurses attending my birth were in all likelihood white. Although my parents may have been anxious about the birth process, they did not have to worry about how they would be treated by the hospital staff because of their race. The years of research demonstrating racial discrimination in health care assure me that my parents were more likely to have been treated well by hospital personnel and to receive a higher caliber of care than would people of color.

Conversely, the people who cleaned my mother's hospital room, did the laundry, cooked and cleaned in the cafeteria, and maintained the facilities were most likely people of color. The very context in which I entered the world was organized hierarchically by race. Based on this hierarchy, we could predict whether I would survive my birth based on my race.

As I move through my daily life, my race is unremarkable. I belong when I turn on the TV, read best-selling novels, and watch blockbuster movies. I belong when I walk past the magazine racks at the grocery store or drive past billboards. I belong when I see the overwhelming number of white people on lists of the “Most Beautiful.” I may feel inadequate in light of my age or weight, but I will belong racially. For example, in 2017, singer Rhianna introduced a makeup line for women of all skin colors. Gratitude from women of color poured in. Many of their tweets included the exclamation “Finally!”
These are tweets I have never needed to send.

I belong when I look at my teachers, counselors, and classmates. I belong when I learn about the history of my country throughout the year and when I am shown its heroes and heroines—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, Amelia Earhart, Susan B. Anthony, John Glenn, Sally Ride, and Louisa May
I belong when I look through my textbooks and at the pictures on my classroom walls. I belong when I speak to my children's teachers, when I talk to their camp counselors, when I consult with their doctors and dentists. No matter how I might explain why all these representations are overwhelmingly white, they still shape my identity and worldview.

In virtually every situation or context deemed normal, neutral or prestigious in society, I belong racially. This belonging is a deep and ever-present feeling that has always been with me. Belonging has settled deep into my consciousness; it shapes my daily thoughts and concerns, what I reach for in life, and what I expect to find. The experience of belonging is so natural that I do not have to think about it. The rare moments in which I don't belong racially come as a surprise—a surprise that I can either enjoy for its novelty or easily avoid if I find it unsettling.

For example, I was invited to the retirement party of a white friend. The party was a pot-luck picnic held in a public park. As I walked down the slope toward the picnic shelters, I noticed two parties going on side by side. One gathering was primarily composed of white people, and the other appeared to be all black people. I experienced a sense of disequilibrium as I approached and had to choose which party was my friend's. I felt a mild sense of anxiety as I considered that I might have to enter the all-black group, then mild relief as I realized that my friend was in the other group. This relief was amplified as I thought that I might have mistakenly walked over to the black party! All these thoughts and feelings happened in just a few seconds, but they were a rare moment of racial self-awareness. The mere possibility that I might have to experience not belonging racially was enough to raise racial discomfort.

It is rare for me to experience a sense of not belonging racially, and these are usually very temporary, easily avoidable situations. Indeed, throughout my life, I have been warned that I should avoid situations in which I might be a racial minority. These situations are often presented as scary, dangerous, or “sketchy.” Yet if the environment or situation is viewed as good, nice, or valuable, I can be confident that as a white person, I will be seen as racially belonging there.


Because I haven't been socialized to see myself or to be seen by other whites in racial terms, I don't carry the psychic weight of race; I don't have to worry about how others feel about my race. Nor do I worry that my race will be held against me. While I may feel unease in an upper-class environment, I will take for granted that I belong racially in these settings. I certainly will not be the only white person there, unless the event is specifically organized by, or celebrating, people of color. George Zimmerman would not have stopped me as I walked through a gated suburban neighborhood.

Patrick Rosal writes poignantly about the pain of being mistaken for the help at a black-tie event celebrating National Book Award winners.
I have witnessed this assumption of servitude many times as I checked into hotels with colleagues of color. I have made this assumption myself when I have been unable to hide my surprise that the black man is the school principal or when I ask a Latinx woman kneeling in her garden if this is her home.

As I consider career choices I will have countless role models across a vast array of fields. When I apply for a job, virtually anyone in a position to hire me will share my race. And although I may encounter a token person of color during the hiring process, if I am not specifically applying to an organization founded by people of color, the majority of those I interact with will share my race. Once hired, I won't have to deal with my coworkers' resentment that I only got the job because I am white; I am assumed to be the most qualified.
If there are people of color in the organization who resent my hire, I can easily dismiss them and rest assured that their feelings won't carry much weight. If resentment from employees of color does manage to come to my attention, I can find copious validation and other support from my white coworkers, who will reassure me that our colleagues of color are the ones who are biased. With race as a nonissue, I can focus on my work and productivity and be seen as a team player. This is yet another example of the concept of whiteness as property discussed earlier: whiteness has psychological advantages that translate into material returns.

As I move through my day, racism just isn't my problem. While I am aware that race has been used unfairly against people of color, I haven't been taught to see this problem as any responsibility of mine; as long as I personally haven't done anything I am aware of, racism is a nonissue. This freedom from responsibility gives me a level of racial relaxation and emotional and intellectual space that people of color are not afforded as they move through their day. They don't lack these benefits just because they are members of a numerical minority and I am not (white men are a numerical minority). People of color lack these benefits because they are racialized within a culture of white supremacy—a culture in which they are seen as inferior, if they are seen at all.

Raised in a culture of white supremacy, I exude a deeply internalized assumption of racial superiority. Having to navigate white people's internalized assumption of racial superiority is a great psychic drain for people of color, but I have no need to concern myself with that.


I am free to move in virtually any space seen as normal, neutral, or valuable. While I might worry about my class status in some settings, for example, when attending a “high-society” event such as a museum opening or an art auction, I will not have to worry about my race. In fact, my race will work in my favor in these settings, granting me the initial benefit of the doubt that I belong there.
I also will certainly not be the only white person there, unless the event is specifically organized by, or celebrating, people of color.

In the early years of my career as a workplace diversity trainer, I co-led the workshops with Deborah, an African American woman. After a particularly grueling travel schedule, I proposed that we get away for a relaxing weekend and suggested Lake Coeur d'Alene in Idaho. Deborah laughed at the suggestion and let me know that visiting northern Idaho did not sound like a relaxing weekend for her. Besides being a very small town, Lake Coeur d'Alene is near Hayden Lake, where the Aryan Nation was building a compound.
Although not all people
who live in the area are avowed white nationalists, the knowledge that some people might be part of this openly racist group was terrifying for Deborah. Even if there were no organized white nationalist encampments in the area, Deborah did not want to be isolated in a virtually all-white environment and have to interact with white people who may have never met a black person before. Yet as a white person, I did not have to consider any of this; all places I perceive as beautiful are open to me racially, and my expectation is that I will have a pleasant and relaxing experience there.


Another way that my life has been shaped by being white is that my race is held up as the norm for humanity. Whites are “just people”—our race is rarely if ever named. Think about how often white people mention the race of a person if they are not white: my black friend, the Asian woman. I enjoy young adult literature but am taken aback by how consistently the race of characters of color is named and how only those characters' races are named.

To use an example from school, consider the writers we are all expected to read; the list usually includes Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Mark Twain, Jane Austen, and William Shakespeare. These writers are seen as representing the universal human experience, and we read them precisely because they are presumed to be able to speak to us all. Now consider the writers we turn to during events promoting diversity—events such as Multicultural Authors Week and Black History Month. These writers usually include Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Amy Tan, and Sandra Cisneros. We go to these writers for the black or Asian perspective; Toni Morrison is always seen as a black writer, not just a writer. But when we are not looking for the black or Asian perspective, we return to white writers, reinforcing the idea of whites as just human, and people of color as particular kinds (racialized) of humans. This also allows white
(male) writers to be seen as not having an agenda or any particular perspective, while racialized (and gendered) writers do.

Virtually any representation of
is based on white people's norms and images—“flesh-colored” makeup, standard emoji, depictions of Adam and Eve, Jesus and Mary, educational models of the human body with white skin and blue eyes.
Take, for example, a photograph that was circulated widely and featured in the
Daily Mail.
The photo of a blond, blue-eyed white woman is captioned “What Would a Scientifically Perfect Face Look Like?” Below the image is the question “Is this the perfect face?”
This one example illustrates several concepts discussed thus far: the white racial frame, whiteness as the human norm, whiteness as ideal beauty, and whiteness as naturally superior. Not only is the idea behind the claim racially problematic in its own right, but it rests on and reinforces the backdrop of an earlier era of scientific racism.

Consider models for child development and its stages, and how our culture talks about children as a collective group. Theorists present human development as if it were universal. Occasionally, we may distinguish between boys and girls, but even then, the categories are presumed to include all boys or all girls. Now consider all the dynamics I have discussed thus far. Is an Asian or an Indigenous child's development the same as a white child's within the context of white supremacy?


White solidarity is the unspoken agreement among whites to protect white advantage and not cause another white person to feel racial discomfort by confronting them when they say or do something racially problematic. Educational researcher Christine Sleeter describes this solidarity as white “racial bonding.” She observes that when whites interact, they affirm “a common stance on race-related issues, legitimating particular interpretations of groups of color, and drawing conspiratorial we-they boundaries.”
White solidarity requires both silence about
anything that exposes the advantages of the white position and tacit agreement to remain racially united in the protection of white supremacy. To break white solidarity is to break rank.

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