Robin DiAngelo Gets Real on Racism

ALA President’s Program challenges “white fragility”

January 28, 2019

Robin DiAngelo at the President's Program, ALA 2019 Midwinter Meeting, Seattle.
Robin DiAngelo at the President's Program, ALA 2019 Midwinter Meeting, Seattle.

American Library Association (ALA) President Loida Garcia-Febo opened her President’s Program at the Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits with a performance by the Muckleshoot Canoe Family, representing the Coast Salish culture that has existed in the Seattle area for more than 9,000 years.

Garcia-Febo then discussed the libraries she visited on her Libraries = Strong Communities tour over the past several months and invited members of her diversity advisory team to join her onstage. ALA is creating a series of videos to help libraries with equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives; the first video should be available in March.

The program’s keynote speaker was Robin DiAngelo, a longtime diversity and antiracism educator and author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Beacon Press, 2018).

White fragility, a phrase DiAngelo coined, refers to the inability of white people to tolerate racial stress. She also calls it “weaponized hurt feelings” and considers it a form of bullying and dominance that allows white people to maintain racial control. “We make it so miserable for people of color to talk to us about our inevitable and often unaware racial patterns” that they often stop bothering, she said.

She listed several of the common phrases and tactics white people use—from statements like “I was taught to treat everyone the same” and “I can’t be racist, I was in the Peace Corps” to tears and hostility—to shut down any discussions about race.

Part of the disconnect is in the mainstream definition of racism, she said, which holds that racism is an event perpetrated only by individuals consciously doing something intentionally mean to a person of color. Instead, she argued, racism—especially antiblackness—is a system that forms the bedrock of our entire society. She illustrated with the example of women’s suffrage—women got the right to vote, but they had to get it from men. Before suffrage, individual women could be mean to or biased against individual men, but they did not have the power, legal authority, or institutional control to discriminate against men. And even a century after the Nineteenth Amendment passed, sexism is still deeply embedded and most of the world’s wealth and political power is still controlled by men.

To help reframe the debate, DiAngelo asked attendees to consider a series of questions as their 13-year-old selves would answer them, such as: How racially diverse was your neighborhood when you grew up? Do you now live in a similar neighborhood? What were the characteristics of a good school or bad school? How often did you have a teacher or professor of your own race(s)? A different race? How often have you been to a wedding or funeral that was virtually all white?

And finally, what are some of the ways in which your race has shaped your life? “Most of us who are white cannot answer that question, and that is not benign or innocent,” DiAngelo said. “We bring that inability to think critically about our own race to the table with us, and it creates a hostile environment for people of color.” If we can’t imagine what it means to be white, she noted, we can’t imagine what it means not to be, which means people of color have to do all the work when it comes to discussing racism.

“Librarians play such a critical role” in antiracism work, DiAngelo told American Libraries before the program. The most common question she gets from white people after a talk is, “So, what do I do now?” She responds with a challenge: “Why don’t you know? It’s 2019. People of color have been telling us forever and the information is everywhere.” When she asks people to write down the reasons why they don’t know what to do, the first answer is usually that they weren’t educated. Librarians can help educate the public, she said. “That means librarians also have to educate themselves. You are not outside of any of the dynamics we’re talking about. But as you expand your awareness, you can promote the work that will expand others’ awareness.”

Robin DiAngelo on decentering the white voice

Robin DiAngelo on the white experience

Robin DiAngelo on anti-blackness

Robin DiAngelo on knowing what to do about racism

Loida Garcia-Febo on Libraries = Strong Communities


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