White Fragility chapter 1: The Challenge of Talking to White People About Racism

In chapter 1, DiAngelo strikes the balance between confrontation and comfort. After reading the chapter, I am even more encouraged about progressing through the book. DiAngelo discusses three key terms in the chapter: individualism, objectivism, socialization.

Socialization is at work among all peoples everywhere. Socialization organizes, identifies, and values people in groups. These social groupings include: young and old, male and female, rich and poor, abled and disabled, etc.  While the valuations might vary across time and place, valuations are made. In Western society, young is better than old, male is better than female, white is better than black. Every culture socializes. White people must recognize and acknowledge this phenomenon. White people must recognize that in America forces of socialization make them the valued people and non-whites less valued.

Within American culture, individualism and objectivism further blind white people to the results of racism. Objectivism is the belief that we can see things objectively and impartially. DiAngelo only mentions this force and never really develops it. I would hesitate to classify objectivism as particular to American culture; or as stronger in American culture than in most others.

Individualism is where DiAngelo makes hay, and there is plenty of hay to be made.  Individualism is a particular emphasis of American culture, indeed one of the most prominent features of it. Individualism holds that every individual is unique and in control of his own destiny. Individualism maintains that things like race, class, gender, and social groups, have no bearing on opportunity to succeed. DiAngelo does not make use of it, but the illustration that comes to my mind is Clarence Thomas, or Barack Obama. The white American can point to either and say, “See! If he can do it, any black man can do it. They just need to put their mind to it.”

It is a devilish cycle: our fate is intimately connected to our social groupings, but our mantra is “I can be whatever I want to be.” Because we believe the one, we ignore the other. We believe a fact, but ignore the truth.

DiAngelo’s final section should probably take the place of the introduction. I can see some curious readers being put-off by the introduction. “Here we go again, tell me why I am to blame for all the world’s problems and what an awful person I am.” This attitude, however, springs from our faulty definition of racism: the definition of racism that we have embrace to protect us against the charge of being racist. As long as we define a racist as someone who consciously harms another person because of his race, we will revolt against the charge.

While she does not give her definition of racism, enough comfort is offered to lead on the soul that seeks genuine dialogue and change. To prepare the ground for that dialogue, DiAngelo ask several penetrating questions about the discomfort white people have in talking about race: “Why does this unsettle me? What would it mean for me if this were true? How does this change my understanding of racial dynamics? How can my unease help reveal the unexamined assumptions I have been making? Is it possible that because I am white, there are some racial dynamics that I can’t see? Am I willing to consider that possibility? If I am not willing to do so, then why not?”

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