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White Fragility and the Birdcage

Image courtesy of Jada Wong
Image courtesy of Jada Wong
[1546 words]


I am a racist. 


At least that’s what I thought for years. I have long carried in me prejudice against black people. And not only black people but also bias against Latinx, white people, and Asians as well.


A couple years ago, I discovered my definition of racism is outdated. Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility confirms this. I am longer considered a racist. As a person of color, I can only have prejudice because my racial group is not in power. 


DiAngelo is a professor and diversity trainer. Her book points out a phenomenon she’s experienced hundreds of times during her seminars. The phenomenon consists of encounters with white people who exhibit a strong defensiveness and refusal to talk about race and racism. She uncovers deep-seated insecurity about addressing unconscious forces of socialization that have deluded white people into thinking racism and white supremacy no longer exist. 


One of the many things that make racism difficult to talk about is language and definitions. White Fragility’s intended audience is white progressives. DiAngelo defines white progressives as white people who think they aren’t racist, are less racist, or already “get it”. I can think of many who fit that category but are not politically liberal. Despite not being the primary audience for this book, due to its popularity, I wanted to examine its claims. 


Reading it, I found myself reacting defensively to her argument, which might indicate I also suffer from white fragility.  To address this insecurity, DiAngelo calls on white people to critically examine ideologies undergirding Western culture and how they have systematically oppressed people of color. One example is the different names black and white people choose and how employers discriminate based on how black a name sounds. Another is the number of influences we’re exposed to growing up in popular media and experts who are white men. 


I don’t have a problem with the nature of these arguments. I have encountered the kind of defensiveness DiAngelo writes about. I know a considerable portion of my self-hatred comes from my socialization experiences. Many people are unaware of the forces of socialization but growing up as the child of Chinese immigrants, I didn’t need to take a class or read a book to understand this. As a teenager, I may not have been able to explain socialization but I could identify the experience. Growing up I recall ridicule over the seafood I brought for lunch, labels of “chink”, the area where I sat for lunch with my Asian friends referred to as “The Great Wall”, and fake Chinese talk. In my travels to different parts of the country and abroad, people have been skeptical of my citizenship because I don’t look like an American.


With further reflection in adulthood, I also recognize I didn’t grow up with positive role male models of Asian American masculinity. I was so excited when martial arts star Jet Li was cast opposite Aaliyah in the 2000 movie Romeo Must Die. But Li, the hero, never kisses her. I’m also aware of American culture's emphasis on direct communication and resolution to conflict, individual opinion and thought, and of course Christian Lander's mid-2000s Stuff White People Like (ex. TED talks and camping). Any dominant culture exercises power to sustain and grow its infIuence. This is where ethnocentrism, racism, and prejudice all get jumbled for me. It’s difficult to parse the -isms like racism, elitism, tribalism, favoritism, etc. Suffice to say, I understand racism is not just about individual acts and intentions.


In the second chapter of White Fragility, DiAngelo, like an Old Testament prophet, reinforces this understanding through the metaphor of birdcage to illustrate racism’s systemic nature. When one gets up close to the birdcage, the bars of the cage seem to disappear. Turning one’s head gives a view of a single wire. It’s only when one steps far back to survey the entire birdcage that the network of crisscrossed wires is revealed. Racism is the bundle of these systematically related barriers, which are extremely difficult to perceive to the untrained eye.


Racism as power dynamics: It is vitally important to agree on the terms. Wikipedia defines racism as "the belief that groups of humans possess different behavioral traits corresponding to physical appearance and can be divided based on the superiority of one race over another.” DiAngelo offers a different definition and it is the foundation of the book’s premise. DiAngelo’s goal is to alert the reader of the pervasive influence of power dynamics. “Racism differs from individual racial prejudice and racial discrimination in the historical accumulation and ongoing use of institutional power and authority to support the prejudice and systematically enforce discriminatory behaviors with far-reaching effects.” pg. 20. In the same chapter, DiAngelo argues that only white people can be racist since whites have the collective social and institutional power and privilege over people of color. 


Centrality of Power: In DiAngelo’s framework, power is central. Power is the main thing and the only thing. History must be studied through the lens of power. DiAngelo is bringing awareness of the flaws in our purportedly meritocratic society and this is an important endeavor but her definition of racism is too narrow. Focusing exclusively on power does not leave much room for other dimensions. It also encourages an immunity of the oppressed where people of color, by virtue of their skin tone, are exempted from the same moral code white people should be governed by. Because the oppressed have less power, they should be governed by fewer rules and those with more power should be governed by more. This is an understandable counter-reaction to a culture where black people have been governed by more rules and white people by less.


Here’s another example: With regard to racism, only impact matters. Intentions mean nothing. Impact is often measured by the emotional impact that spoken words have on a person of color. There’s a fascinating chapter called White Woman’s Tears. It’s about how white women use crying as an instrument of power to shift the focus to their emotional state rather than the uncomfortable topic of their racist behavior. DiAngelo states emotions are not “natural” but socially conditioned. I agree completely but this cuts both ways. DiAngelo is highlighting how white women’s tears occupy center stage and block out black pain. I understand the power dynamic but everyone, regardless of race, is responsible for examining how social conditioning undergirds their emotional life. As Jonathan Haidt has written, emotions are not truth.


Complexity of Power: I would also argue for a more complex understanding of power. Power is heavily contextual. In Silicon Valley, Asians wield considerable institutional power and authority to support prejudice. I’ve heard of a majority Asian school where a black student experienced ridicule because of her hair. If I walk into any bay area REI store wearing my Patagonia fleece vest, I can expect fantastic treatment because I look like a software engineer. I understand Asians face discrimination and yet we also benefit from it. DiAngelo even acknowledges how close Asians are to white people in whiteness.


The Power of Listening: My favorite chapter is the last one. DiAngelo models self-awareness, vulnerability, and courage in retelling an unfortunate statement she made to a black co-worker and the conversations that followed. She talks about having a transformed paradigm that comes from being in a secure place. When one is confronted with a racist behavior, a person with a transformed paradigm can experience gratitude, excitement, interest, humility, and compassion alongside guilt and discomfort. This can lead to actions like reflection, apology, listening, engaging, and believing. This is the most actionable part of the book.


In closing DiAngelo addresses the different approaches to antiracist work and claims there is no such thing as a positive white identity because "white people do not exist outside of white supremacy” (pg. 148). She calls on white people to become “less white”. DiAngelo’s greatest hope lies in becoming less of an oppressor. This is the secure place white people can aspire to with their transformed paradigm. 


I am conflicted about this book and I’m still processing it. On one hand, I receive DiAngelo as a prophet. She rebukes white America for our collective sin. She paints with evocative images. She names our country’s defensiveness around racism. Naming has power. 


And yet DiAngelo also sounds like a legalist (or a misguided pastor). Christians detest a pernicious abuse of faith that reduces a relationship with God to a set of rules governing behavior. She spends far more words instructing white people precisely what not to do than how to think critically. Don’t say “I know people of color” or “I marched in the sixties” or “I said one little innocent thing” and so forth (chapter 9). Her point is to stop justifying one’s self and learn to listen with humility. Listening is crucial because it is ultimately a surrender of power. It rings truer than anything else in the book because the only way out of a struggle for power is to relinquish it. Everything else in her text is about equalizing power or compensating against its abuse. 


Power is an important lens with which to examine our culture. Unfortunately, many of her coercive recommendations strike me as ironic since mankind does not have a good track record of wielding power well. When one’s world is missing worms, trees, grass, and sunshine, there are only oppressors and the oppressed, only captors and captives, only birds and birdcages. We need a power external to ourselves to arbitrate. 


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