The Sales Tax Institute book club continued into the month of August to maintain our company-wide conversation about race in the United States.
Our book of choice, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, uncovers different forms of racism in the United States. The book examines a theory of white Americans’ sensitivity to (1) acknowledging racism, and (2) understanding their potential part in it. DiAngelo’s theories are followed by action items for white Americans to better understand their role in perpetuating racism.
DiAngelo clarifies the nuanced meanings behind the following words: prejudice, discrimination, racism, and white fragility.
Disclaimer: Good people can unknowingly hold up systems that uphold racism. Anti-blackness is rooted in misinformation, fables, stereotypes, projections, and lies that have been ingrained in white American lives since birth.
White Americans all benefit from the privilege of their skin color, no matter their political affiliation, class, or background. Historically, we’ve equated being racist as being morally bad. But it’s not that simple. Racism should be seen more like a spectrum than a binary where good people = not racist, bad people = racist. White Americans can speak or act offensively without having bad intentions. Racism often manifests itself as “aversive racism” which occurs when “well-intentioned people who see themselves as educated and progressive exhibit [racism],”. Aversive racism may sound like “I have a black friend, so I’m not racist” or “I judge people for their character, not skin color.” This implicit racism comes from avoidance of taking the time to truly understand the plight and struggle of other racial groups while maintaining unconscious, prejudiced views.
Let’s take a look at some of the forms of white fragility that white people may use without realizing it.
One form of white fragility is what Toni Morrison calls “race talk”. Race talk takes the shape of racially coded language used in everyday life that reinforces the positioning of Black Americans at the lowest level of the racial hierarchy. “Race talk always implies a racial ‘us’ and ‘them’”. For example, white people may use coded language to describe predominantly Black neighborhoods as “dangerous” while framing white spaces as sheltered or innocent. Race talk fuels the implicit bias of race as a signal of danger and enforces racial hierarchy.
Another shape that white fragility takes is the discourse of self-defense during discussions of race. For example, if a white person is called out for a racially insensitive or offensive statement, they may go into defense mode to protect their moral character. This becomes problematic because instead of taking constructive feedback about how their words came across and caused damage, the person may position themselves as the victim. They might defend themselves as being misunderstood and state that they are now being attacked or treated unfairly. These types of defensive reactions derail antiracist efforts that challenge us to understand the power of our words and actions and take ownership.
Often, white Americans think they have to commit overt racism like hate speech in order to be racist. White defensiveness is rooted in the false belief that racism can only be intentional. White Americans not only defend themselves, but one another. “White solidarity” refers to white people letting the racially offensive actions or statements of other white people slide because the individual “had good intentions,” or because they don’t want to rock the boat, seem too politically correct, or jeopardize their place in a group.
Finally, white people often think of themselves as exempt from race, that being white is the default race, therefore “raceless.” “They, not we, have race,” which leads some white people to believe “they” must deal with being black and “we” remain unchanged by race. Because of the notion that black people “have race,” they are given the burden of dealing with or teaching people about race. The common tendency for white people to expect black people to explain racism to them is an outcome of white ignorance. To be less racially ignorant, white people must be open to, interested in, and compassionate about the racial realities of people of color.
As a predominately white organization, reading White Fragility allowed us to understand the ways in which we may unintentionally take part in the long history of racism in the United States. Taking what we’ve learned from White Fragility, we return to our day to day lives with the awareness and knowledge to (1) acknowledge racism in ourselves and in our institutions and (2) try to make amends for our potential part in it. The insight we gained in discussing specific actions we now recognize as racism allows us to grow and continue our learning. Change starts now and starts with each of us.
If you’ve read White Fragility and have other thoughts or insights, we’d love to hear them. Email us here.
What’s next? Our commitment to educate ourselves as a company will focus on our interactions as a team. Our next book on the list is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. Join us as we delve into a discussion about how to build and maintain a cohesive and effective team. Look for our insights next month and join the discussion.
We encourage you to support your independent local bookstores. Our neighborhood bookstore is Sandmeyer’s Bookstore in historic Printer’s Row Chicago. Join us and support your own favorite local store!