I have been wild about DiAngelo’s book since I read it last year because the associate professor of education at the University of Washington at Seattle is a white woman writing unflinchingly to white people about race. DiAngelo forces white people to see and understand how white supremacy permeates their lives and to recognize how they perpetuate it. More importantly, she shows them what they can do to change themselves and dismantle this pernicious system.
DiAngelo also demolishes the ready-made excuses and defenses white people use to absolve themselves of any responsibility when confronted with racism. “It’s like a script. It’s so predictable, what white people are going to say and do when the topic of race comes up,” DiAngelo told me during an interview for my podcast, “Cape Up.” She argues that white Americans view racism as an individual moral failing instead of the waste product of a system that prioritizes white people and whose levers are consciously (see: Amy Cooper in Central Park) and unconsciously manipulated by them.
“I don’t know that you could have come up with a more effective way to protect the system of racism than reduce it to this very simple formula. A racist is an individual who consciously doesn’t like people based on race. Apparently, it has to be conscious or it doesn’t count,” explained DiAngelo, who noted that the formula also requires that the hurt caused be intentional or it doesn’t count. “That definition not only exempts virtually all white people from the system we’re in, but I think it’s the root of virtually all white defensiveness. Because if that’s what I think it means to be racist and you suggest I’ve just said or done something racist ... I’m going to hear you saying that I am a bad person. That’s going to land as a question of my very moral character.
“And now, I’m going to need to defend my moral character. So, how will I defend it? Insist that I am not racist, I could not be racist,” DiAngelo said. “I’m going to give you ridiculous evidence. ‘I had a black roommate in college.’ ‘I speak several languages.’ ‘My goodness, I’ve been to Costa Rica.’” Yeah, I burst out laughing at that last one, too.
DiAngelo told me that she doesn’t say everyone is racist. She says everyone is biased, which is true. But not all biases are equal. “When you back my group’s bias with that kind of power, it’s just so profoundly different in its impact,” said DiAngelo, who pointed out that anti-blackness is a major factor. “The closer you are to blackness, the more profound will be the oppression. This is a system, and your smiling doesn’t interrupt it. Your niceness doesn’t interrupt it. You going to lunch on occasion with a co-worker of color doesn’t interrupt this system. The only thing that interrupts it is strategic, intentional action.”
DiAngelo practices what she preaches. At the end of the interview, she did something extraordinary. She apologized — to me.
“I’m going to look at you, Jonathan, in the eyes and say, on behalf of my people, I apologize,” DiAngelo said. Tears slowly welled in my eyes as she said those words. In that moment, it was like I was in one of those movie scenes where one’s life flashes before their eyes, except for me, it was a montage of sleights and cruelty that litter my memory.
The time I was chased home by a carload of white teenagers when I was in middle school. The time when I was in high school, pumping gas on the Jersey shore during the summer, and a bunch of white men jumped out of their vehicle screaming n----- this and n----- that. Then there are the repetitive interactions with white people that threaten to build to a psychic death by myriad cuts.
I’ve seen white women clutch their purses and watched white men tap their back pockets to see if their wallets are still there. I’ve sat alone on a packed rush-hour commuter train back to the suburbs. I’ve had people assume I work at the store/restaurant/hotel I was in. I’ve had my space invaded because I’m not really seen by white people. I’ve been followed in stores because I’m seen as a thief or a threat. I’ve been mistaken for someone else black who looks nothing like me. I’ve had my experiences discounted or dismissed. I’ve watched others rise to positions I know I could do better. I fear leaving home for any duration of time without my driver’s license, health insurance card and a Washington Post business card with my husband’s phone number on it just in case I have a run-in with law enforcement or a stranger who calls the police. And I feel unsafe in my own country because the president of the United States delights in pouring gasoline on America’s four-century-old fire.
“I want you to know that as long as I’m alive, I will work to wake my people up, to continue my own process and to see that we can recover,” DiAngelo continued. “And at least, when I am at the end of my life, I can say I did what I could.” With that, I was overcome, crying my way through my thank-you that ended the interview. Why? Because with 70 words delivered with utmost sincerity, a woman I’d never met before acknowledged my hurt and my pain that now spans 52 years. That DiAngelo promised to keep working to make things right told me I have a true ally. That she wrote a book to help bring other white Americans along gives me hope that we actually could make things right.
Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj. Subscribe to Cape Up, Jonathan Capehart’s weekly podcast
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