The new Equity Book Club at Children’s Minnesota is currently reading Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. Written by a white woman, it explores why it is so difficult for white people to talk about racism. This is true – perhaps especially true – even for many whites who see racism as a problem and want to address it. While not everything in the book resonated with me, I did have a big “aha!” in reading it. I have often struggled with the word “racism” because it seems so personal. Racists are ugly, bigoted, mean-spirited, and often cruel. This didn’t seem to describe me, or many of the people I know, even when they may be engaging in racist practices. No wonder no one wants to use the word!
As DiAngelo explains, racism is different from bias, prejudice, bigotry, or discrimination. The first three describe aspects of how we think, while the last is related to how we act. These are all characteristics of an individual (though discrimination can be practiced by groups as well). But they are not racism. Racism is a system: it’s a set of beliefs, structures, practices, and power relationships that advantage one group over others. DiAngelo posits that whites have used the term to describe individual thought or action as a way to deflect attention from the systemic aspects, and absolve themselves of blame. If racists are bad people, then good people can’t be racist.
But racism is a system, the same way capitalism is a system. By participating in the American economy – working, shopping, etc. – we are, regardless of our individual beliefs, capitalists. Similarly, by participating in American society – built on a legacy of the white majority establishing advantages over people of color, and especially those of African heritage – we are, regardless of our individual beliefs, racists. It is not a value judgment, merely a recognition of the current state of our system. While in many ways less racist than the American society of 100 or even 50 years ago, our structures, practices, policies, and power relationships continue to advantage whites over others. Only a minority of capitalists are ill-meaning people of the Gordon Gecko “greed is good” variety; similarly, only a minority of racists are of the Bull Connor variety. Good people can still be racists.
Being able to see racism as a system, and not as a personal attribute, has allowed me to use the term more readily. And we will not make progress unless we are able to talk openly and candidly about race and racism.