The Function of Fragility- Challenging Our Own Role in Maintaining Racial Hierarchies

Jennifer Brown | |


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Academic, anti-racist educator, and New York Times bestselling author, Robin DiAngelo, joins the program to discuss her own diversity story of growing up in poverty and at the same time recognizing her white privilege. Robin reveals the ways in which white fragility shuts down any meaningful or productive conversations about race and functions to maintain the status quo. She also explores the roots of white defensiveness, a key question that can lead to transformation, and what companies can do to create meaningful change.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • Robin’s diversity story, including growing up in poverty (5:00)
  • The ways in which we protect the racial hierarchy (10:30)
  • The root of virtually all white defensiveness (16:30)
  • What conversations about quotas reveal about our assumptions about race and gender (22:00)
  • A liberating and transformative question to ask yourself (36:00)
  • How white executives can develop more authentic relationships with diverse employees (38:00)
  • The fears that keep white people from speaking out against racist systems (42:00)
  • The ultimate function of white fragility (43:30)
  • The assumptions that we make about people of color in the workplace (47:00)
  • What corporations can do to create positive change (49:00)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

JENNIFER BROWN: Robin DiAngelo, welcome to The Will to Change.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Well, thank you, Jennifer.

JENNIFER BROWN: I couldn’t wait to buy your book, it is called White Fragility, just the title alone caught my eye, and many others’ eyes, and is now on the bestseller list since it came out in June.

I got the pleasure of meeting you in person in Seattle recently, and I’m trying not to have too much heroine worship.

I’ve learned a lot about you through our conversations, and certainly reading the book. I can feel you, your history, your background, why you’re so passionate about this. I couldn’t believe more that your message is really timely. I know so many of us are hungry for more guidance, for more understanding about what we’re missing in the equation and why we aren’t making more progress. That haunts me, as someone who specializes in diversity and inclusion. I feel a lot of fatigue. Based on my ethnicity, I feel a lot less fatigue than a lot of other people. And yet, I’m tired.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: I don’t know where you get all your energy and that verve for this conversation. I know we are both deeply passionate warriors, tireless, and we’re not afraid of confrontation.

When you write a book called White Fragility, you probably have a lot of stories for us. I want to get to that as well. I want to know about reactions and how white people have taken even the title and this concept where we’re in a culture where we think “white” is a bad word. We don’t even say it’s okay to say it. I know you have some real examples about that, and so do I.

Anyway, I want to start on a personal note because our podcast always begins with sharing our diversity stories. Sometimes these are expected, sometimes visible, sometimes not. Sometimes we can hide them; sometimes they’re obviously. Let me hand it over to you. Tell us what you consider to be your diversity story.

ROBIN DIANGELO: I want to position myself racially, because that’s the work that I’m focused in. I am white. We’re both two white women.

The two most powerful aspect of my diversity story at an early age were being female and growing up in poverty. I was raised poor. When I say that, I mean really explicitly and clearly. Sometimes you’ll hear people say, “Oh, we were poor, but we didn’t know it because we had so much love.” And I always think, “What? How could you not know it?” You know hunger, you can feel hunger, and homelessness is humiliating. We were homeless at times; we lived in our car at times. I was dropped off with strangers when my mother couldn’t care for us anymore.

I had a very acute sense at a very early age of inferiority, of being less than. I can remember sitting in my classes staring at those middle-class white girls who had those clean dresses, and they had more than one, they weren’t torn. They went to camp and they took lessons and had slumber parties – none of those things did I do. I ached to be like them.

But there are two moments that really, really stand out for me and that are connected to the work I do today. One was having my hand held up in front of the class as an example of poor hygiene. The teacher literally held my hand up, showed the class, and told me to go home and tell my mother to wash me.

The other moment happened when we had gone to visit a friend of my mom, I don’t know who this woman was. She had kids. And while the adults visited, the kids played.

I was the last one out the door when we were leaving. I overheard one of the children ask her mother, “What’s wrong with them?” She literally asked her, “What’s wrong with them?” Her mother put her finger to her mouth and said, “Shh, they’re poor.”

I still have chills thinking about that moment when I realized, “There’s something about us that’s shameful. Everyone can see it, but no one should name it.”

Part of our poverty, of course, was that my mother was sick. She was a single mom. This was the late ’50s, early ’60s, she had leukemia. She died at 37. She literally couldn’t take care of us. We were not fed, clothed, or housed.

That is also connected to the work I do today because I also always knew I was white. I knew I was white. I don’t think I have less racial superiority because I grew up in poverty. And one of the ways that was brought home for me was that whenever I would see something left out on the street, some food uneaten, a toy, I would reach for it. I would be admonished by my grandmother or my mother to not touch that. “You do not know who touched it. Could have been a colored person.” That was the language at the time. It was really clear to me that had a colored person touched those things, they would become dirty.

Looking back, I realized, “No, we were dirty.” But in those moments, I wasn’t poor anymore, I was white. In those moments, I was realigned with those little girls in my class my poverty separated me from. We projected, if you will, our shame onto people of color. That’s how I think about that intersection between class and race for me. I don’t have less racism because I grew up poor. I don’t have more, either. I learned my place in the racial hierarchy from a different class position than, perhaps, you learns yours, but we both learned our places.

JENNIFER BROWN: We certainly did.

ROBIN DIANGELO: The way that manifests today, I do have a PhD. I’m the only one in my family to go to college. I didn’t go until I was in my 30s, all of that. Now I’m in these faculty meetings. I study race, and can clearly see that racism is going on in the way we’re talking about, for example, a hire. I think you’ll relate to this in your work with organizations.

We’re down to the last two candidates. One is white, one is not, and suddenly the conversation goes into “fit.” Who will be the best fit? Who can hit the ground running. And you know who’s going to get that job right then.

I’m noticing this and I want to speak up, but I feel inferior in academia. I’m not sitting there feeling superior, I’m sitting there feeling inferior. I’m just sure if I speak up and challenge the racism, they’re going to recite some research I haven’t read.

Yet, when I step out of myself and ask, “Well, how is your silence functioning right now, regardless of what’s driving it?” You are colluding with racism. You’re going to get ahead by not bringing up racism. You’re going to be seen as a team player.

When I realized that, it was not acceptable to me. It also allowed me to challenge the lie of my inferiority. I am not less intelligent because I grew up poor. No way.

JENNIFER BROWN: Hear! Hear!

ROBIN DIANGELO: I used to think the smart kids went to college. Now I’m like, “Oh, sweet Lord, no.” It’s about access and expectation.

In centering racing in my work, even though I experienced sexism and classism, centering race actually allows me to address all of it. In those moments, when I push through the lie of my inferiority and use my privileged position as a white position to break with white solidarity, it’s just a powerful way to address all of it. That’s how I think about it.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love it. As a woman, it really appeals to me when you talk about overcoming that inferiority. It’s the imposter complex. Women have it, anybody who’s underrepresented who has absorbed all these messages, we have to physically overcome that almost intellectually, and then it becomes emotional, becomes embodies, and ultimately at some point we believe it wholeheartedly. We belong there. But it’s so much easier to feel you belong there, of course, when you look like everyone.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Yes. Yes. Oh, boy.

JENNIFER BROWN: So, we don’t have to deal with that. We think about our privilege a lot. I love that you just said, “intersectionality,” because when we talk about that, we include class, socioeconomic background, an education. Sometimes I hear people covering their high degrees and they say, “I don’t want to talk about being a PhD in the workplace, because I don’t want to make people feel excluded or less than.”

There are many ways we’re adjusting to each other all the time. We try to keep each other comfortable, which is not going to facilitate our growth. This whole concept of white solidarity and the fact that we don’t talk about race and that “white” is a dirty word. You even said you were told to remove it from some slides.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: I’ve had to do the same thing. Sometimes in my workshops, I’ll be talking about the leadership of a company and I’ll say, “Well, it’s a lot of white men, likely heterosexual,” and I’ll get complains from men saying, “I didn’t appreciate you saying ‘white men’ in the session.”

I didn’t say it in a derogatory way; it was factual. At the top levels, our workplaces are dominated by that demographic.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: But it’s very interesting that we protect the racial hierarchy by doing this. I want to know more about how you define that.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Well, there’s a question that’s never failed me in my efforts to uncover how, individually – in my case, because I study race – each white person probably feels free of racism. Individually, each white person feels like, “It’s not me.” And, yet, collectively, we have unending, enduring racial inequality.

The question that doesn’t fail me is not, “Is this true or is this false?” but, “How does it function?” So, how does it function not to name whiteness? Who does it serve not to name that?

What naming it does is challenge this very precious ideology of individualism. Individualism is really, really cherished for those of us who are granted it, but not everybody is.

For example, you have Robert Altman, a filmmaker, and then Spike Lee, a black filmmaker. You have a senator, and then you have Elizabeth Warren, a woman senator. We always label the “other,” and we don’t mark the norm.

Individualism is not actually granted to everybody, it’s granted to people who are in positions of power. We don’t like being generalized about. That is probably the very first thing that will trigger what I call “white fragility” – generalizing about the dominant group. The dominant group wants to be seen as unique and special.

At some level, yes, we’re all unique and special and we’re members of social groups that have profound consequences for our lives. Who doesn’t know that to be raised and assigned the gender “boy” versus “girl” is going to profoundly shape the trajectory of your life? We all know that. It’s the same to be assigned “white” or “black,” for example. We have to be willing to grapple with the collective experience of being a member of this group in which we can literally predict whether my mother and I were going to survive my birth based on my race. We can predict how long I’m going to live based on my race. We have to be willing to grapple with that collective experience. Refusing to name being white only serves to hold racial inequality in place.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. Yet, in the workplace, we focus so much on the diverse identities – even the word “diverse” is so fraught. I know many people in my space are starting to say, “I don’t want to use the word anymore; it has a lot of baggage.” But who is diverse? What does that even mean?

But at the same time, I think we do need to have a different conversation about whiteness than we have about the experience of people of color. In my work, we’ve focused on the underrepresented communities in the workplace, shoring us up, giving us a voice, giving us confidence, naming the struggles that are real and quantified in research where we have different standards applied to us based on who we are. But we’re doing none of the whiteness work.

Interestingly, even men’s groups that I wish were forming in response to the heightened gender conversations aren’t really happening either. So, there is this assumption that the work is going to be done by somebody else, they’re going to be the ones sitting on the diversity committee. I’m trying to push into the fact that all of us have work to do, but yet so many of us think we don’t. As you say, we think we’re “color blind” or “color celebrate.”

ROBIN DIANGELO: Celebrate.

JENNIFER BROWN: Unpack those. I have to say, that’s the thing I hear. It’s well meaning. I’m a progressive with good intentions. I think that’s such an excuse to do nothing, to keep yourself and others comfortable. We’ve got to use our privilege to shore up, support, challenge, and take a risk where it may be more risky for somebody else to do the same thing. These are the tools that we have. In workplaces, we still leave this largely to certain people.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Right. And when we think about diversity and we’re going to have any kind of professional development or a workshop, we’re going to learn about them. We’re going to learn their struggles, triumphs, heroes, heroines, and what we need to do when we’re working with them.

But left consistently off the table is struggles in relation to whom? Who’s giving this diversity so much trouble? Where is the pain coming from?

JENNIFER BROWN: Guilty as changed.

ROBIN DIANGELO: It’s coming from the dominant group who’s oblivious to what they’ve internalized, who tend to be defensive about any suggestion.

Honestly, my work is: Knock it off; stop the nonsense. Take a look at yourself. There is a reason that in the example of racial diversity, there’s a reason we have a hard time retaining even if we recruit. If you haven’t addressed the consciousness of those already at the table, who have been at the table all along, if you’ve done nothing to change their consciousness, you can add all the diversity you want into the water, the water will be toxic. And it will be toxic in ways that the people sitting at the table refuse to grapple with. They’ll feel defensive.

So, let me put it like this, which will move us into progressives. I think the worst fear of a well-intended progressive is they’ll accidental say something racist. Right? Who can’t relate to that? And, yet, don’t you dare tell me I just said something racist.

JENNIFER BROWN: Your story about the toilet paper in the bathroom, I always think of that.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Do you want me to tell that story?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah!

ROBIN DIANGELO: If I walked into the bathroom and I came out and my dress was stuck in my pantyhose and my ass was showing and I didn’t know it and you ran up and said, “Oh, my God, your ass is showing,” I wouldn’t say, “How dare you? No, it is not, and you’d better proceed as if it isn’t.” No, I’d say, “Oh, my God, thank you.” And I would pull my dress out of my pantyhose.

It’s this incredible catch 22, where we’re so afraid of making a mistake, but we can’t tolerate it. It’s a refusal to hear about and learn from the mistakes that we’re making.

As long as we define a racism as an individual – always an individual, not a system – who consciously doesn’t like people based on race – must be conscious – and intentionally seeks to hurt them. If that is our definition of a racist, and that is the mainstream definition, individual conscious intent, it exempts virtually all white people. And I think it’s the root of virtually all white defensiveness. If you suggest that I’ve just made a problematic racial assumption, what I’m going to hear is you just said I was a bad person who meant to hurt you. Now, I’m going to have to defend my character – and hilarity ensues.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, boy, I’ll say! (Laughter.)

ROBIN DIANGELO: And then we have white fragility. The reason I say white progressive are the most challenging – first, let me define a white progressive.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Any white person who sees themselves as not racist. Any white person who thinks they’re open-minded, who is listening right now thinking, “It’s not me.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Of course. “I live in New York.”

ROBIN DIANGELO: And thinking of all the people who really should be listening to this, but not you. All the ways you’re different, all the ways you’re “woke.” We are the most challenging for a few reasons. One, we’re the most likely to be in the lives of people of color. To the degree that we think we’re “woke,” we see our learning as finished. We’re incredibly arrogant. We lack humility and tend to be, well, ignorant. You cannot grow up in this culture and not develop an opinion on racism. You just can’t. You can’t live here for any significant time. Everybody has an opinion on racism. That doesn’t make it informed.

You can get through graduate school in this country without ever discussing racism. You can be seen as qualified to lead an organization, to lead a board, to be a manager, to be a supervisor, with no ability whatsoever to engage with any nuance on the topic of racism.

White progressives can be so arrogant about the limits of their understanding, so we just don’t think there’s anything more for us to engage with. And when the topic does come up, we’re going to tend to make sure you know that I’m not racist. We’re going to put all our energy into what we see as evidence of our lack of racism, and we’re not going to put our energy where it needs to go, which is ongoing, lifelong self-awareness, relationship building, mistake making, risk taking, breaking with white solidarity, and actual strategic, intentional, anti-racist action.

Most white progressives really think friendliness is all it takes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Or proximity.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Yes, proximity. I’m near people of color, I smile at them, I’m free of racism.

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m married to one.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Yeah. One of the questions I’ll often ask people of color is: Do you have white people in your life who you love dearly and who on occasion reveal their racist world view? Trust me, they all say, “Yes.” Yes, you can be married to a person of color and still run racism.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.

ROBIN DIANGELO: I’m married to a man and he loves me, but on the day he fell in love with me, trust me, his sexism didn’t vanish. We struggle with the gender socialization and the differences.

White people are really funny about race. It’s like the moment there’s fond regard, we just think race becomes inoperative. We don’t say that about gender. We know gender’s not inoperative. I would never say to you, “I know some men, so I have a life free of gender conditioning.” No.

JENNIFER BROWN: What’s our hang-up? How can we have a real reckoning as a country? Are we ready for that? (Laughter.)

ROBIN DIANGELO: Well, have you ever had a man say to you, “I never really thought about the fact that we live in a male-dominated patriarchy”? Am I allowed to swear on this show?

JENNIFER BROWN: Sure.

ROBIN DIANGELO: And then you’re just thinking, “Are you shitting me? Are you shitting me? You never noticed?” And then the next thing you’re thinking, “That’s terrifying.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Why don’t we notice? We don’t have to because it serves us not to notice.

JENNIFER BROWN: Certainly. I get the argument when we talking about hiring and diversifying slates and looking and promotion and making sure we’re supporting and advancing – I don’t even want to say “promoting” more diversity in our organizations, but walking that talk. The question of quotas comes up, the question of pushback around, “You’re taking something away from me and you’re telling me I need to give that to someone else.” We’re stuck in this dialogue around meritocracy that I hear from people in power who are absolutely trying to protect what they have.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Have you ever had a mediocre white coworker? Have you ever had a mediocre male coworker? Honestly, I think the mediocrity that white people and white men in particular get away with is pretty astounding.

Notice when this whole quota, and we really need to hire the most qualified people, when does that come up? Does it come up when they’re hiring a white guy?

JENNIFER BROWN: No.

ROBIN DIANGELO: I’ve never heard it come up when they’re hiring a white guy. What it reveals is how deeply we’ve internalized the framework that in the case of women and people of color, they’re inherently less qualified. That’s what that reveals. We have to grapple with the power of implicit bias.

There was a study that I think is relevant here. For years, there’s a certain horned instrument, it’s a very heavy instrument, and women, when they auditioned, they just never got hired for orchestras. It was believed this is not bias, it’s just it’s heavy and women are not as strong, and so they can’t play.

Then they began auditioning behind screens. Wow, all these women – that’s how powerful it is. Literally, my implicit bias shaped what I heard through my ears. I look at you, you’re a woman, and I start to listen to your playing through that framework that says you just aren’t going to be able to play as well. When you take that away, then I hear how beautifully you can play. You have to let go of this idea that it’s conscious.

JENNIFER BROWN: But then I don’t want people to let go of the conscious part and the responsibility, right? The way we teach unconscious bias, I fear a lot of people walk out of those classrooms and say, “Well, I just learned the science of bias, we’re all biased, and I’m powerless against it.” Those trainings don’t do a good job of laying out, “Well, now what am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to change? How am I supposed to build new habits and have a more mixed, diverse group of friends crossing difference in my relationships and friendships without tokenizing people?” There are a lot of people asking these questions. They’re good questions.

ROBIN DIANGELO: I am never going to be free of my implicit biases. They’re learned, so there can be some unlearning.

JENNIFER BROWN: Unlearning.

ROBIN DIANGELO: There can be some challenging of those biases. There can be openness when you point out that I’m manifesting it. The nature of an assumption is you don’t know you’re making it.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.

ROBIN DIANGELO: So, when people say, “Don’t make assumptions,” good luck with that. How about be open when somebody notices that you’re doing that?

JENNIFER BROWN: And trust you enough to actually tell you.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: That trust is what’s missing and breaking down a bit in the workplace because there’s a culture of fear.

ROBIN DIANGELO: And put protectors in place. The famous University of Chicago Resume Study, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Right.

ROBIN DIANGELO: So, you start taking names off resumes, you audition behind screens, you put things in place to protect against the power of implicit bias.

When we’re back to the norm or the dominant group that doesn’t get named, yes, we all have bias, but what happens when you back one group’s collective bias with legal authority and institutional control? It is transformed into a far-reaching system that becomes automatic, it becomes the default, and it’s not dependent anymore on any one person’s intentions or friendliness.

That’s what I want to address. I want to address power and institutional power. Thought’s why I reserve the word “racism” to talk about white people’s bias, because the weight of history and institutional control transforms its impact.

Everyone has racial bias. When you back it with that kind of power, it’s transformed into the system I call “racism.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Got it. And there is no such thing as reverse racism, in your opinion. Do you want to elaborate?

ROBIN DIANGELO: No, there is not any such thing as reverse racism. And if that unsettles any of your listeners, if you’re sincere, I would just ask you to think about, “Why is that important to you?” Why is it important to establish that they’re just as racist as we are, to be upset when it’s going in the “wrong” direction? Are you also someone who’s upset when it’s going in the so-called “right” direction?

Generally, people upset about reverse racism are not upset about everyday racism or the unequal outcomes. And if I may be so blunt, “They’re just as racist as we are,” is a five-year-old’s argument.

JENNIFER BROWN: True.

ROBIN DIANGELO: They’re just as biased as we are. There’s a different impact. And that’s why I always use the example of women’s right to vote. It’s the best example I’ve ever been able to come up with to illustrate that difference.

Prior to suffrage, of course women could be pissed off at men. I would have been pissed off.

JENNIFER BROWN: Lots to be pissed off about.

ROBIN DIANGELO: I’m pissed off today.

JENNIFER BROWN: Hell, yeah!

ROBIN DIANGELO: But if I was a Suffragette in 1918, I don’t know have attitude towards men, I could discriminate against a man who’d come into my little dress shop, but could my group literally deny all men their civil rights? No. Could men as a group deny literally all women their civil rights? Yes. Could women grant themselves the right to vote? No. Could they have personal power? Of course, but they didn’t have institutional power, they couldn’t grant themselves their own civil rights, they couldn’t even vote on their right to vote. Only men could grant women their civil rights, because men controlled the institutions.

And it wasn’t just the House and the Senate, think about every institution. Think of the clergy who told women God didn’t want you to vote. Right? Think about the psychiatrist who said, “You’re just not as rational.” On and on. And then the police and the military if women rioted in the streets. It’s a deeply infused system.

And then you plant it in the consciousness of men and women, and women will resist their right to vote because they’ve been conditioned not to see themselves as supposed to do that.

This is why it takes so long, but this is also why I reserve the “-ism” words to talk about that difference. Right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Got it. That’s so helpful. I’ll bet you have found a lot of new fortitude in writing this book, speaking, explaining it, and the questions you’re getting from your audiences – and I hope not hate mail, but anytime you say “white” and “fragility,” you’ve probably just been inundated.

Did you choose this moment culturally to write this book? Do you think it was the right moment? Do you think we are ready to have this conversation? You’re shaking your head.

ROBIN DIANGELO: No, actually, because I originally published this article, White Fragility, that the book is based on in 2011. I’ve been writing and speaking about racism for a really long time with a focus on whiteness or white racial identity.

The question that drives my work is: What does it mean to be white in a society that says, “It doesn’t really mean anything,” and yet it’s deeply separate and unequal by race.

And so almost everything I write about is trying to take everyday narratives and dynamics and make them very clear. So, let me give you just the names of the titles of my articles and it will make sense: Why Can’t We All Just be Individuals? The Discourse of Individualism, and the Reproduction of Whiteness.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Nothing to Add: The Role of White Silence in Cross-Racial Discussions.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my goodness.

ROBIN DIANGELO: My Class Didn’t Trump My Race: Using Oppression to Face Privilege. I could go on, right?

So, I had written this article, White Fragility in 2011. As often happens in academia, it was a peer-reviewed article, but it disappeared somewhere. I never thought anybody ever read it.

But one day, there was a controversy in Seattle and somebody quoted extensively from that article, and it just went viral and it exploded.

JENNIFER BROWN: Sure.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Obviously, by the time I got it together to write the book, the timing seemed to be perfect.

Post-Obama, the positive thing – it’s hard to even say that, but one thing that makes my work easier today is we’re done with the post-racial.

JENNIFER BROWN: Okay. Phew!

ROBIN DIANGELO: During the Obama years, you got, “Racism is over, we have a black president.” We’re done with that.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank goodness.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Clear as a bell, racism is not over. And I thought my work would be harder in the Trump era, it’s actually easier.

So, on the one hand, the permission to be explicitly racist is very high. We’re way beyond dog whistles, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Sure. Sure.

ROBIN DIANGELO: You can just come out and say it.

JENNIFER BROWN: For real, yes.

ROBIN DIANGELO: But there’s also a kind of shock and desperation from people who weren’t paying attention.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right, like the progressives. (Laughter.)

ROBIN DIANGELO: Yes, exactly. And that’s made my work – helped what’s going on, made it easier.

JENNIFER BROWN: Do you think corporate America will be able to have – I feel like corporate is behind in its bravery, way behind versus the conversations they’re having in academia and nonprofits and social services agencies. How long are we going to need to wait to have this really critical missing conversation in corporate when it threatens the very tenets of capitalism, right?

ROBIN DIANGELO: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: And it’s structured around that. If you look at it through your lens, I feel like we’re giving so much superficial lip service – all the things we’re proud of and the cultural pride and all the stuff that I’ve been a part of for years, I read your book and I think, “No wonder we’re going so slow. No wonder it’s so painstaking, because a few of us are carrying a lot of the water.” And, yet, how do I invite this bigger conversation and help my very capitalistic, very traditional system that has a lot of invested in keeping themselves in positions and in power? It’s the fundamental, “What’s in it for me?” And I can never figure that out and position it. Sometimes, it’s asking, “Are you good hearted? Are you a good person? Do you believe that diversity is good for business?” And so we good down the road of browser markets and browser products and better people retention and culture is important to be productive – all these things we assume as truth.

When you read a book like this, you think, “Wait, we are not having the conversation.”

ROBIN DIANGELO: Well, as I respond to what you just said, just keep in mind that I couldn’t do what I do if I didn’t feel like there was hope. When I feel discouraged, I remember the tipping point. According to Malcolm Gladwell, it’s 30 percent.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.

ROBIN DIANGELO: I probably could get 30 percent. You don’t have to get everyone; you can’t get everyone.

Having said that, I’m very clear that racism won’t end in my lifetime. Also, after 20 years of talking directly with white people day in and day out about racism, I think most white people do not care and most white people are not going to do anything different. And I think corporate America –

JENNIFER BROWN: Be honest.

ROBIN DIANGELO: – does not care and will check the box and the whiteness is tenaciously protected in corporate America.

JENNIFER BROWN: For real.

ROBIN DIANGELO: However, I am also, at the same time, getting asked to come in more.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yay!

ROBIN DIANGELO: And I think you can tell my style.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s pretty direct.

ROBIN DIANGELO: I’m really direct.

JENNIFER BROWN: No punches pulled.

ROBIN DIANGELO: My goal is to make it undeniable. My goal is to have them leave that session seeing something they couldn’t see before. They can’t not see it, again. And the discomfort, the unsettlement, is enough to motivate them.

And that’s kind of a little bit of a dance, right? How do you push someone up to their learning edge but not past their learning edge?

JENNIFER BROWN: Right. And everyone’s edge is in a different place.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: And you’re faced with hundreds of people.

ROBIN DIANGELO: And the investment is deep in whiteness, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.

ROBIN DIANGELO: It’s a wily creature. It’s wily in my life, it’s wily for me. I have to always ask myself, “What are my motivations? What is my accountability?” Sometimes I feel a little bit discouraged. Do you want an example of how blunt I am?

JENNIFER BROWN: Sure.

ROBIN DIANGELO: I will say to a group, by the end, I mean, I’ve walked them to this place. Yes, I basically am saying all white people are racist, only white people are racist, but I certainly don’t lead with that, and I don’t even bother saying it anymore. But if you’re paying attention, you know that’s what I’m saying and you know what I mean by it. I don’t mean you’re a bad-intentioned person, I just mean you’re a product of your culture. And that changes the question to actually an incredibly liberating and transformative question. It changes the question from “if” – which most people will answer, “No,” – to, “How?” It’s 365, 24/7 racism is circulating. How have I been shaped by its forces and how are those forces manifesting in my daily life?

It is. None of us could possibly be exempt from the forces of racism when it’s the water we’re in. And it’s liberating because I can stop defending, denying, hoping you won’t notice, arguing, and just get to work trying to figure out what it looks like in my life and try to ameliorate it a little bit, try to do a little less harm.

JENNIFER BROWN: Tell me about the work. I believe there is personal, individual, private work you need to do to educate yourself to start to notice, to become vigilant, to unpack things, to be uncomfortable. And then there is the work we do with other white people. And then there’s work we do cross-difference. And I think those are very different. There is a need for each.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: And each plays a role. I can imagine, when I’m called for specific advice about this, some of best white, progressive leaders who I work with, I love interviewing them about, “Who are you learning from and what kind of work are you doing on your own and who are your trusted advisors?” Inevitably, I find that they have, very privately and quietly, they have some trusted relationships across difference, even though they may be a white man in power. It’s been really interesting that that’s happening behind the scenes unofficially.

Where else are you going to be able to progress in your knowledge, but in context to each other? There is the individual work and then there’s together work.

When we met, I think you said there are things you call your white friend about. I wanted to know, what do you talk to your white friend about as something happens to you that you’re trying to process? And do you talk about that process across difference? Is that how you build trust and openness across difference in your own learning journey?

ROBIN DIANGELO: One thing I keep in mind is I’m actually the least qualified to determine how well I’m doing. I’m invested in not seeing my racism, right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Of course.

ROBIN DIANGELO: What I would want to do with those white men at the top who say they have trusted cross-racial friendships in private is ask – I would love to talk to those people that they think they have trusted relationships with.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Because, consistently, people of color say to me, “Our relationships with white people are not authentic, they think they are.” So, if they are not talking openly about racism, we’ll use the classic case, if that black friend cannot share their experiences with that white executive, if that black friend could not call in that executive, it’s not an authentic relationship. And if it has to be behind the scenes and you’re not noticing that workplace changing, then it’s meaningless. Right?

That reminds me, I didn’t finish telling you the bold thing I say.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, yes. I want to hear.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Once I’ve taken a group to this place, I will close by saying the way that this works is you can leave today and just say, Well, that was interesting,” and carry on and not do anything different. And most of you are going to make that choice. You’re not going to do anything different. And part of being white is that’s a choice you have. But I’d like you to do something for me tonight if that’s the choice you’re making. I want you to look at yourself in the mirror, right in the eyes, and I want you to say, “I choose to collude with white supremacy.” And then carry on, but do it with honesty. And they applaud, I’m serious.

JENNIFER BROWN: Wow, really?

ROBIN DIANGELO: This is what I get away with. This is part of being white.

JENNIFER BROWN: True.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Let’s put some fire under the seat here. Let’s get some skin in the game. At least be honest about it. I’m not there to mess around; I’m not there to coddle and make you feel better. I want to be effective; I want to be strategic. I actually am pretty effective and strategic. I’ll lose a couple of people, but most not.

JENNIFER BROWN: Not the majority.

ROBIN DIANGELO: That is really how I see it. Inaction is a form of action. The default of our society is the reproduction of racial inequality. All it takes is white people being really nice. Just be really nice.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Smile. Niceness is not courageous.

JENNIFER BROWN: I say that a lot.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Niceness is not anti-racist. It isn’t going to get – oh, man, it’s not going to get racism on the table and it isn’t going to keep it on the table when everyone wants it off the table.

It takes courage. It takes breaking with white solidarity. It takes not letting yourself be pushed back into silence.

White fragility comes at white people, too. In other words –

JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, you get it from your audience.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Oh, sure.

JENNIFER BROWN: You’re a white woman on the stage.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Anything that functions to maintain the status quot. And so white people breaking with white solidarity will trigger white fragility also. I mean, obviously, the impact of that does not compare to when we lash out at people of color, but it keeps a lot of white people silent.

JENNIFER BROWN: It does. The fear of not being perfect, the fear of alienating, not knowing the correct terminology to address difference, to build authenticity with our colleagues.

ROBIN DIANGELO: You’d be told to lighten up.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. It’s not big deal. It’s no big deal.

ROBIN DIANGELO: You’re ruining the party! You’re ruining everybody’s fun. Here’s what I would ask: How come letting racism circulate unanswered won’t ruin this party, but me challenging that racism will ruin this party? What’s that about.

JENNIFER BROWN: Good question.

ROBIN DIANGELO: You say a racist joke and I say, “I’m not comfortable with that joke.” Why does that ruin the party? But everybody cringing but nobody saying anything –

JENNIFER BROWN: Doesn’t.

ROBIN DIANGELO: It functions as a kind of racial control. Do you want me to talk a little bit about the term “white fragility”?

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. We’re almost out of time, but this would actually be a great thing to leave people with an understanding of what this means.

ROBIN DIANGELO: “White fragility,” that term is meant to capture how fragile we are in our sensibilities, right? So, the mere suggestion that being white has meaning will cause us to explode in umbrage, right?

And, yet, that exploding in umbrage is not fragile at all in its impact. It’s incredibly effective. I think white fragility functions as a kind of everyday, white racial bullying. We make it so miserable for people of color to talk to us about their experiences, to talk to us about our inevitable, but often unaware racist patterns, that most of the time they don’t. They just endure it, they take it home.

JENNIFER BROWN: Right.

ROBIN DIANGELO: I know you’ve shared moments where heterosexism is happening and you endure it and take it home because the consequences for bringing it up, well, how often does that go well?

That’s what I mean by a kind of bullying that ends up as a form of everyday racial control. It keeps people of color in their place. You can be in the workplace, we love counting you as our diversity, but do not challenge us. If you challenge us, you will be seen as a personal problem.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.

ROBIN DIANGELO: And you will be ejected from the environment.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.

ROBIN DIANGELO: This is why you have to look at the conscience of those at the table, you can’t just add some more people.

JENNIFER BROWN: I have a friend of color who was proud of himself. He said, “I was asked to be on the diversity committee and I said no.” (Laughter.)

ROBIN DIANGELO: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: And he put it on Twitter. And there was a whole dialogue about this. It gets to what you’re speaking about, which is fighting against the tokenism and people’s limited understanding and do you want to risk everything to only be frustrated, thwarted, not taken seriously, negatively stereotyped, or have your worse fears confirmed by how you’re going to be treated?

ROBIN DIANGELO: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: And you’re always the voice of this community or that community. I understood it. It’s actually radical and part of me was sad about it because I want to hear what that person has to contribute, but at the same time, I thought in a way it centered the white people to focus on the fact that they were inviting the person of color on the committee.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Yes, right.

JENNIFER BROWN: Watch yourselves at work. Watch yourself behave. Watch the assumptions you’re making. Watch what you struggle to attract and make comfortable. It says a lot about you and the fact that you haven’t done a lot of your work.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Yes. And if you’re going to put people of color in that position with the weight of all of this really hard work, pay them extra to be on the committee.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you.

ROBIN DIANGELO: That’s another thing. We don’t pay them any more. I often facetiously ask people of color, “Have you been getting asked to be on every committee?” “Yes.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Do you want to stop getting asked? Actually bring up what they said they wanted you on the committee for.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.

ROBIN DIANGELO: They want you on the committee so you can bring a different point of view, you can point out any biases that they may not be aware that they’re making, just bring up the biases.

JENNIFER BROWN: And watch what happens.

ROBIN DIANGELO: You might get away with it once. You won’t get away with it twice. (Laughter.)

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.

ROBIN DIANGELO: It’s this idea, it reinforces the racialization of people of color and that we don’t have racism. Now, that doesn’t mean that diversity committees should be all white people either, but that automatic assumption of assigning people of color that, right? How many times has a person of color asked to be the diversity person? They have no background in that, they have no skills, it’s not their interest, but it’s assumed automatically that they will carry the face conversation.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right.

ROBIN DIANGELO: And it’s an incredible expectation of vulnerability and risk, as you said.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. And more risk to take, right?

ROBIN DIANGELO: Yes. Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Hanging yourself out there to be more visible and also highlight your identity, which is, by the way, underrepresented, potentially stigmatized. You’re putting a big, flashing light on yourself and saying, “I’m reminding you this is who I am, not just what I think and what I can contribute, but who I am.” Studies have shown that that can actually really hurt professionals. This is why there is so much hiding in the workplace and denial of talking about your different experience, because you don’t want to get marginalized further so you gloss over it, you pass. Being LGBT, my really brave friend says, “I don’t want to take advantage of the passing privilege,” because she can pass as straight, quote/unquote. She’s has a high-level job, she’s a woman of color, and she says, “It’s important that people see me, see who I am, and all of who I am. Just because I can pass and downplay it, that’s not doing my responsibility not only for my own authenticity, but for generations to come.” We need to see all of her because we need to see that’s what a leader looks like.

ROBIN DIANGELO: I’ll never forget the quote, and forgive me for not remembering who said it, it’s in my book, a black woman who says, “First of all, forget that I’m black. Just stop reducing everything to that, making everything about that, having me always speak to that. And, second, don’t ever forget that I’m black, that I have a different experience, I have a different reality.”

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s beautiful, I love that.

ROBIN DIANGELO: It’s that tension of “both/and.” And when I share that quote, as soon as I say the first part, oh, white people love that.

JENNIFER BROWN: I know, I know! I don’t see color! I don’t see color!

ROBIN DIANGELO: Not so fast. (Laughter.) Just a couple thoughts about what corporations can do. Certainly, the leadership has to participate in the same things they’re asking other people to participate in, but it needs to be infused across the entire organization. I think one of the key places is hiring.

Often, if there’s a diversity question, and there often isn’t, but if there is, it’ll be one. It’ll be a meaningless question with no weight, “How do you manage diversity?” And no one on the committee really knows how to assess a good answer.

I think that if a company is committed, then when an applicant leaves that interview, they are thinking, “Oh, my goodness, if I go to work for this company, I’m going to be held accountable,” because virtually every question has that infused. So, here would be a couple examples: Integrating a racial equity lens into everything we do is a key value here at X corporation. How do you integrate racial equity lens into your work?

JENNIFER BROWN: So good.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Okay, right there –

JENNIFER BROWN: Who could answer that?

ROBIN DIANGELO: Either you can’t answer that, and –

JENNIFER BROWN: Was it UCLA that is starting to introduce, “What do you do towards furthering diversity, equity, and inclusion?” And that’s part of their interviews now, and they got so much pushback on social media.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Of course. Oh, God.

JENNIFER BROWN: Between it’s exactly what you’re talking about, but then of course the company or organization has to have a good story to tell. You can’t just ask the question, check the box.

ROBIN DIANGELO: No, but that’s just one place that I want to highlight. Often, I’ll be working with an organization and they’ll just have done a new hire and this person is – I’m just going to say it – just clueless and difficult. And I think, “Why did you hire this person?” You have to see the ability to engage with some nuances in issues of racism or however you want to think about it as a qualification.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.

ROBIN DIANGELO: You’re not qualified to work here if you can’t engage. That would just be one question. You also have to train your committee to assess a good answer. If you ask me that question and I say, “Oh, I just look at every employee as a unique information.” Wrong answer.

JENNIFER BROWN: Wrong answer.

ROBIN DIANGELO: You don’t have to be an ethnic studies professor, but you’re looking for humility and all of that. And then you could ask a question like, such and such community has given us feedback that our marketing is not culturally responsive, how would you respond to their feedback?

JENNIFER BROWN: So good.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Every question, it’s infused.

JENNIFER BROWN: I love it.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Of course, that would be an organization that was infusing it in lots of other ways that led to that.

JENNIFER BROWN: Hopefully, yes.

ROBIN DIANGELO: But I wanted to offer that.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you. Thank you. Can you imagine the different hiring decisions that would be made if that were the criteria?

ROBIN DIANGELO: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: And that companies asking those questions were actually walking the talk already, having earned the place where they could say, “Race equity is important to us.” Those words don’t come out of corporate America’s mouth barely at all. We’ve learned how to talk about LGBT, there are things that we’re starting to talk about, but still it feels that race and ethnicity is the third rail.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Well, maybe people like you and me have to also step up and say, “I won’t work with you if I can’t say white,” or, “I need to know that this is more than a one-time thing.”

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes.

ROBIN DIANGELO: That we actually start doing coaching even as they’re talking to us.

JENNIFER BROWN: Absolutely.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Otherwise, we play a part in that also.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. That’s if we don’t say anything.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my goodness, Robin. Well, the book is White Fragility. Robin DiAngelo is a treasure.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Oh, thank you.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Bring her into your companies if you’re ready. Maybe you want to do a little socialization of her work and the concepts. I would put my change management hat on and say maybe the ice bath is good for people, but I also like the seeding of the ground before a speaker like Robin comes in.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Making sure that she doesn’t have to spend her time fighting and not teaching as much as you have to teach. I always think every moment I spend justifying my existence as somebody who cares about this stuff, defending it, explaining why, and being called to task about, “Jennifer, you’re this, you’re that, blah, blah, blah,” is time that we’re not spending figuring out how. I think that’s a crime because there are some of us who want to have the “how” conversation and we really need to get to it because we don’t have a lot of time.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Yes. And, at the same time, I actually think I am that “tilling the soil” person. As an outsider, I can come in and say the really hard stuff.

JENNIFER BROWN: True. Very true.

ROBIN DIANGELO: And then the people in house, because you always want to build your capacity in house, those people, then, can pick that up, but the framework has been laid down.

JENNIFER BROWN: I like that.

ROBIN DIANGELO: It’s often a lot easier to challenge folks that you don’t have this history with. Let me just be really clear: I’ve been doing this for a really long time. I’m very diplomatic. I’m direct, but effective.

JENNIFER BROWN: I’d say you are. Yes.

ROBIN DIANGELO: And there are many videos of me you can check out.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, I love the videos. What was the wonderful long one at the book event at the library in Seattle?

ROBIN DIANGELO: Yes. There is one I really like on C-SPAN. If you go to C-SPAN and you search “DiAngelo White Fragility,” you’ll see a book talk that I gave.

JENNIFER BROWN: Wonderful.

ROBIN DIANGELO: That one you’re talking about was also a book talk for Seattle Public Libraries, but I like the Tacoma C-SPAN one better. I’m not stuck behind a podium.

JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, that’s better. We all like that. Thank you, Robin.

ROBIN DIANGELO: You’re so welcome.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you for the work you do. Thank you for your voice. May more and more audiences and leaders bring you in and accept your message without spending a lot of energy fighting it. Just live with it as the “how” questions.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Not the “if” – good/bad binary questions.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Yes.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you. This has been the missing piece for a lot of us who want change.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Well, thank you.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you for being on The Will to Change.

ROBIN DIANGELO: You’re so welcome.

USEFUL LINKS

White Fragility on Amazon

Robin DiAngelo