In her fifth chapter of White Frigility, Robin DiAngelo expands on her premise that racism is a systems reality. When reduced to individual persons, it would be more appropriate to use words like “prejudice” and “discriminate”. This is helpful to me because I have been working on my own attitude and my behaviors for long time. My level of prejudice is much lower than it once was and I am vigilant about avoiding discriminating behavior. In addition to revisiting the idea of “color blindness” and “I know people of color (in my family or among my friends).” Her point is that even if we succeed in dealing with our own attitudes, racism continues and whites continue to benefit and people of minority races still have to deal with it.
One defense that wasn’t brought up in her earlier chapters is when people say, “I marched in the sixties.” My husband and I were just starting our family when marches took place in the 60’s. We did not participate in any marches, but we were keenly aware of them and had a lot of discussions with friends about what was going on. We saw ourselves as standing on the right side against racism. I was inspired by Martin Luther King. But we come across people our age who did march in the sixties, and just as DiAngelo suggests, they use that experience as a way of saying, “Therefore, I can’t be a racist.” Here is what she writes about this defense:
“Someone who tells me that they marched in the 1960’s – like the person who tells me they know people of color – is telling me that they see racism as a simple matter of racial intolerance (which clearly they don’t have or they could not have tolerated marching alongside black people during the civil rights movement). They are also telling me that they believe that racism is uncomplicated and unchanging. Yet in the 1960’s, we thought race was biological. We used terms like Oriental and colored. Nevertheless, in the light of an action they took more than fifty years ago, they see their racial learning as finished for life.”
She also brought up that some people think they can’t be racist because they live in the north, i.e. Minnesota. I have to admit that I was stung when, after George Floyd was murdered, I learned about the history of racism in the state of Minnesota. The Star Tribune reported how Minnesota is doing for African Americans compared to the other 49 states.
Minnesota ranks 39th in Educational Attainment
41st in median income
44th in Unemployment
45th in Labor Force Participation
48th in poverty and home ownership
I know that the inequities in education come up often in the legislature when it comes time for funding for education. In fact it comes up again and again which leads me to assume not much has been done to address the inequities. I was surprised to read that while racial covenants (that prevent Blacks from buying or renting in white neighborhoods) have been illegal since the Fair Housing Act of 1968, in Minnesota the racist language remains present in many housing deeds and Blacks are still prevented from buying where they choose.
DiAngelo has more to say about one’s upbringing. People will say that they are not racist because their parents taught them that racism is wrong. Knowing what I know now, I think it is more accurate to say, it is wrong to discriminate against anyone because of their race. Prejudice is an inside attitude and parents would do best to pay attention to their own language and behavior and finding ways for their children to interact with people of other races. Whether talking about race or sexuality or disabilities, comfort with people who are different than oneself goes a long way. I think honesty is important, too. We can share with our kids that we once had prejudicial attitudes ourselves.
As for racism, it takes a whole lot of education to learn the ins and outs of it in our systems. This is the task at hand.