Let’s Look Together at White Privilege – 3

Reflections on White Frigility by Robin DiAgnelo, Introduction.

DiAngelo explains in her intro who she is and how it is she came to write the book. A white woman, she was a diversity trainer whose job it was to work with people in a workplace to educate them about racism and, hopefully, improve the workplace situation. “I was taken aback,” she writes, “by how angry and defensive so many white people became at the suggestion that they were connected to racism in any way. The very idea that they would be required to attend a workshop in racism outraged them.” In order to understand, DiAngelo linked racism to the idea of being bad. As I suggested in yesterday’s blog, being racist, she said, also meant an individual would actually want to do harm to others because of race. It is no surprise that a person would want to defend themselves.

It is important that people realize that we are all swimming in the same racial water, as she puts it. If I accept that racism is unavoidable, for ANYONE, then maybe I can “understand racism as a system into which I was socialized (and) I can receive feedback on my problematic racial patterns as a helpful way to support my learning and growth.”

Years ago, I had a taste of racism and the white reaction to racism when each summer I took teens from my church to the Red Lake Reservation in norther Minnesota to do service work. It was the Catholic mission that that we visited and they put us to work in the school and on the church grounds. The staff set up opportunities for the kids to listen to speakers and have some cultural experiences while we were there.

There was on man, a native elder, who often came during our visits, to teach the history of the Red Lake people and about native spirituality. He was pretty straight-forward, even confrontational, suggesting that this group of white teens were somewhat responsible for the actions of their ancestors as they manipulated the tribe in wrangling a piece of the lakes by tricking them in the wordage of the treaty. That drew quite a reaction from the kids, as you might expect. Their ancestors might have been unjust, but THEY hadn’t done anything wrong. While I didn’t say so, I sided with the kids. I felt protective of their fragile feelings as teenagers. And my own, I guess.

I wish I had understood back then about white privilege. This would have been a perfect moment to teach them.

On one of our trips to Red Lake we happened to be there during pow-wow days. This was a fairly small pow-wow compared to others I attended because Red Lake is a closed reservation, though there were a few whites from the surrounding areas. After the pow-wow, we gathered in our space at the mission’s convent where we were housed to talk about the experience. One of the girls, who I recall was quite feisty and outspoken, said, “They aren’t very friendly.” I asked her what she meant. “Well, we were sitting there in a group and not one of them came up to talk to us.” I asked her what she expected them to do and she said she didn’t really know, just that they weren’t friendly.

I asked her what would happen if a group of young Native American teenagers came from Red Lake to attend a football game at St. Cloud High school. “If they were sitting together in the bleachers just like you were today,” I said, “what would you do? Would you go up to them and welcome them?”

She said probably not. She would be too embarrassed to do so. I said, “The people at the pow-wow may not have known why you were there in the first place. But if they failed to welcome you, it is probably for the same reason.”

There was more we could have talked about. Embarrassment, perhaps, but fear also. Fear of the other. How did the Red Lake people at the pow-wow know whether these young white teenagers were there to cause harm? If a group of native kids showed up at a football game in St. Cloud, what assumptions might the white spectators make about them and their intentions? How complicated this becomes!

I look forward to your stories and your insights.