In chapter 2 of her book, White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo gets clear one important fact: people of color are different from whites in only one way. “The differences such as hair texture and eye color are superficial and emerged as adaptation to geography. Under the skin, there is no true biological race.” Anyone who says otherwise defies the voice of science and, in my opinion, their motives are suspect. It was disturbing to me when I read the life of Thomas Jefferson and discover that he was a slave owner and had written about natural differences between races, I am sure to justify his own actions.
DiAngelo notes that the idea of freedom and equality may have been a dream for those who founded our democracy, but “the US economy was based on the abduction and enslavement of African American people, the displacement and genocide of Indigenous people, and the annexation of Mexican lands. Further,” she adds, “the colonizers who came were not free of their own cultural conditioning; they brought with them deeply internalized patterns of domination and submission.”
The Great Melting Pot is a cherished image for Americans, but in reality, only white immigrants were really allowed to melt into the pot. I wrote of that in my 4th essay citing the experience of my own Polish ancestors. What I find interesting is what DiAngelo has to say about class differences. She says that the ability to enter into the American dream manifests itself along class lines where poor whites do not benefit as much as middle and upper class whites. I have always wondered why poor whites tend to vote for a party that is basically responsible for their inability to rise up out of their situation. This is because racism serves the wealthier classes when poor whites blame black and brown people for their lack of opportunity instead of blaming those in control of employment and legislation.
DiAngelo gives a number of definitions:
Prejudice is pre-judgment about another person based on social groups to which the person belongs. A relatively harmless one is that black men are good at basketball.
Discrimination is action based on prejudice. These actions include ignoring, exclusion, threats, ridicule, slander and violence.
Racism, like sexism and other forms of oppression, occurs when a racial group’s prejudice is backed by legal authority and institutional control. It is a system. This is why the idea of reverse racism doesn’t make sense. Racism is not the attitude of a individual person. An attitude or action of a black person toward a white person is prejudicial or discriminatory but not racism.
The system of racism begins with ideology, she says, “reinforced across society in schools and textbooks, political speeches, movies, advertising, holiday celebrations, and words and phrases.” I was thinking about pulling down statues of history figures. One group wanted to pull down a statue of Thomas Jefferson because of his support of slavery, I am sure. My personal belief is that we should allow the presidents of our country remain, but we should tell the truth about them. I suspect that there are few more than a handful of presidents who were not guilty of prejudicial attitudes. We need to make sure that the history books our children study, the museums that honor the presidents, and the plaques that guide tourists tell the truth about the accomplishments and errors of these men. I say this knowing full well what a terrible president Andrew Jackson was with what he did to the Native American people. We have a mixed past that evokes both pride and shame.
On the other hand, I do not support statues of military leaders who fought for the south. These were not American heroes. They were leaders of those who sought to tear down our democracy. They were technically, leaders of the enemy in the civil war and to honor them is a statement about one’s allegiance.
I want to mention the fact that many black people manage to navigate the many barriers to success that racism causes. I see many people of color who are in the public eye in politics or the arts, who are professors and business leaders…all considered successful people. First of all, we can’t assume that their experience was free of racist trials. But we also have to be careful to rely on single situations, exceptions and anecdotal evidence for our understanding of the whole.
Back to the idea of White Privilege, an individual white person may be quite supportive and accepting of the blacks in their circles. They may even have close black friends. But they still benefit from the system that gives advantage to people who are white. They can’t shake their own privilege because the racism continues to operate and black people continue to struggle more than their white counterparts. This says to me that if we really care about our fellow citizens and about our country, we need to do more. This gets back to speaking out, writing to legislators, even running for office. Each of us whites need to find their own way to fight racism.