On Whiteness and Racism

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Brooke Dilling | @brookefrances

Earlier this week, I woke up to find my five-year-old son cuddled in bed with me. Like every morning, I grabbed my phone, checked for messages, and scanned Facebook for the latest news. My little guy, also awake, looked over my shoulder curious to see what was going on out there in the world.

One article in my news feed was about yet another white supremacist rally somewhere. Honestly, I didn’t pay much attention. My son, noticing the photo, asked what it was about and I casually brushed off his questions with “it’s nothing” and kept scrolling.

Two minutes later, he’s out of bed. “Mom, watch this.” As I look over, his hand shoots into the air above his head. He’s imitating what he noticed in the photo. It’s the Nazi salute. OMFG.

And this is where I lose my cool. I’m pretty sure the words that came out of my mouth were something like “You are never, ever to do that ever again!” I was loud and I was scary. My son’s eyebrows raised up into his mop of blonde hair and his big blue eyes filled with tears.

A million thoughts were racing through my head. One of which was, holy sh*t, what if this happens at school?! The school will think our family is a bunch of racist Nazi sympathizers.

Here’s the thing. We’re not Nazi sympathizers. And yet, most of us white people, maybe all of us--certainly me--are racist. Yes. I’m going to own it. I’m racist. I try my hardest not to be and there are days I fail. Being better is a process.

As a white broad, “racist” is a scary thing to say, and a scary word to use. It’s a really awful, scary thing to be called, too. But we need to stop thinking of racism along a “you-are-or-you-aren’t” binary. Racism is more nuanced than the image we have in our heads of Neo-Nazi radicals. Racism can also include subtler, unintentional thoughts and actions. It can make an appearance in our lives via a combination of bias, prejudice, and power.

And when our non-white friends call us out on our racism, we need to apologize profusely, ask if they are comfortable sharing how our actions were offensive (if we don’t know) and learn from our mistakes. I’m certainly a long way from perfect, but I’m committed to working on this for myself, for my kids, and to be better for the people with whom I share my community.

I recently attended a four hour professional development workshop at the University of Denver with Robin DiAngelo, Ph.D. Dr. DiAngelo is a Seattle-based consultant, trainer, and educator who speaks on issues of race and social justice. Her training dug deep into What it Means to Be White: Developing White Racial Literacy. DiAngelo coined the phrase “White Fragility.” White Fragility, DiAngelo explains, is a “state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. It’s a form of bullying that keeps everyone in their place.”

As white people, we can be pretty oblivious. And when we are clued in, our defensiveness kicks in, too.

To some extent, our lack of knowledge is understandable. Systems of oppression are deeply embedded in our country. We’ve been taught by white people who have been taught by white people who have been taught by white people who have been taught by white people (you see where I’m going here . . .) out of white history books about the white experience. We don’t value or even acknowledge the experiences of people of color.

Doing so is threatening to the way of life benefiting white people. As a white person, I have an investment in this system because it works for me. It was set up for me to succeed. It is up to me to explore my investments in this system and dismantle them. Or I can remain complicit and continue to be part of the problem.

Don’t we owe it to our non-white friends to better understand ourselves so we can better understand and support them? DiAngelo thinks so, and she shared this quote by Ijeoma Oluo quote as a way of bringing that message home.

“I don’t want you to understand me better. I want you to understand yourselves. Your survival has never depended on your knowledge of white culture. In fact, it has required your ignorance.”

DiAngelo posed several questions we can ask ourselves to begin exploring our own white racial literacy.

  • When was the first time I realized I was the race that I am?
  • When was the first time I had a teacher that did not look like me?
  • What about my life has allowed me to not know what I do about racism?

As we start exploring the answers to these questions, we can begin owning our biases.

DiAngelo’s workshop was eye opening, beneficial, and emotionally exhausting. I certainly encourage you to check out her website for more information on her books and tools regarding white racial literacy. I’ve only scratched the surface on the information she shared.

Perhaps there are some broads out there who would like to read What Does it Mean to Be White and have a group discussion about it. If so, hit me up on social media.

As for my son? His Nazi salute became the beginning of a conversation about Nazi Germany, World War II, the attempted extermination of Jewish people and plenty of things probably well beyond his understanding. We also talked about the responsibility we have as white people to know our history and be kind to others. He is five after all. We’re in this together and we’ve got a lifetime of learning to go.