August 17, 2014

Whites have institutionalized racial power

Guest: What does it mean to be white?

What does it mean to be white and how does one develop racial literacy? Guest columnist Robin DiAngelo writes about the roots of racial illiteracy.

By Robin DiAngelo
In the U.S., while individual whites might be against racism, they still benefit from their group’s control. Yes, an individual person of color can sit at the tables of power, but the overwhelming majority of decision-makers will be white. Yes, white people can have problems and face barriers, but systematic racism won’t be one of them.

This distinction—between individual prejudice and a system of unequal institutionalized racial power—is fundamental. One cannot understand how racism functions in the U.S. today if one ignores group power relations.

While the following do not apply to every white person, they are well-documented white patterns and beliefs that make it difficult for white people to understand racism as a system:

• Segregation: Most whites live, grow, play, learn, love, work and die primarily in racial segregation. Yet, our society does not teach us to see this as a loss. Pause for a moment and consider the magnitude of this message: We lose nothing of value by not having cross-racial relationships. In fact, the whiter our schools and neighborhoods are, the more likely they are to be seen as “good.” This is an example of the relentless messages of white superiority that circulate all around us, shaping our identities and perspectives.

• Individualism: Whites are taught to see themselves as individuals, rather than as part of a racial group. It follows that we are racially objective and thus can represent the universal human experience, while people of color can only represent their race. Seeing ourselves as unracialized individuals, we take umbrage when generalizations are made about us as a group. This enables us to ignore systemic racial patterns.

• Focus on intentions over impact: We are taught that racism must be intentional and that only bad people commit it. Thus a common white reasoning in cross-racial conflicts is that as long as we are good people and didn’t intend to perpetuate racism, then our actions don’t count as racism. But racism doesn’t depend on conscious intent. In fact, much of racism is unconscious. Further, when we focus on intent we are essentially saying that the impact of our behavior on others is irrelevant.

• White fragility: In a white dominant society, challenges to a white worldview are uncommon. The racial status quo is comfortable for us. We haven’t had to develop the skills, perspectives, or humility that would help us engage constructively. As a result, we have very little tolerance for racial discomfort and respond poorly.
Comment:  For more on white privilege, see Bloody Jackson, Family Guy, and Archie Bunker and Whites Are Blind to Their Privilege.

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