Robin DiAngelo: "Absolutely no one can always get it right on race."
Stuart Isett
Robin DiAngelo: "Absolutely no one can always get it right on race."
CNN —  

One evening, Robin DiAngelo became a nice racist.

DiAngelo, author of “White Fragility,” remembers the precise moment it happened. A friend invited her to join a few friends of hers for dinner. When DiAngelo arrived at the restaurant, she was excited to see that the couple waiting for them at the table was Black.

DiAngelo was a college student who had no Black friends and had rarely spent any time around Black people. But she saw herself as a proud progressive and a feminist. She proceeded to tell the Black couple how racist her family was and spent the entire evening recounting every uncensored racist joke, story, and comment she could remember them making, despite her dinner companions’ growing discomfort.

She didn’t know it at the time, but DiAngelo was doing something she now calls “credentialing” – a conversational tactic White progressives sometimes use to show Black people they are not racist. Well-meaning White liberals do this by casually dropping into conversations such comments as, “My grandchildren are biracial,” or “I don’t see color,” or “My best friend is Black.”

DiAngelo thought at the time that her progressive credentials preempted any suggestion that she could be racist.

“I thought what I was doing was showing that I recognized how racist these things were, and I would never do them,” she says now. “I was a nice White progressive, but what I was actually doing was both objectifying that couple by bringing the conversation to race immediately in a way I would never have if they were White and then subjecting them to all those racist comments and jokes all night long.”

Beacon Press

If you’re a White person who is now rewinding every conversation you’ve had with a person of color to see if you flashed your “I am not a racist” credentials, then you might understand the power of DiAngelo’s hard-hitting new book, “Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm.” In it DiAngelo delivers a systematic takedown of what she calls “well-meaning Whiteness” – how well-intentioned White people unwittingly reinforce racism.

DiAngelo deploys many of the same skills that made “White Fragility,” which topped the bestseller lists last summer as the nation grappled with the fallout from George Floyd’s murder, an anti-racist classic. She has a gift for taking abstract racial issues and explaining them in accessible terms through concrete examples and colorful phrases.

“Nice Racism” is built around a startling claim: White progressives can cause the most daily harm to people of color.

“We are the ones – with a smile on our faces – who undermine Black people daily in ways both harder to identify and easier to deny,” she writes. “To the degree that we see ourselves as “not racist,” we are going to be very defensive about any suggestion to the contrary. We will see no further action needed because we see ourselves as outside the problem.”

DiAngelo, an affiliate associate professor of education at the University of Washington in Seattle, makes other provocative claims throughout the book. She explores how a culture of “niceness” protects racism, how White progressives try to “out-woke” one another and why anti-racist education can sometimes create more “efficient “racists.

There is arguably no contemporary author who is as skilled at dissecting the strategies White people employ in casual social interactions to deflect or justify racism. Yet some of the most moving passages of the book are when DiAngelo gets personal. She talks about the impact of growing up poor, takes on her critics and explains why she believes it’s okay for her to generalize about all White people.

CNN recently talked to DiAngelo about her new book, the recent furor over critical race theory and how her life has changed since the huge success of “White Fragility.” The conversation was edited for clarity and brevity.

How do you define nice racism?

In order to understand nice racism, you have to have a basic understanding of systemic racism. You have to understand that racism is a system infused across society, and that means that there are going to be extreme forms that are explicit that we all recognize. And there are going to be more subtle forms. Nice racism is the more subtle action on that continuum. It’s the form of racism that well-meaning progressive White people, who believe in racial justice and do not deny that systemic racism exists, inadvertently enact.

Can you give us an example?

One is this urgency we feel to establish that we’re not racist. And the irony here is that if we understand systemic racism, we understand that it’s inevitable that we’ve been shaped by that system and that, of course, we’ve internalized racist ideology. And of course, we act on that most often without awareness. But it’s hard to let go of this idea of racism as an either/or proposition here – you’re either racist or you’re not. And if you’re racist, you’re bad, and if you’re not a racist, you’re good. And so, we feel this need to let people of color know that we’re not, quote-unquote, racist.

Demonstrators gather during a protest outside Hennepin County Government Center on March 28, 2021, in Minneapolis.
Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images
Demonstrators gather during a protest outside Hennepin County Government Center on March 28, 2021, in Minneapolis.

There are some critics who say we don’t need more workshops about helping White people face their racism. We need justice, such as voting rights, political change, and Robin should talk more about that. However, you say in your book that organizing for systemic change begins with relationships. Can you elaborate on that?

Well, think about Stacey Abrams, who’s a very current example of the power of organizing, and how did she, and the people who work with her, organize the voters in Georgia? They went door-to-door. They connected with voters. They built relationships. They saw each others humanity, and they listened and heard one another. The outcome was at a systemic level, but it started with the interpersonal. I don’t see that they can be separated. Institutions are not people, but people make up institutions. And the collective biases of those people are translated into policies and practices that affect individual lives.

Here’s another line from your book that intrigued me. How can anti-racist education make White people more efficient racists?

Well, I want to be careful to answer that because, of course, I believe in anti-racist education. I am an educator, but if anti-racist education is not sustained and followed up, then we have a superficial understanding that can allow us to cover up our mistakes and say things like, Oh, I know I have privilege. But our actual behaviors are not changing. It can make us more confident and more complacent and believe that we’ve arrived, that we know all we need to know, and that we are the ones that are now ready to enlighten everybody else. We begin to point our fingers outward, but rarely ever inward.

What do critics tend to get wrong about your work?

One is a reaction to my generalizing about White people. That, of course, is a challenge to the ideology of individualism, which is the idea that we’re all different and unique, and if you don’t know me you can’t say anything about me. We are, of course, individuals. I don’t know you and all the specifics about you. But we are also members of social groups, and by virtue of our membership in those social groups, we could literally predict whether you and your mother and me and my mother were going to survive our births based on the fact that I’m White and you’re Black. There is a collective shared experience, and while there are always exceptions, let’s talk about the rule.

Sometimes I’ll see a critique such as, can you believe that Robin says White people are racist. And I always want to ask that person, take a moment and define the criteria by which you would grant that somebody’s racist and it’s probably going to come down to individual consciously malintent across race. And if that’s how you think about racism then I would agree that it’s offensive for me to generalize about you because I actually don’t think most racism is perpetrated consciously or intentionally, but the impact is still harmful. I’m talking about a system infused with ideologies, racist policies and practices that shapes all of us.

The other one is this issue of guilt. I think people who say that I am seeking to invoke guilt are willfully misreading my work. I am very clear that I am not interested in guilt, very clear that I have absorbed racist ideology. I unwittingly enact racial harm. It’s on me to address that guilt and the best antidote to guilt is actual reparative action. Guilt serves no one, and while it’s a natural response to coming to awareness of this reality, you’ve got to move through it. Otherwise, it just functions to excuse inaction and to pressure everyone around you to take care of your feelings.

What about people who say that a White person shouldn’t teach others about racism, that you can’t understand it like people of color, and that you should stay out of this space for other Black and brown voices?

I don’t understand the Black experience, but I do understand the White experience. While I believe that Black people understand the White experience more deeply than White people do because they’ve had to understand it to navigate it across their lives, there is a place where they just can’t know what it is to be White. And that’s the piece that I can take up and I can pick it up in a way that is both visible to White people in a way that it wasn’t before and is undeniable.

It’s so much harder to deny a shared experience, and I can articulate it in that way. It was never meant to be a zero-sum game where you only listen to a White person. If you’re really engaging with my work, it will lead you right to all the people of color who have been saying these things for a very long time. But unfortunately, White people don’t tend to be as open to it.

Supporters of Black Lives Matter hold signs during a protest on June 10, 2020, in Los Angeles.
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Supporters of Black Lives Matter hold signs during a protest on June 10, 2020, in Los Angeles.

Are you surprised that so many White politicians and school leaders are upset about critical race theory?

In some ways, I am surprised that it’s gone as far as actual legislation making illegal to talk about systemic racism. That’s incredible. But we are in a moment where both sides are amplified. So the progress that the Black Lives Matter movement has made has definitely geared up the resistance to that progress.

Now true critical race comes out of legal scholarship. And by that definition, I’m not a critical race theorist. It’s a very refined academic field. It’s used though by the right or those who want to silence these conversations as a stand-in for systemic racism, as a way to not acknowledge the existence of systemic racism. It’s perfect in a way because it sounds problematic to an uninitiated ear, right? So first of all, you have the word critical. Oh, that sounds like criticism. And if you don’t have an academic background, you don’t understand that critical means deep thinking, a deep analysis. And the theory makes it sound like it’s just some people’s radical thoughts and this is not proven in any way. It’s just really easy to dismiss it as some crackpot thing that’s being taught by radicals to turn children against one another. It really does underscore a point I made earlier that racism is a highly adaptive system and it adapts to challenges.

You coined a term, “White Fragility,” that shapes the way we now talk about race, and you’ve traveled the world talking about your last book. But were there challenges and pressures you never anticipated that came with the book’s success?

Absolutely. I am not somebody who sought to be a public figure. I’m not in journalism. I’m not a TV anchor. I’m an academic. And I didn’t set out to coin a tern that would shape the way we talk about race. I could never have dreamed that my book would be as successful as it was. And so I have been surprised at the intensity of the criticism. With that level of visibility comes a pretty vicious level of critique. There’s something about racism that really gets people emotional.

How have you navigated the criticism?

Yeah, I mean, you do get a tougher skin, and I have to work hard to keep perspective. And I remember all of the hundreds, if not thousands of emails, I get from people across the racial spectrum thanking me for my work. Those words just aren’t as loud as the other voices. And so, I try to keep a perspective. I am not on social media. I don’t think I could get up in the morning if I read it.

And there are people in my life, both White and Black, that I trust dearly, and that I have, what I call accountability relationships. What I am clear about more than ever as a result of this last year is that absolutely no one can always get it right on race. So you have to find that center within yourself, and your integrity to keep doing what you believe. I surround myself with people with a deep understanding of systemic racism, and I talk through these challenges.