Editor: This article picks up where What are You Saying with ‘Where are you from?’ to Ask about Ethnicity? left off.
I was curious to get the opinion of the very person who coined the phrase “white fragility” on the interaction with my coworker. Dr. DiAngelo has worked for over 20 years doing workplace diversity training and leading primarily white groups in discussions of race and racism. She takes the so-called “anti-racist” approach, which acknowledges and challenges the historic and current power differentials between people of color and white people in the U.S. She addresses patterns that develop due to the dynamics of internalized racism and internalized dominance.
Dr. DiAngelo explained that what’s being done when you’re asked where you’re from “is that white people get to be individuals, but you’re always being racialized. So every moment of that, [some will call it] ‘curiosity,’ but I’m racializing you—I’m reminding you that you’re never going to be seen as an individual, and you will be a perpetual outsider or foreigner. And, also…if you’re the ‘other’ then I [as a white person] am the norm. I get some deep psychological capital from making you the ‘other’. But I also get to do it in a way that has me feeling open and friendly to you, so I’m like, ‘Look how not racist I am.’”
Ah, yes, the “other.”
The philosophical idea of the “other” can be found as far back as in Plato’s Sophist, which is thought to be written around 360 BC. In more recent history, “otherness” was discussed in the 18th century writings of German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel; was later developed in the 20th century by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, German philosopher Edmund Husserl, and others; was then written about by such philosophers as Simone de Beauvoir, Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jean-Paul Sartre, and was extensively covered by the late philosophers Michel Foucault and Edward Said. The verb “othering” was born out of postcolonial studies and coined in the 80’s by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak—Indian literary theorist, feminist critic, postcolonial theorist, and a University Professor at Columbia University—and is defined as “a process by which the empire can define itself against those it colonizes, excludes, and marginalizes. […] The business of creating the enemy … in order that the empire might define itself by its geographical and racial others.”
Genocide scholars study how othering leads to genocide in the most extreme cases.
Othering is what ultimately led to the Armenian genocide in 1915 during which the Ottoman government systematically murdered 1.5 million Armenians. It’s also what led to over a million Rwandans being murdered in 1994 by their fellow citizens over a three-month period while another million died in refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo over the next few years. And, of course, how can anyone forget about The Holocaust, the systematic murder of six million Jewish people by Nazi Germany and its collaborators, not to mention the mass slaughter of Bengalis and Cambodians in the 70’s, Bosnians and Kosovars in the 90’s, and Darfuris in the 2000’s, among others?
I also asked Dr. DiAngelo why she thinks some people get defensive and are unwilling to even engage in a deeper discussion about racism as a structured, institutionalized system. She said, “I think the most brilliant adaptation of racism post-Civil Rights is…that [we] correlate racism with a profound immorality so that no white person can connect to it. So, it seems like a positive change post-Civil Rights so now it’s bad to be racist, but, no, how does it actually function? It makes it virtually impossible [to be racist] because to be a good person and to be complicit with racism is mutually exclusive in [society’s] dominant frame. And so what someone thinks is, ‘I couldn’t possibly be a racist because a racist is very, very bad; a racist doesn’t like people of color and knows it.’ It’s also a deep lack of understanding about implicit bias. So, you basically just said I was the worst possible kind of person that you could ever be. [It’s] like if you told me, ‘Robin, you’re a murderer,’ I would just laugh and be like, ‘Right, whatever.’ And to say I’m a racist, I’m going to lose my mind. So there’s what I call the good/bad binary.
“There’s also this belief that our intentions trump our impact, so as long as I didn’t mean it to be racism, it doesn’t count as racism, so move on and get off my back, basically. But if I’m standing on your foot, and you’re like, ‘Ow, you’re on my foot,’ and I’m like, ‘Well, I didn’t mean to be on your foot,’ and you’re like, ‘Yeah, but you are,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, but I didn’t mean to,’ it would be like, ‘No, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry that I hurt you.’
“So [there’s a]…virtual impossibility in the white mind to connect ourselves with racism because we fundamentally don’t understand what it is. And arrogance. I think that’s profound arrogance on the part of your friend to categorically dismiss the research [about the black- and white-sounding names on resumes] when he doesn’t even know about it. See, even when you prove racism—because, by God, you’re going to have to prove it—even then, no. We just won’t grant it because we’re deeply invested in it. He wants to be able to ask what he wants to ask. He doesn’t want to have to think about what his position is. It’s that deep entitlement to dominate, basically, and not to have to be inconvenienced in the most slightest way… And that’s also part of dominance: never having to grapple with power and positionality. I try to help white people see that basically from the moment we opened our eyes, we’ve been reinforced in white as superior. There’s never been a space outside of it, and those messages come at us 24/7. Racism is always at play in any situation. Even as you and I are having this conversation, racism is in this conversation. How? That’s for us to figure out and try our best to minimize.”
Did you miss Sara Kim’s first installment? Don’t worry, here it is:
Don’t forget to read part three as well:
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