This Is Us
By Doreen Munsie
“I can’t breathe.” The words uttered by George Floyd as he pleaded for his life are reverberating through communities, our nation, and the world. Many people are asking, “How can something like this happen?” and “What can I do about it?”
Activists and educators would agree a first step in answering these questions is to educate oneself by examining race and racism and begin a dialogue for change. Scores of books and films provide information and encourage the conversation. A good starting place is the Rye Free Reading Room’s “Exploring Race and Racism in America” available at www.ryelibrary.org/antiracist. It includes resources for all ages, films, important links, and will be updated with programs centered on this topic.
Right now, books about race and racism are dominating the best-seller lists and one of these is “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism”, a work published in 2018 that has catapulted to Amazon’s number one book on racism and discrimination. Author Robin DiAngelo is a consultant with a Ph.D. in multicultural education and has spent over twenty years running diversity-training workshops for American companies.
“All humans have prejudice. We cannot avoid it,” writes DiAngelo, and “white fragility” is a white person’s discomfort and defensiveness in response to evidence of racism. “We have to stop thinking about racism simply as someone who says the N-word.” She queries, “If nobody is racist, then why is racism still America’s biggest problem?” Her pointed explanation is that prejudice is human, discrimination is the action, but racism is the system.
She posits that we are all complicit in society’s institutional racism. Being raised a white person in this society results in a world view steeped in a privilege that allows one to move through the world comfortably, ignorant of, yet benefiting from, structural racism. In this country, consider the disadvantages of being black in the critical areas of education, health, housing, employment, and the legal system.
As DiAngelo explains, the narratives of “I was taught to treat everyone the same,” or, “I believe in individualism,” and “I have black friends,” are “pillars of white defense” that take the discussion of race off the table. Intentional or not, the result exempts people from further engagement. She cautions that these kinds of statement function to protect the current racial hierarchy when the issue of institutional racism really needs to be confronted head on. These white biases and patterns invest us in “the system of racism that is the bedrock of our society.”
“White Fragility” is more about self-examination than radical solutions, but it’s a beginning. Understanding the underlying forces of white socialization, reflecting on how one acts can affect another, and not denying that racism exists, is growth. It starts with a personal journey that urges sensitivity, receptiveness, and vigilance in the quest for racial awareness.
A recent local Black Lives Matter protest march, organized by two high school students, attracted hundreds of community residents. I am not white. I am a person of color, and the spirit of earnestness among these young people moved me. I was encouraged by the expression of outrage and the calling for change. For one thing, curriculum that includes teaching and understanding diversity and racism in this country.
Reading books like these are an important part of the solution. It starts with us and ends with us.