Small bites. Because we can do hard things.
Let’s get started.
But I’m not racist! I have black friends/quit the country club/marched on Washington.
I’ve been reading White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo, and right off the bat she said something startling. In making racism about mean people we’ve virtually guaranteed folks won’t even consider the possibility that they might behave in prejudiced ways. If we hope to make any progress at all, we have to release the idea that prejudice is bad.
You could practically hear my brakes screeching. Wait, what? Of course being prejudiced is bad. Why are we even reading this thing if it’s not? It wasn’t the last time I’d need to shut up and settle down so I could process the author’s point.
Which was this.
As long as people think prejudice is “bad” they’ll deny the reality of its existence. Instead of talking about what’s really happening in the world they’ll fight the perceived implication that they themselves are bad people, and once they’re in defensive mode all hope of constructive conversation dies. Without honest conversation nothing will change, so Robin suggests we reframe our understanding of the basics.
Prejudice: a pre-judgement about another person based on the social groups to which that person belongs.
Prejudice is made up of “thoughts and feelings, including stereotypes, attitudes, and generalizations that are based on little or no experience and then are projected onto everyone from that group.” (page 19) Since we share cultural influences our prejudices tend to be shared.
This is neither bad nor good, it is simply human nature. We collect data and draw conclusions, true or not. All of us. Period.
Discrimination: action based on prejudice.
Actions include “ignoring, exclusion, threats, ridicule, slander, and violence.” (page 20) Some discrimination is clearly recognizable – if you feel hatred due to your prejudice, acts of violence may result. If instead you feel mildly uncomfortable around someone of another race then discrimination will be more circumspect, like being less relaxed around somebody or avoiding them altogether.
“Prejudice always manifests itself in action because the way I see the world drives my actions in the world. Everyone has prejudice, and everyone discriminates.” (page 20)
Racism: when a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control.
The critical concept here is that racism is a system. “Authority and control transform individual prejudices into a far-reaching system that no longer depends on the good intentions of individual actors; it becomes the default of the society and is reproduced automatically.” (page 21)
So what does all this mean?
We can’t recognize racism for what it truly is – a structure, not an event – until we distinguish it from prejudice and discrimination. And we can’t dig deep into dismantling this structure until we accept the simple fact that we all carry prejudice and we all discriminate.
Get past the idea that this makes you bad. That’s when the real work can start.
You can check out the first small bites installment here.
All citations are from White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo, ©2018.