A Training With Robin DiAngelo

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Robin DiAngelo facilitated a training for my job on Friday. Every 3 months or so, we have an all division professional development day, where essentially, everyone in student services comes together and spends roughly 4 hours learning about something that will be beneficial for our work on campus. Usually, I look at these days with a sense of dread. I’m not too big of a fan attending a mandatory training where I’m reminded that I’m adulting. My inner child rebelliously sprints into my imagination refuses to leave. This renders me introverted, a little restless, and my mind on a completely different planet. Also, I find when I do happen to speak up during these trainings, it’s typically something related to racism, microaggressions, and social justice. That’s definitely an up-hill battle considering that not everyone in my division (about 60 people) has an analysis about institutional oppressions and the complex web of the intersections that weaves all of it together. Many of my co-workers are older white people and are particularly tender when it comes to anything race related. So imagine how welcomed my perspective is when I do speak up? I either get shut down, somewhat ignored, or looked as a terrible person for being the cause of white tears.

However, this professional development day intrigued me due to the fact that Robin DiAngelo was presenting. I’m familiar with her work on white fragility. I watched a few of her lectures on Youtube. I’ve read one of her books. In terms of white people doing the work, she is right up there with Jane Elliot. Needless to say, I was curious to see how this was going to turn out.

As I strolled into the training (a few minutes late but hey, who’s counting?) I found a chair in the back of the room. Luckily, Dr. DiAngelo had just been introduced. I felt like I made it as soon as the previews cut and the featured film began rolling it’s opening credits. My initial impression of her was that as a presenter, she served as a translator to white people about the nuances of institutionalized racism, white supremacy, and white privilege. Being a white woman herself, I believe it’s easier for many white people to listen to what she’s saying. If it was a person of color sharing the exact same material, I’d be willing to wager that the results would have been different. In most instances, the pain and frustration of racism being a lived experience can be felt when a POC is presenting on the topic. In contrast, when it’s a white person, there tends to be almost an element of detachment with the information, it’s more theoretical than experiential. I’m not saying one is better than the other– I’m just pointing out the difference.

She was able to leverage her own whiteness to provide a lot of context for white people to grasp without much of their fragility being triggered (as far as I know). If it’s a friendly white woman discussing institutionalized racism and white privilege, then I imagine for many of them, that it’s easier to view the information as being legitimate. This seems to be an unfortunate truth operating on an unconscious level for most. My question is that if white people are made comfortable during discussions about racism is it a productive conversation? If you’re exercising but you don’t feel your muscles burn or you don’t perspire, does that still count as a workout? I think to a degree helping white people get accustomed to the subject matter is crucial. Often times, when their fragility is triggered then their receptiveness drops dramatically, so to side step this possible drawback is somewhat effective. However, this can’t be the end all be all, eventually they’ll have to take a plunge into the deep end of the horrors of racism and the havoc that it continues to wreck upon people’s lives (white people included).

I found her presentation to be very meta. Where she excelled was helping bring into awareness aspects of the white identity that often goes unnoticed, such as, the neighborhood that you lived in, the teachers you had in school, and the subconscious messages that are promoted within the mainstream media. All of these components shapes the perspective of white people and how they view the world and their relationship with it. Essentially, she helped the fish become cognizant of the water they were swimming in.

As a social justice nerd, I really appreciated how she utilized intersectionality with comparing sexism to racism. I’m always a proponent of if you understand one form of oppression, you’re given the blueprint as to how others operate as well. Surely there are differences but the overall structures possess a handful of similarities. This helped people get a conceptual framework of what we were working with.

She introduced the idea that individual racism tends to be considered within a good/bad binary. Where white people can be divided into two categories, one being the good people that aren’t racist and the other being the KKK and skinheads. Being that many white people don’t identify with either of the latter then they can associate racism with those groups and be exonerated of any charges. This would explain why so many white people get offended when you accuse them of being racist. Within their mind, they have conjured up an image of what a racist is and it is usually the opposite of themselves. They’re good. Those people are bad. But she would go on to say that, even good intentioned decent people can be racist. She said just because you supposedly marched in the 60’s or have a Filipino neighbor doesn’t mean anything. She then drew the parallel with sexism. She said a man can fall in love with a woman but that doesn’t mean all of sudden his sexism disappears.

Something that stood out to me was her suggestion of instead of asking if racism happened, the better question is asking how did racism happened? Many times, white people are skeptical of any actual report of racism, they will try to whitesplain away a racially charged interaction. If a group that generally speaking, doesn’t have much familiarity with such a pernicious topic like racism, then they are not in a position to determine whether or not racism has occurred. In other words, if a person is not a mechanic and has minimal exposure to anything underneath the hood of a car, they are not qualified to diagnose any automobile problems.

The most impactful part of the training for me came towards the end. She was going through a series of PowerPoint slides, demonstrating how white people can practically go their entire lives in a segregated world where their interaction with people of color are a minimal if any. And then she said, “and many white people do not see a problem with this.”  This struck me like a ton of bricks. A segregated life (physically, intellectually, culturally, etc.) which removes any genuine and sincere connection shared with people that are different from you, I believe deprives you of understanding your own humanity. Why would white people want to do that to themselves? Why would anyone want to do that to themselves? My short answer would be somewhere close to Dr. Frances Cress Welsing’s Theory of racism but that’s a whole blog in and of itself.

My only critique was that despite it being incredibly necessary for this topic to be covered and for white people to receive this translation in order for many of them to better grasp the overwhelming concept, it still ultimately had whiteness front and center in the discussion. This reinforces notions that to be white guarantees visibility and attention in this world. If the training was conducted only for white people, I don’t think this would be an issue, but being that it was a mixed audience, the dynamic changes. Dr. DiAngelo was merely reiterating what many POC’s have been saying for a long time on our campus. So for many POC’s that were in attendance, we were not receiving anything new, just a different way to say what’s already been said.

Overall, I enjoyed the training and hope that it sparked some white person’s mind to begin to consider these topics seriously. My boss spoke to everyone at the end and said, “for some people this may be just another subject to discuss but for others this is a matter of life and death.”

2 thoughts on “A Training With Robin DiAngelo

  1. “… it still ultimately had whiteness front and center in the discussion. This reinforces notions that to be white guarantees visibility and attention in this world. ”
    How would you have liked to see it differently? Maybe I’m misinterpreting but my understanding is people of color know the issue of racism because they live it, where as white folk can lead completely removed lives (something I’ve experienced myself for many years, and to a large extent am experiencing still) so even with a mixed audience, isn’t it white people that really need to hear this, and if so, what is wrong with the heavy white focus? I also wasn’t there so it’s hard for me to truly grasp what you mean by “whiteness front and center”. Maybe a direct example would help me put the together a more complete picture.
    Thanks, great writing.

    1. I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to have a focus on whiteness during the racial dialogue. Bringing awareness to whiteness is a crucial component to getting everyone on the same page particularly white people. Part of the way the concept of whiteness maintains power is by normalizing it and which makes much of it go unnoticed and undetected by the conscious mind. So to begin naming it and being able to clearly identify it throughout the course of an individual’s life is paramount to societal, cultural, and spiritual transformation. However, what must be kept in mind is that at the end of the day it’s still centering the racial dialogue around whiteness and in a mixed audience where people of color and white people are already receiving the tacit message that whiteness deserves the most attention, that value system which is already present throughout our society is now recreated within the dialogue that’s attempting to decenter whiteness. I do think white people need to hear this, this information is important for their growth and development as a people if they are genuine and sincere about making a positive change within themselves and taking on the responsibility for the actions of their ancestors. Now this is a multi-step process: bringing awareness to whiteness, integrating a new belief system with this new level of awareness and all of its implications, constantly developing new behavioral patterns and then ultimately dedicating a life towards decentering whiteness and helping redirect the attention away from white people. That’s how white people will grow spritually and gain humility. Where it gets tricky is in the beginning stage of the awareness process which can lead white people to getting tripped up because they are learning about decentering themselves by being the center of the conversation. This pitfall many white liberals fall into because they can articulate problematic behavior with white people but never stop to think how their own behavior is problematic. My point is that there is more work to be done the initial stage if white people are honest about contributing to this movement for transformation.

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