Amy C. Waninger fills in for Zach to interview Dr. Robin DiAngelo, author of “White Fragility,” about just that. She helpfully unpacks the concept of whiteness and what it means in the context of American society, defines the term white solidarity and discusses its impact on black and brown people at work, and talks about what it looks like for white people to take responsibility for being less fragile. She also touches on the topic of diversity of thought and explains why she believes that it is the way that homogeneous groups protect their hold on institutional power.
Find out more about Robin’s book “White Fragility” on Amazon.
Check out her website.
Read her piece, “Nothing to Add: A Challenge to White Silence in Racial Discussions,” by clicking here.
Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate, and look, really good news. First of all–the first thing. The first thing, right, ’cause I have two things. The first thing is my wife and I have welcomed our first child into the world. Her name is Emory, and she is great. In fact, her full name is Emory Jean Nunn. Beautiful. Gorgeous. I don’t post pictures of my kids on social media, so if you don’t really know me like that, if we’re not really close, you’re not going to get a picture from me. But that’s okay, ’cause you don’t have to see her. You know? It’s okay. It’s kind of like–who doesn’t post pictures of their kids? Oh, no, Sia doesn’t show her face. But, like, you know how Sia doesn’t show her face? Like, that’s how I’ma do my kids. Like, you know, you’ll never see her face, but, like, she’ll be covered up with, like, a lamp or something like that. But anyway, really excited about the fact that I’m a father. Really thankful for my wife. I was in the delivery room when she had her daughter, when she had our daughter, and man, just the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Shout-out to you, Candis. You’re beautiful. Really thankful and appreciative to you for making me a girl dad, and yeah, that’s the first thing. Like, that’s the headline, okay? And then the second thing, far distant but still pretty cool news, we were able to get a very special guest today, and her name is Robin DiAngelo, Dr. Robin DiAngelo, and, you know, it was interesting because I was supposed to be the person who was to interview Dr. DiAngelo, but the date that we had to interview directly interfered with me welcoming my daughter into the world. So I was still in the hospital during my interview date. So I was able to prep Amy C. Waninger, wonderful consultant, subject matter expert, executive coach and member of Living Corporate and founder of her own company Lead at Any Level. She actually facilitated this conversation in my stead, and I just think that’s really cool for a couple different reasons. One, Living Corporate has now gotten to the size and scope that we’re able to attract a Dr. DiAngelo, but also our team is so capable that, you know, someone can check in the game and I can check out without there being a huge issue, and so shout-out to you, Amy. Thank you so much for facilitating this conversation. I know you all are gonna love this conversation, so make sure you check it out, and I’ll catch y’all next time. Peace.
Amy: Robin, welcome to the show. How are you?
Robin: Well, I’m overall well in a very uncertain and frightening time.
Amy: So let’s get right into it, Robin. So before we talk about white fragility, can we unpack the concept of whiteness? Which is something we don’t talk about a lot, and what that means in the context of American society?
Robin: Yeah. So let’s hold that note that you just made, that we don’t talk about it a lot, because it’s a key way that it stays intact and protected. So I’m gonna use Ruth Frankenberg. She’s a sociologist, and she makes three points about whiteness, three dimensions. So it’s a location of structural advantage, a position if you will within society, within institutions. It’s a standpoint from which white people look out at ourselves, at others, and at society, and it’s a set of cultural practices that are not named or acknowledged, right? And so to say that it’s a standpoint is to say that it’s a significant aspect of white identity, to see one’s self as an individual outside or innocent of race, right? Just human. For most white people it’s the last thing. [laughs] We’d have to be prompted to include being white in a list of, you know, “What you need to know about me,” right? Characteristics of myself, things that have shaped my life. We’re rarely going to name race as one of those things and yet, you know, before I took my first breath, the fact that my mother and I are white was shaping the trajectory of my life, and certainly the outcome of my very birth, right? So all of these things come together to create what you think of as whiteness, kind of the water that we interact within.
Amy: I like that you called out “it’s unnamed cultural norms,” and I know in your book, and we’ll talk about this in a minute, but naming those cultural norms, it violates the norms.
Robin: It’s this odd kind of tension if you will, right, that in talking about whiteness, of course, we’re centering whiteness, right? We’re kind of, you know, as always, positioning white people in the middle of the conversation, but in a very curious way whiteness stays centered by not being named, by not being acknowledged, and so to disrupt it you have to expose it. You have to make it visible. We can see this with patriarchy, right? The kind of unmarked, unnamed norm is “male” and then everything else is named as a specific position so that maleness is just human, and then femaleness is a variation and a deficient one of that, and the same of race. White is human, and everything else is a particular kind, and to be honest, a less than version of that human, and so by never naming that center from which we’re proceeding you protect it.
Amy: Absolutely. And I want to be sure and call this out right now, because when Zach asked me to stand in for him, you know, he knew that this interview was happening around the time of the birth of his daughter, and he called me and asked me if I would step in and sub for him, and I laughed and I said, “Really, Zach? You want a white woman–the only white woman on your team–to interview a white woman on a podcast for black and brown people?” You know? And I said “Are you sure that’s what you want to do?” And he said, “Lean into that, go with it, and don’t be afraid to call it out,” and so I want to make sure that the audience knows that I know that I’m white, Robin and I both know that.
Robin: Oh, I’m acutely aware.
Amy: And yet we are recording this, you know, with the intent of sharing this conversation with a predominantly black and brown audience, and so I want to really, like, unpack this and do this justice, because I think we have such a unique opportunity here. You’ve used several times, in your book and in your talks, the term “white solidarity.” Can you explain to us what that term means?
Robin: Yeah. Maybe a couple of remarks about what you had just acknowledged, right? First of all, I actually think people of color know what it means to be white, know about dynamics such as white fragility to a degree that I never will, because they’ve been navigating it their entire lives. I think about it as it comes from me, not at me, right? And as an insider to whiteness, you and I do have something to offer, right, that people of color can’t know or understand, and one piece of what we can offer is just to freaking admit to this, right? I mean, that in and of itself, you know, helps with the gaslighting, right? But I also want to be clear that–and I’m pretty sure this speaks for you too–we were not raised to see ourselves as white. Right now us acknowledging that, it’s taken, you know, 20 years of my life’s work to come to understand that I am white and that it shapes everything that I do. So it’s not something that we are set up to understand at all, which of course is part of how it stays protected. And then to not name this, right? Audre Lorde has a beautiful quote about the master’s tools. “How do you dismantle the master’s house when you only have the master’s tools?” So as you and I are two white people having this conversatino, of course we’re reinforcing whiteness, right? But for me to not use this position, this platform, this voice, this automatic granting of credibility and benefit of the doubt, to not use that to interrupt whiteness is to really be white. [laughs] And I’d like to be a little less white. And I always want to be really clear. What I mean when I say a little less white, I am not gonna tell you or tell white people that the answer to racism is to claim our ethnic roots, right? I’m not gonna say, “Let’s all go and be Italian-American and Irish-American.” No, for me to be a little less white means to be–to put it bluntly–a little less racially oppressive, a little less racially ignorant and yet arrogant in my ignorance, right? A little less certain and complacent and apathetic and silent and a little more humble and curious and breaking with white solidarity. So that leads us to that question. I see white solidarity as the unspoken agreement amongst white people that we’ll keep each other comfortable around our racism, that we will privilege one another’s saving face over actually being in our integrity and interrupted racism. So you say something, I’m cringing, right? I’m like, “Ugh,” but I don’t want to embarrass you so I’m not gonna say anything, plus I’m so relieved that it wasn’t me, right? “It was you, not me!” You know, there’s that individual piece where I think “Hey, as long as I didn’t say it I’m not complicit with it,” but of course my silence is complicit with what you just said, right? Yeah, so it’s that dynamic of protecting one another, protecting our positions within this system. No matter how we rationalize it, that is what we’re doing through white solidarity. Kind of pulling ranks.
Amy: Mm-hmm. And there are real consequences for breaking with white solidarity, just like there are real consequences for not being white, and so as white folks we can either choose to remain protected by standing in solidarity with people that we maybe disagree with or have made us uncomfortable or we can choose to shed that protection and shed some of that privilege, but then we’re also opening ourselves up to the same kinds of in the moment–not universally, but in the moment the same types of social outcasting we might receive if we were in fact other.
Robin: Yes. You know, let’s be really clear. There are consequences to white people for breaking with white solidarity. I mean, the term race traitor has an origin, right? And so that’s in large part why we often don’t break with it, but I also want to distinguish the differences, right? We’re in this moment, right? We’re at the dinner table. Uncle Bob says that thing. Everybody’s cringing. Nobody wants to ruin the dinner. And I often ask, “Jeez, why would interrupting racism ruin the dinner and not interrupting racism not ruin this dinner,” right? And yet, you know, i t’s gonna erupt in conflict and so we keep quiet. So, you know, there are consequences, such as being dismissed, being trivialized, “You ruined the dinner,” but it doesn’t rest on a history. It doesn’t trigger a history of harm, right, that it does for people of color when they break that silence, right? So that’s one piece, and another piece is I am probably not going to lose my job. I am probably not going to be criminalized. I am probably not going to be institutionalized. But those threats and those fears are out there kind of circulating around people of color when they challenge white people, right? This is very real. The consequences are real.
Amy: Absolutely. So let’s talk about how white solidarity shows up at work, and specifically what are the impacts to black and brown folks at work when white people are engaging in white solidarity?
Robin: Well, one of the ways it shows up is privileging white people’s feelings over racism, right? So all of this, you know, tiptoeing and tying people in knots to, you know, make sure that white people are comfortable in this conversation, and we have to create a safe space, and we can’t go too fast, and, you know, “Let’s not call it racial equity. Let’s call it D&I and D&E and DEI and everything, you know, vague other than racial justice, right? Because we need to keep white people comfortable,” right? Let’s get everything on the table. Well, how does that function? By getting everything on the table you can’t do justice to anything, and you certainly can’t do justice to race, right? So those are some really common ways that institutions privilege and protect white people’s delicate sensibilities over the very real pain that people of color in primarily-white organizations are experiencing daily.
Amy: Absolutely, and I want to be very clear about this. So it seems like the higher up people are in the organizational food chain, if you will, the more fragile they are, and the more power they have the more fragile they are in terms of conversations about race, the more they cling to that power and weaponize it. Do you think that’s a fair take?
Robin: Yes. Certainly, I mean, you see white fragility across, you know, wherever you have white people, but the impact of it is greater the higher your status is, right? So my training is in sociology, and it’s just been invaluable to me, right? And there’s a question that’s just never failed me in my efforts, right, to unpack, you know, how do we keep getting these outcomes despite all the things that white people are gonna claim? And that question is not is this true or is this false, is this right or is this wrong, but how does it function? Who does it serve? So how does it function and who does it serve when the people with the most institutional power are the most fragile? Well, they certainly have the most to lose in a way, right? They are protecting their positions and their status. They likely feel the most threatened by a question, and I’m gonna offer they likely feel the most entitled to what they have, and so they have no ability or stamina to withstand questioning what they have, right? I mean, you’re up against now idealogies of meritocracy, that “I have what I have because I’m the cream of the crop, and cream rises, and I’ve worked hard, and, you know, I’m special, and I went to the finest schools.” You’re questioning all of that idealogy when you challenge those at the top. Maybe there’s something more going on here than just the cream rising. And I just have to say I grew up in poverty, so I didn’t go to college until I was in my 30s, and I really did think that the smartest kids went to college. And then I got to college and I was dumbfounded, quite frankly, and then I went on to teach college, and I can assure you that the cream does not rise, that the smartest kids don’t go to college, and that Ivy League schools are not filled with the best and the brightest. It’s about access and opportunity, but that’s a hard thing to look at when all your life you’ve been told how special you are.
Amy: Absolutely. Now, in your book you said–and I’m quoting from your book here–“It’s white people’s responsibility to be less fragile. People of color don’t need to twist themselves into knots trying to navigate us as painlessly as possible,” and this seems to fly in the face of a lot of, you know, diversity and inclusion work that’s being done in corporations right now. You alluded to this earlier, right? We call it everything but anti-racism, we call it everything but racial equity, and, you know, there seems to be a lot of making people comfortable, you know, setting ground rules so no one gets upset when we have these conversations at work, and kind of the prevailing notion or the unwritten, unspoken rule is “Both sides need to put in a lot of emotional labor to make this change happen.” So let me ask you – what does it look like for white people to take responsibility for being less fragile? How do we do that?
Robin: Let’s back up a little bit and talk about that dynamic, right, where everyone’s equally responsible. That does not account for the difference in power, in structural and institutional power. So that’s like saying, if we’re looking–I draw from patriarchy and sexism a lot. I’m a cis woman. You know, she/her pronouns. I’m white. And it’s just so clear when I think about it. Well, both men and women have equal responsibility to dismantle patriarchy. Well, we all play a role, but who controls the institutions, right? Who holds that power? And so the weight of that responsibility I believe is in the hands of those who have more institutional power. And people of color of course have a role to play, in the same way that women have a role to play in challenging sexism and patriarchy, but it’s a very different role. In a lot of ways it’s about developing critical consciousness. It’s about surviving the dynamics, supporting each other, getting away–getting space away from white people. I mean, these are the kinds of things that people of color–that have been in my life–have shared that they need to have, right? This is how they can kind of survive this whiteness that they’re embedded in all the time, is to surround themselves with people who understand their experiences and share their experiences, right? So what are some of the things that white people can do? We simply cannot get where we need to go from the current paradigm, which is–this is the average white person’s definition of what it means to be racist, right? A racist is an individual who consciously does not like people based on race and is intentionally mean to them. Individual, conscious malintent across race. That’s racism, or a racist, and I don’t know that you could come up with a more effective way to protect systemic racism than that definition, because it absolves virtually all white people. Most of the racism–I would say actually all of the racism–I have perpetrated in my life has been unintentional and unaware. That does not mean that the impact of it hasn’t been harmful and painful, right? So you pretty much guarantee defensiveness and denial when that is what you think it means to be racist. You know, the average white person–I mean, I’ve been asking this question for 20 years – “What does it mean to be white?” – and most white people can’t answer that question, and that’s not benign or innocent or neutral. You know, the collective inability of white people to answer that question creates a hostile environment, because if I can’t tell you what it means to be white, I cannot hold what it means not to be white, right? I’m gonna have no critical thinking on that. I’m gonna have no skills to navigate the conversation, and I’m gonna have no emotional capacity to withstand the discomfort of that conversation, and what that means is that people of color in primarily white environments can’t be their authentic selves. They can’t talk to us about what they’re experiencing because things tend to get worse for them, not better for them, when they challenge us, right? So we white people have to stop thinking about racism as just people walking around saying the N word, you know, and going to rallies in Charlottesville. That’s real too. That’s another conversation, but again, it’s the more–I’m gonna put air quotes around it–“subtle,” but it’s that inability to understand our own racial perspective and positions that creates that climate for people of color working with us, right? And that leads to this idea that racism is their problem, right? I mean, I was raised to see race as what–oh, let’s name somebody. Van Jones has race, right? I don’t have race, right? I’m just regular, you know? In my day we said things like “I’m just white bread,” “I’m just Heinz 57,” right? They have race, and so they also have the problems associated with race, and so you get this idea that they’ll have to work that out, but thank goodness I’m not a part of that. I’ll never forget a student–I used to always start my classes with that question, you know, how has your race shaped your life? And a white student wrote, “Well, I was really lucky. I grew up in an all-white neighborhood, and so I’ve never learned anything about racism.”
Amy: They’ve learned everything.
Robin: Just in that one sentence, I mean, we can unpack–I could teach a whole freaking seminar on that one sentence it’s so loaded. We could do some beautiful discourse analysis, right? But this idea that we’re innocent of race, that white space is unracialized space and that we’ve absorbed nothing in that space–
Amy: And I think that we’re not missing anything by being in that space, right? [?] anything that would benefit us by staying in those, you know, all-white neighborhoods that are privileged, you know? It’s just such a sadness to me. It’s such a sickness that we have, that we think that by excluding ourselves from the conversation we are in some way privileging ourselves, when I believe the exact opposite is true.
Robin: Yeah. I actually think the deepest message of all, of white supremacy–and let me just pause for a minute, because that’s a charged term for a lot of white people. Yes, it includes people wearing white hoods. You know, that’s how I was raised to understand the term, but it’s actually a highly descriptive sociological term for the society we live in, one in which elevates white people as the norm for humanity, a lot of what we’ve already been talking about, and I think one of the deepest messages of white supremacy is this idea that there’s nothing of value lost in white segregation, and in fact, that segregation is what we use to define that space as good. The whiter it is, the more it will be perceived as “good,” valuable, safe. The profundity of that message is so deep. I just wish white people would just sit with it for a minute. “Wow,” right? To call white segregated space good, right? We just came out of February, which was Black History Month, where we talk about the tragedy of enforced segregation of blacks in the Jim Crow South, and every day we talk in celebratory terms about white segregation. Those are very deep messages that we have to look at. Again, it’s not the N-word for somebody like me, but it’s that.
Amy: Right, it’s the coded language of good schools, good neighborhoods, low crime, you know, nice areas of town, good parts of town, right?
Robin: Mm-hmm. “Oh, I’m shocked that crime happened here.” Well, where is it supposed to happen?
Amy: Right, or we don’t even define it as crime when white people do it. White collar crime is its own kind of crime because certainly people who are in white collar jobs who are white people are not engaged in normal crime, right? Normal crime is for other people. And yeah, the vernacular around this, we could go on forever, but I want to get to Zach’s questions because he’s my boss.
Robin: Yeah. Well, I want to say something about the ground rules. You mentioned ground rules, right? ‘Cause we’re talking about corporate settings. So you have these seminars and workshops and, you know, these guidelines for having a conversation, but they always assume equal power relations, right? There’s no one set of guidelines that will ensure a quote-unquote “safe space” for everybody. Usually what they are all about is niceness, and a culture of niceness is just kind of deadly in terms of racial justice because challenging racism, naming racism, will not be perceived as “nice,” right? “You’ve hurt my feelings,” you know? “How could you assume I would be racist?” And so as long as everybody has to be nice, we can have no conflict or no strong feelings and we can’t express ourselves in any kind of strong way. And so usually those ground rules function to stifle authentic conversation, authentic expression of pain that people of color are often in in primarily white spaces, particularly primarily white-controlled spaces.
Amy: Well, it becomes another form of gatekeeping that white people do on conversations that don’t center them. And so we keep those conversations to a minimum, we make sure that we reframe it so that it’s palatable for the people that pay our salaries and that sort of thing, and, you know, I think to me one of the things that we can do as white people is to put ourselves less often in gatekeeper roles where we are, you know, less responsible for things like merit decisions or, you know, pay decisions, promotion decisions, content or tone decisions, right? Where we’re not policing those things, we are handing that off to someone who is, you know, superbly capable of doing it from a completely different perspective, and I think especially in those kinds of conversations where we’re in racial equity conversations, I think it’s incumbent upon white folks, just like when you’re in a performance review and your boss gives you feedback you don’t like, you don’t argue with them and cry and throw things and, you know, tell them, you know, “I can’t believe you thought I did a bad job on that report,” right? We don’t do that because it would be ridiculous to do that in any other professional context, but then somehow we put ourselves in the position of gatekeeping on those conversations again through the weaponizing of our emotions in those conversations.
Robin: Yeah, it reminds me of–as a woman in a male-dominated environment, I am not going to cry. No way. I might go in the bathroom and cry, but I am not gonna cry in front of those men. And yet, white women, how free do we feel to cry in front of people of color when charged with racism, right? When held accountable for our behavior, which is very revealing about our understanding of where the power lies, right? What is the difference between my tears in each of those contexts, right? And so your question about, you know, “How do we get there?” And I was saying we can’t get there from the current paradigm, right? We just have to start from the premise, white people have to start from the premise, that we have been thoroughly indoctrinated and socialized into white supremacy and into ways of seeing and being that uphold white supremacy, and once you start there it’s actually incredibly liberating, right? It’s just transformative. I can stop defending, denying, debating, you know, and start just getting to work trying to unpack, well, how is that indoctrination into white supremacy manifesting in my life, in my work? It’s such a different question because it rests on a very different premise, right? And so when you talk about white people kind of turning over some of those decisions in the workplace, I want to put in a plug here for, you know, if you’re gonna put people of color on committees and, you know, token representation, they need to be paid more for that work, right? They need to be compensated for the psychic, emotional and intellectual labor that they’re doing and the expertise that they’re bringing that the rest of us don’t have, right? And tart acknowledging–
Amy: And not just one person of color on that board. You need a critical mass of people who can, you know, almost be a block of voices, because one person cannot do that work alone. I mean, that’s violent to put one person in that position.
Robin: Yes, yes.
Amy: So let me ask you this while we’re on the subject of corporate America and the way that we talk about diversity concepts. You know, we hear a lot about–so there are a couple places I want to go with this. The first is “Well, what about diversity of thought?” And I have so many things I’d love to save about that, but the other is, you know, this focus on gender as if gender equity is one thing. And so I want to leave that there and kind of get your response to those two terms.
Robin: So we might as well just go for it. Diversity of thought is ridiculous – ridiculous. That is the way that homogeneous groups protect their hold on institutional power, right? “Yeah,” you know, “There’s all kinds of things,” you know? “Somebody likes soccer and somebody likes volleyball.” There are many forms of difference between us, but those seem, like, personality kinds of things, right? Race is very, very real. Racism is very, very real. That lack of representation is very real. We have to get real about it, right? Hold on, though. The other piece you asked–
Amy: The gender equity piece.
Robin: Yeah, I have to be careful here. So I think there’s–
Amy: Stop there for a second. I want to know, why do you feel you have to be careful there?
Robin: Because there’s a lot of social power behind the push for acknowledging gender binaries and gender diversity as you call it, and I do believe that there’s a reason that that has spread. Look, I do not want to downplay patriarchy and sexism and heterosexism and transphobia. I don’t want to downplay those things, and I think there’s a reason that that has flourished in a way that you’re gonna see on people’s signatures their gender pronouns, but you are not going to see their race, and I’d like to see their race on there too. I’d like if, before we start a meeting, we go around the room, we say our gender pronouns, sure, but we also say our race, so we start noticing who’s at this table and who’s not at this table, you know? What decisions are being made at this table and who are they going to impact in what ways, and how do we know, and who’s missing? So I think, again, I want to acknowledge that all of those variations of that oppression are real, but there’s still a reason that that has become more widespread and acceptable, and I think it’s because everyone pretty much knows somebody who is queer or non-binary. They’re your brothers, your sisters, your family members, your cousins. So there’s a human face to that, but most white people live profoundly racially segregated lives, and so we don’t see that humanity in the same way.
Amy: I think that’s fair, and I think, you know, a lot of the gender equity focus, like, when a lot of companies do diveristy initiatives in their companies or inclusion initiatives, they start with gender because gender seems the most safe thing or the most relatable thing, and typically the beneficiaries of those initiatives are white women only, because what works for white women in corporate settings doesn’t work for black women, Indian women, you know, Chinese-American women, indigenous women, Latinx women, right? And it’s another way, I believe, of reinforcing the primacy of whiteness in the space as opposed to really making gains broadly in diversity and inclusion. Would you agree with that?
Robin: Well, I see a lot of white gay men in positions, you know, head of diversity and equity in organizations, and I also notice that many of them have no racial analysis. So again, you want to use your oppressed experience, right, your oppressed identities, as a way in, not as a way out, right? So how can you use that understanding to see, “All right, well, where am I complicit in somebody else’s oppression?” And I move back to gender and patriarchy a lot because I’ve thought about it most of my life. I was in my 30s before I ever considered how I was complicit with somebody else’s oppression. So great, a white, gay man who has a strong anti-racist analysis? That’s fantastic, but without that you’re just gonna reproduce the same kind of daily agony for the people of color in your organization.
Amy: Right, absolutely. Absolutely. And I want to get into this just a little bit, Robin, because, you know, we do similar work in that we are trying to, you know, build a more equitable culture, build more inclusive cultures within organizations, within our communities, within our country. You know, there is this fine line that people like you and I walk in speaking truth to power and getting paid, and I’m curious, because I know that that’s a struggle not just for us, right? And we are maybe a little–it’s maybe a little easier for us to do that because of our whiteness, but folks who really want to speak truth to power but have value to offer an organization and, you know, expect to be paid for their work, how do you balance that? What advice do you have for folks who are out there every day kind of balancing on that razor’s edge?
Robin: Yeah. Well, the first thought is relating to–we were just talking about who tends to be in these positions, right, and I want to be really clear that I don’t think it’s automatically people of color should be leading all of the diversity efforts. I think that’s also problematic, right? We put them in those positions. We’ll cover everything else, and we’ll give them race work, even as they’re not going to be listened to and heard in the same way. So it’s not a given, right? So again, a white person in that position with a very strong anti-racist analysis can be incredibly effective, in some ways more effective in certain areas. My ideal is interracial teams that you actually put the resources behind, an interracial team at the head of your diversity initiative, because each member of that team can bring something and challenge something differently than somebody else, right? So I used to be a co-director with a black woman of equity at an organization. You know, there were things that I could push that she couldn’t, and there were things of course that she could bring that I couldn’t, and so that’s for me a much more ideal than any just one person, ’cause that’s a setup, you know, regardless. How I have reconciled that dilemma, right, in various ways. So first of all, sometimes people say “You’re being paid for racism,” and I would basically say, “Well, I’m being paid for anti-racism.” My work is anti-racism, and we could make a case that everybody–if you are not anti-racist, you are racist, right? So as Ibram Kendi beautifully says, “The opposite of racist isn’t not racist. It’s anti-racist.” So in a society in which racism is the norm, not an aberration, all of us are contributing to that if we’re not explicitly challenging it, right? So the one way that I think about what I do, when I come into an organization and I give a presentation on whiteness and white fragility, I’m tilling the soil, if you will, as an outsider, as somebody with a lot of credibility behind my name and as a white person, there’s a way in which I can challenge white people that I couldn’t if I was inside that organization and that people of color are not gonna be able to, so let me come in and do that really hard, say that really hard stuff and soften the soil in a way that then people can hear the people of color inside that organization, right? And the white people inside that white organization. That is one of the ways I think about what I do, but let me name some of the ways that I seek to be accountable. I donate a percentage of my income to racial justice organizations that are led by people of color. I channel work to people of color. I promote the work of people of color. I have a platform to do that. When I am presenting more than a few hours I co-present in an interracial team. I have white people in my life with a strong anti-racist analysis that I consult with and work through my feelings with. You know, I’m not saying I don’t get called in and have feelings about it and need to work through those feelings, but I also have a circle of people of color coaches who have agreed to coach me, to be there for me if I need to work through something, and I pay them for their time. That is critical. It is not something that I turn to them and expect for them to give me. And this is another challenge in organizations, is that labor is just expected with no sense of compensation. So I pay them for that time. Now, occasionally the people of color in my life say, you know, “We’re friends, I’m not taking your money,” and I say, “Great. I’m donating for the hour you just spent with me to a racial justice organization.” I also pay rent in Seattle to the Duwamish people, who are the original peoples. This is the ancestral territories of the Duwamish, and I pay rent to the Duwamish people because they have yet to be federally recognized in the Seattle area. So I could go on, but those are some of the ways I seek to be accountable.
Amy: Thank you for that, and, you know, I think that as we look at, you know, it is so easy to not be held accountable, right, as white people in this work and in this society. So one of the things that I’ve noticed–and Zach and I were talking about this the other day–you know, if certain things that I wrote in my book or that you wrote in your book that you say to white people, you know, is really ground-breaking, right, in an all-white room. Like, people are like, “Oh, my God. That’s so radical. I can’t believe we’re having this conversation,” right? They’ve never heard it before, you know? They’ve gotten to their mid-fifties and they’ve never heard somebody say some of these things before, and this is dinner time conversation for black families, right? And so one of the things I’ve noticed is a lot of times white people can’t hear it if a white person doesn’t say it, but–and I’ll say that out loud, I’ll say that in a group of people, and, you know, I’ll see women of color especially nodding their heads, but, you know, how much of this work do you feel you’re creating something new versus–and I don’t mean this as a criticism. I think about this a lot myself. How much of this is you’re creating something new versus you’re taking what’s being said around dinner tables in black families every day and just saying it in a different space where no one’s heard it before?
Robin: Yeah. Well, so the first thing I think about is that there’s simply no clean space. In other words, there’s no place outside of this. This is always going to be a [both and?]. You know, as we seek to de-center whiteness, we’re centering whiteness, right? Again, we’re in it. We’re inside this construct. So you do your best to be as accountable as you can, but I don’t know that we can ever get it exactly right, right? And the way that I think about what I do, absolutely, years and years and years of mentorship from people of color, years and years of being in rooms and hearing and bearing witness to the testifying of people of color, you know? Years of studying the works of people of color and years of self-analysis, self-reflection, talking to other white people. I do have the ability to take fairly high-level academic concepts and make them very accessible, right? I did put language to something that pretty much everybody recognizes, right? I mean, even people who are fragile around whiteness kind of recognize once you give language to it, and a lot of people of color have said, “Thank you for that language. I absolutely see this. I’ve dealt with it. I didn’t even know how to express it,” right? So I have something to contribute, and yes, I stand on the shoulders of countless people of color, right? I can’t live with not expressing this, right? I can’t live with being silent because of those dilemmas. I try to be as much in my integrity as I can. I try to get it as right as I can as often as I can by as many as I can. [laughs] And I’ll never get it right by everybody. It’s way too loaded. It’s way too charged. It’s way too messy.
Amy: Absolutely, and I think too in the work of anti-racism it’s a moment by moment choice for so many of us, right? That we’re either actively deconstructing racism in this moment or we are actively not, and it’s something that, coming from a place of privilege, we can choose to do or not, right? We don’t have to do that work. No one will think less of us if we don’t except that we’ll think less of ourselves for those of us who are committed to this kind of thing, but at the same time it is–there’s a balance there, right, of taking up space when it’s needed and taking up space that we should or should not, and I think there’s a lot of calculus that we need to do there, and I see you doing a lot of that in your work.
Robin: Yeah. You know, I have a piece called “Nothing to Add: The Role of White Silence in Cross-racial Discussions.” You know, I think silence from a position of power is a power move, right? So that’s not the alternative either, and one of the things that I’m arguing in that piece is that any way that I engage that is a default, right, like, “Okay, I’m not gonna say a word in this conversation,” right? “I don’t want to get it wrong. I don’t want to make a mistake. I don’t want to dominate.” Whatever my rationale is, “I’m just gonna listen.” Or the other end, right? “I’m gonna speak up whenever I feel moved to speak up.” Those are defaults. Those are not “I’m paying attention in every moment, and in each moment I’m asking myself what’s happening in the room right now? What are the dynamics at play? What is my position within those dynamics? And given that, what would be the most strategic, constructive, anti-racist move?” And sometimes it would be silence, and sometimes it would be speaking up, and I’m not going to get that call right by everybody in the room, but that’s the call I need to be constantly making. Paying attention and, to the best of my ability, using my position in strategic, anti-racist ways, right? Any default is problematic, I believe. Any kind of just–
Amy: I agree, yeah. Because once you stop making conscious decisions, you’re making decisions without realizing it, and making decisions without realizing you’re making them is always a problem.
Robin: Well, they tend to function for your own comfort. The “I’m not gonna say a word in case I make a mistake,” come on. You don’t want to take any risks. You know, you’re looking to save face. “I don’t want to show myself,” right? “Lest you think I’m racist,” and I always like to laugh. “Look, I already think you’re racist, all right? I start from that premise.” Let me just go there – all white people are racist in the sense that all white people have been socialized into a racist world view because we were born into a racist culture in which it’s embedded, and we’re back to just start from that premise and then get to work trying to impact how you were socialized into it and how you might challenge it rather than this constant denial, you know? That just because you don’t want to be means you aren’t.
Amy: Right, absolutely. So I want to go back to this notion about people of color twisting themselves into knots to avoid, you know, weaponized whiteness so to not be punished. So recognizing of course that we’re both white women having this conversation, you know, what do you think is left for people of color to do?
Robin: Honestly? Like, survive this, navigate this in as healthy a way as possible. You know, I always feel a little uncomfortable, a little sheepish around telling people of color what is there for them to do, but Glenn Singleton, he is a black man who founded Courageous Conversations, and I’ve done a couple presentations for him at his conferences, and he has, like, a principle that everybody has a role, and he pushes me to speak to that very question. So with Glenn, I’ll imagine him standing beside me saying “Go for it, Robin.” [laughs] I mean, my work is to challenge white people, right? But there are a couple of very sensitive questions I do offer people of color, and one is what does anti-blackness look like among your group? Because anti-blackness runs across the spectrum of race, and anti-blackness runs amongst people of color. It runs amongst black people. So what does it look like amongst your group, and who have you aligned with? In particular for Asian heritage people who are often more likely to be comfortable for white people. This does not mean they don’t experience racism, but the reality is that white people are more comfortable, in some ways because of our particular racism, because of the invisibility, some of the stereotypes we project onto Asian heritage people, but nonetheless, we are more comfortable overall, right? So I would offer that question to Asian heritage people in the workplace. Who have you aligned with? Have you taken up with the struggles of African-Americans in this country or have you aligned with whiteness, and what have been the rewards, and what has been the price that you paid for that alignment? So there’s that work. There’s the work of challenging the messages, you know? For white people, we need to challenge the messages of internalized superiority, and there’s an opposite message for people of color to look at, and also just, like I said earlier, to get away from white people and build community in people of color spaces, you know? I’m a big believer in affinity work in the workplace, right?
Amy: Mm-hmm, yes, and I would like to add to that if I may. I think it’s incumbent upon people of color, when you find an ally, hold us accountable.
Robin: Oh, yes. Thank you. Mm-hmm.
Amy: Because we need that, right? We don’t always see, and we may not be holding ourselves to a high enough standard, and, you know, if you have someone you consider a true ally, please, you know, call me on it. I want to know. And, you know, I will do my best to process it in a way that doesn’t involve you, right? [laughs] But, you know, please hold us accountable as allies in this work, because, you know, if we aren’t getting it right, we have, you know, a pretty poor shot of helping anyone else get there.
Robin: Yeah, and what I would add is that then we also have to help each other as white people to hold each other accountable, because it’s a tall order for people of color, right? Not only, you know, are there risks that we will respond well, but, you know, we’re all inside this construct, so in the same way that, sure, I can seek as a woman to hold men accountable for sexism, half the sexism that’s going around me I don’t even see because I’ve been conditioned to collude with it, right? So if you just put it on my shoulders–you know, sometimes you can imagine a man saying, “Hey, just let me know if I do anything sexist,” and then he’s covered, right? Off he goes, and now I get to carry that, right? So we have to watch that piece of it, right, where a lot of white people will say, “Hey, let me know if I do anything,” and now we can relax because they’ll let us know. Well, that’s a pretty tall order, right? So we have to do our work and hold each other accountable too, develop the capacity so that I can also call myself in, I can realize that I just stepped in it. I’m not completely dependent on people of color helping me with that.
Amy: Absolutely, and, you know, there will be times when we step in it with each other, and there will be times we step in it when we’re not around for each other, and so I think it’s a team sport here, accountability is. So, you know, it’s election year again here in 2020, and, you know, Zach says, you know, we’re gonna relive the same frustrations and feelings of hopelessness and ostracization that black and brown folks felt in 2016. In addition to that, we have generational shifts coming in the workforce. We have a lot of changing demographics, right? We’re at a tipping point demographically in this company in a lot of different fronts. Do you see this as a unique point in time, and if so, what are some things that leaders can do to capitalize on this moment in history to build more equitable outcomes for the future?
Robin: Yeah. I think yes, I see it as a unique time in the sense that it’s so much more explicit than it’s been in a while. So what this is helping us see is that history is not just this arc of progress the way that I was taught to see it, that it’s cyclic, and that you can never rest and never be complacent, right? So even the Voting Rights Act has almost been dismantled, something that you’d like to take for granted but you cannot take for granted. So this kind of “We’re post-racial because we had Obama as a president,” we’re done with that nonsense, right? I mean, nobody pretty much that I’m working with is in denial. It was actually harder to do my work during the Obama years because so many people used that as their evidence that we were post-racial. Well, you know, we’re so far from post-racial right now, so the explicitness of it, the permission that I actually think the resentment about Obama brought to the surface–it was always simmering under there, but there wasn’t permission to express it, you know, post-civil rights. Well, you know, from the highest point we have that permission now, so that has exposed both the enduring nation of white hostility, white resentment, the cyclic nature of history so that we can never be complacent. And in the same way that it has made it more acceptable to be openly racist, it has put on–I never thought in my lifetime, on a debate stage, people would be talking about reparations for African-Americans, right? So there are also ideas that have been given air and legitimacy that we could never bring up before. So it’s kind of this push/pull, right, that’s going on. As far as the generational shift, I think one of the things we’re up against with younger people is they believe that they are post-racial because “Oh, I’m fine with black people. I was on a sports team in school and it’s no big deal,” and so they have this really simplistic idea, again, of what it means to be racist, and one of the things that stood out to me–I did a year of intensive workshops for a large tech company that for some legal reason must remain unnamed, and what really struck me was that most of the employees there were under 30, and when we would have these workshops and people of color, black people in particular, would share the pain that they were in, their white colleagues under 30 years of age were dumbfounded. They were, like, flabbergasted that their colleagues were in so much pain. They simply had no idea, which means they have no critical thinking and they have no skills and they have no awareness even as they say, you know, they party on the beach with their black friend. That doesn’t mean they’re able to engage with what their friend is experiencing. This is a challenge we have with the new generation. And so organizations have to truly demonstrate that they’re committed to this. They have to put some teeth behind their claim that they value diversity and take a stand, right? If you’re gonna work for this company, you have to be able to engage with some complexity and nuance in this conversation, and if you can’t you are not qualified to work here. If it was a qualification to be able to engage with some nuance in conversations about race, most of the people leading the organizations that are listening right now wouldn’t have their jobs. Let’s be honest. It doesn’t mean you can’t gain that, but you better show some capacity to gain that nuance and complexity or you’re not qualified to work here. That’s what I would love to see in corporate America.
Amy: That would be beautiful. And with that, Robin, I thank you for your time. I thank you for joining us on Living Corporate. On Zach’s behalf, I’d like to thank you for being here, and I know that he’s thrilled to be home with the baby right now, but I know that he was so disappointed that he had to pass this off, so. It has been an absolute honor and privilege to talk to you today. Thank you so much.
Robin: Well, you are so welcome.