The Wednesday Evening Book Group is an especially friendly, open environment for discussing a variety of classic and contemporary fiction and nonfiction. Typically hosted at Gordon Avenue, the group met virtually on Wednesday, July 14 at 7:30 pm to discuss White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. We jumped right into the discussion by sharing how we experienced white supremacy, at what moment we first recognized race, and the effect of meaningful cross-racial relationships.
DiAngelo, having coined the term “white fragility” in 2011, has attempted to develop a vocabulary to explain why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Words and phrases such as “white solidarity” and “coded language” take intangible ideas, lived experiences, and subconscious layers, and help begin a dialogue. It’s exciting to read nonfiction by an author who is so unflinching. As readers, we simultaneously felt shocked and assuaged. For example, the “good/bad binary” chapter was so powerful, because DiAngelo’s insistence that racist actions are inevitable and shouldn’t indicate moral failure and doom, frees white people to admit, acknowledge, and challenge racist thoughts and actions without a complete character assasination.
While we appreciated the helpful language and felt challenged by it, especially DiAngelo’s discussion on white supremacy, we hungered for more actionable ideas. A few members found DiAngelo’s societal critique almost too glaring, without enough room for hope, as she says we will never “overcome” the issue and will “always struggle.” A rebuttal to this opinion asked, do we ever expect to be perfectly free from anger, selfishness, or impatience? If not, why should we expect to be perfectly free from racism? Of course, it can be argued that anger is not a deadly epidemic in the way racism is. Still, DiAngelo writes, “…it is not humanly possible to be free of prejudice. Ideally, we would teach our children how to recognize and challenge prejudice, rather than deny it” (84).
One topic covered was asking the question of “who is at the table?” when decisions are made throughout life: at school and at work, when medical concerns crop up, or when your town has a new city land use proposal (as ours does). The group discussed the difference between people in charge (usually white) deciding what is best for marginalized communities and those folks having their own agency, input, and power. A seat at the table. White Fragility then presses white people to bring awareness to their thoughts and actions at that proverbial table. In many ways, it is a form of mindfulness: what thoughts pop up when I see a person of color? What limiting beliefs are defaulting as truths, and how can they be challenged? (and so on) One reader modeled that important work by walking the group through her considerations in writing to the local paper about a topic of interest. She was able to vocalize the fear of being seen as a racist — which is huge! How often do we use the word racist in any proximity to ourselves (except to say “I’m not racist!”)? Another member shared how this book helped her rethink a time she and her questioning toddler were confronted with a large police presence.
We must have internalized some of DiAngelo’s points about a willingness to be open to gentle correction about our own racist tendencies, because I noticed members posing questions to one another, confronting ideas, and even personal memories, to see if we might view our own narratives from a different perspective. Hearing one member recount a memory of her mother’s words, “I would like to, but the neighborhood isn’t ready” may have introduced discomfort into the meeting. Discomfort, though, builds our “stamina” for these important moments of feedback. We called upon DiAngelo’s image of a bird in a cage (taken from scholar Marilyn Frye) to support our dialogue and varied perspective-taking: when you’re so close to the cage, you don’t see the wire bars. It’s only when you take a step back that you notice the bird is trapped.
We did not get to discuss any backlash the book has faced. Perhaps most prominent is the article “The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility,” which argues DiAngelo is infantilizing people of color, making claims without sufficient evidence, and creating a lose-lose culture for blacks and white both (according to the author, DiAngelo’s vision of Black History Month sounds like a “slog” of a “gloomy, knit-browed Festivus of a holiday”). If readers are interested in learning more about DiAngelo, I personally got a lot of insight from reading her website, particularly her Accountability page.
The Wednesday Evening Book Group, which meets the second Wednesday of every month at 7:30, will meet again on Wednesday, August 11, 7:30-8:30 pm, at the Gordon Avenue Library. They will be discussing March (books 1-3) by John Lewis. In September, the group will discuss The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on visiting or joining the group.
How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi; “Kendi’s concept of antiracism reenergizes and reshapes the conversation about racial justice in America–but even more fundamentally, points us toward liberating new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other.”
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo; “Oluo answers the questions readers don’t dare ask, and explains the concepts that continue to elude everyday Americans.”
Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad; “teaches readers how to dismantle the privilege within themselves so that they can stop (often unconsciously) inflicting damage on people of colour, and in turn, help other white people do better, too.”
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown; “from a powerful new voice on racial justice, an eye-opening account of growing up Black, Christian, and female in middle-class white America.”
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates; “pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son.”
This Bridge Called My Back edited by Cherríe Moraga; “first published in 1981, composed of personal essays, criticism, interviews, testimonials, poetry, and visual art…deserves to be picked up by a new generation of radical women.”
Have you read an amazing book that changed or challenged the way you understand race? If so, we’d love to hear about it. Please let us know in the comments. You can also find more antiracist titles here.