Scattered Thoughts About Things

My Looby talk went great. Even over Zoom. I felt super interesting and like I had things people wanted to hear to say. It’s really gratifying and I’m maybe feeling a little hope that the book might make a difference.

Ha ha ha. We’ll see how long my optimism can be sustained.

I’m reading White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo for work. It’s not great. I was telling the Professor that 75% of it is fine, if sometimes a little too simple, 20% of it reads as if the author didn’t read the book–like claiming that white people don’t think about whiteness and then saying that she knew from the time she was very little that it was better to be white.

The last 5% is just wrong. Like, deeply, wrong. Even in the wake of us electing a white supremacist to the Presidency, she still downplays the importance of white nationalism in understanding white people’s racism.

It’s really something to be reading a book about how the biggest racial problem we face is white people’s inability to acknowledge their whiteness when white people are showing up with guns at statehouses. Like, maybe rethink your thesis?

But also, it super annoys me how many of her anecdotes are about her shitty friends and their racist ways or her shitty colleagues and their racist ways and yet, unless it’s in some part of the book I haven’t gotten to yet, there’s nothing about how she confronts her asshole colleagues or how she drops her shitty racist friends.

She’s a diversity trainer–that’s her job–and an anti-racist activist and she wrote this book that’s being used by workplaces around the nation to foster discussions of racism–including mine. AND SHE CAN’T DO THE NECESSARY WORK.

And if she can’t do it, and this is her job and passion, isn’t that a problem for the teaching of her book?

Also, she takes white people’s thoughts about racism at face value and I just don’t understand how anyone in this culture who pays attention doesn’t realize white people lie about race all the time–even if only to ourselves.

I’m just irritated. So many people of color have written so many books about whiteness and its problems. We couldn’t throw a little book money their way instead?


6 thoughts on “Scattered Thoughts About Things

  1. Huh. I honestly hadn’t thought about white supremacy = ‘thinking about whiteness.’ I generally associate the idea of ‘thinking about whiteness’ with some sort of critical stance along the lines of ‘oh, whiteness is a construct and it means x,y and z in (my) life,’ but you’re absolutely right: thinking about how your whiteness is threatened is thinking about whiteness, even if it’s not in the way that I tend to understand it.

    It makes some of the conversations I had in college seem especially sad, somehow, as I struggled for words to explain why the question “why can’t we have a white history month?” made me uncomfortable, let alone to actually answer it. My first thought, the thought that I’ve had ever since I could formulate something to say, was just “they stole it from you.” They, the bad people, had stolen the concept of whiteness as an identity and made it something that you, the good people, couldn’t use because it was wrong.

    I still like that answer both because it’s less likely to cause a fight (or require me to give a lecture, which often devolves into a fight, because this question by nature comes from a defensive place, and that’s not a good time to start with ‘well, the concept of whiteness…’) and it does, indeed, provide a starting place for a discussion about the way that branding and group identity come together.

    I know it’s a dodge, a cowardly move meant to assuage guilt and distance the concepts involved from the speaker and any real-world grounding for the history of statements like those.

    (Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with it; discussions about branding and group identity and the intersection between ‘us’ and ‘them’ at various levels of identification and closeness are interesting and important and can be a lot of fun really engaging to delve into. It’s just not generally what that conversation is about, or what the speaker needs to hear.)

    It never occurred to me that framing a question as “why can’t we have a white ____” meant that they were already thinking about whiteness as a concept. It’s not that they don’t know that whiteness is a thing, or that they can’t identify it as having both abstract and concrete meaning and a set of benefits (and, okay, some deficits, for a given definition of deficit), but rather that that knowledge makes them uncomfortable. It’s frequently underdeveloped and/or consciously recognized, but the idea is there, and that’s something I just hadn’t thought about at all.

    And knowing that the problem wasn’t (just) that they didn’t understand that whiteness was a thing and it had an effect on the world makes me…sad. Because the conversation that I couldn’t have because I didn’t have the words for it was doomed from the start, since the problem wasn’t that they didn’t know, just that they didn’t like what it meant.

    Wow, I think this might be the most I’ve had to use my brain in years, and it feels great. Thanks for the opportunity, B.

  2. Oh, and also, I can’t believe that I left out that closing /i up there after the first “there,” and it bugs me beyond belief.

    (also, I hope I’m using the code tag correctly, because otherwise the italics tag I put up there won’t display, and I’ll look doubly silly. Oh well.)

  3. Yeah, and this is probably something about white reactions to Black History Month that I need to think some about, too, because I think the impulses behind Black History Month were along the lines of “We need a way to recognize and celebrate Black accomplishments so Black people can hear about them” followed by “so that everybody in the nation can hear about them.” And I do think that part of what makes white people uncomfortable is that it’s weird for us to have the spotlight moved off us and we don’t like it. But I also think that it’s one of the few times that white people have to sit with the experience of hearing about bad white people without anyone rushing in to assure us that we’re okay, us in particular, even if historically whites did this bad stuff.

    And I think that dissonance is really uncomfortable–to have it reaffirmed for us over and over that we are so great, because we’re white and a part of whiteness that has accomplished this amazing stuff and yet to also have this time where, because the focus isn’t on us, the truth of the deep flaws and sins of whiteness can make its way through.

    If we’re told that we’re a part of some great tradition and yet we are aware, even in some small way, of the times when that tradition has be terrible, i can see why white people flounder for a resolution to that dissonance. Why we want someone to reaffirm the cultural beliefs that have mostly been only implicitly racially coded explicitly.

  4. I haven’t read that book so maybe I’m way off base. But it sounds to me like the author doesn’t distinguish properly between being aware of whiteness (which she was, even as a child, and almost all white people are at some level) and thinking about whiteness as a concept/state of being in this society. There are a lot of things people are aware of that they don’t think about.

  5. “There are a lot of things people are aware of that they don’t think about.” I like that. It’s something I’m working on, looking for the decisions and forces that shape the world – somebody thought about the thing I’m looking at, the thing I’m using, the thing I’m interacting with; somebody decided to use this exact curve on the side of the mason jar holding my coffee, and someone else’s hands shaped the glass that way (or told the computer how to do it).

    re: reactions to Black History Month, I think…well, it reminds me of one of the schools I was considering when I was applying for college. (I got in, I just decided to go somewhere else, and looking back, I think that was a very very good choice.) Their whole thing was that everything could be explained by dead white men, and since everything could be explained by dead white men, why should they change?

    …writing it out that way makes it sound a lot more normal than it really is.

    (And okay, there’s something awkward about classifying the ancient Greeks as ‘white,’ let alone adding (the writers of) the Bible and assorted philosophers throughout the ages, but since that’s how they’re coded both colloquially and in this context, it feels justified.)

    I looked at their curriculum today, and now they have more diversity, but that means that there are three books by black people, all assigned during senior year, and maybe a handful of women, but I’d have to go check some of the ancient works to get a better number and I’m not that invested in the minutiae of my argument.

    (I know, I know, who am I and what have I done with Magniloquence?)

    I’ve heard people say that history was written (made) by White men people, that this country was made by white men people, that science and engineering and everything that makes us who and what we are was made by white men people, and if you give examples to the contrary they’ll either say that those were unoriginal, unimportant, or pale in comparison to what was done in the field afterward by white men people.

    And it’s so defensive. Weirdly so. I haven’t felt that defensive about ‘everything was done by white men people’ since I was 12 years old.

    (I may have gone to some very, very white schools until then.)

    It’s actually amazing, to bring up something even remotely related to race, and get “my family never owned slaves!” or “slavery has been over for a long time, why are you bringing it up?”, to which I never actually managed to respond “what do you mean slavery? I still know people who marched with Dr. King, if we’re going with Big Famous Examples.” I mean, like, I was talking to a friend about how awkward it was that nooses were used as decoration in some parts of World of Warcraft’s undead areas (yes, in the context of gallows and whatnot, but still) and how very problematic the existence of the Pygmy race was, and got the whole slavery comment completely unprompted. Like, okay? That has nothing to do with the fact that nooses have unfortunate history and the pygmies are a kind of minstrelsy that is so exaggerated the word almost loses meaning.

    … I think I’ve lost the thread of whatever I was saying. Oh well.

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