This article is one of three based on a recent webinar jointly hosted by the University of Cape Town (UCT) and the Social Justice Agency. “White Privilege: A critical dialogue on racism and inequality in a time of COVID-19” took place on Thursday, 30 July. The event featured panellists Dr Robin DiAngelo, Dr Wilhelm Verwoerd and Dr Mandisa Haarhoff, and was moderated by Stanley Henkeman, the executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.
“What I can tell you is that the [racial] dynamics I’m going to talk about, at this point, are universal. They are global,” said DiAngelo.
DiAngelo, who is a sociologist, academic and the author of the bestseller White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism, was addressing audience members during the webinar “White Privilege: A critical dialogue on racism and inequality in a time of COVID-19”. The dialogue was jointly hosted by UCT Social Responsiveness, the Office for Inclusivity & Change and the Social Justice Agency.
In her keynote address, the Seattle-based DiAngelo offered the audience a macro framework to understand terms such as systemic racism, white supremacy, white privilege and white fragility. She provided definitions for each and then placed them in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Below are selected quotes from her keynote address.
On racism / systemic racism
“Systemic racism is what we’re talking about when we say racism. [All] people have racial bias … in societies in which we have created these categories and granted them profound meaning that shape the outcomes of our lives to where we can literally predict whether our mothers and I are going to survive our births based on our racial classifications. These categories have profound meaning, and everybody absorbs racial biases. But when you take one group’s racial bias, and you back it with legal authority and institutional control, you transform it into a system that becomes infused and embedded across the entire society. It’s not dependent on any individual’s agreement, belief or intentions; it’s just the default of the society. [That] society will continue to produce advantage for those whose bias is backed with power, and disadvantage … those whose [is] not.”
“We have reduced the idea of what it means to be racist to a very … simplistic idea.”
“We’re not taught to understand systemic racism for the most part, and we have reduced the idea of what it means to be racist to a very … simplistic idea, which is an individual who consciously doesn’t like people based on race and is intentionally mean to them. And I don’t know that you could have come up with a more effective way to protect systemic racism than that definition because it exempts virtually all white people from the society they live in and from the socialisation they received by living in those societies, and it’s probably the root of most defensiveness because if it has to be conscious and intentional, then it has nothing do with me.”
“I can assure you, I have perpetrated racism across my life and in my relationships across race, and not one moment of that was conscious or intentional. I wounded other people nonetheless.”
“So, in societies in which racism is the default, to simply carry on with niceness is to collude.”
On white supremacy
“I was taught to think about it as people who would wear white hoods … it includes those people, but it’s also a highly descriptive sociological term for the societies we live in, a society that elevates white people as the norm for ‘human’, as the ideal humanity. And one of the ways we do this is by never really marking or naming ‘white’, but consistently marking or naming not white, black. When you don’t acknowledge the position or perspective of one group, while always acknowledging the position or perspective of another, you grant the group that is just the default. You grant them objectivity, individuality and the ability to just speak for everybody.”
“By age three to four, children who grow up in this culture, understand it’s better to be white.”
“As a result of being raised as white in societies in which white supremacy has been exported globally, where it’s in language, where it’s in history and customs as it is in your country, as it is in mine. As a result, I have internalised a racist world view. There’s simply no way I avoided internalising racist ideology. I also therefore have racist biases. I have racist patterns of behaviour and investments in the system of racism, which is comfortable for me and which has definitely served me in navigating the struggles that I do face. I am not saying white people don’t face barriers or struggle or suffer, but we do not face that one and not facing that one absolutely helps us navigate the struggles we do face, which if we’re being honest … would be harder if we were not white.”
“In the [United States], the research is clear that by age three to four, children who grow up in this culture, understand it’s better to be white.”
On white privilege
“The concept of white privilege [is] that no matter how well intentioned you are, if you are white, you benefit from a system that automatically confers advantage to you, again, regardless of your belief or agreement or intentions.”
“White privilege is an automatic outcome of white supremacy and systemic racism.”
On white fragility
“White fragility … surfaces whenever [systemic racism, white supremacy and white privilege] are acknowledged or questioned. So let me put it like this: I move through societies like South Africa, the United States, Great Britain, Australia … societies in which systemic racism is the norm; it’s not an aberration, it’s the norm … as a white person, I’m comfortable in racist societies. And so that comfort is something that I have come to feel entitled to. And when it is questioned or challenged, I have not had to develop the skills or the capacity to bear the discomfort of those challenges. And so, we typically see defensiveness and umbrage and arrogance. When I was in South Africa [in 2019], I was in conversations in which black South Africans testified powerfully to the pain of systemic racism. And white people stood up and lectured those black people on the answer, which usually had something to do with personal responsibility.”
On ‘evidence’ why a white person is not racist
“So I’m sure you have all heard … a white person say, ‘I was taught to treat everyone the same.’ ‘I don’t see colour.’ ‘We all bleed under the skin.’ ‘I treat others the way they treat me.’ … the colour-blind stuff. Or ‘My best friend is black.’ ‘I had a black room-mate in college.’ ‘I volunteered in a township.’ ‘My children are on a diverse sports team.’ That would be the proximity set of evidence. So either it means nothing – ‘I don’t see it; it has no meaning’, which is actually rather outrageous in your country to claim that – or, you know, there’s fond regard: ‘I can be near people of colour, therefore I can’t be racist.’ … We [white people] are not conveying what we think we are conveying … Not only is it not convincing, it indicates that you have no critical self-knowledge. You have no education on this topic. You have no skills on this topic and you don’t understand systemic racism.”
“COVID-19 is … such a clear moment of exposing structural racism. And there’s a concept called ‘weathering’ … decades and decades of built-up discrimination, inadequate housing, healthcare, education, nutrition … these things wear people down at a group level and make them very, very susceptible. And you’re seeing that in the stark differences of the impact of COVID-19 on different communities.”
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