By Susan Larson
Director, Milton Public Library

I’m reading a book that makes me uncomfortable.

Susan Larson; Milton Public Library director. (Photo by Kaylee Sullivan)

It’s “White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism.” In it author Robin DiAngelo explains how, “we are taught to think about racism only as discrete acts committed by individual people, rather than as a complex, interconnected system.”

“It became clear that if I believed that only bad people who intended to hurt others because of race could ever do so, I would respond with outrage to any suggestion that I was involved in racism,” DiAngelo writes. “If, however, I understand racism as a system into which I was socialized, I can receive feedback on my problematic racial patterns as a helpful way to support my learning and growth.”

I am not a racist, but in reading this book, I understand there are things I do and say and that I don’t do or say — even unintentionally — that are racist.

“White Fragility” is among several books about race and racism recommended to me for Milton Public Library’s collection. When I shared on Facebook that I’d purchased this book for the library, there were some negative comments, including how the title is racist because it assumes all white people are the same.

The author addresses this. “For many white people, the mere title of this book will cause resistance because I am breaking a cardinal rule of individualism – I am generalizing. I am proceeding as if I could know anything about someone just because the person is white.”

She continues: “Individualism is a story line that creates, communicates, reproduces, and reinforces the concept that each of us is a unique individual and that our group memberships, such as race, class, or gender, are irrelevant to our opportunities.”

“Regardless of our protestations that social groups don’t matter and that we see everyone as equal, we know that to be a man as defined by the dominant culture is a different experience from being a woman. We know that to be viewed as old is different from being viewed as young, rich is different from poor, able-bodied different from having a disability, gay different from heterosexual, and so on.”

This brought it home for me. Just last month in a Burlington parking garage I opted for the stairs instead of the elevator, because the only others waiting were a group of men. I didn’t think it prudent to put myself in that situation. I made a choice because of my sex. Would a white man have chosen to take the stairs out of a safety concern that a group of women were waiting for the elevator? I doubt it.

At that instant, I had an “ah-ha” moment. There are choices people of color make based exclusively on race.

Reading “White Fragility” is making me realize how much I don’t know about race and racism. Confronting my ignorance is uncomfortable. However, DiAngelo is encouraging. “Having racist assumptions is inevitable (but possible to change),” she writes. “We must never consider ourselves finished with our learning” but “continue to receive feedback on [my] stubborn patterns and unexamined assumptions.” One way I plan to continue my learning is by reading the other recommended books. I invite you to join me. They are:

  • “The Wretched of the Earth” by Frantz Fanon
    “Frantz Fanon’s classic text analyzes the role of class, race, national culture, and violence in the struggle for freedom.” -Penguin Classics
  • “Critical Race Theory” by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic
    “Critical Race Theory provides a radical and challenging perspective that reveals how racism shapes the everyday reality of the world; from law courts and prisons, to the economy, schools, media and health care.” -David Gillborn, Professor of Critical Race Studies, University of Birmingham, UK
  • “Women, Race & Class” by Angela Y. Davis
    “A powerful study of the women’s liberation movement in the U.S., from abolitionist days to the present, that demonstrates how it has always been hampered by the racist and classist biases of its leaders.” -Random House
  • “Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist” by Eli Saslow
    Rising Out of Hatred tells the story of Derek Black, a white man who grew up at the epicenter of white nationalism and eventually disavowed everything he was taught to believe.
  • “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria” by Beverly Tatum (Revised Edition)
    “Walk into any racially mixed high school and you will see Black, White, and Latino youth clustered in their own groups. Is this self-segregation a problem to address or a coping strategy? Beverly Daniel Tatum, a renowned authority on the psychology of racism, argues that straight talk about our racial identities is essential if we are serious about enabling communication across racial and ethnic divides.” – Basic Books