Episode 13: White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo with Janina Transcription

This is the Swampscott Library’s Librarians by the Sea podcast, where we share our love of a good book with you. I’m your host, Julie Travers.

Julie: Hi everyone, and welcome to the Librarians by the Sea podcast. Today we have an interview with Janina, who we’ve had on the podcast before. She’s a reference librarian here at the Swampscott Library, and she’s the new leader of an anti-racism book group that we’ve started at the library. Their first meeting was last week, and they read White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo.

So first, I just kind of wanted to ask you about why you were inspired to start an anti-racism book group?

Janina: It was after the murder of George Floyd, and anti-racism is something that I’ve always been passionate about, but I admit to being lazy, and I own my white privilege of being able to be lazy, and not fighting the good fight for our Black brothers and sisters, and I felt that with the surge of awareness that happened after George Floyd, I felt like this was the perfect opportunity to step in and try to educate my fellow white people and gather people of like mind to fight the good fight.

Julie: Nice. And did you get a lot of people for your first time, or was it popular?

Janina: I got a lot of signups, but there weren’t a lot of people that actually ended up coming, and I think they – for some reason, I don’t think that they thought it was a book group, I think they thought I was giving a presentation. So, I mean, we managed to have a perfectly lovely conversation anyway, and an informative one, so it was kind of nice to be able to come together with some people and discuss some of the issues, because they were things like white privilege that some had never heard of before.

Julie: Mm. So now, getting into the book a little bit, would you just mind giving an overview about what the book is about for those that haven’t read it?

Janina: Sure.  So the book is about how white people address racism, or how they don’t address racism. And it’s not just racism as in, “Oh, that person is racist, but I’m not.” It’s – she’s basically talking about in the book, that everyone is racist, and that they, in some way, whether they’re aware of it or not, uphold racist ideas and ideals – such as policies that we might not know that we are part of, that uphold racism. Our school systems, for example, is a good example of that. You know, we have what we call the “good” neighborhoods, quote-unquote, and the “bad” neighborhoods, quote-unquote; and in the “bad” neighborhoods, those are where the poorer schools are. But we don’t let anybody into our, quote-unquote, “good” neighborhoods. So there are systems of oppression that are in place that we can either uphold, or just – or we’re just not aware of it; we’re just completely ignorant to it.

Julie: Mm. So I know at the beginning of the episode you mentioned that you had a desire to learn about some of these issues yourself. Were there any issues in the book or ideas presented in the book that you didn’t know about and were shocked by?

Janina: Well, I think the first thing that struck me was the entire concept that racism it’s not just – when people think of racism, they think of the Ku Klux Klan, they think of white supremacists and neo-Nazis. And it’s not just that. They think of the extreme acts, but they don’t think of the everyday microaggressions that white people can uphold, such as ideas like redlining; and, like I mentioned before, our education system; and environmental racism is a thing, where, in poorer neighborhoods, there might be – might have more difficulty with getting clean air, or clean resources like water; whereas in affluent neighborhoods where, you know, the richer people live, you have cleaner air, more open spaces. So there’s a disparity. And so just saying that “I’m not racist,” in some way, you’re holding an implicit bias. And the idea is to look inside yourself and recognize what those implicit biases are, and then work through them. Because we all have them, whether we are aware of them consciously or not.

Julie: When you were talking about environmental racism, that inaccess to clean air and clean water, I’m sure that’s come to a head recently with the pandemic, and the way that some communities are affected, which is something that we discussed on another episode of this podcast, with Nia Keith.

Janina: And, like – because a lot of – there’s more Black people that are dying of Covid because they are needed in the workforce, because of whatever their situation is – so there’s a lot of Black people that are out in the workforce that are exposed to the virus more often than not, more often than white people, so they’re dying at a higher rate than white people are, and that’s a real problem.

Julie: Mm.

So I just kind of wanted to ask you about some terms that are being thrown around often now on the news, on social media, that come up in this book, and I’m wondering if you could just sort of explain what they mean.

So the title of the book, White Fragility – what is white fragility?

Janina: White fragility is the defensiveness that happens when a white person is called out on their racism, and they immediately either dissolve into tears, or they get defensive and shut the conversation completely down.

Julie: What is systemic racism?

Janina: So systemic racism are things that are built into the fabric of our society, such as redlining. And redlining is – they would redline certain areas in a town or a city, like, “Oh, these are the lower-income areas, the areas that people will not move into,” and typically it was because there were people of color that lived there.

So – and also, if a Black family moved into those areas, there was what they called white flight, so they would have all of these people that would, all these white people that would move out of those cities, or those little areas, because they didn’t want their – they thought that the value of their house that would go down because Black people lived there, and plus, because they were racist and thought, you know, “Oh, that means danger.”

So the redlined neighborhoods were considered the, quote-unquote, “bad” neighborhoods, and the other neighborhoods are allowed to be affluent and had money poured into them, but the redlined neighborhoods did not. So their education systems failed, the businesses didn’t do so well; so there was a downturn in their, in that city’s structure of – you know, and clean air, and clean water, and all those things.

So that’s, that is part of systemic racism. It’s something that’s built into the society, that we are not always aware of, but we see it in our media, we see it in the things that we consume. With our books, there’s always, always white characters that we’ve seen. I mean, I can count on one hand how many times as a kid I read a book with a Black person on the cover or in the story.

Julie: Mm. Yeah, going back to redlining, I had just watched the – it’s a Netflix series called Explained; it’s a documentary series, and in each episode they explain a different idea or thing – and the one I recently watched was on the racial wealth gap, and they did a really good job about explaining redlining, which, I’m embarrassed, I just didn’t learn much about in school. It’s not something that gets taught, so I didn’t know that much about it. And they do a really good job, sort of explaining why it exists, and how much wealth gets accumulated through owning property, and why that goes hand-in-hand. So, thank you.

Janina: And they also made it very difficult – I read an article, and it was about reparations, and they interviewed some people, some Black people who were trying to get houses, like in the ’50s and the ’60s, and how differently they were treated in [order to be] able to get mortgages over their white counterparts. They were charged astronomical amounts and not given any leeway at all; if you were even a minute late, then you were either kicked out or charged an additional fee – whereas their white counterparts did not have that kind of problem. So they were definitely trying to, like, push these people out of living where they were because they just wanted to – they didn’t want them there. So it was a way of extorting money from them, and also trying to push them out.

Julie: Yeah, and as you explained before, so much of the opportunities that you’re given, or the privilege that you come into this world with, come from where you live or where you grew up, or, you know, all of those things, so –

I also wanted to ask you what it means when somebody calls you a racist, because your first gut instinct is to be embarrassed, you know, in dismay, so what – what does that mean?

Janina: Well, according to what I read in White Fragility, being called a racist is not saying, “Oh, you’re part of the KKK.” It’s implicit biases that you have, that you haven’t acknowledged, or worked through, for whatever reason. So being called a racist is not something that we can actually escape from in our society, because it’s something that has been so baked into everything around us that we’ve consumed, in even our – I mean, when we were in school, I was taught that the civil rights movement happened, and it was all over: like, everybody was equal, everything changed, and everything was better. And that’s not how it happened at all, and we’re seeing that reverberating through today. We’re seeing what happened after slavery was ended, that those polices that were put in place after to imprison Black people – incarcerate them to keep them in slavery and to keep them making money for the white people – you see that reverberating out through today.

So nothing really has changed a lot. Things have gotten, quote-unquote, “better,” but there are still severe issues in our policies and in our society that show us that we are still living in a racist society, and to say that we’re not is to be kind of blind to it.

So I think when somebody calls you a racist, it’s saying, “You have some implicit biases, and maybe you don’t realize that you’re upholding something that is racist, but you are, whether you realize it or not.” So it’s kind of like, you know, they talk about being ‘woke’ – well, it’s like being able to open up your eyes and say, “Holy crap, like, I do uphold it in some way,” or, “I am participating in it in some way.” That doesn’t mean you can’t dismantle it; that doesn’t mean you can’t be an ally. You still can. And I think the work comes when you realize, “Yeah, I’ve lived in this society, I’m a racist, I own it” – and then you work forward to change it.

Julie: And probably knowing when you’re going to mess up, or, if you do mess up, it’s not the end-all, be-all the work that you’re, you know, passionate about.

Janina: Right. And she talks about that a lot too, and other things that I’ve read, they talk about that: you’re going to get called out, you’re going to be told that you’re being racist or you’ve said something racist. And part of white fragility is, when you’re told that, that you shut down the conversation by crying, and making it about you, or feeling guilty, and making it about you again, and not addressing the issues.

So it’s kind of like – you have to kind of become accepting of the fact that you’re going to get called out, and then accept the fact that you can sit back and sit with it and just try to understand what the other person is saying, and where you feel that maybe they, that they’re right – that, “Yeah, maybe I shouldn’t have said that; that was insensitive, and now I know why.” So use that as a learning experience.

Julie: It’s kind of a good life lesson too, and not – you know, just within this work, but it’s something that people can learn.

Janina: The Buddhists have been telling us that for years. Sit with it, sit with it, you know?

Julie: That’s good – we’re finally getting somewhere!

Janina: Right.

Julie: So, I wanted to ask you your opinions on the book, and why you chose it for the first book group that you ran, and why in general it’s a good reading choice now.

Janina: I chose it because I felt that when we talk about racism, we have a really hard time with the conversation, because we are uncomfortable, we don’t know what to say, we’re afraid to say certain things – like, even as I’m talking, I’m thinking, “Did that sound racist? Did that sound racist?” You know?

And I think the problem that white people have is that they’re so afraid to say the wrong thing that they stop the conversation before it can even begin. But until we really start having these conversations, nothing is going to change. So we really need to start having them.

And I also feel that sometimes white people feel like they need to be coddled a little bit, that you need to approach it in a gentle way of, “Now, don’t get offended, but” – you know – and sometimes I feel like people need to be, maybe, shocked a little bit out of that, and White Fragility, I feel, is definitely in your face. Like, it can be uncomfortable – I think it’s uncomfortable for some people to read. I have found that a lot of people have had problems with reading the book because of how in-your-face it is, and I think that it can cause some uncomfortable feelings if there are issues that you haven’t addressed, or that you are afraid to own or don’t want to own.

And so I chose that one to kind of like – “Ok, we’re going to get real serious real fast.”

Julie: Get ready!

Janina: Here we go!

Julie: What about other books that you’ve either started, or thought about taking as next steps, on the subject that you think people would get a lot out of?

Janina: Well, I can say that we are partnering with SURE, which is Swampscott Unites, Respects, and Embraces. So we at the library, we’re partnering with SURE to do – we picked three books that we’re going to read as a town. And those three books are Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson; How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, who is in B.U. right now, having just started the antiracism research department; and also – we haven’t picked the fiction yet. We’re doing a biography, we’re doing a nonfiction, and we’re going to do a fiction.

Julie: Nice!

Janina: And we haven’t picked the fiction yet. So we wanted to give people a variety of books to read. And we – and for my personal suggestions, I’ve just started reading How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. I listened to him speak the other night, and he’s absolutely fantastic, and I would love to get him for the library.

And So You Want to Talk About Race is another good one, and Stamped From the Beginning. There’s two versions: there’s Stamped From the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi, and there’s the YA version, which is just called Stamped, and is written by Jason Reynolds.

And Stamped I find really interesting, because it takes us to the beginning of racism back in, like, the 1400s, and carries us through to present day and the policies that were put in place and how slavery came to be, how Irish people became white, and how race was even just something that came about in that time. You know, it wasn’t something that was pervasive. To be ‘white,’ that was something that was socially constructed.

So I recommend those books. Also The New Jim Crow, which is a book that I also want to read, that’s on my to-read list.

Julie: Nice. Now, I just wanted to ask you what people can do generally to help the Black Lives Matter movement – I mean, I know reading and joining book groups like this is a good place to start, but what about, more generally, would you suggest?

Janina: I would suggest finding groups in your area. There’s a Progressive Massachusetts group that I know exists, and there’s some groups that are called, like, Indivisible Westford, Indivisible Lowell, or Progressive Lowell. There’s different ones, there’s probably different chapters, in different towns, in your town, and my suggestion would be to check them out, see what they’re doing. I know that right now the vote is a very big deal, and people are pushing for that. Also police reform is huge right now, and today, actually, I just sent off a letter from Progressive Massachusetts to my representatives about the police reform bill to pass it.

There’s also a group called SURJ, which is Showing Up for Racial Justice, and that’s usually led by white people, but they partner with – the whole point of the white groups that are pushing for racial justice, is they usually partner with Black-led groups to kind of show them the way. So they’re not leading the charge, but they’re helping the charge, and I think that’s important, because the Black-led groups need our help and they need our support.

You could also look up Black Lives Matter online; there’s movement for Black Lives Matter; there’s so much. I’ve done a ton of research and I keep coming across different things. Swing Left is another one – yeah, there’s a lot. There’s a SURJ chapter in Andover, where I live; there’s one in Boston, as well; so –

And there’s also places where you can donate for the bail funds for protesters who are being arrested so that they have a means to get out. So there’s tons – if you do your research, there are tons. And on our Black Lives Matter page, I’ve put those resources, as well, and places you can either join, volunteer, or donate to.

Julie: I’ll be sure to link that in the description of this episode so that everybody has an opportunity to see that, but I think it’s cool that you mentioned so much about working within groups in your community. I think it’s a good way to expand your own horizons, and sort of get a feel for what’s actually going on in your community.

So, thank you!

Janina: You’re welcome. Thank you!