The Paradoxes of Dismantling Racism and White Privilege

If you just clicked on a link and are reading this, you are experiencing one of the paradoxes of dismantling racism and white privilege because by writing this and making it available across the Internet, I have centered my whiteness and the voice of (yet another) man.

As a white man, I simultaneously have an ethical obligation to dismantle racism and white privilege (and gender inequity) that sits in contrast to another ethical obligation that I (to cite a group of white men) need to STFU and not occupy the spaces where Black and women’s voices must be centered and embraced.

My scholarship and public work have for many years now been focused on class, gender, and race inequity, especially as they intersect with formal education.

Any credibility in addressing racism and white privilege that I have earned comes from my critical unpacking of my own whiteness and of my racist heritage in my home and community of birth, but I also have manufactured a greater level of racial awareness by reading and listening to Black voices—notably Black artists/writers and Black scholars.

My teaching seeks always to center Black voices and the voices of women, which I have documented by detailing who is included in my syllabi.

However, there I stand in front of my classes, centered by my role of authority, my whiteness, and my being a man with the additional weight of almost 6 decades.

Two situations, one recent and one a year or so ago, have pushed me to continue to wrestle with the paradoxes of my activism dedicated to dismantling racism and white privilege.

More immediately, I have been disturbed to see a blog post discrediting Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility being shared across social media, often by Black academics and friends. This challenge to DiAngelo’s work, I discovered, comes from a source that is neither credible nor reliable.

The other situation came over a year ago when I was invited to speak on whiteness and racism at a university (in a series of programs that also included DiAngelo before I spoke there).

What these two contexts have in common, I think, is one of the most difficult paradoxes of dismantling racism and white privilege: centering whiteness to de-center whiteness.

If and how any of us dedicated to anti-racism work engage with DiAngelo’s concept of white fragility is itself a problem and a paradox.

I added DiAngelo’s popular book to the choice reading selections in my foundations of education course recently, and the book proved to be popular and effective with my students who tend to be white, privileged, and conservative (or from conservative homes).

Many students confessed that they went into the book not believing in white privilege or systemic racism but that DiAngelo had opened their eyes and changed their minds.

These students also read For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too by Chris Emdin as well as essays by James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison; they are introduced to bell hooks and Maxine Greene as well.

But there is always a risk of centering white works such as DiAngelo’s since that can imply that Black voices and experiences with racism are valid only when verified by white witnesses or when in proximity to white witnesses.

Black advocates for anti-racism embracing the “don’t read DiAngelo” is coming from, I think, recognizing that risk and from their own experiences where only white voices are allowed in formal education. White witnesses to confirm their lived experiences and white proximity giving credibility to the moment-by-moment stress of their being Black in the U.S.

It is a powerful and important question to ask why white people do not find this credible itself, without white confirmation:

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you. (James Baldwin from “The Negro in American Culture,” Cross Currents, XI [1961], p. 205)

As I opened in this post about my white man’s voice, DiAngelo is in fact not only occupying spaces where Black voices are not being read or heard, but also profiting on anti-racism, the capitalism paradox of dismantling racism and white privilege.

Activism, scholarship, and the Market are invariably going to overlap in the U.S., and even as we worship at the alter of capital, we also become skeptical when activists and scholars gain celebrity status or simply earn money from other people’s inequity.

It is inexcusable in the U.S. to ignore that racism has always fueled capitalism and profited almost exclusively white people.

I remain resolute that the primary obligation of anti-racism work dedicated to dismantling racism and white privilege belong to white people. But that drives the paradox of centering whiteness and can perpetuate the muting or erasing of Black voices.

The paradoxes of white people doing anti-racism work cannot deteriorate into fatalism, however.

For white people, awareness of racism, white privilege, white fragility, and the paradoxes of dismantling racism and white privilege as a white person is a first step often wrapped in the paradox of centering whiteness to de-center whiteness.

For far too long, there have been far too many white-only spaces, and the work of anti-racism by white people must seek shared spaces among all races, not just creating but allowing through white absence enough space so that voices do not have to compete and so that whiteness does not justify or regulate whose voice ultimately matters.