Black culture and the role racism plays in black American history are discussed at length in the national dialogue around race relations. We regularly debate use of the “n-word,” for example, and the impact of historical racism on outcomes for black Americans. In fact, black culture comes up in conversations about everything from mental health and homophobia to how parents discipline their kids. On the other hand, the role that white culture plays in our society often goes without remark.

Robin DiAngelo is a professor of multicultural education at Westfield State University and the author of What Does it Mean to be White? For over two decades, she has consulted and conducted trainings on issues of racial and social justice. DiAngelo writes of her own experience as a white woman:

“I grew up poor and white. While my class oppression has been relatively visible to me, my race privilege has not. In my efforts to uncover how race has shaped my life, I have gained deeper insight by placing race in the center of my analysis and asking how each of my other group locations have socialized me to collude with racism. In so doing, I have been able to address in greater depth my multiple locations and how they function together to hold racism in place.”

Gawker spoke with DiAngelo recently to discuss what it means to be white in 21st Century America and the role whiteness plays in the current national debate over policing.

Gawker: What is whiteness and how is it constructed?

Robin DiAngelo: Racism has two primary functions: the oppression of people of color, which most people recognize, but also the simultaneous elevation of white people. You can’t hold one group down without lifting the other up. So, when I think about whiteness, I think about those aspects of racism that specifically elevate whites. Now, they’re all connected. So, anything that oppresses people of color is likely elevating white people. That’s how I think about whiteness. Whiteness is the default. It is the water we all swim in. It’s the centrality of white people.

As white people in this society, we are socialized from the time that we’re born to see ourselves as superior, to see white people and things associated white people as superior. At the same time, I’m encouraged to never admit to that. I’m taught that racism is very bad and immoral. So, we have this push-pull of being relentlessly, 24/7 being reinforced in our centrality and superiority. At the same time being told that if that were happening it would be bad and immoral. It makes us very sensitive. It creates what I call “white fragility,” where we’re arrogant and entitled but also scared and guilty. All of that functions to hold racism in place.

How do whiteness and white cultural norms impact how we engage—or don’t engage—race and racism?

First of all, there’s white solidarity. There’s a tacit agreement that white people will keep each other comfortable around our racism, that we won’t challenge each other’s racism. Ultimately, it means we will protect each other’s racism. So, that’s at play. You also have these taboos around talking directly and authentically about racism. I mean, we talk all the time in very problematic ways behind closed doors, but to really authentically and openly talk about racism is taboo. So, when a white person breaks those taboos, there’s a lot of upset and guilt. And there are social penalties for white people who break the solidarity. So, the average well-meaning white person is going to fear conflict.

It’s the classic, “Uncle Bob said this at the dinner table.” Well, why didn’t you say anything? Five people could be uncomfortable with what Uncle Bob said, but nobody speaks up and that’s because they don’t want to cause conflict and ruin the dinner. And that right there, that it would ruin the dinner and five people would rather be uncomfortable in the face of racism and essentially protect Uncle Bob, is classically white. It’s how it functions to hold the system in place.

You also have two really problematic ideologies of white people, we’re conditioned into these ideologies but nonetheless we have them. The first is the idea that to be a good person and to participate in racism are mutually exclusive. So, it’s just not possible to have anything to do with racism if you’re open-minded and well intentioned. If you suggest someone is colluding with racism, they get deeply upset and feel as though you’ve challenged their morality. The second piece is the misunderstanding of how bias works. You probably have the experience of white people giving you evidence that they’re not racist. The evidence is generally how many people of color they know or how they’ve travelled in different countries or whatever. You can see that type of evidence is rooted in the idea that they have to consciously dislike people of color to be racist. They don’t understand that it can be deeply unconscious and internalized.

When you put all those things together, it’s so hard to talk to us.

What have been your thoughts on the national conversation happening around police brutality and the role that whiteness plays into it?

We have to change the water officers swim in. We can bring in different tools, even officers of color, but if we don’t change the water that they swim in, that we all swim in. The water is the unexamined whiteness, the everyday whiteness. Unexamined whiteness is right now probably the most hostile for people of color. There are the extreme incidents of violent and explicit racism that we take note of, but the everyday racism is also so toxic.

I think our everyday coded language around “good neighborhoods” and “bad neighborhoods” is what allows for tremendous violence to happen in some neighborhoods. When you label a neighborhood “bad” and avoid it, then you don’t know and don’t see what goes on there. And there’s no human face to interrupt that narrative. So, we see outrage around figures like Michael Brown because suddenly there’s a face. But, for the most part, we don’t know and we don’t care as long as police keep “them” from “us,” so our schools can be better and we can feel safe at the top of the hierarchy. I think we use the police to maintain those boundaries.

I wrote a piece recently about white silence in regards to police brutality. In it, I cited some of your writing. The article received a lot of comments from readers. What are your thoughts on the relative silence of white Americans when it comes to issues of race and racism?

I’m really happy you asked me about that. My work on white fragility is becoming really popular right now and the paper I wrote, “Nothing To Add,” is an example of what I try to do in making everyday whiteness visible in terms of how it functions. So, you mentioned the kind of comments people write. I try not to read comments because I find them upsetting, but those types of out-there rebuttals are one kind of resistance, but white silence is easy to overlook but is just as powerful.

We live really segregated lives. People often don’t understand what I mean when I say white people are socialized to see ourselves as superior. I don’t know how they can’t know what I mean, but in the beginning they don’t always understand what I mean. The most profound message of our superiority is that we can live, love, work, study, play in segregation and no one who mentors or guides us will convey that something has been lost. The message of that is that there’s no inherent value in the perspectives and experiences of people of color.

That plays into the silence, indifference, and apathy. If it gets really, really loud and explicit, like with the recent killings, then we’ll feel bad for a moment or remark on it, but overall there’s apathy towards what’s happening every single day. There’s also fear of saying the wrong thing, but it all functions so powerfully to hold racism in place. Sometimes I think about how white people’s reactions to being associated with racism are irrational and yet at the same they’re brilliantly rational in how effective they are to bully people of color and white people who break with solidarity into silence. They’re irrational but they work, so I’m not sure how irrational they really are.

Well, what about those reactions? There seems to be a few that are more common than others. In reaction to the white silence piece, readers commented about not knowing what to say or fear taking over conversation from people of color. Are those just irrational or false reactions?

I do workshops on silence and I’ll ask white participants to help me list all of the reasons somebody might be silent in a dialogue about race. They give me all these reasons that sound so legitimate. For me, the question is not are they true or not true. That’s not as relevant as how they’re functioning. So, how is your silence functioning? We need to be thinking intentionally and strategically about what would be the best interruption of the status quo. Anything that maintains white comfort in conversation around race is suspect, because the status quo is racism.

So, how do we incentivize the discomfort?

Well, on the other side is understanding. I’ve found nothing to be as profoundly stimulating, as growth-inducing, as engaging the discomfort. It puts me right up to my learning edge and has helped me to build relationship I’d never had.

One of the most important misunderstandings for white people to get over to move forward is this idea that racism is a good-bad proposition—that if we’re good we can’t be part of it, that being uncomfortable means you’re a terrible person. We have to let go of that and understand it as a system we all live in. Just let that go. We’re all invested and saturated in racism. Stop trying to look like you’re no part of it. All that’s doing is making you look clueless Just tackle it. Once you get past that, it’s profoundly fulfilling and you can go to bed at night and sleep well knowing that you did your best to disrupt racial injustice rather than blindly colluding with it.

When I’m leading a group and people want to show me that they’re cool, the person who makes an impression on me is the person who is willing to be vulnerable, honest, and authentic, not the person who is trying to convince me that nothing is going and they get it all.

And I do want to add that it’s not a situation where white people are completely oblivious. There is also some investment in the system that needs to be acknowledged. A part of it is about feeling entitled and that you are deserving of everything, [that yours is] a position above others. That’s the effect of constant messaging that you’re superior. On the one hand, we really are oblivious. I really was taught not to see or acknowledge the system. On the other hand, we know. We do know, but we can’t admit it.

What insights on this topic do you want to leave readers with?

I’m certainly aware that I’ve been socialized into racism and white superiority, that I have investments in it that I may not be aware of, but I do not feel guilty. Guilt is not useful and that’s not what I’m asking for from white people. It’s not what I’m trying to invoke. I’m trying to invoke responsibility. The default is racism. So, if you’re just living your life and not actively challenging the status quo, you are colluding with racism.

Donovan X. Ramsey is a multimedia journalist whose work puts an emphasis on race and class. Donovan has written for The Atlantic, The New Republic, MSNBC, and Ebony, among others. He’s currently a Demos Emerging Voices Fellow.

[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]