I’ve been slowly winding through Robin DiAngelo’s educating “White Fragility" which brilliantly chronicles how white people can experience racial guilt and transmute their reactions into denial and defensiveness. Having experienced this psychological contortion myself, I was intrigued to explore it further. One particular topic which caught my attention in the middle of an early chapter that expounded on 3 “sub-types” (my term) of racism. This post is my own summary of and reaction to the chapter, done as an exercise to really dig into the subject. I hope it will entice you to read the source, and other scholars on the subject, Toni Morrison who recently passed is foregrounded.
DiAngelo outlines three different ways that racism manifest: colorblind racism, cultural racism, and aversive racism. I was most intrigued by aversive racism, as I think it is the biggest trap that I am likely to fall into, but will quickly outline the others as well. Colorblind racism stems from the approach to racism where one tries not to see race, and thereby racism can certainly not exist. The many practitioners of this racism have created the perversion that it has become racist to acknowledge race, a mental cul-de-sac that does nothing to address the actual racism that exists in society. Cultural racism, on the other hand could be seen as a type of schizophrenia where we comfortably exhibit racism—but only “backstage,” in the company of white friends. In front of P.O.C. we might act blankly or feign an artificial tolerance.
Aversive racism, as I learned, is a type of racism where races aren’t named, but signified using other words as proxies like “underprivileged” and “sketchy.” The use of doing this allows us to express racism, without having to thinking of ourselves as racist. DiAngelo’s examples given for this are in making a racial choices, like calling the choice to live in whiter neighborhood, “unfortunate but necessary for ‘good schools.’” Or how we may deny we have few cross racial relationships by proclaiming how diverse our community and workplace are. The last instance struck me, and I thought of a very San Francisco/East Bay version of this as feeling better by moving to Oakland where it is diverse, without legitimately having a more integrated interactions.
DiAngelo connects the concept to Toni Morrison's “race talk,” where racism can be enacted through conversation between white people alone. And that I found fascinating, how a chat between two people in absent of anything else, can reify racism at large. The discussions are composed of an “us” and “them” and such a split renders the "us" as innocent, and the them as "not innocent". Thus race talk can be a good platform for aversive racism because it can just as easily use tropes that aren't racially explicitly. (Vis-a-bis the us-versus-them mentality, I also particular enjoyed the chapter on how unhelpful the binary of racists=bad and non-racists=good is at interfering honest looks in the mirror for white people.)
After reading, I saw aversive racism as a product of somebody who has socially learned the impoliteness of straight-up racism (that is the “educated” part), but isn’t actively challenging the way racism manifest internally and externally. What’s more the ideology that can lead to talking or being aversively racist can get in the way of challenging our racist thoughts because they are designed to slip under our own racism radar through contortions of vocabulary. As DiAngelo points out "somebody who is open about their racism might be in a better position to inspect their views, than an educated aversive racist who speaks though a linguistic codebook.” Which I think helpfully dispels the notion that aversive racism is a light-version, or a step on the way to practicing racial awareness.
Trying to apply what I learned to my own life, I meditated on ways that I have in the past or currently show aversive racism. Upon close inspection I was shocked to discover aversive racism in a conundrum I often have on LinkedIn. I have not quite learned an etiquette of LinkedIn; specifically how and when to accept connection invitations from less known for university mates, former colleagues, or acquaintances. I had a method where I would not accept connections of people who were more than 1 degree apart. But I must admit the rule was bent or applied based on whether I thought the connect-requester could potentially be career-beneficial connection. When you have only a literal CV in front of you, all the standard racist potential of classic resumé studies are lurking.
Of course having learned about aversive racism, does not prevent me for continuing to enact it. Awareness, as ever, must be the first step, and I feel an important responsibility after having read and learned about this trap of thinking. I am glad to discuss all these points with you, find me at @notconfusing.