For some of us, 2018 marked a turning point. We could no longer ignore the effects of race, power and privilege in the workplace. Fifty years after the Race Relations Act, systemic racism is alive and well. We’re still trying to eliminate workplace racial inequality by rooting out individual prejudice—through “unconscious bias” training or “diversity and inclusion” programmes—while ignoring the power structures which sustain racism. At the same time, racism seems to be flaring up everywhere, from Brexit to fake news to the refugee crisis. And connected oppressions—directed at gender, sexuality, class and more—are more visible, as the #MeToo movement spreads from Hollywood to our parliaments and boardrooms.
But however much we might oppose these systems of oppression, those of us who’ve been given the privilege of ignoring them are also complicit in keeping them going. That’s why it’s so hard for us to talk about racism without getting defensive, a phenomenon that author Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility”.
According to DiAngelo, white people have been raised not to see ourselves as white—or as having any race at all—and to believe that as long as we don’t exhibit individual prejudice, we don’t bear responsibility for racism and its effects. This results in a strong reaction—the fragile response—whenever anyone points out our involvement in systems of power. This ranges from bursting into tears to defending our innocence (eg, “I’m not racist”) or claiming that non-white people are attacking us. By enacting fragility we sustain the systems of oppression that we claim to oppose.
I suspect that at some level most people know that HR interventions like “unconscious bias” training and “diversity and inclusion” programmes don’t achieve what they claim to. These actions allow those of us who benefit from systems of oppression to avoid talking about them. And if anybody dares to question how effective these programmes are, they can expect a fragile response.
I’m not sure how long we can keep pretending that we’re “doing something about diversity” without examining the underlying systems of power that perpetuate racism. But I know there’s another way. If we’re willing to learn about these systems, to become aware of our responses, and to find a way through the painful process of understanding our complicity in racism, healing is possible.