Wednesday, July 8, 2020

My reading of "White Fragility"

I just finished reading White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo.

My reading this isn't very novel, as many people have.  The book is aimed at people who are identified (by others, even if not by themselves) as "white".  While I recognize that race is a social construct, it is a social construct I was ignorant of growing up.  I have had the opportunity in recent decades to become more aware of race, and thus aware of my own participation in this society.

I want to talk more about the concepts in the book, but there are a few issues that hold me back.

  • I worry that any discussion will be seen as if it were "virtue signalling", given how popular the book has become in certain circles.
  • Since the book uses different definitions of some terminology than how others use it, I feel like anything I say won't make sense to anyone who hasn't read the book or is otherwise aware of the language in this subject area.

Ms. Diangelo discusses racism not in terms of a conscious act by an individual, but as a system.  Some people try to discuss around the term "systemic racism", but that also causes the same confusion as this isn't about social structures filled with racist individuals, but about social structures and institutions which are themselves racist in their design (separate from any specific individuals that exist within that system).

In my profession I act as a systems and network administrator, and software author. I'm excited to move out of the "racist = bad / not racist = good" simplistic binary thinking, and to look at systems and networks rather than at individuals.  While racist individuals exist and can elicit a lot of emotion, I have always believed actual change requires focusing on systems.

Much of the technological systems and networks I manage are invisible to others, offering me sometimes undue influence over communications.  This is the nature of systems, and I have always worked in my profession to try to make technological systems as transparent as possible so people can have informed policy and other conversations about them.  (I spent 10 years talking to policy makers about "Copyright" for that purpose).  I have always considered opaque systems to be potentially dangerous weak-points (in the home, in workplaces, in society).

I have a hard time understanding anyone who, once made aware of the system components that make up our society, would not recognize it as racist.  This is not the same as suggesting that any specific human is individually racists, but that we have built social structures that are racist and these systemic bugs should be fixed.

I have come across many of the components of these systems discussed in this book in other contexts.  The counterproductive focus on individualism, and belief in the concept of objectivity can be seen in how people discuss politics and the media.  The more politicians and media communicators (social or less democratized) claim they are being objective, the more they are trying to keep opaque the biases which all humans have.

The only way to navigate biases is to expose them and not falsely claim to be objective, and the only way to understand and fix bugs in systems is to be aware they exist and not pretend we exist as individuals outside those systems.

While reading the book I was reminded of earlier conversations with other descendants of northern Europeans (indigenous in Europe, colonists and/or immigrants in other parts of the world such as Canada) about where COVID-19 infected first.  I also believe how these descendants have interpreted the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou is also quite dependent on racial and political biases.

I am aware of a variety of critiques of the arguments made in the book, but have thus far not been persuaded by them.  I grew up oblivious to race, went through a phase where I considered myself non-racist when race became visible, and only later became antiracist.  Given this progression I consider this an opportunity for lifelong learning, so will remain open to hearing persuasive arguments.

I strongly recommend this book to everyone to read, no matter where you live or what socially constructed race you were born into.  Even if we later disagree in a conversation, we will at least be able to have that discussion using some shared terminology.

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