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How White Politicians Can Talk About Race


Joe Biden's explanation of how he had a collegial working relationship with Southern segregationist Democratic senators highlights the complicated task of talking about race in politics.

Robin DiAngelo is author of "White Fragility: Why It's So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism." Thanks very much for being with us.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Well, thank you for having me.

SIMON: As well as an author, you're also a trainer and consultant who works with businesses trying to deal with some of these issues. What would you say to a roomful of politicians headed out to the campaign trail?

DIANGELO: I would say that you are in a cultural and political moment where there's an incredible opportunity to expand and deepen your awareness. If you are white, you necessarily have blind spots. If you are in your 70s, as Joe Biden is, you have a worldview that unfortunately seems to have remained in place. And the world is changing around you. So be open to feedback. Be willing to grapple with it, rather than dig your heels in deeper and just refuse to engage when you're challenged.

SIMON: Are there phrases you hear that are signs of people being especially defensive or clueless?

DIANGELO: Yes. I would say, I don't have a prejudiced bone in my body, is a rather clueless statement. It's incredibly old-fashioned. It rests on this idea that to have a racist perspective or say or do something racially problematic, you must have done that deliberately and awarely (ph) and on purpose, and that you must be a mean person. And, of course, you know, most white people aren't going to relate to deliberate meanness across race, and so they make claims like that. But we have to understand racism at a much more nuanced level.

SIMON: Well, help us understand what we need to understand.

DIANGELO: Well, the society we live in - the foundation is racism. And all of our institutions effectively and efficiently reproduce it. They have since the beginning. You know, by every measure, racial disparity continues on. And it doesn't have to be conscious or aware or intentional. But just by virtue of the homogeneity of those sitting at the tables making decisions that impact the lives of those who aren't sitting at those tables, you're going to get racial bias embedded in policies and practices.

And in some ways, it's still the world of older white men, such as Joe Biden, when you look at the percentage of who controls the institutions. You know, we're celebrating the most diverse Congress by race and gender, but 91% of the Senate is still white. And 70% of the House is still white.

And so, again, in some ways, they still do control the world, and yet, things are changing. And the key difference is they're held accountable when they make mistakes, when they assume a kind of universal perspective. And they're going to have to engage with that accountability.

SIMON: Is it helpful or not productive if Joe Biden points out to not only his record and voting on civil rights legislation but the fact that he was utterly loyal and devoted to the first African American president of the United States?

DIANGELO: I don't think it's helpful in the sense that - again, it reveals this idea that this has to be intentional and deliberate and conscious and mean-spirited, or it doesn't count. And then we can refuse to engage with the impact, right? We have to separate our intentions from the impact of our behavior. And he has an incredible opportunity to engage with that impact. There are people who are willing to share with him what that's like, but he is flat-out refusing. And this is kind of classic white fragility, right? - a refusal to know or expand one's current worldview.

SIMON: Robin DiAngelo, thanks so much.

DIANGELO: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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