Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm

By Robin DiAngelo. Beacon Press, 2021. 224 pages. $24.95/hardcover; $16/paperback; $12.99/eBook.

Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm is Robin DiAngelo’s follow-up to White Fragility (2018). I loved being in a White Fragility reading group with colleagues several years ago, but then during 2020’s racial reckoning, I read many critiques of DiAngelo’s career and the money she makes from “White guilt.” There were questions raised about whether her White privilege means that she gets booked for some racial justice jobs instead of People of Color. DiAngelo addresses those critiques and why she does what she does from the very start of this book. She believes that implicit bias means that White people are uniquely open to learning from her insider perspective and shared experience. She reflects, “I am well aware that I am inside a system I am seeking to challenge, and that my work both upholds and—hopefully—interrupts this system.”

In Nice Racism, DiAngelo notes that White people who believe they are racially progressive tend to do the most daily harm to People of Color because they mistake their intentions, their care about People of Color, and their intellectual opposition to racism for antiracism. White progressives often get stuck in their racial justice journeys because feedback they receive about their racist words or actions goes against their beliefs about themselves, and so they dismiss it. However, as DiAngelo writes, “We will not organize to enact systemic change to a system we do not acknowledge.” Nice Racism shares meaningful advice about how White progressives can engage in antiracism work with integrity.

The book contains many important lessons for White progressives on what patterns to try to avoid and what kinds of efforts are most worthy of their attention. DiAngelo warns against patterns such as credentialing; objectifying; out-working; rushing to prove that one is not racist; downplaying advantages; assuming Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) have the same experiences as White people; lecturing BIPOC people on the answer to racism; pretending patterns of segregation are accidental; feeling unfairly attacked; explaining away, justifying, or minimizing racism; expecting BIPOC people to teach about racism; seeking absolution; focusing on delivery; carefulness; silence; and marveling at how interesting learning about racism is. She also notes that shame, lack of humility, dedication to “safe space,” and embracing a victim mentality can all stifle the progress that White progressives seek to make around racial justice. DiAngelo invites readers to build their resilience and work on their own internalized racial dominance and oppression. She shares that authentic antiracism “takes courage, commitment, and accountability.”

Many of the patterns DiAngelo discusses will be familiar to Quaker communities. Many of the Quakers I’ve encountered have been working a lifetime toward racial justice, and so their not being racist is core to their identity. DiAngelo reflected a pattern I’ve often observed in Quaker spaces when she writes: “To the degree that we see ourselves as ‘not racist,’ we are going to be very defensive about any suggestion to the contrary.” What DiAngelo describes as the consequence of that defensiveness also resonated for me: “Giving feedback to white people on racism is very risky for people of color” . . . “especially when the white person does not acknowledge the differential in racial power.” She also discusses a familiar pattern of how much energy goes into keeping White people in difficult conversations around race through establishing “safe spaces.” She writes: “This normalizes the myth that racial dialogues are somehow dangerous for white people and our safety must be ensured before we can proceed. In turn, the true direction of racial harm is perverted.” She reminds readers of the importance of being adaptable if they are going to continue to make a difference, which I believe to be particularly important for Friends.

Nice Racism is a great book for Quaker communities to read together, and Friends will likely find the study guide at the end of the book useful. DiAngelo writes: “My books are only a few of the numerous books on the topic, and white people can and should read many books on racism, especially those written by Black people and other people of color.” I would particularly recommend Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, See No Stranger by Valarie Kaur, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, The Sum of Us by Heather McGhee, How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith, and Just Us by Claudia Rankine. All of those books would well complement Nice Racism in inviting the kind of introspection and personal transformation that DiAngelo believes must happen alongside structural and policy transformation. Although there were painful moments of resonance for me as a Black woman reading this book, it was ultimately well worth it because I believe that if Friends—particularly White Friends—genuinely absorb the messages of this book, Quaker communities could gain many tools for our racial justice toolbox.

Lauren Brownlee is a member of Bethesda (Md.) Meeting and of the Global Majority Friends Caucus within Baltimore Yearly Meeting.

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