When two black women stormed a Seattle rally for Sen. Bernie Sanders last week, the crowd booed and shouted at them to get off the stage. The women refused to back down.
“Now you've covered yourselves and your white supremacist liberalism,” one yelled back.
Sanders left the rally, and the episode became more than two activists interrupting a political event. On social media, critics called the women rude and asked how they could interrupt a man who had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King.
For people who examine race relations, this was an interesting moment: What happens when a largely white crowd is thrust into a conversation about race?
Robin DiAngelo, who is white, has been thinking about this for decades. The director of equity for the nonprofit Senior Services, she leads anti-racism workshops around the country.
After the Sanders rally, DiAngelo heard a common refrain: "Now I don't support the movement anymore."
“To take this one incident and these two individual people and use it as an excuse and a rationale to refuse the movement or to engage further,” she said. “It allows us to openly critique black people, which is kind of taboo if you're a liberal, right? And it also allows us to discount the history that we bring with us, and what it might have been like for those women on the stage.”
DiAngelo disagreed that Sanders deserved a pass because of he supported the civil rights movement. The criticism, DiAngelo said, suggests that, “he's good to go, we're done, he never has to engage again.”
“Racism is so complex, it's so adaptive,” she said. “What racism looked like at that time is likely different than it looks like now. And so him marching in the civil rights movement – great. That is not relevant to how racism is manifesting in his life, in his work, in society today.”
DiAngelo said it’s common for white people to balk when asked to examine how racism manifests in their own lives.
“If we're talking about somebody else's racism or society, people can usually handle it but if we turn the lens and say, 'Well let's talk about how it plays out in your life.’ Or, ‘Let's talk about what's happening right now in this room in this exchange’ –that's when people fall apart.”
Over the years, she coined the term “white fragility” to describe that response.
She, too, has struggled to better understand racism. She said she’s not “finished” with that process. Her mentors, Darlene Flynn and Deborah Terry-Hays, who are black, have guided her.
She struggles, too, when white audiences respond better to her, a white woman, than to her black colleagues.
“White people can hear it better from a white person. This is a dilemma I struggle with a lot,” she said. “In the very act of that, I'm necessarily reinforcing the authority of the white voice. I don't know any way out around that. I definitely have laid awake at night for many years struggling with that.”
She said to improve understanding of what it means to be white, people must change how they understand racism.
“When you let go of this idea that racism occurs in individual incidences that are either committed by bad people or not committed by good people, it is so liberating,” she said.
Regarding “white supremacy,” the term that jarred so many at the Sanders rally, DiAngelo said she uses that term too.
“When I say white supremacy, I don't mean the KKK. I mean white superiority. White as right,” she said. “And yet I am not wracked with guilt. I'm not a guilty person. I didn't set the system up. I've committed my life to challenging it, but I am responsible.
“The inaction is a form of action. There is no neutral space.”