Robin DiAngelo and Resmaa Menakem
Resmaa Menakem offers therapy and coaching in Minneapolis and teaches across the U.S. He’s worked with U.S. military contractors in Afghanistan as well as American communities and police forces. His latest book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies is part narrative, part workbook.
Robin DiAngelo is an Affiliate Associate Professor of Education at the University of Washington in Seattle and has been a consultant, educator, and facilitator for over 20 years on issues of racial and social justice. She’s the author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism.
Krista Tippett, host: The show we released with Minneapolis trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem in the weeks after George Floyd’s killing has touched listeners, and galvanized searching, with an extraordinary reach. So I said yes when he proposed that he join me in conversation again, this time together with Robin DiAngelo. She is perhaps the foremost voice in our civilizational grappling with whiteness; her book, White Fragility, is one of the most widely read books in the world right now. Hearing the two of them together is electric — the deepest of dives into the calling of our lifetimes.
Robin DiAngelo: When white people ask me, “What do I do?” I ask them, in return, how have you managed not to know, when the information’s everywhere; they’ve been telling us forever? What does it take for us to ask, and then, to keep asking? And it just speaks to how seductive the forces of comfort are.
So what am I gonna do to keep myself uncomfortable, because that comfort is really seductive and powerful?
Resmaa Menakem: And has a cost.
Menakem: It is not a seductiveness without a cost. It’s that most white people are willing for other people to pay that cost.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
Resmaa Menakem is based in Minneapolis, where he is an esteemed presence at the heart of this city’s grappling with pain and ways to move forward. He is celebrated by Robin DiAngelo and others for his insight into racism and racial trauma in our bodies and the need for healing there. He speaks of “bodies of culture” rather than “bodies of color.” Robin DiAngelo teaches, writes, and consults from Seattle.
Tippett: So I have some questions, and I have some observations I would like to run by you. But, really, what I’m delighted to do is bring the two of you into conversation with each other. You’re both doing lots of speaking in this virtual world and being asked and invited to participate in things — if there are, even in all of that, questions you are not being asked that you would like to address, or conversations you’d like to be having or hearing, then I would hope that maybe this could be a space for that, as this next hour or so unfolds.
Robin, because we haven’t met before and you haven’t been on the show, I am curious — the only thing that I saw, as I was looking around, about the background of your life was, somewhere, you said or you wrote that you grew up poor and white in San Francisco. I’m curious how you would trace, in the background of your childhood, in your earliest life, the seeds of this clarity about white fragility that you have really distinctly articulated for our world.
DiAngelo: Well, thank you for that question. I grew up poor and white in the Bay Area. We moved frequently. I think, from a very early age, I had a very deep sense of shame. I will never forget a moment in which — two moments, in fact — one in which a teacher held my hand up in front of the class as an example of poor hygiene and told me to go home and tell my mother to wash me. My mom was a single mom. She had three children. She was sick, and she literally couldn’t house, feed, or clothe us. So I was dirty.
The other moment was visiting a friend of hers, some lady — you know when you’re a kid, and you get taken to somebody’s house, and they have kids, so you’re playing. And on the way out, I was the last one out the door, and I overheard — one of their children asked her mother, “What’s wrong with them?” That was her question, what’s wrong with them? And I stopped, riveted. I wanted to hear. And her mother put her finger to her lips and said, “Shh. They’re poor.” That was a revelatory moment. That was a moment when I realized, there’s something about us that everyone can see, that’s shameful, but that should not be named.
At the same time, I also always knew I was white. And I knew that it was better to be white. I can remember seeing food left out, uneaten. And I was hungry, and I would reach for it, maybe out in a park, on a picnic table or something, and I would be admonished by my mother, “Don’t touch that. You don’t know who touched it. It could’ve been a colored person,” which was the language of the time. And the message was clear: if a colored person touched it, it would be dirty.
But I was actually dirty. But in those moments, in those moments, I wasn’t poor anymore. In those moments, I was white. We used, if you will, Black people to project our shame onto, to realign us with the dominant white culture that our poverty separated us from. I don’t have less racism because I grew up poor, and I don’t have less white privilege, either. I just learned my place from a different class position than I would have, had I been middle class and white. But I still learned it, and it’s on me to take the rest of my life to unpack how I learned it, how it’s manifesting; and, in some ways, it manifests in not feeling — there’s a kind of day late and dollar short that people who grew up poor have.
I didn’t go to college until I was in my 30s. And sometimes, I see racism happening, but I don’t feel like I’m as smart as those people, especially in academia. And so it may truly be a feeling of inferiority that’s keeping me silent, but when I stepped out of myself and asked, yes, but how is it functioning right now, in this room? Regardless of what is driving your silence, how is it functioning? Well, it’s functioning to uphold racism. I’ll get ahead, by my silence. And so that’s unacceptable to me. And when I use my white position to break with silence and white solidarity and speak up, I am simultaneously healing the lie that I am inherently inferior because I grew up poor. So, for me to center race — even though I experience oppression and have experienced oppression in other aspects of my life — for me to center race and feed every other identity or experience through that lens has been the most profound tool, if you will.
Tippett: Resmaa, I’m thinking about how you speak about bodies of culture. And I almost feel like what Robin described is another form of being a body of culture, in a different way, right, but another part of the same pathology, in some ways.
Menakem: A pathology is readily available for any type of identity. So the pathology of racism or the pathology of classism or the pathology of homophobia, those are always readily available to use. But I really do — there are particular things that when I’m talking about, in terms of the lens that I come from, it really is about, for me, having a real understanding on how this thing about race comes up.
So yes, there are pieces in there, but for me, much like what Robin said, in terms of the lens that she uses, by which she is able to see and judge and navigate the world, is really synonymous with what I’m talking about: a living, embodied philosophy. Because what we know is that white body supremacy and white supremacy is not just structural, but it is, also, a philosophy. That’s why it can mutate. That’s why it can adapt to every situation, and before you know it, whiteness is once again centered, even though you started off with a liberation mindset or trying to effect some type of change. And so, for me, yes, they’re similar, but they’re not the same.
DiAngelo: The key is, how do you use it as a way in and not a way out? Again, I gotta repeat it: I always knew I was white; I knew it was better to be white; being white has helped me leave poverty. I can’t talk about any other identity without talking about how race shapes that identity. It’s so easy to see where we swim against the current and so much harder to see where we move with the current. And for me, that’s the richest place, because I’ve spent my life noticing the injustices I’ve experienced, but I was very far in life until I started to notice, what injustice have I perpetuated, and how have I benefited?
Tippett: I think one thing that’s so insidious about this is — Resmaa, when you use the word “philosophy,” I think, when people hear that word, it sounds like an idea system that one knows one holds; an articulated clarity of thought and belief. But you — you’re coming at this and how this is in our bodies whether we know it or not. And Robin, well, your entire premise is how white people live and move and not only don’t know this, but feel entitled if it is challenged.
DiAngelo: You know, Krista, I think what you were articulating is what sociologist Joe Feagin calls the white racial frame: the framework through which we make racial meaning. And it includes everything — interpretations, perceptions, emotions, language — and when you’re viewing through a frame, it’s so internalized, you don’t know you’re viewing through a frame.
I would not have been able to tell you that I had a racial framework. I was raised to just see myself as human. I’m just a person, looking out through objective eyes. [laughs] No, I’m looking out through white eyes. And that is really hard, for a lot of white people. It’s interesting how defensive and angry white people get when you suggest that you could know anything about them, just because they’re white, and that there’s a collective worldview that they have; they’re not all just special and unique and different.
Tippett: There’s someplace I’ve heard you observe that — and this is a question I’ve asked, and it’s a question I hear asked a lot right now — white people saying — which just confirms what you’re saying — “How did I not see this?” And you’ve said, we don’t see it; and we do see it, but we can’t admit we see it, and that this creates an irrationality.
DiAngelo: We’re so invested in not seeing this, for so many reasons.
Yeah, it’s this really weird —I’m gonna imagine — you tell me, Krista, if you can relate. On the one hand, we really don’t know. We really are just oblivious to this, and we’re shocked when we finally see it. And, on the other hand, yeah, we know. We know. I know. You know. Both those things are actually, simultaneously true or real. And then you add that you can’t admit that you know, and it makes us fairly irrational. You can add a lot of other things, too, like internalized superiority that we can’t admit to, and et cetera.
Tippett: Or, I think, certainly, it penetrates in moments, and then it gets filed away, or …
Menakem: That’s it.
Tippett: … or you talk yourself out of — I think, for me, it would be, “I can’t do anything about this. I can’t let in the magnitude of this.”
Menakem: So — there’s a really interesting thing, a number of experiences that I’ve had since brother George Floyd was murdered. And one of them is having friends — white friends that I care for, white friends that I love, and family members — and one of the things that’s kind of the thing that everybody’s starting to say now is, “I’m an ally.” White folks love telling you that they’re an ally. And I had an interesting conversation with a good friend of mine, this is somebody that I’ve known for a very long time. And he told me, he said, “Man, I did not understand how, just, oblivious to this stuff that I was.” He said, “I’ve been your friend a long time,” he said, “and I’m still kind of not understanding.” He said, “One thing happened that just crystallized this for me.” And he said — the neighborhood that he belonged to is very liberal. They’re not the devout racists, they’re the complicit racists. They’re very liberal. They have Black Lives Matters in their yard. And he said, “One of the interesting things that happened was that when all of this went down, all of a sudden the Black Lives Matter things that were on people’s lawns disappeared.”
And he said he found that strange, because if Black lives mattered before all of this went down, what’s making you now pick them up? And he said, “— the thing about it was, is that I immediately thought about, Resmaa can’t remove his Black skin; that Resmaa can’t remove the cops killing him. He can’t do that, but we can.” And so he’s been working with that and struggling with that for a minute. And I just let him struggle with it, because that’s an important struggle. It’s an important question to begin to deal with.
DiAngelo: Can I add something to that?
Tippett: I’m just curious, would they take the signs down because they were scared of how volatile things felt?
Menakem: What he said was, is that they got some report that — because people were targeting those pieces. And when he said that to me, I said — I can’t cuss on here, but I said, dude, that is irrelevant. It is really irrelevant, whether or not they thought that somebody would then target them. People target me, every day. People target — so the moment you get uncomfortable, you have escape hatches. You actually —
Tippett: It’s that easy.
Menakem: You actually are advantaged by being born in a white body, in ways that I am not advantaged.
Tippett: Robin, you wanted to say something?
DiAngelo: Well, so two thoughts, because of course, that was so rich. And one is that it’s not benign or innocent that he still doesn’t quite see it. And I just really want to push back against any narrative that white people are ‘innocent’ of race. I think it takes energy not to see it. It’s a kind of willful not-knowing or refusal to know.
And I offer that question. When white people ask me, “What do I do?” I ask them, in return, how have you managed not to know, when the information’s everywhere; they’ve been telling us forever? What does it take for us to ask, and then, to keep asking? And it just speaks to how seductive the forces of comfort are.
So what am I gonna do to keep myself uncomfortable, because that comfort is really seductive and powerful?
Menakem: And has a cost. It is not a seductiveness without a cost. It’s that most white people are willing for other people to pay that cost.
[music: “ypsilon” by Ólafur Arnalds]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today I’m with therapist and trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem — together with Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility.
[music: “ypsilon” by Ólafur Arnalds]
Tippett: I feel like, in both of your work — and this is not enough; in some ways, this isn’t even an answer to the question of how to begin, but there is a necessity and virtue of white people — of me — letting myself be uncomfortable.
DiAngelo: At the same time, think about the language of violence so many white people use to describe that discomfort. So we say things like, “Well, I’m not gonna have that conversation, because I don’t want to be attacked.” Attacked, right? That’s a — and we’re only talking about some chosen moment of discomfort in a conversation. And what a perversion of the true direction of violence that we’ve been perpetrating, or in our name, for hundreds of years.
And that leads to this idea about allies. So I do not call myself an ally. I do not even say I’m an antiracist. I will say I’m involved in antiracist work, but it’s really for Resmaa to decide if, in any given moment, I’m actually behaving in allied or antiracist ways. And notice that: in any given moment. It’s not like a fixed status. And I’m the least qualified to make that determination, because I have investments in the system that I don’t even know I have. Like, I can’t really trust myself. So I have to have accountability set up around me.
Tippett: I want to keep going with all of this. And before we go too much farther, I want to ask each of you how you’re thinking about what has just happened in 2020, the pandemic upon the pandemic, or the awakening to the racial pandemic that had been with us. But I just wonder how you, through — how you’ve understood what has happened that may be significant, that may be new, from what you’ve already been attending to in your lives and work, in the spring of 2020.
Menakem: So I’ve been taking to calling it — a friend of mine had an Instagram picture up, and he had a mask on, and on the mask it said, “I’m still dealing with COVID 1619,” not just COVID-19. And that’s true, for me. The weathering effects of white body supremacy has affected my very skeletal structure, has affected my respiratory system, has affected my cardiovascular system, has affected my mama’s cardiovascular and her mother’s — the effects of racialization and white body supremacy, and the weathering effects of it, is why COVID-19 has run rampant through my communities and run rampant through the East African community, is because one of the things is that the systems have tenderized our physical systems to the point to where COVID just set up shop and wrecked shop, because our bodies were already weathered.
And so that, in addition to COVID and then in addition to sister Breonna Taylor getting murdered, brother Arbery getting murdered, brother Floyd and the countless before and the countless since then — this is — I just have to say that this is brutal. This is brutality and viciousness at a level that, when white folks and allies say that they’re allies, and “What can we do?” and you think you’re being helpful, or “What should I do now?” and you think you’re being helpful, there is such a brutality to your words that, many times, I can’t fool with white folks. I can’t be around you. I need you to leave me alone. I need you to not ask me what my opinion is of a Black man getting murdered with no regard. And so, for me, this idea about allyship really does fall into the place of whether or not white people have the capacity to stop what I call declarations of independence, declarations of “I’m not racist,” declarations of “I’m an ally,” declarations that “I’m a good, individual white person,” and they’re gonna have to start really beginning to figure out how they build culture around abolishing white supremacy.
Anything other than that, for me, really is — you’ve heard me say this before — really is performance art. It is not real. If you’re not gonna be with other white bodies for three to ten years, grinding on specifically about race and specifically about the things that show up when white bodies get together to build culture, then I can’t fool with you. I’m not interested in your credentialing or your virtue signaling. It means nothing to me, because I know that when I go home and my son is getting ready to go and get in the car and drive off, that my stomach feels like it’s going to fall out; that when I watch my wife have to go interact with these organizations and these structures that are brutalizing her, I know that that’s going to continue, for me, even when you tell me you’re an ally
DiAngelo: I just want to offer to white listeners, if you’re feeling frustrated, just watch what’s coming up for you as you hear Resmaa’s hopelessness, and you start to have feelings, and some of them may be anger — like, why are you not giving me hope? Why are you not making me feel better? What am I supposed to do? — just notice all of that. It’s a different way of breaking through the apathy of whiteness. And it’s not gonna be a kind of tie-it-up-in-a-bow, much less, “Resmaa, give me hope.” It’s a kind of “let’s break through how deep the apathy is and use your umbrage, if you’re feeling it, to motivate you to prove him wrong.” [laughs] Show him that you can be trusted, that we can be trusted.
But hope is such a tool, in a way, of whiteness. And we’ve dangled that tool in front of Black people for 400 years. And we keep not showing up in the long term.
Tippett: After a short break, more with Robin DiAngelo and Resmaa Menakem. You can always listen again, and hear the unedited version of every show we do on the On Being podcast feed — wherever podcasts are found.
[music: “saman” by Ólafur Arnalds]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with an electric conversation between Robin DiAngelo, perhaps the foremost contemporary voice on grappling with whiteness; and Resmaa Menakem, the therapist and trauma specialist who has clarified new insight into racism and racial trauma as they lodge in our bodies. Robin is based in Seattle. Resmaa is based in Minneapolis, where he is an esteemed counselor and justice coach at the heart of this city’s grappling with pain and ways to move forward.
Tippett: One of the things I’m aware of right now is that it’s stressful and uncomfortable, for white people, to hear generalizations about white people. And so — I’m gonna continue in that vein — both of you have particularly called out — and this is, also, doubly uncomfortable — white progressives. And I think one of the things you said to me, Resmaa, when we spoke, not being able to imagine that we’d be in lockdown a month later, and on and on — but this feels like one of the things, one of the realities that has surfaced: that there’s work for white people that they have to do among themselves and that, in fact, there has been a re-wounding that has happened in these early years of the invention of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and doing it often in workplaces, getting everybody in a room and acting like we can talk about this together. So I would like to talk a little bit about that, about the work that white people need to do on themselves and with each other. And I don’t think people have a sense of — well, it’s a new idea. It would actually have sounded like a racist idea. That’s the irony, that if you would’ve said something like that a couple months ago, it might’ve sounded like it was reversing.
Menakem: I’m gonna let Robin take that. [laughs] Robin, please. [laughs]
DiAngelo: I actually am getting to where I do think that we should not be having these conversations together until we’ve done a fair amount of our own, personal work, as white people, because we cause so much wounding in these conversations. And our consciousness is — you can get through graduate school in this country without ever discussing systemic racism. And so we just have a pretty low critical awareness, and we go into these dialogues, and we cause a lot of harm.
But when you suggest, we’re gonna separate by race, a really funny thing happens: white people freak out. Like, “What? What? Well, how will I learn about race if Resmaa doesn’t tell me? What do you mean? I thought …”
All of that. And what I want to point out is that most white people live their lives in segregation. Most white people will go cradle to grave with few, if any, authentic relationships with Black people, with no sense whatsoever that anything of value is missing from their lives. And if we’re gonna be really honest, we will measure the absence of Black people as the criteria for the value of our neighborhoods and our schools.
I was never meant to know or love Resmaa. I was meant to live my life not knowing or loving him; tolerate him, smile at him, be nice to him, yes, but know or love him, absolutely not. And yet, for a brief, contrived exercise — explicitly, right? — the moment we say, “Now we’re gonna separate by race, in order to work on racism,” white people become unglued. So it’s like, as long as it “just happens” — it just happens that I grew up in an all-white neighborhood, still live in an all-white neighborhood, go to mostly-white schools, send my kids to mostly-white schools, and talk about those neighborhoods and schools in glowing terms, as “good” —
Tippett: I heard you say that somewhere, just that, that how can we say that a neighborhood or school that is all white or almost-all white is a good neighborhood or a good school?
DiAngelo: See, and I, as a good white progressive, I’m never gonna say the N-word. But that, for me, is the most powerful message of all, the most powerful message of white superiority, white supremacy, is that we could and do call white segregation good. That’s a really deep message. In February, we’re gonna talk about the tragedy of segregation on Blacks in the Jim Crow South. And then, in 2020, we’re gonna talk in glowing terms about how good our neighborhood is. So it’s those messages that we have to look at. And as long as we define “racist” as the N-word and the white hood and the meanness, we’re not gonna see what we contribute to it daily.
And let me just ask Resmaa, would you rather have a Richard Spencer in your face or a white progressive?
Menakem: None of them.
DiAngelo: [laughs] Thank you. I shouldn’t have said “in your face,” but “deal with.”
Menakem: I don’t have a space for either one of them fools. [laughs]
But what I would say is, I would rather have somebody that I know is working for three years, three to ten years, working with other white people on their stuff. I can tolerate that. I can deal with that. I can even support that. But your declarations don’t really mean anything. The idea that people can come up to me and ask me, “What should I do?” when we have Google is just crazy on its face.
And that’s one of the things that, I really believe, is why white folks have got to do this work themselves, because white folks don’t even know that we’re not even speaking the same embodied language. We’re not even speaking the same verbal language. We don’t see the world in the same way. So we are not saying the same things. We are not vibing the same things. And so white people coming up and just saying, “This is what I want to do” or, “This is what I think,” you don’t even realize that the language that you’re speaking is wounding. It is brutal. It always has been. And I don’t care who; I don’t care how many babies you done had with a Black man or Black woman or how many times you marched with Martin Luther King — none of that matters. You have to develop culture.
DiAngelo: So, Resmaa, this is such a critical point. And I’m always like, I want white people to hear this point. So when white people tell you they’re not racist, that actually isn’t communicating to you that they’re not racist?
Menakem: No, they’re actually saying the exact opposite. And the other piece that they’re saying — so I’ve played with this idea of devout racist and then complicit racist. There’s no such thing as a nonracist. Either you are destroying this and looking to dismantle this thing that currently exists, and you’re working towards it and you’re working towards developing culture around it, or you’re either devout or complicit. And so, for me, when white people say these things that they think are supportive because they speak a different language than I do, a different embodied language, a different verbal language, what they’re actually telling me is, “You are not safe.”
DiAngelo: See, and I think a lot of white people listening are like, “Wait, why?” And so, if I may, Resmaa, and I know you will check me if I miss this, when we say that, what we’re saying is, we don’t understand what racism is; we don’t understand what it means to be white.
The other side of that is when we go to someone like Resmaa and we say, “Tell me about racism,” and then he — which is, basically: “Open your chest, open your guts. Be vulnerable. Show yourself. I’m not gonna show myself. I’m just going to receive.” It’s extractive. “But I’m only gonna receive what I agree with. And so these are all the reasons why Black people just don’t want to deal with us until we get a little further along, so we don’t say things like “I’m not racist.”
And let me just be really clear: As a result of being raised in this society as a white person, I’m racist. I have a racist worldview. There’s no way I don’t have a racist worldview, because it’s embedded in everything. And that means I have racist assumptions and behaviors and investments. And it’s liberating to start from that premise and then just get to work, trying to figure out how it’s manifesting and interrupt that, rather than the insistence that we could be untouched by the water we’re swimming in.
DiAngelo: I mean, so many Black people have said to me, yes, give me the upfront, in your face racist, because I know where they’re coming from. I know how to protect myself. The white progressive is smiling, but there’s a knife in my back.
Menakem: That all lands with great force on brother George Floyd’s body. The thing I think about brother George that I’ve thought about is that he was such an ordinary man. One of the things that I’ve been doing is that I have not watched the video. I have not watched that video all the way through, because I can’t.
But what I have done is, I’ve taken the video, and I pulled George out of the frame and only focused on Chauvin, and looked at his face for that whole eight, nine minutes, just look at his face. And when you watch his face, you see such suredness that the whole system is behind him; that nothing is going to happen; that he is doing his job, and he’s not even doing it to a human being.
White people gotta work that out amongst themselves. They have to work out that pus amongst themselves. They have to figure out, when all of that stuff comes up when they’re in the room with each other, they have to work that out. And that takes time, because it takes people being intimate with each other, not intimacy like mother’s milk, but intimacy like, “I am being exposed to you, and we are going to move through this to develop something and grow up.” But white people are not even willing to acknowledge that there is an infection.
Tippett: I think, also, this matter of white people — well, the work we have to do together, this work has to happen for the world to change. I worry about the culture we’ve created, the public discourse culture we’ve created in recent years, that got backgrounded during the COVID early period and is kind of now back — that we don’t have public space where it is reasonable to invite people to confess, to change, to acknowledge shortcomings, or to let other people do that. And I feel like that’s a space that we have to create. But I guess that’s really the white people work among themselves that has to happen.
Menakem: You have to create it. You’re right, it doesn’t exist. An embodied antiracist culture and practice doesn’t exist. And now you have to create it. Not for me, but so you don’t pass this infection down to your children.
DiAngelo: And a book group over a glass of wine — at this point, anybody listening — anybody white listening might be feeling, oh, my God, I can’t get this right. And that is true. You cannot get this right. A piece of it is being in that unsettling place of not knowing, that deep, deep humility. And even the confession can be problematic. It can range from just a form of masochism to a form of, “Well, I feel bad enough that you can see that I’m actually good.” And so that also becomes performative —
Tippett: No, I’m talking about confession coupled with repentance, which literally means, you stop in your tracks and walk in a different direction.
Menakem: And do something.
DiAngelo: Just had to put that out there, because we also have to figure out how to do that work in accountable ways. I am a little nervous about how many people now are like, “Oh, I read your book, and now I want to start a book study,” or “I want to start a workshop.” And it takes years of experience and study and struggle and mistake-making and trust-building to hold a group around race and really hold that group and push them and help them go where they need to go, in ways that are constructive. It takes a lot of experience. So we just have to also think — this isn’t the, maybe, format to “give the answer” to accountability, but we need to be asking ourselves that.
Tippett: But somehow we need accountability that actually celebrates change, because right now we just have yelling at each other and putting other people down.
Menakem: Are you talking about white folk?
Tippett: Yeah, I’m talking about white folks, yeah. One thing — using the word “we,” I’m really trying to actually stop myself [laughs] or question it, every time I do it. And it’s hard. But you’re right, yes. I mean white people.
DiAngelo: I usually just start out by saying, when I say “we,” I’m talking to my fellow white people.
Tippett: So, years ago, I interviewed John Lewis in Montgomery, Alabama, which was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. And one of the things John Lewis talks about, about the civil rights movement in the 1960s — well, the 1950s and the 1960s — the kind of disciplines that they brought, the spiritual and tactical discipline that they brought, was that while you had to be strategic and tactical and fight the fights and do the actions, you also had to know in your mind the world that you wanted to create. And he said, you had to live “as if.” So you were working with what is, and you are applying your creativity and the power of human imagination and courage to holding to that, that world you want to be walking towards and walking with others towards.
So I think maybe I’ll start with you, Robin. What is that “as if” beyond white fragility as the norm and as a determinant, a driving force, in our culture, our society?
DiAngelo: Well, the word that keeps coming up to me is “repair” — that we would have a framework that would allow us to repair. And the framework that is causing white fragility is a refusal to repair, a refusal to see or feel. Some defensiveness is a natural response, when given direct feedback about something, like … It’s defensiveness that functions to refuse to understand or stretch or go deeper; that is absolutely certain that they know all they need to know. And I’m just gonna say it: many of your listeners right now are feeling that they already have the answer, and they know all they need to know, and here is the “correct” response. So it would be the fortitude to get to a place of repair. What would it take?
I’ll never forget asking a group — I asked the Black people in the group, what would it be like if you could just go there with us, give us that feedback, tell us, talk to us, and we received it with grace, we reflected, and we sought to change our behavior? And I’ll never forget, a Black man raised his hand and said, “It would be revolutionary.” Just notice that. That’s a revolution? We would receive that with grace, reflect, and seek to repair?
But it’s actually not that tall an order. But it is a very tall order. I’d say it’s too tall an order from the current paradigm, that says it has to be intentional to count.
Tippett: So, Resmaa, let’s say we’re walking along the long arc of the moral universe. What is that “as if” that you want to be walking into and you want your grandchildren to inherit?
Menakem: The first thing that comes to my mind is that Black women can be in their beds, sleeping, and not have to worry about somebody kicking a door in and putting eight bullets in them; that our schools are such that they’re organized around the care of Black children’s bodies and the need that they have, as opposed to trying to fit them inside of something that is not working for them and that was never designed for them. The system is not broken. It was designed this way. It’s doing exactly what it should do. So, for me, the opposite is what I would need to see.
The opposite is, if something happens, that our people can be in a situation where they can be redeemed. So, if they go to do something and they hurt somebody, something like that, and they are in prison — which is not necessarily the case; you don’t necessarily have to do something, if you’re in a Black body, and end up in prison; that is not a prerequisite. But if you are, then, that prison is actually a school. That prison has things in it that will actually allow you to not just sit and fester, but grow and prosper. And so, for me, if I’m thinking my children are living in a world that I would design, it would be that they were not free of strife, or not free of things happening, because difficult things can happen, and you can be bettered through them. What I’m talking about is the structural thing that makes it so that my life is not worthy. I would like for that to be different and change. And so, if I’m looking at, as you said, the ancestor said, if I’m looking at the world as I would like it, that’s where it would start, for me.
Tippett: I have to say, both of your answers are really modest. [laughs] You know what I mean? And it says something, that it’s hard to imagine that world you really, really want to live in, as opposed to a world that’s just free of brutality that shouldn’t be there in the first place.
Menakem: I just need that, first.
Tippett: Is there anything that either one of you wants to add, or something we didn’t talk about that feels really important to name right now or that you want to get out?
Menakem: Nah. I think that’s it, for me. I’m worn out. [laughs]
Tippett: Well, then, that’s a good reason to stop. Thank you both, so much.
Menakem: Thank you, Krista.
DiAngelo: Thank you, Krista. Thank you, Resmaa.
Menakem: Yes, you too.
[music: “Freeze” by Manu Delago]
Resmaa Menakem’s New York Times best-selling book is My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies.
Robin DiAngelo is the author of the White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism.
The On Being Project is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Laurén Dørdal, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Serri Graslie, Colleen Scheck, Christiane Wartell, Julie Siple, Gretchen Honnold, and Jhaleh Akhavan
The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
On Being is an independent production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by WNYC Studios. I created this show at American Public Media.
Our funding partners include:
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.
Kalliopeia Foundation. Dedicated to reconnecting ecology, culture, and spirituality. Supporting organizations and initiatives that uphold a sacred relationship with life on Earth. Learn more at kalliopeia.org.
Humanity United, advancing human dignity at home and around the world. Find out more at humanityunited.org, part of the Omidyar Group.
The George Family Foundation, in support of the Civil Conversations Project.
The Osprey Foundation — a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.