Social Justice Usage
Source: DiAngelo, Robin J. White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018, pp. 62–63.
Because we are not raised to see ourselves in racial terms or to see white space as racialized space, we position ourselves as innocent of race. On countless occasions, I have heard white people claim that because they grew up in segregation, they were sheltered from race. At the same time, we turn to people of color, who may also have grown up in racially segregated spaces (because of decades of de jure and de facto policies that blocked them from moving into white neighborhoods) to learn about racism. But why aren’t people of color who grew up in segregation also innocent of race? I ask my readers to reflect deeply on the idea that white segregation is racially innocent.
Because people of color are not seen as racially innocent, they are expected to speak to issues of race (but must do so on white terms). This idea—that racism is not a white problem—enables us to sit back and let people of color take very real risks of invalidation and retaliation as they share their experiences. But we are not required to take similar cross-racial risks. They—not we—have race, and thus they are the holders of racial knowledge. In this way, we position ourselves as standing outside hierarchical social relations.
New Discourses Commentary
The term white innocence in the critical race, critical whiteness, and Social Justice literature usually reflects the idea that white people, in that they experience the privilege of dominant racial status in a white-dominant society, are generally naive about the realities of race and racism, particularly in systemic and structural senses. In particular, they are afforded the luxury (deemed a privilege) of not having to engage with race or racism unless they choose to do so intentionally (see also, antiracism). As critical race educator Robin DiAngelo points out (above), white innocence reflects the idea that “racism is not a white problem.”
The application of white innocence manifests in a number of ways. Primarily, it will be tied into various forms of white ignorance about race (and thus the need for antiracist, culturally sensitive, culturally responsive, and critical race education). Particularly, it will be used to discount any views expressed by white people (or white-adjacent people) who don’t make race and racism central features of their analysis for any social phenomenon in which racial difference appears, especially if there are any sort of disparate outcomes. (Critical race methodologies will always conclude that the primary and proximate, if not sole possible, cause of racially disparate outcomes is some form of discrimination or systemic racism – see also, equity.)
White innocence, in this sense, is viewed as a primary reason that white fragility manifests when whites are confronted with “racial stress,” usually in the form of being called out as racially problematic, (systemically) racist, privileged, or complicit in a Theoretical system of white supremacy. It is because white people are Theorized to be content and comfortable in their state of dominance and privilege (see also, white comfort and white ignorance) that they lack the “racial stamina” to confront the Theorized “realities” of their participation in these systems, leading them to act out in “fragile” ways, which ultimately means “not always agreeing with the accusation and sometimes getting insulted or mad about it.”
White innocence, as can be seen below, can also take on a slightly different, but related meaning, wherein a sense of innocence (before the law and before accusations of racism) is extended as a racial privilege to white people but not to those of other races. This makes the term a bit confusing because these two meanings aren’t really the same. As can be read below, from DiAngelo, they can be hammered together by claiming that white people are generally naively “innocent” about the racial dynamics involved in this particular aspect of white privilege.
The term has also appeared in the context of postcolonial Theory, in the sense that white European colonialists had a kind of “innocence” in not knowing better about colonialism that white people today use to excuse their actions and genocides. This seems to be an excuse to apply an anachronistic moral evaluation of European colonialism.
Antiracism; Call out; Colonialism; Critical; Critical pedagogy; Critical race Theory; Culturally responsive; Culturally sensitive; Dominance; Equity; Genocide; Position; Privilege; Problematic; Race; Racial stamina; Racial stress; Racism (systemic); Postcolonial Theory; Social Justice; Structural racism; Systemic power; Theory; White; White adjacent; White comfort; White fragility; White ignorance; White supremacy; Whiteness
Source: DiAngelo, Robin J. White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018, pp. 63–64.
White flight may be seen as another aspect of white racial innocence, as it is often justified by beliefs that people of color (again, especially black people) are more prone to crime and that if “too many” black people move into a neighborhood, crime will increase, home values will go down, and the neighborhood will deteriorate. For example, in a study of race and perceptions of crime conducted by sociologists Heather Johnson and Thomas Shapiro, white families consistently discussed fear of crime and associated crime with people of color. In their minds, the more people of color in an area (specifically, blacks and Latinos), the more dangerous the area was perceived to be. Research matching census data and police department crime statistics show that this association does not hold, but these statistics do not quell white fears. For most whites, the percentage of young men of color in a neighborhood is directly correlated with perceptions of the neighborhood crime level.
Deeply held white associations of black people with crime distort reality and the actual direction of danger that has historically existed between whites and blacks. The vast history of extensive and brutal explicit violence perpetrated by whites and their ideological rationalizations are all trivialized through white claims of racial innocence. The power we now wield and have wielded for centuries is thus obscured.
It has been well documented that blacks and Latinos are stopped by police more often than whites are for the same activities and that they receive harsher sentences than whites do for the same crimes. Research has also shown that a major reason for this racial disparity can be attributed to the beliefs held by judges and others about the cause of the criminal behavior. For example, the criminal behavior of white juveniles is often seen as caused by external factors—the youth comes from a single-parent home, is having a hard time right now, just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, or was bullied at school. Attributing the cause of the action to external factors lessens the person’s responsibility and classifies the person as a victim him or herself. But black and Latinx youth are not afforded this same compassion.
When black and Latinx youth go before a judge, the cause of the crime is more often attributed to something internal to the person—the youth is naturally more prone to crime, is more animalistic, and has less capacity for remorse (similarly, a 2016 study found that half of a sample of medical students and residents believe that blacks feel less pain). Whites continually receive the benefit of the doubt not granted to people of color—our race alone helps establish our innocence.
Source: DiAngelo, Robin J. White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018, pp. 64–65.
Critical race scholar Zeus Leonardo critiques the concept of white privilege as something white people receive unwittingly. He says that this concept is analogous to suggesting that a person could walk through life with other people stuffing money into his or her pockets without any awareness or consent on the walker’s part. Leonardo challenges this conceptualization, which positions white privilege as innocence, by arguing that “for white racial hegemony to saturate everyday life, it has to be secured by a process of domination, or those acts, decisions, and policies that white subjects perpetrate on people of color.” Viewing privilege as something that white people are just handed obscures the systematic dimensions of racism that must be actively and passively, consciously and unconsciously, maintained.
The expectation that people of color should teach white people about racism is another aspect of white racial innocence that reinforces several problematic racial assumptions. First, it implies that racism is something that happens to people of color and has nothing to do with us and that we consequently cannot be expected to have any knowledge of it. This framework denies that racism is a relationship in which both groups are involved. By leaving it to people of color to tackle racial issues, we offload the tensions and social dangers of speaking openly onto them. We can ignore the risks ourselves and remain silent on questions of our own culpability.
Second, this request requires nothing of us and reinforces unequal power relations by asking people of color to do our work. There are copious resources available on the subject generated by people of color who are willing to share the information; why haven’t we sought it out before this conversation?
Third, the request ignores the historical dimensions of race relations. It disregards how often people of color have indeed tried to tell us what racism is like for them and how often they have been dismissed. To ask people of color to tell us how they experience racism without first building a trusting relationship and being willing to meet them halfway by also being vulnerable shows that we are not racially aware and that this exchange will probably be invalidating for them.
Revision date: 1/31/20