What Does It Mean to Be White?

Developing White Racial Literacy – Revised Edition

by Robin DiAngelo (Author)
©2016 Textbook XI, 371 Pages
Series: Counterpoints, Volume 497


What does it mean to be white in a society that proclaims race meaningless, yet is deeply divided by race? In the face of pervasive racial inequality and segregation, most white people cannot answer that question. In the second edition of this seminal text, Robin DiAngelo reveals the factors that make this question so difficult: mis-education about what racism is; ideologies such as individualism and colorblindness; segregation; and the belief that to be complicit in racism is to be an immoral person. These factors contribute to what she terms white racial illiteracy. Speaking as a white person to other white people, DiAngelo clearly and compellingly takes readers through an analysis of white socialization. Weaving research, analysis, stories, images, and familiar examples, she provides the framework needed to develop white racial literacy. She describes how race shapes the lives of white people, explains what makes racism so hard to see, identifies common white racial patterns, and speaks back to popular narratives that work to deny racism. Written as an accessible overview on white identity from an anti-racist framework, What Does It Mean to Be White? is an invaluable resource for members of diversity and anti-racism programs and study groups, and students of sociology, psychology, education, and other disciplines. This revised edition features two new chapters, including one on DiAngelo’s influential concept of white fragility. Written to be accessible both within and without academia, this revised edition also features discussion questions, an index, and a glossary.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1: Race in Education
  • Chapter 2: Unique Challenges of Race Education
  • Chapter 3: Socialization
  • Chapter 4: Defining Terms
  • Chapter 5: The Cycle of Oppression
  • Chapter 6: What Is Race?
  • Chapter 7: What Is Racism?
  • Chapter 8: “New” Racism
  • Chapter 9: How Race Shapes the Lives of White People
  • Chapter 10: What Makes Racism So Hard for Whites to See?
  • Chapter 11: Intersecting Identities—An Example of Class
  • Chapter 12: Common Patterns of Well-Meaning White People
  • Chapter 13: White Fragility
  • Chapter 14: Popular White Narratives That Deny Racism
  • Chapter 15: Stop Telling That Story! Danger Discourse and the White Racial Frame
  • Chapter 16: A Note on White Silence
  • Chapter 17: Racism and Specific Racial Groups
  • Chapter 18: Antiracist Education and the Road Ahead
  • References
  • Glossary
  • Index
  • Series index

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I extend my most heartfelt thanks to the numerous friends and colleagues who supported me in this project. Jason Toews, for the hours of astute and vigilant editing you generously donated; my colleagues Anika Nailah, Özlem Sensoy, Holly Richardson, Carole Schroeder, Malena Pinkam, Lee Hatcher, William Borden, Kelli Miller, Ellany Kayce, Darlene Flynn, Deborah Terry, Jacque Larrainzar, Darlene Lee, Sameerah Ahmad, Nitza Hidalgo, and Kent Alexander for your support, insight, and invaluable feedback. Thank you Amie Thurber for your perceptive and detailed reading of the final draft and help with the discussion questions. Thank you Brandyn Gallagher for your insight and patience in working to raise my awareness of cis-supremacy. Thank you to Dana Michelle, Thalia Saplad, and Cheryl Harris for all I learned from you in the beginning of this journey.

Thank you to all of the scholars whose work has been foundational to my understanding of whiteness, particularly Peggy McIntosh, Richard Dyer, Charles Wright Mills and Ruth Frankenberg. Any errors or omissions in interpreting or crediting that work are my own.

A special thank you to Robin Boehler—a fellow white ally—for the countless hours we spent debriefing our training sessions and working to put the racial puzzle together. Your support and brilliance were invaluable. ← ix | x →

Thank you Todd LeMieux for all of your design and graphic work, Andrea O’Brian for your Frames of Reference illustration, and Katherine Streeter for the beautiful cover art.

This text addresses whiteness within the context of what is now known as the United States, originally known as Turtle Island by some Indigenous peoples. The theft of Indigenous lands was the starting point of our current racial system. A key argument of this book is that we must know where we came from in order to understand where we are now. For a powerful overview of this history, see Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and A People’s History of the United States. In honor of the Indigenous peoples whose ancestral territories l stand on and write from, I offer my sincerest respect. ← x | xi →

Figure 1. Map of Indigenous peoples at time of 15th-century European contact.

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I grew up in poverty, in a family in which no one was expected to go to college. Thus I came late to academia, graduating with a BA in Sociology at the age of 34. Unsure what I could do with my degree, I went to my college’s career center for help. After working with the career counselors for several weeks, I received a call. The counselor told me that a job announcement had just arrived for a “Diversity Trainer,” and she thought I would be a good fit. I didn’t know what a Diversity Trainer was, but the job description sounded very exciting: co-leading workshops for employees on accepting racial difference. In terms of my qualifications, I have always considered myself open-minded and progressive—I come from the West Coast, drive a Prius, and shop at natural food markets such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s (and always bring my own bags). I will admit that I have on occasion told an ethnic joke or two (but never in mixed company) and that I was often silent when others told similar jokes or made racist comments. But my silence was usually to protect the speaker from embarrassment or avoid arguments. Thus, confident that I was qualified for the diversity trainer position, I applied and received an interview.

The interview committee explained that the State’s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS—the “welfare” department) had been sued for ← 1 | 2 → racial discrimination and had lost the suit. The federal government had determined that the department was out of compliance regarding serving all clients equally across race and, as part of the settlement, had mandated that every employee in the state (over 5,000 people) receive 16 hours (2 full workdays) of diversity training. DSHS hired a training company to design and deliver the trainings, and this company wrote the curriculum. Part of the design was that inter-racial teams would deliver the trainings. They needed 40 trainers to be sent out in teams of two. The interview committee, composed primarily of other (open-minded) white people such as myself, agreed that I was qualified, and I got the job. Initially elated, I had no idea that I was in for the most profound learning curve of my entire life.

I showed up for the Train-the-Trainer session with 39 other new hires. We would be working together for 5 full days to learn the curriculum and get ready to fan out across the state and lead the workshops. The challenges began almost immediately. On the first day, as we sat in the opening discussion circle, one of the other white women called out, “All the white racists raise your hand!” I was stunned as virtually every white hand in the room shot up. I was smart enough to realize that for some unfathomable reason this was the “party line” and that I should raise my hand like everyone else, but I just couldn’t. I was not racist, and there was no way I was going to identify myself as such. Over the next 5 days we spent many hours engaged in heated discussions about race.

This was the first time in my life that I had ever talked about race in such a direct and sustained way with anyone, and I had never discussed race before in a racially mixed group. My racial paradigm was shaken to the core as the people of color shared their experiences and challenged my limited racial perspective. Indeed, I had never before realized that I had a racial perspective. I felt like a fish being taken out of water. The contrast between the way my colleagues of color experienced the world and the way I did worked like a mirror, reflecting back to me not only the reality that I had a racial viewpoint, but that it was necessarily limited, due to my position in society. I did not see the world objectively as I had been raised to believe, nor did I share the same reality with everyone around me. I was not looking out through a pair of objective eyes, I was looking out through a pair of white eyes. By the end of the 5 days I realized that regardless of how I had always seen myself, I was deeply uninformed—even ignorant—when it came to the complexities of race. This ignorance was not benign or neutral; it had profound implications for my sense of identity and the way I related to people of color. ← 2 | 3 →

The next point on my learning curve began when my co-trainer (a black woman) and I began leading the workshops in DSHS offices across the state. I had been expecting these sessions to be enjoyable; after all, we would be exploring a fascinating and important social issue and learning how to bridge racial divides. I have always found self-reflection and the insights that come from it to be valuable, and I assumed that the participants in the workshops would feel the same way. I was completely unprepared for the depth of resistance we encountered in those sessions. Although there were a few exceptions, the vast majority of these employees—who were predominantly white—did not want to be in these workshops. They were openly hostile to us and to the content of the curriculum. Books slammed down on tables, crossed arms, refusal to speak, and insulting evaluations were the norm.

We would often lead workshops in offices that were 95–100% white, and yet the participants would bitterly complain about Affirmative Action.” This would unnerve me as I looked around these rooms and saw only white people. Clearly these white people were employed—we were in their workplace, after all. There were no people of color here, yet white people were making enraged claims that people of color were taking their jobs. This outrage was not based in any racial reality, yet obviously the emotion was real. I began to wonder how we managed to maintain that reality—how could we not see how white the workplace and its leadership was, at the very moment that we were complaining about not being able to get jobs because people of color would be hired over “us”? How were we, as white people, able to enjoy so much racial privilege and dominance in the workplace, yet believe so deeply that racism had changed direction to now victimize us? Of course, I had my own socialization as a white person, so many of the sentiments expressed were familiar to me—on closer reflection I had to acknowledge that I had held some of the same feelings myself, if only to a lesser degree. But I was gaining a new perspective that allowed me to step back and begin to examine my racial perceptions in a way I had never before been compelled to do.

The freedom that these participants felt to express irrational hostility toward people of color when there was only one person of color in the room (my co-facilitator) was another aspect of how race works that I was trying to understand. As a woman I felt intimidated when a white man erupted in anger. But at least I wasn’t the only woman in the room, and the target was ultimately not me, but people of color. The lack of white concern for the impact our anger might have on my co-facilitator, who often was the only person of color in the room, was confusing. Driving home, I saw the devastating effect of this ← 3 | 4 → hostility on my co-facilitator as she cried in hurt, anger, and frustration. How could these white participants not know or care about this impact? How could we forget the long history of angry white crowds venting racial rage on an isolated person of color? Where was our collective memory? And what about the other white people in the room, those not openly complaining but supporting the complainers nonetheless through their silence? How might the ability to act so insensitively across racial lines depend on the silence of other whites? If we as white people did not speak up to challenge this, who would? How much more emotionally, intellectually, and psychically draining was it for my co-facilitator to speak back to them, than for me? Yet it had always been socially taboo for me to talk directly about race, and in the early days of this work I was too intimidated and inarticulate to raise these questions.

We had 5,000 employees across the state to train, and the project took 5 years to complete. As the years went by and I was involved in hundreds of discussions on race, clear and consistent patterns emerged, illustrating the ways in which white people conceptualize race and thus enact racial “scripts.” Once I became familiar with the patterns, it became easier for me to understand white racial consciousness and many of the ideas, assumptions, and beliefs that underpin our understanding of race. I also had the rare gift of hearing the perspectives of countless people of color, and—in time—I became more articulate about how race works and less intimidated in the face of my fellow whites’ hostility—be it explicitly conveyed through angry outbursts or implicitly conveyed through silence, apathy, and superficiality.

Because I grew up poor and understood the pain of being seen as inferior, prior to this experience I had always thought of myself as an “outsider.” But I was pushed to recognize the fact that, racially, I had always been an “insider”; the culture of whiteness was so normalized for me that it was barely visible. I had my experience of class marginalization to draw from, which helped tremendously as I struggled to understand racism, but as I became more conversant in the workings of racism, I came to understand that the oppression I experienced growing up poor didn’t protect me from learning my place in the racial hierarchy. I now realize that poor and working-class white people don’t necessarily have any “less” racism than middle- or upper-class white people. Our racism is just conveyed in different ways, and we enact it from a different social location than the middle or upper classes. (I will discuss this in more depth in Chapter 11.)

As the foundation of the white racial framework became clearer to me, I became quite skilled at speaking back in a way that helped open up and shift perspectives. Although I learned a tremendous amount from all of the trainers ← 4 | 5 → I worked with over those years, by the end of that contract there were only two of us left: myself as a white trainer and my African American co-trainer Deborah Terry-Hays. I had been given an extraordinary gift in having the honor of working with Deborah, a brilliant, compassionate, and patient mentor. She and I went on to lead similar workshops with other groups, including teachers, municipal workers, and police officers. Over the years I realized that I had been given an opportunity that few white people ever had—to co-lead discussions on race on a daily basis. This work had provided me with the ability to understand race in a profoundly more complex and nuanced way than I had been taught by my family, in school, from the media, or by society at large. Nothing had previously prepared me in any way to think with complexity about race. In fact, the way I was taught to see race worked beautifully to hide its power as a social dynamic.

I wanted to apply my new knowledge beyond these workplace discussions in order to impact a wider audience. I decided to earn my doctorate in Multicultural Education and Whiteness Studies so that I could disseminate what I had learned through teaching and writing. I completed my doctorate in 2004. My graduate study added more layers to my knowledge—6 additional years of scholarship and study. I now had empirical research and theoretical frameworks to support all I had experienced in my years of practice. In graduate school I co-led courses that trained students to lead interracial dialogues. For my dissertation study, I gathered an interracial group of students together to engage in a series of discussions on race over a 4-week period. A trained interracial team of facilitators led the discussions. I sat quietly in the back, observing while the sessions were video-recorded. This observation was the first time I was not in the position to either lead or participate in the discussion, and the opportunity to simply observe provided yet more insight into how whites “do” race.

I now understand that race is a profoundly complex social system that has nothing to do with being progressive or “open-minded.” In fact, we whites who see ourselves as open-minded can actually be the most challenging population of all to talk to about race, because when we believe we are “cool with race,” we are not examining our racial filters. Further, because the concept of “open-mindedness” (or “colorblindness,” or lack of prejudice) is so important to our identities, we actually resist any suggestion that there might be more going on below the surface, and our resistance functions to protect and maintain our racial blinders and positions.

Today I am a writer, speaker, consultant and former associate professor of teacher education. Whether I am leading classes or workshops for college ← 5 | 6 → students, university faculty, social workers, government workers, youth, or private sector employees, each population I work with considers itself somehow unique, and when I am brought in I am often told that I must know such and such in order to understand this specific group. Yet in my years of experience working with all of these populations, the racial patterns are remarkably consistent. The specific norms of the group may vary—some groups may be more outspoken than others, or the discussion may center on education versus business, or there may have been some past conflicts I should know about—but the larger society has collectively shaped us in very predictable ways regarding race. Thus, although this book begins with the example of the teaching force—because education is such a primary site of racial socialization and my field of study—the larger points apply across all disciplines. I ask readers to make the specific adjustments they think are necessary, rather than reject the evidence because it isn’t specifically based in their context. Please note: This book is grounded in the context of the United States and does not address nuances and variations within other socio-political contexts.

The Dilemma of the Master’s Tools

Audre Lorde (1983), a writer, poet and activist, wrote that “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (p. 94). She was critiquing feminists of the time who claimed to represent all women but who focused their concerns on white, middle-class women. This focus rendered women of color invisible and reinforced the race and class privilege enjoyed by white, middle-class feminists. Lorde and other feminists of color argued that race, class, and gender were inseparable systems and must be addressed together. She argued that by not addressing race and class, these feminists were actually reinforcing the system of patriarchy and its divisions—re-inscribing racism and classism (among other forms of oppression) in the name of eliminating sexism.

Lorde’s famous quote also speaks to the dilemma of challenging the system from within. For example, can one authentically critique academia while employed by it and thus invested in it? This is one of the major challenges I face as a white person writing about race. While my goal is to interrupt the invisibility and denial of white racism, I am simultaneously reinforcing it by centering my voice as a white person focusing on white people. Although some people of color appreciate this, others see it as self-promoting and narcissistic. This is a dilemma I have not yet resolved, but at this point in my journey toward greater racial awareness and antiracist action, I believe the ← 6 | 7 → need for whites to work toward raising their own and other whites’ consciousness is a necessary first step. I also understand and acknowledge that this focus reinforces many problematic aspects of racism. This dilemma may not make sense to readers who are new to the exploration, but it may later on.

Another “master’s tools” dilemma I face is that race is a deeply complex socio-political system whose boundaries shift and adapt over time. As such, I recognize that “white” and “people of color” are not discrete categories and that nested within these groupings are deeper levels of complexity and difference based on the various roles assigned by dominant society at various times (i.e., Asian vs. Black vs. Latino vs. Immigrant; Jewish vs. Gentile; Muslim vs. Christian). By speaking primarily in macro-level terms—white and people of color—I am reinforcing the racial binary and erasing all of the complexity within and between these categories. For example, what about bi- or multiracial people? What about a religion (e.g., Islam), which in the current post-9/11 era has been racialized? As will be discussed, race has no biological meaning; it is a social idea. Therefore, one’s racial experience is in large part dictated by how one is perceived in society. Barack Obama is a clear example. Although he is equally white and black in current racial terms, he is defined as black because he looks black and therefore (at least externally) will have more of a “black experience”; society will respond to him as if he is black, not white.

Thus, for the purposes of this limited analysis, I use the terms white and people of color to indicate the two macro-level, socially recognized divisions of the racial hierarchy. I ask my readers who don’t fall neatly into one or the other of these categories to apply the general framework I provide to their specific racial identity (I will explore specific racial groups in more depth in Chapter 17). Again, at the introductory level my goal is to provide basic racial literacy and, as such, understanding the relevancy of the racial binary overall is a first step, albeit at the cost of reinforcing it. To move beyond racial literacy to develop what might be thought of as racial fluency, readers will need to continue to study the complexities of the racial construct.

Chapter Summaries

Chapter 1: Race in Education

This chapter provides an overview of current demographic trends in teacher education. I explain why I believe that most white teacher education students ← 7 | 8 → (like most whites in general) are racially illiterate. I share some of my most common student essays on the question of racial socialization in order to illustrate white racial illiteracy. The challenges of a growing white teacher education population are discussed.

Chapter 2: Unique Challenges of Race Education

This chapter clarifies the differences between opinions on race and racism that all of us already hold, and informed knowledge on race and racism that only develops through ongoing study and practice. The common conception of racism as a good/bad and either/or proposition is challenged. An overview of race and whiteness as social constructs that have developed and changed over time is provided.

Chapter 3: Socialization

This chapter explains the power of socialization to shape our identities and perspectives. Using popular studies, I show the ways in which our cultural context functions as a framework through which we filter all of our experiences. This filter is so powerful it can shape what we see (or what we believe we see). This chapter will begin to challenge the concept of unique individuals outside of socialization and unaffected by the messages we receive from myriad sources.

Chapter 4: Defining Terms

This chapter provides a shared framework for defining key terms such as prejudice, discrimination, systematic oppression, and racism. Differentiation is made between dynamics that operate at the individual level (i.e., prejudice and discrimination) and systematic oppression, which is an embedded and institutionalized system with collective and far-reaching effects. This chapter provides the overall theoretical framework for understanding racism.

Chapters 2, 3, and 4 are adapted from Is Everybody Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Critical Social Justice Education by Sensoy & DiAngelo (2012). ← 8 | 9 →

Chapter 5: The Cycle of Oppression

This chapter continues the discussion of oppression. The elements that constitute oppression are explained: the generation of misinformation; acceptance by society; internalized oppression; internalized dominance; and justification for further mistreatment. The treatment of children with learning disabilities (a form of ableism) is used to illustrate each point on the cycle.

Chapter 6: What Is Race?

A brief historical overview of the development of race as a social construct is provided. Dynamics of perception are discussed. The interaction between ethnic identity—e.g., Jewish or Portuguese—and race is explored. The development of white as a racial identity is traced over time. I introduce the idea of whiteness as a form of property with material benefits.

Chapter 7: What Is Racism?


XI, 371
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (March)
Racism Colorblindness Socialization White racism White socialization Cycle of Oppression Mis-education about racism
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. XI, 368 pp., num. b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Robin DiAngelo (Author)

Robin DiAngelo received her PhD at the University of Washington, where she was twice honored with the Student’s Choice Award for Educator of the Year. Her concept of white fragility has influenced the national discourse on race. She has published widely in both mainstream and academic venues.


Title: What Does It Mean to Be White?