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What Does It Mean to Be White?

Developing White Racial Literacy – Revised Edition


Robin DiAngelo

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.
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Chapter 5: The Cycle of Oppression


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My neighborhood growing up was not diverse at all. Everyone is equal. There is no race that is better than another. I’ve never felt like my race was important in shaping my life. It’s never been in my mind. It was never a limitation or an advantage or anything. (ASR)

One way to conceptualize oppression is through the image of a cycle, as illustrated in Figure 14. The result of this cycle is the systematic mistreatment of a minoritized group.

The Generation of Misinformation

The first dynamic that sets the cycle in motion is misinformation about and misrepresentation of a minoritized group. The group is presented in limited, superficial, and negative ways. Take, for example, the representation of black men on television. When we see black men, it is most often either in sports (and concentrated in specific sports such as basketball and football), or associated with the criminal justice system, be it in the role of criminal or cop. “Reality” shows about the daily life of police officers or prisoners in lockdown deeply reinforce these associations, as over and over we see the bodies of black ← 83 | 84 → men (often shirtless) being forcibly contained. These constant negative representations reinforce prejudice toward black men and cause us to have skewed understandings about their lives.

Figure 14. Cycle of oppression.

It is also important to note that invisibility is...

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