Educator asks city hall crowd “what does it mean to be white?” in MLK Day event

Can a fish see the water through which it swims every moment of its life?

According to Professor Robin DiAngelo, just as a fish may not see the water, white people may not recognize how whiteness affects their daily lives.

On Thursday, Jan. 12, DiAngelo addressed a largely white crowd at Bellevue City Hall with “Seeing the Water: Whiteness in Daily Life.”

DiAngelo, who is white, has a doctorate degree in multicultural education from the University of Washington. She has spent her career approaching race relations head on, attempting to force often reluctant white people to face what privileges they benefit from every single day.

“If I do a good job in the very short time I have with you today, the white folks will not be comfortable,” she said. “By every measure across every institution there is racial disparity in the United States.”

The event was part of Bellevue’s ongoing diversity efforts and DiAngelo’s lecture in particular was in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

She said that white people very rarely view themselves as racists, when in fact whiteness in the United States is something founded in inherent racism.

“There are people here today who will say I have continually been taught that skin does not matter,” DiAngelo said. “And we say that, but we don’t teach that.”

According to the professor, by age 3 or 4, American children of all color are taught that it’s better to be white. In the media they consume, in the way institutions deal with people of color and in daily socialization, children learn that “acting” white or being white is an advantage.

DiAngelo admits that white people often get defensive about this, claiming that even white progressives (which she claims herself to be) will use tired cliches like “I have black friends,” or “I was raised to treat everybody the same.”

That’s just not possible, she said. DiAngelo used a comparison to show how absurd that claim is, and what white society often really means.

“If I’m married to a man, I don’t suddenly live a gender-free life,” she said. “White people measure the quality of spaces by the absence of people of color.”

Helena Stephens, a Manager for the city of Bellevue in the Parks and Community Services department, introduced DiAngelo. Stephens, who is black, reminded the crowd that although the country was going through turbulent times, the march toward civil rights continued.

“Yes, I was alive when Dr. King was living,” she said. “He was working for all of our civil and human rights. Over time, Dr. King’s words became quieter and quieter. The events of 2016 reminded me that no rights can be taken for granted, and the work of Dr. King is more important than ever. This Martin Luther King holiday is our most important one yet.”

DiAngelo’s message, despite some uncomfortable glances among the white people in the crowd, was ultimately one pushing for equal rights under the country’s institutions.

“I’m saying this to you today in Bellevue, one of the most diverse communities in the state of Washington,” she said. “But there’s a difference between the presence of people of color and integration.”

DiAngelo said that prejudice can come from anywhere and is internalized by everyone, people of color and white people alike. What makes the prejudice become racism, she said, is when institutions such as government, police departments and the education system treat people differently or even do things most readers might think of as innocuous.

“How often, growing up, did you have a teacher the same color as you?” She asked the crowd, to the universal hand raising of the white listeners. “Teachers are our role models, they teach us what is right and how to behave. Think about the weight of the whole world view, and how much deeper it is than having a friend or two of a different color.”

In his 1903 book “The Souls of Black Folk,” W.E.B. Du Bois posited that black people in the United States and other Western countries deal with a phenomenon called double-consciousness, in which people of colors struggle with having a unified identity. White Americans, on the other hand, never really struggle with where they belong. According to scholars like DiAngelo and Du Bois, white people in this country nearly always belong, and the social and private identities don’t have to switch to fit in.

Despite the controversial tone of the presentation, DiAngelo wanted to reassure the white people in attendance that her words were not about shaming people for their whiteness, and that it might be a bumpy road going forward.

“This is not about guilt, this is about responsibility,” she said. “Niceness is not courageous. Challenging racism will be perceived as not nice. Be willing to tolerate discomfort.”

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