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GSSWGraduate School of Social Work

GSSW Catalyst Series sparks conversation about white racial identity

October 23, 2017

White Fragility

White people in the U.S. live in a racially insular social environment that builds their expectations for racial comfort and lowers their stamina for enduring racial stress. That is the contention of Robin DiAngelo, PhD, whose scholarship focuses on white racial identity and race relations.

DiAngelo spoke about "White Fragility" to a crowd of 500 on the University of Denver campus. The sold-out Sept. 27 public event was part of the Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) Catalyst Series for Social Justice, which seeks to promote awareness of and foster public dialogue about social justice issues.

"GSSW is committed to social justice as a school, and we recognize that racial justice work must include white people," says Trish Becker-Hafnor, director of community engagement. "We wanted to address one of the barriers to effective racial justice work."

That barrier is what DiAngelo calls "White Fragility"—a state in which even a minimal challenge to the white position becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves that function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and maintain white control. A former associate professor of education at the University of Washington, DiAngelo is the author of the books What Does It Mean to be White? and the forthcoming White Fragility. Her lecture provided an overview of the socialization of white fragility and the perspectives and skills needed for white people to build their racial stamina and reimagine more equitable and just cross-racial norms and practices.

Audience members at the Catalyst Series for Social Justice

"If we aren't uncomfortable and taking risks, we aren't doing enough," says lecture attendee Liza Saffo, MSW '15, a school social worker for Cherry Creek Schools. "An implication for me is that I need to talk about race and privilege more in my workplace. I work at a school that is around 70 percent students of color, while the staff is easily 98 percent white. We preach equity, but our practices are not always equitable. I need to be better about taking risks and speaking up."

GSSW Adjunct Professor Heather Arnold-Renicker, MSW '07, was among 98 people who participated in a workshop with DiAngelo earlier in the day. The half-day workshop—"Seeing Racial Water"—provided a framework for participants to develop white racial literacy.

The workshop aimed to help participants differentiate between prejudice, discrimination and systematic racism; understand the basic dynamics of race relations in the U.S.; examine the concept of "whiteness" and "white racial socialization"; recognize common challenges in bridging racial divides; identify more constructive cross-racial practices; and practice talking about race.

"Social work wouldn't exist without some populations being marginalized," says Arnold-Renicker, who teaches courses related to social justice, power and oppression, and identity. "To be able to have conversations about those things—how we see ourselves in that, how we might participate in that—is fundamental to being a social worker. It's valuable to have these conversations and look at ourselves in the context of our work.

"Conversations about race are something we don't do well," Arnold-Renicker adds. "When you bring in someone who has a direct and open approach, it helps us dialog together and approach our work about identity more effectively and thoughtfully."

Saffo agrees. "It's important that GSSW initiate these types of conversations so they become more mainstream and so that the community has a safe space to talk about injustices and marginalization that is taking place everywhere, all the time."

RSVP for upcoming events in the Catalyst Series:

January 29–30, 2018
Truth to Power: Personal Storytelling for Social Justice—Workshop and Performance with producers of NPR's The Moth

April 3, 2018
Lose Hate Not Weight: An Intersectional Feminist Examination of Diet Culture—Virgie Tovar