Letter to Robin DiAngelo on Lecture on “White Privilege”

Hi Robin,

I was fortunate to attend the session Tuesday night in Milwaukee at the Marcus Center. Thanks for the hard work you have done in learning how to talk to white people about on the issue of racism. Your decision to target your presentation to the “white” side of the issue I believe is greatly needed. I almost feel about this the same way when I saw my first “Dilbert” cartoon. Scott Adams was tapping in a proverbial gold-mine of material that was literally inexhaustible, the silliness that goes on corporate America non-stop 24 X 7. Implicit racism is like that, a huge mostly invisible thing that it would be too casual to call “silly” because it is destructive. The implicit racism in our society in all of it’s historical proportions is something we can never undo, and yet I feel like you that is it something that white people need to militantly combat on a daily, interaction by interaction, decision by decision basis.

I was raised in a completely segregated area, north Kansas City Missouri, and have worked most of my adult life at a place is skewed proportinally to white and mostly male, although those demographics are in a slow pattern of movement.

I have dedicated my adult life to finding what you called “sustained pattersn of interaction” with people of color, especially African-American men. I have several of those relationships currently in progress, and have suffered through moments of misunderstanding and come up against real cultural and racial barriers that I have to the best of my ability persevered through.

I fully accept that all of us racist in varying degrees by our action and inaction, although as you pointed out we never do and never will get even close to perfection. We must neverthe less struggle and be actively breaking down barriers.

At risk of turning this affirmative response to your talk into something a little more challenging, I have a few critiques to offer to the work you are doing.

You must understand that I am what I would describe as both a social and economic conservative.

With that said, I would hope that there would be a space for a Robin DiAngelo and a Joel Knapp to come to the same table to acknowledge that there are more than one political philosophy, more than one economic philosophy, and differently-nuanced narratives of history can all be brought to the same table and we all can act as legitimate warriors together against every form of racism. I would hope that would be true, but wonder if that is true.

Understand that I am not at all saying that politics, economics, or history-telling are neutral in regards to racism. They are in fact fundamental to the whole question of racism. What my fear is that we on both sides will only cherry-pick anecdotal things about a “different” viewpoint and never come to an appreciation for the fact that are legitimate alternate “systems” of how to approach this ugly thing called racism. They don’t all go after the problem in the same way. They don’t necessarily see the solutions to be in the same areas or policy or decision-making. That doesn’t mean they don’t see and feel and don’t viserally respond to the same ugly reality.

Until we give those different approaches legitimacy, we will only cut ourselves off and weaken the possibility that all people who hate racism can work together.

You live in Seattle. I live in Milwaukee and was raised in the Midwest. When you say, and I quote, “the dominant narrative is that race doesn’t matter”, where are you hearing that? What venue are you speaking about? Certainly not the media. Certianly not the academic arena. Popular culture? Around the water cooler? This may be a purely a Milwaukee versus Seattle thing but I think in general people in the domains where I travel say race does matter, that race IS a legitimate topic of discussion. Also, a lot of people who say “race doesn’t matter” are meaning “race shouldn’t matter” which may as you seem to feel reflect people who are inadequate because they haven’t as you put it “spent years in active study of this problem” or may on the other hand be because they are people who “say what they mean” are speaking in the subjuncitive mode and exepecting to be taken in that sense also. Some of those people may be further ahead in race relations than you give them credit for.

Robin, my challenge to you is to at least consider that you might have allies on race in areas where you have not been expecting them. That is, unless you want to live in a world where progressives self-segregate themselves, unwilling to touch the what-might-be leprous flesh of conservatives. If you do that, that is your choice. I believe history will not be on your side. History will be on the side of those who are brave enough to actually push the conversation forward.

What are the emerging questions about race that are on the horizon? I believe that there are many questions that will soon be asked concerning racism and whiteness that I am hoping social scientists like you will be prepared to answer. I was hoping that your talk might push in some of these directions and didn’t realize you would be bunkering down in the important, but not in any sense strategic, area of implicit bias. That topic can transform individuals but is not as much on the cusp of the current conversation as it needs to be.

Your topic and your book title all seem to give credence to the idea that these is such a thing as white identity. In essence, that is what you doing when you call out whites and ask them to look at themselves is for them to carve out an “identity”. The identity you are advocating is that whites should realize their identity as people of privilege and responsibility because of their potential and actual results in oppressing minorities individually or institutionally.

The problem with leaving the identity question there is that definition of white identity has all kinds of booby traps built into it. No people group is so focused solely on the issues of the relationship of race and power to the exclusion of all of the other aspects of their racial and cultural heritage. Philosophically, if the Afro-American’s (or any other minority’s) quest for identify results in a wholistic celebration of everything that comprises the history and culture surrounding that people-group and that is a positive thing, which I think we would all say it is, why wouldn’t the same thing be true for white people?  If a white identity does show up, and you seem to be, intentionally or not, it will need to be a whole lot broader than you now seem to thinking, scary as that might be.

The other main booby trap is that way you are defining identity will for the most part only has any chance of making sense to white “elites”, those who actually do possess personal economic or politic power or privilege.

If there is anything that should be learned about the last year of the political cycle, it is that elites have collectively ignored a whole class of people, white lower-educated or lower end of economic spectrum, who are prone to respond to issues like these in a more individualistic sense than as a member of corporate body of “white people”. These are the people who I am sure fit into Hillary Clinton’s category of “deplorables”.  It is this group of people who are now tasting the ugliness of a form of bigotry and discrimination from elites for their world-view that is mostly formed by having to daily slug it out to put food on the table.

If the legacy of Martin Luther King should have taught us anything, it is that no one if free unless all our free. Every form of bigotry, even towards poor or uneducated whites, must be removed.

If you want to help push forward the conversation of “whiteness”, then come to terms with the real conversation is going on, not the one those in the ivory towers of academic think is important only.

At some point too, for your work to really make a current impact, you will need to look at and incorporate the relationship of racial and national identity. There is a referendum on “supra-natiionalism” now going on on our planet and although any throughful person would not want to see this lead us or anyone to isolationism, it is nevertheless an important factor in how all peoples carve out an identity and it is important to where the current conversation stands.

I am going to stay plugged in to this conversation and really do hope that some walls might be pulled down so that we can tackle this monster of racism with all of our cannons loaded and firing.


Joel Knapp

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