Robin DiAngelo knows how to work a crowd. The author of White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism is confident without crowing, rehearsed yet sensitive to the audience at hand, funny and smirking and cajoling. “Seeing the Racial Waters,” DiAngelo's touring half-day workshop, promises to “explore topics including white socialization, systemic racism, white solidarity, the specific ways racism manifests for white progressives, safety versus comfort, [and] the politics of emotions.” She would, she warned us, “say the word white … about 100 times” in a span of three and a half hours—a joke and a pledge. “You're all gonna be fine,” she said. We laughed. The work had officially begun.
On a Tuesday in July, roughly 300 of us gathered at the Brava Theater Center in San Francisco's historic (and gentrifying) Mission District to unlearn our parts in the too-routine burlesque of anti-racism. The audience demographics were about as expected for an event on racial literacy: some black women besides myself, some other women of color, some men of color, a few white men, and a huge number of white women, in a range of ages and haircuts. The stage was mostly dark, illuminated by the calming blue palette of a projected photograph: schools of fish swimming in divergent directions among their own kind, just below the water's surface. As I craned my neck and waited for the show to begin, I was joined to my left by a woman named Mary, who would soon share with me the racial shame of her white burden.