Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm is a 2021 book by Robin DiAngelo on the subject of race relations in the United States.
When it comes to racism, if you’re a progressive person, chances are you see yourself as part of the solution instead of part of the problem. But “nice” progressive people frequently perpetrate the most racial harm in cross-racial spaces. They objectify people, enact daily racist microaggressions, and center their own feelings of shame when called out – that is, they make it all about them. And they’re completely unaware of the harm they’re causing because they’ve never felt the need to examine their own internalized racist beliefs.
“Nice Racism” by Robin DiAngelo is an insightful guide for anyone who’s ready to admit they’re a “nice racist.” You’ll discover the common moves and justifications that progressive racists make – and you’ll learn how to drop that veneer of niceness, become accountable, and get serious about fighting white supremacy.
What do you think a racist person looks like? Try to conjure up an image – do you see a hooded member of the Ku Klux Klan? A memeber of Golden Down in the center of Athens or a Bozkurt in Istanbul? Or perhaps an angry face belonging to a white nationalist group?
It’s true that far-right, racist extremism is on the rise in the world. But if you’re white and you want to find a racist, start closer to home. That is, look in the mirror.
But I’m not that kind of white person! you may be protesting. I’m on the diversity board at work, I march for Black Lives Matter, and I chose my kid’s school solely because it was diverse. Well, if that’s your reaction, there’s some bad news: chances are, you’re a “nice racist.”
Nice racists often do the most harm
Many of us think of the far right as the villains when it comes to racism. But the truth is, well-intentioned white people who are extra careful to say and do the “right things” actually inflict the most daily harm.
That doesn’t make any sense, you’re thinking. These people sign up for diversity committees and try to hang out with Black parents at their child’s school! Well, they also flock to diverse neighborhoods, gentrifying them in the process. And they subject the Black people they encounter to a constant stream of racist microaggressions – like noting how “articulate” they are or suddenly using hip-hop slang whenever Black people are around.
Face it: being “nice” isn’t the same as being educated about white supremacy or taking responsibility for the harm you cause. It doesn’t mean you’re actually invested in changing the status quo – just that you like performing the part. On diversity boards, nice racists actively impede progress by being all talk and no action, or by foregrounding their own feelings over those of their Black colleagues.
Of course, nice racists have the best of intentions. But good intentions don’t solve the intractable problems of racism and white supremacy. If you’re white, you’ve grown up in a thick soup of racist messaging: you’re superior, you earned all the advantages you enjoy in life, and Black people would prosper if they only tried a bit harder. These, of course, are all lies. The good news is, they’re lies you can unlearn. But first you’ll have to give up on being so “nice.”
Whenever Robin DiAngelo conducts a workshop on racism, one of the most common critiques she receives is that she’s making unfair generalizations about white people. After all, participants say, white people aren’t a homogenous group. Some of them were brought up to never discriminate against anyone. Others have worked hard to tackle racism in their communities despite coming from racist families. In fact, many of the white people she engages with have dedicated themselves to social justice work. They’re activists, teachers, social workers, and spiritual leaders. Some of them have Black friends or family members, and they live in diverse communities.
So, they ask, how dare DiAngelo group all white people together into one racist lump without even bothering to find out their individual stories? Underlying that question is an assumption common among nice racists: the assumption of individualism.
The myth of individualism is one of the most persistent aspects of nice racism.
Nice racists like to think of racism as a problem everyone relates to as individuals. By that logic, some white people are racist while others aren’t. But there’s no opt-out clause when it comes to benefiting from systemic racism as a white person. Whatever your personal story is, the privileges you take for granted are the result of centuries of racist policies designed to bolster white supremacy.
For example, in the 1950s, the Federal Housing Authority provided affordable home loans – but only to white families. Yet how are public schools funded today? Through property taxes. This means that in Black neighborhoods, where most families have never had the chance to own property and build intergenerational wealth, schools are underfunded. Black youth end up at a disadvantage not because they don’t work as hard, but because the system is set up to make it that way.
It doesn’t matter who you are, what you believe, or how difficult your own life has been – if you’re white, you’ve benefited from these policies. You’re never outside this racist system, and you’re never immune to the grip of white supremacist ideas.
White people fight against this truth for two reasons. First, accepting it would mean acknowledging that they acquired their resources unfairly – rather than through merit or that old cliché, “hard work.” Second, admitting their racism would rattle their idea of themselves as good, morally righteous white people.
Giving up the myth of individualism is hard. But it’s the first step in actually being able to identify and dismantle your own racism.
Following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police, there was a huge surge in anti-racist organizing. Black Lives Matter marches took place around the world, and seemingly every corporation released their own statement condemning racism. Anti-racist teachers and coaches were booked out for months doing diversity and inclusion trainings.
White progressives got involved in anti-racist movements in record numbers, and they grew fluent in the terminology of racial justice. But there’s a difference between knowing the right things to say and actually working toward change. So how can you make sure that your actions align with your values?
Align your actions with your values and become accountable for the harm you cause.
First and foremost, becoming accountable means being honest about how your white fragility derails your anti-racist work. White fragility can emerge as defensiveness, paralysis, anger, or denying your own racism at all costs. It can even look like being overly careful around people of other races – or staying completely silent in an anti-racist seminar because you’re afraid of messing up. But if you’re serious about anti-racist work, you’re going to have to get some skin in the game and embrace vulnerability. If you make a mistake, clean it up and try harder next time.
To keep yourself accountable, create circles of support by surrounding yourself with other white people who are also engaged in anti-racist work – not those who will support your racism. Join a white anti-racist caucus. And look for friends who will offer loving accountability when you mess up, allowing you to openly examine your racist behavior and pushing you to find ways to make amends.
Then make sure that you’re always answerable to Black people and people of color. Ask for feedback on your progress, and check in about whether you’re displaying harmful behavior. But don’t expect Black people to do this burdensome work for free. Pay them for their time. Make sure you handsomely compensate any person of color you invite to consult on a diversity board or committee; recognize that they bring a valuable perspective and do difficult work.
And always put your money where your mouth is. Consider donating a portion of your income to a racial justice organization. Or donate your skills and resources. Promote and support the work of Black intellectuals and artists. And challenge white silence on racism.
Allyship is an action rather than a state of being. It’s about how you show up, every day, to support anti-racism.