Columnist Andrea Ayvazian: An ‘enclave’ of ‘nice racists’?

Published: 9/17/2021 2:00:59 PM

Imagine my surprise when on page 2 of the widely-acclaimed book “Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm,” author Robin DiAngelo mentions Northampton by name. There, immediately at the beginning of Chapter 1, which is titled “What Is A Nice Racist?”, DiAngelo elaborates on what she means when she uses the term “white progressive.” And she references our city.

According to DiAngelo, white progressives are not defined by their political affiliation, but are white people “who see themselves as racially progressive.” White progressives, she writes, “might call themselves ‘woke,’ or even claim to be ‘beyond race.’” They “may read The Root and the New York Times and listen to NPR or the BBC,” DiAngelo writes.

She goes on to say that white progressives “…may have a marginalized identity other than race and perhaps were in organizations such as the Peace Corps or Teach for America. They may have travelled extensively, speak several languages, and live in large urban cities or smaller progressive enclaves like Asheville, North Carolina; Northampton, Massachusetts; and Eugene, Oregon.”

There we are! Northampton, Massachusetts, is specifically identified in a chapter about white progressives as an “enclave” of “nice racists.”

Having loved and learned a great deal from DiAngelo’s first book, the New York Times bestseller “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” I was eager to read her new book specifically directed at white progressives — partly because I define myself as one. What I did not expect was to find our city named on page 2. That is when I thought: I really need to take this book to heart.

Northampton is called out immediately in the book as an example of a pocket, or little eddy, of white progressives, and serves as a backdrop to explain how white progressives often behave. She does not say more specifically about Northampton, but much of what she writes is directed at “enclaves” like ours.

Boston, however, receives close attention from DiAngelo. Her reference to Boston involves white people’s tendency to use “credentialing” as a way to shore up our anti-racism qualifications. DiAngelo writes, “Credentialing is a term I use to describe the ways in which white progressives attempt to prove that they are not racist.”

Credentialing, DiAngelo explains, comes in two forms: color-deny and color-celebrate. “I was taught to treat everyone the same” is an example of color-deny credentialing. The color-celebrate theme “posits that the person welcomes, enjoys and even seeks out racial difference.” DiAngelo goes on to say, “Color-celebrate credentialing relies on proximity to racialized people for its validity.”

DiAngelo recounts a story of being interviewed on a Boston radio show whose host was a white progressive and represented a mainstream progressive organization. During the interview, DiAngelo was asked if she really thought racism was an issue in Boston — inferring that the diverse nature of the city and the close proximity of white people and people of color negated the possibility or presence of racism.

DiAngelo was stunned. “This rhetorical question was referencing Boston of all places, with its history of violent riots again school desegregation and submitted in the context of a 2017 national survey commissioned by the Boston Globe that found among eight major cities, Black people ranked Boston as the least welcoming.”

DiAngelo continues with a short but painful litany: only 1% of corporate board members in publicly traded firms in Massachusetts are Black; Black enrollment in Boston’s many universities has not appreciably increased in three decades; and Boston neighborhoods are among the most segregated in the U.S.

And yet simply living in Boston — in proximity to people of color — was used by a white journalist as evidence of progressive anti-racist credentials.

This new book is sure to make DiAngelo the target of considerable criticism and hate mail. She already receives frequent emails filled with vitriol in response to her earlier book “White Fragility.” This new volume specifically speaks to white progressives who, I think, will cringe and wince as we relate to example after example, case study after case study.

“Nice Racism” is a brave book, stunning in its insights, overflowing with examples of what white people say to DiAngelo privately about race, and what white people contribute to discussions in her anti-racism workshops and write in book reviews and lengthy letters about how wrong and misguided (and racist) she is.

Upon finishing the book, I decided to start over and read it again. And I never do that. The book is so dense that I could not possibly absorb all the material in one reading.

DiAngelo leaves no stone unturned and I need another read through to fully understand her explanation of why it is OK to generalize about white people; how white people’s individual experiences so often lead us to (incorrectly) universalize those experiences to others; how white progressives love to tell anti-racism educators that they are preaching to the choir, when in fact there is no choir and white people have much work to do.

I need another read through of “Nice Racism” to fully internalize how white progressives’ “niceness” perpetuates racism; how whites unconsciously and relentlessly downplay our advantages; and how often we seek absolution.

This book is my new Bible. DiAngelo’s explanation of white people’s use of silence, carefulness, and shame were eye-opening to me. DiAngelo states that guilt is a feeling we have about doing bad, shame is a feeling we have about being bad. She has observed that white progressives will express feeling shame about racism but hesitate to express guilt — we shy away from speaking about our actions fearing those revelations would demand that we change our behavior. Feeling badly (shame) is internal and almost exempts white people from doing anything.

Northampton is mentioned in an unfavorable light right at the beginning of DiAngelo’s book. We are, in her mind, a little enclave of white progressives who demonstrate so many of the behaviors that perpetuate “nice racism.” This felt accurate — in my own life, in my own behaviors, and in our community overall.

I know Northampton has, on occasion, had a “community read.” Often organized by our local library, the community read is an opportunity for the city to read and discuss a book together. I nominate “Nice Racism” as a community read for the white people in this city. I am sure many white people will find themselves nodding as we read this book — we will see ourselves reflected in page after page after page.

When the white people in this community connect in solidarity with each other and make firm commitments to effect real change, we may be able to alter our work, our words, and our actions to more successfully confront and dismantle racism.

The Rev. Dr. Andrea Ayvazian of Northampton is an associate pastor at Alden Baptist Church in Springfield. She is also the founder and director of the Sojourner Truth School for Social Change Leadership.

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