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August 05, 2020

Review of White Fragility Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

 “White Fragility Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” is both good and bad.

The Good:

  • Competent punctuation.
  • Vast majority of words spelled correctly.
  • Clever jacket design.

The Bad:

  • Explicitly racist.
  • Dehumanizing.
  • Reductionist.
  • Condescending to both whites and blacks alike.
  • Lays bare deeply held self-hatred of author leaving reader feeling awkward and not knowing what to say.

I guess we’ll just call that a toss up.

According to author Robin DiAngelo, the problem with racial relations in this country is that apparently when white people are forced by their employer to sit in a room so that a complete stranger can call them all racists, they greet this revelation without so much as a word of thanks.

As DiAngelo put it:

“I assumed that in these circumstances, an educational workshop on racism would be appreciated.”

And yet it wasn’t.

Weird, right?

“I couldn’t understand their resentment or disinterest in learning more about such a complex social dynamic as racism.”

Why people might react poorly to being called racist could have remained a mystery for the ages, and yet DiAngelo somehow decoded this Rubik’s cube of a problem.

She recognized:

“…In light of so many expressions of resentment towards people of color I realized we see ourselves as deserving, and entitled to, more than people of color deserve.”

I don’t know why anyone would take offense at that.

“We are taught to think about racism only as discrete acts committed by individual people rather than a complex interconnected system.”

She found that if she could:

“Understand racism as a system into which I was socialized I can receive feedback on my problematic racial patterns as a helpful way to support my learning and growth.”

Which doesn’t at all sound like a reeducation camp.

So, basically, the solution is for white people to stop being so sensitive and simply admit they are horrible people and are responsible for widespread oppression and subjugation.

Ah, but here I am responding predictably with the false dichotomy of “good” and “bad.” That’s not it at all.

“I could see the power of the belief that only bad people were racist, as well as how individualism allowed white people to exempt themselves from the forces of socialization.”

Silly individual, you think have free will. How cute!

As DiAngelo noted in an NPR interview:

"In that way, we can say that nice white people who do nothing further to challenge racism are racist."

You see, it’s not that you aren’t nice. Don’t be so touchy!

It’s just that you are a racist.

Feel better?

“Individualism,” you see, is a social construct of Western thought. It blinds you to the fact that you are but a pawn of your culture, incapable of objectively (another Western social construct) recognizing your racism.

Don’t feel badly, that’s only because you aren’t an academic steeped in Marxist ideology.

“We must be willing to consider that unless we have devoted intention and ongoing study, our opinions are necessarily uninformed, even ignorant.”

Hurling insults at your audience is one of Dale Carnegie’s lesser known secrets of “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

“How can I say that if you are white, your opinions on racism are most likely ignorant, when I don’t even know you?”

She argues that she can say so because nothing in mainstream culture gives us the information we need to have the “nuanced understanding” of arguably the “most complex and enduring social dynamic of the last several hundred years.”

She’s here to help us, an academic “white savior,” of whites, if you will.

She goes one better:

“Ideologies that obscure racism as a system of inequality are perhaps the most powerful racial forces because once we accept our positions within racial hierarchies, these positions seem natural and difficult to question, even when we are disadvantaged by them.” (Italics mine.)

That last line makes it clear that she also hopes to help “Uncle Toms,” blacks who dare stray from the opinions prescribed to them by their social construct.

That makes DiAngelo a more traditional “great white savior,” only this time rescuing black conservatives from the sin of wrongthink.

You know what you’re in for with White Fragility from the beginning with a forward by Georgetown University Sociology Professor, Michael Eric Dyson:

“Straight white men have been involved in a witness protection program that guards their identities and absolves them of their crimes while offering them a future to see past encumbrances and sins.”

It’s not clear why he thought it was important to bring sexuality up in a book that is about race, but if you’re going to start checking boxes, might as well check them all.

“In truth, suffering comes from recognizing that they are white—that their whiteness has given them a big leg up in life while crushing others’ dreams, that their whiteness is harmful to the nation,…”

It would probably be useful here to remind readers that “White Fragility” is intended to serve as an outreach to white Americans in an effort to persuade them towards a point of view.

DiAngelo picks up where Dyson leaves off:

“I am mainly writing to a white audience; when I use the terms us and we, I am referring to the white collective. This usage may be jarring to white readers because we are so rarely asked to think about ourselves or fellow whites in racial terms.”

Just so you don’t miss the point: NOT thinking about your race is what makes you racist.

Try to keep up, okay?

Before we go any further, we should point out that the functioning assumption is that only whites can be racist, so when we, and DiAngelo, talk about racists, we are both of course addressing white people only:

“When I say that only whites can be racist, I mean that in the United States, only whites have the collective social and institutional power and privilege over people of color.”

“As with prejudice and discrimination, we can remove the qualifier “reverse” from any discussion of racism. By definition, racism is a deeply embedded historical system of institutional power. It is not fluid and does not change direction simply because a few individuals of color manage to excel.”

In case you’re wondering when the definition of racism changed, it didn’t.  DiAngelo (among others) have decided it’s helpful to simply say it means something else because making genuine arguments using regular definitions is really hard.

According to DiAngelo, we are:

“Socialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race.”

You’re “fragile,” that is, react ungratefully about being called a racist, not because it is inherently insulting, arrogant, and presumptuous, but because you just don’t know you’re a racist.

But you are.

In fact:

“This book does not… attempt to prove that [systemic] racism exists; I start from that premise.”

So, you know, shut up about it already.

How do we know that all white people are racists and such racism is systemic?

“Race will influence whether we will survive our birth, where we’re most likely to live, which schools we will attend, who our friends and partners will be, what careers we will have, how much money we will earn, how healthy we will be and even how long we can expect to live.”

Sure, all those outcomes can be explained by socioeconomic circumstances instead of race not the least of which is the high proportion of fatherless homes in the black community. And yes, that could be a fruitful conversation and lead to genuine insights that could address the issue.

But let’s just call all white people racists instead.

That will sell a lot more books.

DiAngelo uses a baseball story to drive home her point:

“The story of Jackie Robinson is a classic example of how whiteness obscures racism.”

Robinson is celebrated as having broken the race barrier, however, according to DiAngelo:

“While Robinson was certainly an amazing baseball player, this story line depicts him as racially special, a black man who broke the color line himself. The subtext is that Robinson finally had what it took to pay with whites.”

Sure, nobody believes that or was taught it. I'm white and I wasn't. But hey, she's on a roll.

“Imagine if instead, the story went something like this: ‘Jackie Robinson, the first black man whites allowed to play major-league baseball.’”

That's pretty much what we have all been taught. You do have to wonder who raised this woman.

“I am a white American raised in the United States. I have a white frame of reference and a white worldview, and I move through the world with a white experience.”

Okay, that helps. Throw a white hood on her, and you’ve got yourself the opening remarks of a Ku Klux Klan chapter meeting.

In support of her theory, DiAngelo pulls in Carol Anderson, Professor of African American Studies at Emory University and author of White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Nation's Divide:

“The trigger for white rage, inevitability, is black advancement. It is blackness that refuses to accept subjugation, to give up. The truth is, a black man was elected president of the United States: the ultimate advancement, and thus the ultimate affront. Perhaps not surprisingly voting rights were severely curtailed, the federal government was shut down, and more than once the Office of the President was shockingly, openly, and publicly disrespected by other elected officials.”

Not knowing Carol Anderson, we were not aware of the coma she must have gone into in 1992 which would explain her not knowing that turnout among non-hispanic black voters somehow increased by 11 points in 2018, that the government was shut down in the ‘90s, or that more than once, the Office of the President was shockingly, openly, and publicly disrespected by other elected officials throughout the 2000s.

We are glad to she has recovered and wish her well.

Let’s sum up:

It’s not that you are awful, it’s that you are a racist in a racist system and everything you’ve accomplished is a product of that.

Having robbed everyone of agency, that is, the ability to make your own decisions, DiAngelo dehumanizes everyone, white, black, brown, every human being, and suggests black success can only come from the acquiescence of whites, making all of us potential “great white saviors.” This works to disempower blacks and encourages a sense of victimhood and helplessness absent the intervention of white people. This is presented as progress in case you missed that part.

The notions of “individualism,” “merit,” “objectivity,” and such are not universal concepts but mere social constructs. This is the language of Marx. (Karl, not Groucho, although it is kind of comical in a  sense.)

These are not opinions subject to critique or debate. She is right and you are wrong because you are uninformed and ignorant and until you agree with her you have no basis with which to disagree with her.

Sign us up!

What would DiAngelo think of this critique?

“When I talk to white people about racism, their responses are so predictable I sometimes feel as though we are all reciting lines from a shared script.”

If I went out in the street and started randomly accusing every passerby of racism, I could probably right that script, too. And yet:

“In fact, when we try to talk openly and honestly about race, white fragility quickly emerges as we are so often met with silence, defensiveness, argumentation, certitude, and other forms of pushback. These are not natural responses…”

One can’t help but believe DiAngelo’s version of a “natural response” would be more along these lines:

If, after reading this book you feel like you need an antidote, I encourage you to follow the following people on Twitter.

Rob Smith

Larry Elder

Bryson Gray

Melissa Tate


David J. Harris Jr.

Tell them Planet Moron sent you.


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August 5, 2020 at 03:18 PM in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink


Wow, that's quite the story. Thank you for sharing that.

Posted by: Planet Moron | Jan 15, 2021 6:58:07 AM

I recall the first time I encountered systemic racism's benefit to me. I was a sophomore in college, and the largest employer in 50 miles had announced that they were going to hire 12 people. Hundreds applied, including me. And by some strange stroke of luck, the 12 best people for the jobs were all black women. Of course, the employer was a government contractor, and black women are "two-fers", in that they count as both a woman, and a minority (contrary to what many people think, women are the majority in the USA) for all those non-existent government hiring quotas.

Posted by: MPH | Dec 28, 2020 6:24:21 PM

You are too kind. And yes, I imagine people will let their preferences be known in the privacy of the, er, mailing envelope.

Posted by: J. | Aug 8, 2020 9:31:38 PM

This is a work of art, suitable for framing.

I don’t have a racist bone in my body, and I’m sick to death of being labeled racist by people who don't know anything about me. (It was bad enough when someone who’d never even met me labeled me "deplorable.") I have a sneaking suspicion that the vast majority of my fellow persons of pallor in the U.S. feel much the same way. Most of us keep our mouths shut about it, because we don't care to be assaulted or pepper-sprayed or have our tires slashed or our homes or businesses burned to the ground, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of pent-up frustration gets vented in the privacy and relative safety of the voting booth.

Posted by: bluebird of bitterness | Aug 8, 2020 11:14:14 AM

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