A Review of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility

The cover of White Fragility

I recently finished Robin DiAngelo’s book, White Fragility. I think it’s one of those books that it’s important to read because it is being so widely discussed. If you haven’t read it, you should.

The basic idea of the book is based on DiAngelo’s experience over many years in facilitating discussions on race and racism mostly for white people. Her key observation, which I think is indisputably true, is that it’s really hard to get white people to talk honestly about race and racism, and when you try, you end up facing “white fragility,” which is what DiAngelo calls the tendency of white people to put their shields up and to become highly defensive when the structural advantages white people have in our society—and the structural disadvantages black people have—come up. DiAingelo uses the word “racism” in a non-standard way, not to mean a belief in black peoples’ inferiority or actions prompted by that belief, but the overall structure of society and the legacy of slavery, both of which lead to structural advantages for white people and disadvantages for black people. So to say that a white participant in one of her discussions groups is a racist is not to attribute bad racial attitudes to him or to her, but just to say that he or she participates in and benefits from a system that is set up to perpetuate unfair racial outcomes. But people who use the word “racism” in its ordinary sense hear the accusation as an accusation of a deep moral failing, which naturally provokes a highly defensive response.

I think most white people who have had difficult conversations about race and the de facto racial hierarchy and de facto segregation in schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods in the United States would, if they will be honest with themselves, acknowledge that DiAngelo’s insight has hit on something true that we should all strive to overcome. We should do our best to discuss ideas, even difficult ideas, openly and without being defensive, on their merits. And I would add in passing that this is not just a lesson for white America but for political America on the left and the right. People on both sides of what passes for our political spectrum are very interested these days in excommunication, ideological bullying, and rigorously enforcing doctrinal purity in ways that are deeply concerning and counterproductive. But this is a post about White Fragility—I will save my post about Bari Weiss Appreciation Day for later.

My beef with DiAngelo’s book doesn’t concern its description of the typical psychology of a white person asked to engage in a discussion about race, which as I say hits the bullseye. My real concern is with her critique of key ideas like individualism, merit, and objectivity, which she sees as social forces that uphold white supremacy. If the point were just that a dumb focus on merit, say, that ignores the unequal distribution of luck and opportunity is counterproductive, or that a dumb belief in our own objectivity leads us to confuse our own desires for universal truths, then her point would be broadly compatible with typical American liberalism. True objectivity would lead us to conclude that a system that protects fundamental liberties while allowing those social and economic inequalities that provide the most benefit to the least well-off. So meritocracy—distributing positions in society on the basis of merit that is not earned, or that is earned only in part, is permitted to the extent it benefits the least well-off.

But White Fragility is not A Theory of Justice, and DiAngelo is not proposing highly progressive taxation, say, as the main answer to the problem of racial inequality she observes. She’s proposing something more radical. Here is how Daniel Bergner put it in a recent article:

White culture, for her, is all about habits of oppressive thought that are taken for granted and rarely perceived, let alone questioned. One “unnamed logic of Whiteness,” she wrote with her frequent co-author, the education professor Ozlem Sensoy, in a 2017 paper published in The Harvard Educational Review, “is the presumed neutrality of White European Enlightenment epistemology.” The paper is an attempt to persuade universities that if they want to diversify their faculties, they should put less weight on conventional hiring criteria. The modern university, it says, “with its ‘experts’ and its privileging of particular forms of knowledge over others (e.g., written over oral, history over memory, rationalism over wisdom)” has “validated and elevated positivistic, White Eurocentric knowledge over non-White, Indigenous and non-European knowledges.” Such academic prose isn’t the language of DiAngelo’s workshops or book, but the idea of a society rigged at its intellectual core underpins her lessons.

I found DiAngelo’s answer to Bergner’s questions on this point to be revealing:

With DiAngelo, my worries led us to discuss her Harvard Educational Review paper, which cited “rationalism” as a white criterion for hiring, a white qualification that should be reconsidered. Shouldn’t we be hiring faculty, I asked her, who fully possess, prize and can impart strong reasoning skills to students, because students will need these abilities as a requirement for high-paying, high-status jobs?

In answering, she returned to the theme of unconscious white privilege, comparing it to the way right-handed people are unaware of how frequently the world favors right-handedness. I pulled us away from the metaphorical, giving the example of corporate law as a lucrative profession in which being hired depends on acute reasoning. She replied that if a criterion “consistently and measurably leads to certain people” being excluded, then we have to “challenge” the criterion. “It’s the outcome,” she emphasized; the result indicated the racism.

Then she said abruptly, “Capitalism is so bound up with racism. I avoid critiquing capitalism—I don’t need to give people reasons to dismiss me. But capitalism is dependent on inequality, on an underclass. If the model is profit over everything else, you’re not going to look at your policies to see what is most racially equitable.” While I was asking about whether her thinking is conducive to helping Black people displace white people on high rungs and achieve something much closer to equality in our badly flawed world, it seemed that she, even as she gave workshops on the brutal hierarchies of here and now, was entertaining an alternate and even revolutionary reality. She talked about top law firms hiring for “resiliency and compassion.”

I don’t want to criticize DiAngelo because she is a critic of modern capitalism. I want to criticize her because she is a critic of what works. I’m reminded of a description that David Foster Wallace, in his terrific book, Everything and More, gives of mathematical reasoning: “Mathematical thinking is abstract, but it’s also thoroughly private-sector and results-oriented.” When he writes about “private-sector” thinking, he doesn’t mean that mathematicians are capitalists. He means that good math is math that works and yields results. I don’t typically think of myself as highly ideological, but to the extent I have a strong ideological commitment, it’s a commitment to the ideals of objectivity, excellence, and methodological individualism that DiAngelo criticizes. But you don’t have to have those commitments to see that the ideas behind them work and lead to success in the world, both within a society and in the global competition among societies. Even if you’re the kind of person inclined to say that logic, rationalism, and so forth are tools of white, patriarchal oppression, you ought to have some interest in the things that are proven to expand the size of the “pie”—the social goods that can be distributed—and not just equality in the distribution. And if, like me, you think it is deeply important that America retain, or more realistically after four years of Trumpism, try to rebuild its leading position in the world (remember the Melians!), your reaction to DiAngelo’s book will be, “Yes, but.” Yes, it is difficult to have open and real discussions about race, and we need to do a better job listening and being open to discussing inequality without defensiveness about the unearned advantages we have. But there is a radical idea embedded in DiAngelo’s book that is not just wrong but a pathway to national abandonment of the ideas that have over hundreds of years led to national greatness.

I don’t mean to be too hard on DiAngelo. While it’s true that there is a problem on the left and in particularly on campus with the concepts of objectivity, merit, and and individualism, there’s a more immediate problem with objectivity, merit, and methodological individualism on the right. The Republican Party is the party of “post-truth politics,” and it is the party that persuaded voters to reject Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, two politicans with obvious merit, in favor of an utterly unqualified Donald Trump. My criticism of DiAngelo is really a criticism of America in 2020, and as a citizen of the center-left, I would like for the Democratic Party, at least, to be the party of the Enlightenment values that have led to America’s historical successes.

The bottom line: this is a good, important book. It has something important to say about our attitudes and psychology. Read it and form your own conclusions!

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