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White Fragility, A Review

Robin DiAngelo has a sermon to preach. It is in form of a short popular book called White Fragility. Straight off the bat she tells us not to expect balanced analysis but a forceful argument “unapologetically rooted in identity politics”.  She understands identity politics as “the [political] focus on the barriers specific groups face in their struggle for equality”. The group she wants to save is black people, whom she blankets under “people of colour”. 



So what is White Fragility about? 

DiAngelo is sick and tired of white racism in the western world, and specifically the USA. She believes every white person, including babies, are guilty of racism by virtue of being white. So she wants to use her “insider status” as a white American woman to challenge this white racism by getting her fellow “white progressives” to force forward her thesis. In her words, “I am white...and I am mainly writing to a white audience”. I was immediately tempted to put down the book because being black African I am the wrong audience. For some reason, I decided to press on.

A few pages after pressing on, DiAngelo’s big idea starts to emerge. Her central argument is that racism is woven throughout the fabric of western society. Like the rats of Hamelin, racism is at every dinner table and on every street corner. It is in the houses of parliament and in churches. The problem is that it is impossible to defeat this redefined racism because white people live in a way that maintains their racial supremacy over people of colour. A crucial way white people allegedly do this is by being defensive when they are confronted with issues of racism. DiAngelo calls this inherent defensiveness “white fragility”. Crucially,  “though white fragility is triggered by discomfort and anxiety”, it should not be regarded as a weakness. Rather, “it is born of [white] superiority and entitlement...it is a powerful means of white racial control and protection of white advantage”. 

So what is the solution to this problem? 

DiAngelo believes the first step is to help white people understand their ‘white fragility’ by being clever with the language. What we need to do is to change the definition of racism. We must stop thinking of racism as racial hatred. Rather we must see it as a system of power into which white people have been helplessly socialised into as unconscious oppressors of black people. For DiAngelo, racism is the prevailing equilibrium in the distribution of power in western society. All white people are racists by virtue of being born white because they belong to an ethnic group that holds “systemic power” over people outside that enthnic grouping. White people should think of themselves as being on a spectrum of racism in which the outward expression of their oppression of people of colour differ from white perpetrator to white perpetrator. We may think of racism as the original sin of which only white people share and have no hope of escaping. Racism is the air white people breathe.   

This radical redefinition of racism is intended as a challenge to the western worldview of individualism. According to DiAngelo, the emphasis on individualism blinds white people in the western world from recognising that their choices are a product of a white group identity they belong to. White people have been socialised into accepting the racial dominance that comes with the structural power they hold over non-white races. They have no incentive of course to question it because they are blindly accustomed to it as beneficiaries of that very structural power.  

DiAngelo believes accepting this notion of “socialisation” is the first step towards addressing white fragility because it eliminates the moral dimension of racism. There is no reason for white people to  refuse to admit that they are born and bred racists because racism is not something that the individual does, rather it is a group identity to which they belong to. It is not a transgression of a moral law, it is a society wide power system operated by white people as a people group. It is an infrastructure built by white people in the past that transforms individual acts of the prejudices of today’s white generation into acts of oppression. The key point is that if you are white you can freely admit you are an oppressor in this system without any stigma. Crucially, for DiAngelo and other social justice warriors “systemic racism” is the only racism that exists. 

This racist structure is built on the reality of “whiteness” or “white supremacy”. White supremacy is “a socio-political economic system of domination that benefits those defined and perceived as white. This  system of structural power, privileges, centralises, and elevates white people as a group". In other words, “white supremacy” is not about the racial hatred of individual white people but an “overarching, economic and social system of domination”. 

To the undoubted shock of woke white millennials reading White Fragility, DiAngelo believes the tentacles of white supremacy have not reduced over time, it has in fact got worse. On her understanding of racism, the US civil rights movement, far from reducing racism, simply led white people to develop alternative ways of hiding and denying racism. White people learnt how to talk about race without doing anything about it. She calls this “aversive racism”, which she believes is firmly entrenched in American society by an ideology of white privilege and white supremacy that reinforces, white solidarity, romanticises the past and promotes segregated living.

White supremacy is also evidenced in anti-blackness at many levels of society especially in art and film, where roles played by black people are portrayed in ways that reinforce white socialisation and dominance. We also allegedly see it in how white women perpetuate racial supremacy through their tears when they are confronted with racism as a reality in society. DiAngelo argues that these tears are often a way of white women insulating themselves in “white fragility” and ensuring the attention remains firmly on them. This “defensiveness" is itself a form of “sociological dominance”. It is "white supremacy projecting and maintaining itself in the world". 

So now that DiAngelo's has explained her big idea, and the white readers presumably are thoroughly convinced of their racism, what are they supposed to do with it? How do we solve this new problem? 

The logical answer is that if racism is a power structurally embedded in society, then presumably you have to remove all white people from existence to solve ‘racism’. If the people equals the power structure, you need to destroy the people who wield this power or at the very least force them to give it up. We need a revolution. That is what we are expecting Ms DiAngelo to tell us, especially given how forceful she writes. But of course she cannot really say that an expect to sell any copies of her book. A book openly calling for the extermination of white people would not get published. It would land her in prison for incitement to murder. Unless of course it was about killing white babies in the womb. But I digress. The point is that it does not surprise us that she does not take her argument to its logical conclusion. Though to be fair to her she does not repudiate that inevitable logical deduction. It is after all the argument we have heard on one or two Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaigners. 

What  DiAngelo says directly is that we have to accept that ultimately this redefined racism cannot be eliminated. So the only thing we can do is encourage every white person to confess their original sin. This should be accompanied by white people making personal effort to awaken other white people who have also been helplessly socialised into a racial system. The hope is that such individual efforts will lead to a great awokening, as more white people discover their systemic racial sin and confess publicly before the priests and priestesses of this new religion. Presumably through social networks and other media. Though this won’t end racism it will start the process of minimising its impact. 

That in a nutshell is DiAngelo sermon. A clear big idea and a direct application to take home or to share on Facebook. This is the sermon that is inspiring thousands of white people to publicly bow the knee and repent of being white on the BLM altar.  
 
So, what are we to make of DiAngelo’s sermon? 

Let us start with the positive. I always read books with the aim of finding something useful. After all I am not going to spend my money on a book that I think has nothing new to teach me. I have always believed that those we disagree with usually have something to teach us. At the very least they make us think about something we are prone to ignore.  That said, you have to say very deep to find something of value in this book.  The only useful thing I could find was her critique of the western ideology of individualism. 

Individualism is a belief that each individual is a primary reality and that our understanding of the universe and lifestyle should be centred on oneself, divorced from others, even those within our social groups. DiAngelo rightly observes that in terms of communal relations, individualism leads people to believe that “there are no barriers to individual success and that failure is not a consequence of social structures but comes from individual character”. In short, an individualistic worldview leads us to deny that social groups matter. 

The reality is that even though we are paid up members of individualism, we are social beings who live like our social groups matter. Indeed, our understanding of ourselves is “necessarily based on our comparisons with others”. Our social membership means we are more subjective about issues than we realise. Objectivism claims that it is possible to be free of all bias and therefore arrive at absolute or universal truths through reason and science. The reality is that we can’t always do that because our perspectives on issues is coloured by our communal experience and background. Individualism and objectivism arose from modernism. It is beyond the scope of the present review to demonstrate the flaws of the modernist worldview. Suffice to say that DiAngelo and other postmodern tribalists are on strong ground in highlighting the limits of an individualistic worldview. 

Sadly, apart from that glimmer of light, the rest of DiAngelo's sermon is engulfed in intellectual and moral darkness.  We would be here the whole day, if I had to go through everything that is wrong with the book. So, I will restrict myself just to five fundamental problems with the book. 

First, DiAngelo promotes racism. This may sound strange given that she sees herself as a champion for helpless black people. The truth is that DiAngelo’s redefinition of racism as a power relationship is racist to black people because it provides an excuse for white people to maintain racism by removing direct moral culpability for racial hatred. DiAngelo depicts white people as helpless oppressors. They are like a child holding a machine gun through no fault of their own and over which they have no control. By moving away from a proper definition of racism based on racial hatred to one based purely on power relationship, DiAngelo over generalises the problem of racism. She does not just  allows white people who are genuinely racist to hide away from personal accountability for their racism, she is discouraging black people from coming forward to seek justice for the rational hatred they have suffered. She is robbing them of a genuine moral voice in the public square. 

The other way in which DiAngelo promotes racism by is encouraging black people to be genuinely racist. In DiAngelo’s intersectional ideology, black people cannot be racist to anyone because they have no power. This definition not only creates perverse incentives for black people to go on being racist, it morally excuses them, even in cases when such racism results in loss of human life. So we have a bizarre situation in which a black man who kills a white person because of racial hatred is not regarded by DiAngelo a racist because he has no structural power. But a white baby in diapers is racist simply because her skin colour gives her structural power. What is the moral and intellectual sense in that?  Sadly, DiAngelo's  promotion of black racism, is not only about black people being excused in their racism towards white people, it is also about black people being encouraged to perpetuate ethnic hatred against other types of black people. For example, it is well known that many Africans are treated shamefully by black Americans in the USA. DiAngelo does not see such racial hatred as a problem. 

DiAngelo's reveals her racism in the solutions she proposes. As we come to the final chapter, titled ‘Where do we go from here’,  we are expecting bold solutions to the racial problem she identifies. But to our surprise, there is little ambition in proposing real change to address racism, irrespective of how  we understand racism. DiAngelo's concern seems to making white people appear more virtuous by  indoctrinate white people into woke politics. Her advice to white people is to ‘show you can do the work’ to understand your own racism. Not to go out and change things. Not to think about the real social and political problems facing black people. But rather to self-flagellate about one’s own prejudices. Her thesis is essentially a self-help manual which encourages white people to ignore real racism rather than do anything about it. 

Secondly, it promotes division rather than unity. Her solution to tackling racism is to elevate our identities. She thinks each of us need to recognise more of our races. This is of course bizarre because earlier on she argues that race is a social construct. So you would have thought that her starting point is to get people to see each other as human beings first and foremost. Instead she proposes that white people must see the other person as different from them and recognise their experience is different. This elevation of identity only deepens human division. This should not surprise us because her approach to racism is rooted in intersectionality, as she plainly declares, “my analysis must be intersectional (a recognition that my other social identities - class, gender, ability - inform how I was socialised into the racial system)”.  

Intersectionality is built on  critical theory, a cultural Marxist theoretical framework that argues that problems in society are created and perpetuated by structural and cultural factors rather than individual and psychological factors. So the solution to dealing with human problems is to challenge the power structures in society. Life is all about who has the power. Critical race theory applies this thinking to race issues. It basically says that the real problems in our society is that white supremacy and racial power have been maintained over time. So the solution is to break down the power of white control. Intersectionality, which DiAngelo proudly espouses, takes critical race theory further by trying to rank victims and oppressors by looking at the different intersections of power.  

Therein lies the danger of her ideas. On the surface DiAngelo is saying that all white people are guilty.  But when we dig deep inside DiAngelo's analytical framework what we find is that she is really arguing that within that “white society” some are more guilty than others. This ranking of guilt is not based on moral responsibility but based on the intersectional power individuals yield. Top of this oppressor list are white males. In short, DiAngelo's thesis not only divides people across races it is intended to divide people within ethnic groupings using her intersectional criteria. It aims to turn women against men, parents against children, old against young, Christians against non-Christians able bodied against the disabled. 

Thirdly, it is intellectually dishonest. We see this in a number of places.  DiAngelo claims early on in the introduction, “this book does not attempt to provide the solution to racism”. The claim is dishonest because though she does not offer explicit solutions, the logical conclusion of her diagnosis coupled with her critical race theory inevitably suggests that she believes the optimal outcome is for power structures to be dismantled by destroying "white hegemony". To be sure this "white hegemony" is nothing more than historic which is the foundation on which the modern western civilisation is built. And yet, throughout the book she cannot bring herself to admit this underlying thought in her book.  

Perhaps nothing demonstrates DiAngelo's intellectual dishonesty  than the very existence of this book. DiAngelo advocates standpoint epistemology, where everything is seen through the prism of individual experience (me and my story) even as she rails against American individualism and objectivism. And yet, what would DiAngelo do if a person of colour told her this book is racist? Would she accept that individual experience and withdraw it, in line with her stated commitment to listen and learn from black people? Or would she press on regardless? The answer is obvious. 

Fourthly, it is analytically flawed. DiAngelo has put forward a provocative thesis that redefines racism as a systemic power at work in the world. The evidence for the existence of this racial system is not systematically fleshed out. What we have are selected anecdotes designed to tell the story.  For example, DiAngelo rightly notes that there are areas of life where black people are disproportionately underrepresented. For her this is evidence of white dominance in all spheres of life. She ignores the clear existence of many social spaces within and across countries where white people cannot operate freely. As a piece of analysis, this book is nothing more than data mining. 

Sadly, even when data is used analytical blunders abound. There is a lack of separation of opinion from facts. Assertions are made about racial inequality without tangible empirical evidence, let alone clear definitions of what is under scope. There is elementary confusion between correlation with causation. Anecdotal evidence is  extrapolated to make sweeping statements which cannot pass any credible “reality check”. Reliance on like minded authorities are routinely taken as authoritative “evidence”.  The evidence presented is often one sided. For example, she argues that “the ability to determine which narratives are authorised and which are suppressed is the foundation of cultural domination”. And yet this is exactly what the woke culture, of which she is leading figure, advocates. 

The analysis is also full of contradictions. For example in one place she says that white people are unaware of their whiteness and the privilege that comes with it. But in another place she says, “I always knew that I was white, and that it was better to be white” . In one place she argues that white people have no reason to feel guilty because they have been helplessly socialised into the system. Only to later say: “white peoples do need to feel grief about the brutality of white supremacy and our role in it. In fact our numbness to the racial injustice that occurs daily is key to ordering it in place”. Of course these contraditions may simply be a case of strategic incoherence designed to purposely confuse the reader. 

Finally, it lacks a coherent moral foundation. DiAngelo consistently fails to provide a moral justification of why racism should be understood as a power relationship rather than as simply racial hatred. This failure is particularly important because DiAngelo fundamentally wants white people to accept a form of guilt of which they are not active moral participants. She has declared white people guilty of something that, by her own admission, they have been helpless socialised into since birth. In any sphere of justice, that would be an injustice unless an externally objective moral framework can be provided  to frame the original sin of racism. DiAngelo needs to justify why this injustice, on normal understanding of justice, is permissible. She has not done this or even recognise the moral and philosophical dilemma it presents.  

There is also another moral problem. Having absolved white people of one form of personal  moral responsibility, DiAngelo then places then on new moral duty. She says, “I am sometimes asked whether my work reinforces and takes advantage of white guilt. But I don’t see my efforts to uncover how race shapes my life as a matter of guilt. I know that because I was socialized as white in a racism-based society, I have a racist worldview, deep racial bias, racist patterns, and investments in the racist system that has elevated me. Still, I don’t feel guilty about racism. I didn’t choose this socialization, and it could not be avoided. But I am responsible for my role in it”.  But how can a white person be morally responsible for something for which they are an helpless victim? And crucially, what is the incentive for doing something about it? DiAngelo's only answer is that, “to the degree that I have done my best in each moment to interrupt my [racist] participation, I can rest with a clearer conscience”. Her dangling of the carrot of "a clearer conscience" fails because the assumed moral duty is not grounded.

DiAngelo’s call for white people to do what they can to interrupt their alleged racist participation is not only morally groundless but also philosophically weak. Suppose for a moment, we agreed with DiAngelo’s thesis that racism is a power structure in which only white people are guilty, how is change going to come from among white people? If every white person is part of the problem, part of this collective racist consciousness, how can change happen? Think of it another way. To DiAngelo white people are like the Borg in Star Trek. They are helplessly connected to one powerful  consciousness. How can they ever break free? More to the point,  how does DiAngelo know whether her analysis is simply a function of her being racialised? As a black person, I am surely within my rights to ask, if what she says is true, why should I believe what DiAngela, a white person, is saying? Her thesis is self-defeating. 

As a piece of literature, White Fragility is poorly written. There are many racial conflict anecdotes given without any meaningful background. A large chunk of the book is repetitive. In truth this reads like a long unbalanced essay magically turned into a book, aided by some very comical observations. Like this one, which I couldn't resist sharing with my wife: “I have certainly been moved to tears by someone's story in cross racial discussion...But I try to be very thoughtful about how and when I cry. I try to cry quietly so I don’t take up more space, and if people rush to comfort me, I do not accept the comfort; I let them know that I’m fine so we can have a laugh”. 

So what should you do with DiAngelo's White Fragility?  Save your money and your time by staying away from it. It is poorly written, analytically flawed and morally bankcrupt. It goes without saying that her redefinition of racism is antithetical to a biblical understanding of race in which racism is defined as racial hatred or partiality (Leviticus 19:15: James 2:1-4). Racism of course can be manifested in institutions (e.g laws, structures) because sin has affected every sphere of human life. That is a far cry from DiAngelo’s "systemic racism" that assigns moral guilt to an entire people group on account of the colour of their skin. This new racism is not one which any true Christian can support! It is a gnostic heresy. It is tantamount to making a physical trait of a person a sinful thing. 

 Copyright © Chola Mukanga 2020

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