Book review: Robin DiAngelo, "White Fragility"
In my previous diary, Wally wanted to discuss (among other authors) Robin DiAngelo, or so it was briefly hinted in the comments. So, toward that end, here's a review of DiAngelo's (2018) book "White Fragility: Why it's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism."
As I read this book, I fell into the narrative critique of a sort of discourse made famous by Tim Wise -- antiracism talk aimed at audiences of white people with a lurking signifier of structural change (say for instance the end of the capitalist system) that is never quite expressed for fear that such a topic is, well, even more delicate than racism. One thinks of this old saying that "it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of the capitalist system." With DiAngelo, whom I found to be generally more palatable than Tim Wise, the narrative gets closer to opening up such possibilities, but only so much so, which is to say not very much.
As I read the introduction to Robin DiAngelo's book "White Fragility," I was looking for signs that the author was looking to be practical. The beginning sets us up:
In the early days of my work as what was then termed a diversity trainer, I was taken aback by how angry and defensive so many white people became at the suggestion that they were connected to racism in any way. The very idea that they would be required to attend a workshop on racism outraged them. (2)
Given the structures of cradle-to-grave inequality experienced by Black people, from unequal access to parenting resources to unequal schooling (here Annette Laureau might be useful) to unequal resumes (here Mantsios helps) to unequal legacy (Joe Feagin has a fair accounting in this regard) to unequal treatment at all levels of the judicial system which of course brings us to unequal life experiences, it's not like our faith in free-market capitalism and "individual responsibility" has by itself changed the role of Black people in America as a designated underclass in a system that was, is, and will be racist in word and deed. If employers are granting this reality a fig leaf through diversity training, that might be a problem.
Later DiAngelo tells us:
I began to see what I think of as the pillars of whiteness—the unexamined beliefs that prop up our racial responses. (3)
When I read this I start to feel nostalgic. I miss the good old days of Martin Luther King Jr., when the pillars of whiteness were things like segregation (real enough today) and discrimination (also). Now they're "unexamined beliefs." To continue:
any suggestion that we are complicit in racism is a kind of unwelcome and insulting shock to the system. (4)
It seems to me, on the other hand, that the system will do just fine with any number of suggestions that we are complicit in racism. You know what would really be a shock? Some rather stiff and expensive Reparations.
Later DiAngelo tells us:
WE DON’T UNDERSTAND SOCIALIZATION (9)
We could, you know, change it, which might help us to understand it. Perhaps it remains invisible as long as it remains the same? I liked the author's discussion of individualism, though. But then, under the heading of "We have a simplistic understanding of racism" we are told:
If you are reading this and are still making your case for why you are different from other white people and why none of this applies to you, stop and take a breath. (14)
But such case-making is also individualism. I think DiAngelo knows this. What remains important about me is my inability to change the system all by myself. If I am to change the system, I will need help. It's that reality, and not any recognition about myself, which gives me such discomfort about racism.
The next chapter of DiAngelo's book deals with "what is racism." In this, we are told:
The system of racism begins with ideology (21)
Once again, the big two (segregation, discrimination) come to mind. I also think DiAngelo knows this -- she explains in good detail what racism is. It's just that, now and then in the extended (and sometimes excellent) narrative of "what racism is" which fills the pages of this book, the narrative is kept in line by hiccups which obscure the necessity of structural solutions. So:
Raised in a culture of white supremacy, I exude a deeply internalized assumption of racial superiority (55).
What's important, you see, is not the political economy of white supremacy, but its culture. Or here's one:
The idea that talking about racism is itself racist has always struck me as odd. It is rooted in the concept that race doesn’t matter; thus, to talk about it gives it undeserved weight. (86)
Maybe the idea that talking about racism is itself racist is also aided and abetted by the fact that so often we talk about stuff but don't do anything effective about our talk. Or:
Many whites see the naming of white racial power as divisive. For them, the problem is not the power inequity itself; the problem is naming the power inequity. This naming breaks the pretense of unity and exposes the reality of racial division. (86)
I don't see white racial power going away, or going anywhere, if all we can do is name it.
When you delay the conclusion to a narrative, you create a sense of suspense, in which your readers patiently await what you've asked them to expect. In this case, at the end of DiAngelo's narrative, there is a discussion of rules of engagement, of how to be "actively working to interrupt racism (125)." If all we can do is "interrupt" racism, then the cause is lost. Maybe revolution can be the topic of the author's next book.