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.

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Wally's picture

I've also been looking this morning at more of Johnathan Feldman's stuff over at his Global Teach In site Also good stuff!!!

Except for the attack piece on Taibbi which nonetheless makes some really astutely drawn points.

I particulary liked Feldman's analysis of the Evergreen College debacle. And particulary in that he points out other better paths the students could and should have taken instead of acting like Red Guards or, er, repressive Marcusians.

In any case, I'll be spending more time at the Global Teach In website for sure. So thanks for hipping me to that organization, Cass, even tho the particular article you posted irritated me.

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@Wally @Wally to the article about Evergreen College? I am afraid I got lost at the teach in site. I am trying to keep an open mind here, but I can't help wondering if this Feldman hasn't latched on to a newly fashionable cause and might not end up doing more harm than good as intellectuals sometimes do.

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Nastarana

Wally's picture

@Nastarana

I like both Feldman and Taibbi. But I'll always find something to quibble with no matter who I'm reading.

Funny that Feldman in the article welcomes the demise of the New Left but he defends Marcuse who is widely known, appropriately or not, as the "Father of the New Left" vis-a-vis the Taibbi article.

You're right that the site is difficult to navigate. The Evergreen State College article is right here.

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@Wally I rea the article. I do find Feldman's prose to be exceptionally opaque, but he did make some good points, e.g.

Hardly any intersectional theorist embraces a systemic program for demilitarization as militarism is not one of the categories that they deploy,

No one involved seems to have known or cared whether Professor Feldman was a good teacher of Biology, his field, or the depth and breadth of his knowledge of that field. His "crime" apparently was objecting to White People Stay Away Day? IMHO the correct response to gimmicks is either to ignore or ridicule--did anyone think to have a White Folks Cookout at the Beach Day? ( In case anyone is interested, us reprobates will be doing our own cooking and cleanup).

What did end up happening? Is Weinstein still employed at Evergreen?

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Nastarana

Wally's picture

@Nastarana

Seems he and his wife got a nice severence package, if that't the right terminology. Left willingly, sort of . . . It's complicated.

Now the college is having all sorts of enrolment and financial problems. But it is a state college so who knows how it will pan out.

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needed in some circumstances but it isn't the sort of job a wise manager would give to a fresh from college pretty face. So now we have book length required reading provoked by if not indirectly about Ms. DiAngelo's hurt feelings--I was shocked that they didn't understand I was The Expert at this. How dare they push back at well meaning Good Person me? (sigh)

No, Cassiodorus, much as I respect you and value your articles, I am not giving increasingly valuable time to reading this, nor Marcuse, and possibly not Taibi either anymore, much as I liked Griftopia.

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Nastarana

Cassiodorus's picture

@Nastarana Sometimes the point of book reviews is to point to something good in books, but at other times the point of book reviews is to point out that there are people out there who are being made famous for the fact that what they do is offer a substitute for proactive action. Robin DiAngelo appears from an initial reading of her book to be one of those people, but I still can't come out and say that outright. So I retreat into a discourse analysis which reveals it in so many quotes and so many comments.

We really do need to pull our heads out and get proactive quickly, now, or at some point we will have no civilization in which to be proactive. A first step toward this end of being proactive is in not confusing mere talk with action. And there's a fair amount of evidence to argue that diversity training isn't the way forward. That's why I write book reviews like this.

Okay?

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"Be a loyal plastic robot for a world that doesn't care." -- Frank Zappa

@Cassiodorus Why can you not say that outright? It seems a perfectly valid criticism to me.

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Nastarana

Cassiodorus's picture

@Nastarana before one says stuff, and I am really not interested enough in diAngelo to research her stuff.

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"Be a loyal plastic robot for a world that doesn't care." -- Frank Zappa

Even though there’s been some backlash and re-evaluating of it, it and Robin DiAngelo are pretty influential. Someone described this as trying to solve racism as if it was an HR issue and I think I agree. By the end, I really didn’t feel she’d really addressed the big picture issues and, in a weird way, it was almost like she was saying if white people would just accept that everything is biased towards them and that they are racist that we can ignore the massive structural change that is needed. And her attitude towards POC just seemed subtly condescending. I never did figure out how a white woman became an expert on racism anyway. She seems to do more assuming what black people think and want than actually letting them speak it.

Sorry if this makes no sense. It’s been a long day and it’s been a while since I read it. Bottom line is, it struck me as analogous to telling poor people they have to use metal straws and reusable grocery sacks to save the environment while ignoring the massive carbon footprint of the 1% and the military.

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Just another Bozo on the bus.

Cassiodorus's picture

@Dr. John Carpenter one might be tempted to promote "more talk" as the cure for racism, because "more talk" is what the corporate funders of diversity training sessions are willing to pay for.

If one isn't white, well, I hate to generalize, so I think I'll let Tracy Chapman do it:

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"Be a loyal plastic robot for a world that doesn't care." -- Frank Zappa

But any time anyone says "all people of a certain skin color have quality X" I am 100% certain that they are full of shit.
So saying all white people have benefited from their skin color, or all white people are racist, or all white people are anything, they are wrong.
If you're wondering if someone is wrong about race, substitute white for any other skin color, and hear how it sounds to your ears. And if you hear the statement is racist, but think "it's okay because I'm only talking about white people, and white people are different", then you are probably the problem.

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janis b's picture

@gjohnsit

I found this article to contain some valid perspectives which may support some of your own.

Ultimately though, if we are white we can never really know what it’s like to experience life as a black. I like to defer and listen to people of any colour describe their experience and perceptions, especially if they are self-reflective and sincere.

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@janis b @janis b was when I was in the Dominican Republic. That racism was by light-skinned Blacks against dark skinned Blacks. It was pervasive throughout the society.
It was far worse than anything I read about in the United States.

I am distrustful of the recent hysteria about racism because it's being led by bourgeois liberals. Usually comfortable white liberals.
I'm old enough to remember the 1970s. Racism was a lot worse back then. Yet no one wants to acknowledge that we are very very slowly overcoming racism in this country. We haven't and we won't for a long time, but we are moving in the right direction.
Yet me saying this makes me a racist.

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janis b's picture

@gjohnsit

makes you a racist. I too have observed the caste system of same-race bias, both in whites and blacks in America, and among some other races as well. It seems to be an unfortunate characteristic that exists in human nature at times, especially at times of great polarisation.

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Cassiodorus's picture

@gjohnsit -- but such ideas as "all people of a certain skin color have quality X" tend to crop up now and then once problems like racism are reduced to matters of appropriate talk.

If a group of people within the United States has been made into a designated underclass, however, one solution comes to mind: class struggle.

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"Be a loyal plastic robot for a world that doesn't care." -- Frank Zappa

Raised in a culture of white supremacy, I exude a deeply internalized assumption of racial superiority (55).

It sounds to me, on the evidence presented above, that she was raised with an ideology of meritocracy and credentialism and has a deeply internalized assumption of class privilege.

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Nastarana