Review of White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

In the United States, citizens of all races are permitted to vote, public places are no longer legally segregated by race, and anti-miscegenation laws were ruled unconstitutional in 1967. In principle, all jobs, even the presidency of the United States, are open to any qualified candidate regardless of race. Superficially, most if not all legal and institutional barriers to racial equality seem to have been removed. So why does racial inequality persist in America?

In her 2018 book White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo, who identifies herself as a white, cisgender, able-bodied, middle-aged woman, focuses on one part of the answer. Racial inequality persists, says DiAngelo, because racism persists, and racism persists because whites have a vested interest in protecting white privilege. And one way they protect that privilege is to fight back aggressively at the slightest suggestion that they are acting in racially problematic ways. This hair-trigger aggression, and denial that there is a problem, is what DiAngelo calles white fragility.

One of the most blatant examples of denialism cited in the book is an incident that made headlines a few years ago, after Donald Trump was elected President.

Readers may recall a West Virginia county employee—Pamela Ramsey Taylor—who held a high-level position as director of county development and was suspended after posting racist remarks about First Lady Michelle Obama on Facebook (“It will be so refreshing to have a classy, beautiful, dignified First Lady back in the White House. I’m tired of seeing a [sic] Ape in heels”). The mayor of the city responded, “Just made my day Pam.” Taylor’s response to the ensuing uproar was, “My comment was not intended to be racist at all. I was referring to my day being made for change in the White House! I am truly sorry for any hard feeling this may have caused! Those who know me know that I’m not in any way racist!” Although Taylor was suspended (but eventually got her job back), I am left wondering what actually qualifies as racism in the white mind.

I am with DiAngelo here. Setting aside Taylor’s disingenuous astonishment that an obviously insulting remark (whether racist or not) would cause “hard feelings,” I find it almost impossible to believe that Taylor would have referred to, say, Hillary Clinton as an “ape in heels” even if Taylor had been as tired of Clinton as of Obama, because Clinton is white and not black. If this is true, then how can “ape in heels” not be a racist epithet? Now, I can believe that Taylor did not consciously set herself the task of ensuring that her insult was racially tinged, and that the racial bias in her insult just “slipped out” unintentionally. But that does not mean that Taylor is not in any way racist, unless one adopts an extremely narrow definition of racism.

DiAngelo works as a professional diversity trainer, and so can cite many anecdotes from her personal experience. Here is one illuminating incident.

For example, I was working with a group of educators who had been meeting regularly for at least eight sessions. The group was composed of the equity teams for a public school system, self-selected by people who wanted to support equity efforts in their schools. I had just finished an hour-long presentation titled, “Seeing the Water: Whiteness in Daily Life.” This presentation is designed to make visible the relentless messages of white superiority and the resulting and inevitable internalization of these messages for white people. The room appeared to be with me—open and receptive, with many nodding along in agreement. Then a white teacher raised her hand and told a story about an interaction she had as she drove alongside a group of parents protesting the achievement gap in her school. She then proceeded to imitate one mother in particular who offended her. “You don’t understand our children!” this mother had called out to her as she drove by. By the stereotypical way that the white teacher imitated the mother, we all knew that the mother was black. The room seemed to collectively hold its breath at her imitation, which was bordering on racial mockery. While the teacher’s concluding point was that, on reflection, she came to realize that the mother was right and that she really didn’t understand children of color, the emotional thrust of the story was her umbrage at the mother for making this assumption. For the room, the emotional impact was on her stereotypical imitation of an angry black woman.

As the story came to a close, I had a decision to make. Should I act with integrity and point out what was racially problematic about the story? After all, making racism visible was literally what I had been hired to do. Further, several African American teachers in the room had certainly noticed the reinforcement of a racist stereotype. To not intervene would be, yet again, another white person choosing to protect white feelings rather than interrupt racism—a white person who billed herself as a racial justice consultant, no less! Yet I would be taking the risk of losing the group, given the likelihood that the woman would become defensive and shut down and the room would split into those who thought I had mistreated her and those who didn’t. I decided to do what would retain my moral and professional integrity and serve as a model for other white people.

As diplomatically as possible, I said, “I understand that you gained valuable insight from that interaction and I thank you for sharing that insight with us. And I am going to ask you to consider not telling that story in that way again.”

When she immediately began to protest, I interrupted her to continue. “I am offering you a teachable moment,” I said, “and I am only asking that you try to listen with openness.” I then laid out what was racially problematic about how she told the story and offered her a way to share her learning without reinforcing racist stereotypes, for the same story could easily be told and the same conclusions drawn without the racially charged imitation of the mother.

She defensively interrupted me several times but eventually appeared to be listening. Shortly after this intervention, we took a break. Several African American teachers came up to thank me, as did one white teacher who found my intervention a refreshing and much-needed example of how to break with white solidarity. Several white people also approached me to let me know how upset the teacher was and that she was quitting the group.

Here is another incident in which DiAngelo frankly admits one of her own mistakes and how she dealt with it.

The equity team has been invited to a meeting with the company’s new web developer. The team consists of two women, both of whom are black, and me. The new web developer, who is also black, wants to interview us so that she can build our page. She starts the meeting by giving us a survey to fill out. Many questions on the survey inquire about our intended audience, methods, goals, and objectives. I find the questions tedious and feel irritated by them. Pushing the survey aside, I try to explain verbally. I tell the web developer that we go out into the satellite offices to facilitate antiracism training. I add that the training is not always well received; in fact, one member of our team was told not to come back. I make a joke: “The white people were scared by Deborah’s hair” (Deborah is black and has long locked braids). The meeting ends and we move on.

A few days later, one of my team members lets me know that the web developer—who I will call Angela—was offended by my hair comment. While I wasn’t paying attention at the time, once I am informed, I quickly realize why that comment was off. I seek out a friend who is white and has a solid understanding of cross-racial dynamics. We discuss my feelings (embarrassment, shame, guilt) and then she helps me identify the various ways my racism was revealed in that interaction. After this processing, I feel ready to repair the relationship. I ask Angela to meet with me, and she accepts.

I open by asking Angela, “Would you be willing to grant me to opportunity to repair the racism I perpetrated toward you in that meeting?” When she agrees, I continue. “I realize that my comment about Deborah’s hair was inappropriate.”

Angela nods and explains that she did not know me and did not want to be joking about black women’s hair (a sensitive issue for many black women) with a white woman whom she did not have a trusting relationship with, much less in a professional work meeting.

I apologize and ask her if I have missed anything else problematic in the meeting.

“Yes,” she replies. “That survey? I wrote that survey. And I have spent my life justifying my intelligence to white people.”

My chest constricts as I immediately realize the impact of my glib dismissal of the survey. I acknowledge the impact and apologize.

She accepts my apology. I ask Angela if there is anything else that needs to be said or heard so that we may move forward.

She replies that yes, there is. “The next time you do something like this, would you like feedback publicly or privately?“ she asks.

I answer that given my role as an educator, I would appreciate receiving the feedback publicly as it is important for white people to see that I am also engaged in a lifelong process of learning and growth. And I could model for other white people how to receive feedback openly and without defensiveness.

She tells me that although these dynamics occur daily between white people and people of color, my willingness to repair doesn’t, and that she appreciates this. We move on.

I have quoted these anecdotes at length because, for me, they are the best parts of the book. Among other things, they illustrate how we can have racial biases that we are unaware of, and how these biases can manifest themselves in ways that cause significant emotional pain, even if we are well-intentioned. They also illustrate how easy it is to become defensive. Of course, defensiveness often makes things worse, but the good news is that if we are willing to make an effort, then we can do things to reduce our racial bias and become less defensive.

DiAngelo gives no indication in the book of having been influenced by any kind of religious thought, but I see an analogy between the way she talks about white fragility and the way Christians talk about sin. DiAngelo is white, and does not consider herself to be exempt from white fragility; she promotes the concept because it is a useful tool for her to recognize her own racist attitudes—especially those that she might otherwise ignore or downplay—and work to eliminate them. Similarly, sin is a crucial concept in Christian theology because it helps us recognize our own sinfulness and need for repentance and forgiveness. In our culture today, humility, admission of sin, and repentance are in short supply, and I find it refreshing when someone such as DiAngelo tries to promote these ideas and lead by example. I have a lot of respect, and give her high marks, for her authenticity and vulnerability.

Furthermore, I also have no major objection to one of her more controversial claims, that individuals who harbor no personal racial prejudice can still be complicit in perpetuating racial inequality just by passively allowing the status quo to remain. This is a contentious topic and while I do not agree with everything DiAngelo says, I think she makes some important and valid points.

Having said that, I should say that the parts of the book that I like mostly appear in the latter, more practical, half, and that I am much less happy with the earlier, more theoretical sections. As I will try to explain, I find the theoretical framework that DiAngelo presents to be bristling with serious logical problems and disingenuous debating tactics. DiAngelo herself is not solely to blame for these faults, because they pervade the literature on critical race theory (which DiAngelo cites several times), as well as much popular discourse about race today. But their popularity does not make them any less objectionable.

One repeated tactic that I detected throughout the book was the use of what I call semantic bait-and-switch games. The method proceeds as follows. First, define some crucial, emotionally charged term in an unusual fashion. Next, draw some conclusion that looks surprising but arguably follows from the definition. Finally, switch the definition back to the one that your audience is more accustomed to, thereby tricking them into agreeing with something totally different.

Take the word racism. Page 1 of the book begins with this anecdote (slightly edited for brevity):

I have just presented a definition of racism that includes the acknowledgment that whites hold social and institutional power over people of color. A white man is pounding his fist on the table. As he pounds, he yells, “A white person can’t get a job anymore!” … Why is this white man so angry? … Why are all the other white people either sitting in silent agreement with him or tuning out? I have, after all, only articulated a definition of racism.

When I first read the book, this anecdote left me waiting with bated breath for DiAngelo to present her definition of racism, so that I could try to understand why it created such a sensation. Fortunately, I did not literally bate my breath, or I would have passed out from lack of oxygen: DiAngelo does not define racism until page 83. Racism is a system of racial inequality that benefits whites at the expense of people of color. Note carefully that the definition does not say that racism is a system that benefits one race at the expense of another race. By definition, racism benefits whites at the expense of people of color. If you think that I am quibbling or that DiAngelo does not literally mean what she says, think again. Throughout the book, she makes it clear that this asymmetry in her definition is intentional. For example, on page 22 (which, remember, is sixty pages before she articulates her definition of racism), she writes:

People of color may also hold prejudices and discriminate against white people, but they lack the social and institutional power that transforms their prejudice and discrimination into racism; the impact of their prejudice on whites is temporary and contextual. Whites hold the social and institutional positions in society to infuse their racial prejudice into the laws, policies, practices, and norms of society in a way that people of color do not. …

People of color may also hold prejudices and discriminate against their own and other groups of color, but this bias ultimately holds them down and, and in this way, reinforces the system of racism that still benefits whites. Racism is a society-wide dynamic that occurs at the group level. 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. People of color do not have this power and privilege over white people.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, we grant DiAngelo that the above societal analysis is theoretically correct. I am a mathematician by training and so I am accustomed to holding definitions firmly in my mind even if they seem counterintuitive, but any normal person is going to see the claim that only whites can be racist and interpret the word racist in a commonsensical manner. And DiAngelo professes to be startled that people react negatively to such a claim? I have, after all, only articulated a definition of racism. Such an attitude reveals either extreme disingenuousness or extreme lack of sensitivity to the nuances of human communication.

Similarly, on page 20, she gives a definition of discrimination—which I will not bother to reproduce here—and then concludes, “Everyone has prejudice, and everyone discriminates. Given this reality, inserting the qualifier ‘reverse’ is nonsensical.” Again, for the sake of argument, let us grant that if everyone discriminates, then we have no basis for saying that one type of discrimination is discrimination simpliciter, and some other type of discrimination is reverse discrimination. Any normal person is not going to hold this delicate logical argument firmly in mind when told that the term reverse discrimination is nonsensical, especially when simultaneously told that only whites can be racist.

The book has so many other examples of semantic sleight of hand that it would be tedious to analyze them all. She defends her own generalizations by saying that she is a sociologist who knows that “social life is patterned and predictable in measurable ways,” but dismisses other people’s generalizations by calling them stereotypes and prejudices. She introduces certain definitions of white supremacy and individualism and meritocracy so that she can call us all white supremacists, and attack individualism and meritocracy. What possible purpose can there be to craft a way to call your audience white supremacists other than to provoke and infuriate them?

Christians are often criticized for using the concept of sin as a weapon, beating other people over the head with it, and self-righteously telling them that they are going to hell. As I explained above, this is not the proper use of the concept of sin. Similarly, I do not approve of goading people into an angry reaction, and then triumphantly pointing out their “white fragility.” Let us revisit the aforementioned incident of the woman who imitated a black parent in a stereotypical manner. I applaud DiAngelo for her courage in speaking up, when it would have been easy and comfortable to let the incident slide without comment. That was the right thing to do. Nevertheless, I am somewhat uneasy with the manner in which she chose to express herself. By her own account, she immediately issued a command, “I am going to ask you to consider not telling that story in that way again.” Moreover, when the woman reacted, DiAngelo interrupted her in order to continue lecturing her. Was this really the best way to proceed? Could DiAngelo not have tried some other approach, such as saying, “I thank you for sharing that story with us, but I confess that there was one part of your story that made me uncomfortable. I know you did not intend to mock that mother when you imitated her, but it felt like mocking to me. Did anyone else feel uncomfortable?” This might have given the woman a chance to discover her own unwitting biases, instead of being publicly lectured about them. At the very least, was it really necessary for DiAngelo to interrupt the woman instead of letting her finish what she had to say?

I am not claiming that my suggested approach would necessarily have worked better. That participant might have gotten angry and quit the training regardless; alternatively, by being too gentle, my approach might not have sufficiently challenged her. Nor do I claim that I would have had the presence of mind to behave in an ideal manner in real time; it is easy to criticize from the comfort of my chair, and quite another thing to be able to practice what I preach when I have only a split second to react and think of what to say. What bothers me is that DiAngelo’s post mortem analysis gives no indication that she mourns the loss of that participant; indeed, she almost seems to congratulate herself on a “successful” outcome—i.e., validation by the other participants whose validation she values. Nor does DiAngelo seem to introspect and consider that her own style of communication might have been partially to blame for the angry reaction.

So far my criticisms have been about debating tactics and communication style. I should also say that I have some more fundamental concerns about DiAngelo’s theoretical framework. The biggest one concerns the question, what exactly is bad about racism?

It might seem that racism is so obviously bad that there is no need to argue that it is bad, or articulate what exactly it is about racism that is bad. But recall that DiAngelo’s definitions do not always line up with commonsense intuition. She makes a big deal out of the distinction between (on the one hand) racism as she defines it, and (on the other hand) individual hatred of people because of their race. Here is what she says on page 13.

If your definition of a racist is someone who holds conscious dislike of people because of race, then I agree that it is offensive for me to suggest that you are racist when I don’t know you. I also agree that if this is your definition of racism, and you are against racism, then you are not racist. Now breathe. I am not using this definition of racism, and I am not saying that you are immoral.

Given that she has a non-obvious definition of racism, it is not so obvious what is bad about racism. Indeed, she devotes an entire chapter to what she calls the good/bad binary. This is a dichotomy that she calls a false dichotomy; it limits racism to ignorant, bigoted, prejudiced, mean-spirited, old, Southern people (bad), and contrasts them with progressive educated, open-minded, well-intentioned, young, Northern people (good). By drawing this distinction and putting ourselves in the latter class, we exonerate ourselves from racism. But DiAngelo rejects this analysis. She argues that everyone holds prejudices, so we cannot claim to be in the category of people who do not have prejudice. Furthermore, since racism is a system that operates throughout society in a way that none of us can escape, we cannot claim to be free of racism.

In this way, DiAngelo aims to force us to acknowledge our own racism. What she does not seem to recognize is that her tactic is a double-edged sword. By defining racism in a way that is inescapable, she also renders it unclear why racism is bad.

Let me put the point starkly. DiAngelo wants to avoid saying that anyone who perpetuates racism is a bad person, but is it true or false that anything that perpetuates racism is bad (using her definition of racism)? The way DiAngelo talks throughout the book—in particular, calling herself an antiracist—I am led to assume that she would answer true. But let us consider the logical consequences. I would argue that if anything that perpetuates racism is bad, then it is bad for white people to love their children. The reason is this: the race of the child of a white person is white, or at least strongly biased toward being white. By loving their own children, white people are putting a lot more effort into improving the lives of white people than into improving the lives of black people. Now recall that the definition of racism is a system of racial inequality that benefits whites at the expense of people of color. Parental love, however well-intentioned, is part of a system that benefits whites at the expense of people of color. So if anything that perpetuates racism is bad, then parental love is bad.

Now, maybe you find that this argument smacks of sophistry, or sets up a straw man. After all, surely nobody argues that just by loving their children, parents are being racist? I admit that I have not encountered anyone who argues this way explicitly, but I certainly have encountered people who want to put legal limits on how much wealth parents are allowed to will to their children, on the grounds that the absence of such limits perpetuates economic inequality and is therefore bad. If that is the case, then I see no reason why to stop at probate law. Why not limit the amount of material benefit (from school tuition to bedtime reading to breast milk) that a parent is allowed to provide a child while the parent is still alive? The lack of such a limit also perpetuates economic inequality and racial inequality.

If one is going to define racism as DiAngelo defines it, and one does not want to declare that loving one’s children is bad (or more precisely, that it is bad for whites to love their children—people of color are off the hook according to DiAngelo’s definition), then one must assert that racism is not always bad. I honestly do not see any way around this logical conclusion. But I have never seen anyone who promotes “critical race theory” take pains to argue that racism is not always bad. To me, this is a red flag that the theory is on logically shaky ground and is being used as a tool to promote a certain agenda, rather than as an honest attempt to formulate a coherent theory.

While I think the above theoretical flaw is the most serious one in DiAngelo’s book, there are others. I have already hinted at one above, namely the simplistic analysis of racism as being unidirectional. DiAngelo gives lip service to the complexity of racism, but is happy to grossly oversimplify the analysis of the power dynamics, by asserting that only whites have the collective social and institutional power and privilege over people of color. Even if we restrict our attention to laws and institutions (and I would argue that this restriction already ignores many ways in which power manifests itself in society), it does not take a sociological genius to observe that people of color have a certain amount of power to change laws and institutions in the United States, and that this power can sometimes be used to benefit people of color at the expense of whites. Let us take a look at what DiAngelo says about affirmative action on pages 91–92.

There is a great amount of misinformation about affirmative action, as evidenced in the idea of special rights. For example, people commonly believe that if a person of color applies for a position, he or she must be hired over a white person; that black people are given preferential treatment in hiring; and that a specific number of people of color must be hired to fill a quota.

All these beliefs are patently untrue. Affirmative action is a tool to ensure that qualified minority applicants are given the same employment opportunities as white people. It is a flexible program—there are no quotas or requirements as commonly understood. Moreover, white women have been the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action, although the program did not initially include them. Corporations are more likely to favor white women and immigrants of color of elite backgrounds from outside the United States when choosing their executives. No employer is required to hire an unqualified person of color, but companies are required to be able to articulate why they didn’t hire a qualified person of color (and this requirement is rarely enforced). Additionally, affirmative action never applied to private companies—only to state and governmental agencies.

DiAngelo makes many misleading statements here, such as focusing exclusively on government hiring and ignoring (say) college admissions, but let me set those objections aside, because I have a bigger bone to pick. It seems to me that implicitly, DiAngelo is trying to argue that affirmative action is not a system that does, or could, benefit people of color at the expense of whites. But would she agree that a company with a goal or target (not necessarily a mandated quota) of increasing the proportion of black employees would, when given the choice between a black candidate and a white candidate who are equally qualified, consistently choose the black candidate? I would think that she would agree. What would the point of affirmative action be otherwise? But in that case, how is this not a system that benefits people of color at the expense of whites? Note that I am not asserting that it is necessarily a bad thing to benefit people of color at the expense of whites (proponents of affirmative action can, and sometimes do, argue that benefiting people of color at the expense of whites is necessary to correct the effects of centuries of injustice in the opposite direction), just that it is an intended characteristic of affirmative action. And if, in our society, there exist some systems that benefit people of color at the expense of whites, then why does DiAngelo refuse to call such a system racism? It looks to me like another disingenuous debating tactic.

Again, I do not think that DiAngelo is alone in making these kinds of unsound arguments. As it happens, I have recently become aware of the controversy surrounding the ninth resolution that was passed at the 2019 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, on critical race theory and intersectionality. This review is not the place to get into a deep discussion of these topics. Suffice it to say that I am becoming persuaded that the church does need to engage with these types of questions at a theoretical level, and not only at a cultural or political level. For me, White Fragility is a prime example of how some valid points about social justice can, in today’s world, easily be intermixed with dubious theoretical claims. It is incumbent on Christians to distinguish carefully between ideas that are consistent with the gospel message and those that are not.
Posted December 2019

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