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“White Fragility” – Who’s/Whose Reading?

Should we absolutely totally read White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People to Talk About Racism, or should we avoid it as if our anti-racist lives depended on it? The answer sure seems to depend on who’s doing the reading. How much it has to do with the substance of the text is harder for me to say.

Technically, my major in college was “James Madison College – Ethnic and Intergroup Relations Policy Problems.”[1] When I don’t want to go into all that, depending on the audience and the context, I say “sociology” or “political science” or “economics,” since it included all of those, plus some anthropology and history and philosophy thrown in for good measure. Later, I worked in the research department of an advertising agency, and then freelanced for a few years, till I got tired of figuring out what people love enough about soap and snacks to want to buy them.

I mention this to explain why I take it for granted that demographics matter.

I mention this because I gather, from some of the negative reviews of DiAngelo’s book, that not everyone does. One recent reviewer even read DiAngelo as saying that “there is no such thing as a universal human experience, and we are defined not by our individual personalities or moral choices, but only by our racial category.”[2] That reader isn’t quoting DiAngelo there; instead, it seems, he’s extrapolating from her explicit insistence that being white in the US conditions a broadly shared experience, or more precisely set of experiences, that are typical for white people, and that differ significantly from the experience typical for black or Asian or Hispanic people.

Given my “demographics matter” bias, perhaps, I had a different take-away. I thought her main point was that white people in the US grow up and learn how to be human – and are “taught to navigate race”[3] – mostly implicitly, from within a social system that leads us to “just know,” without ever giving it too much thought, that it’s better to be white. White people as a group share an unexamined outlook on the racially-organized world that keeps us from seeing our contribution to the systemic barriers to racial equity in the society. That in turn leads well-intentioned white people, despite their good intentions, to perpetuate racial inequity, both passively and actively, in ways great and small.[4]

That doesn’t seem like a particularly controversial or earth-shattering revelation, frankly.
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It also doesn’t seem like an “unfalsifiable thesis,” another charge sometimes leveled at the book. It seems to me we could think of all kinds of ways to test out the hypothetical implications of that main point. And in fact, if we did a half-way decent literature review, we’d probably find that lots of them have already been tested, and that research robustly supports DiAngelo’s depiction of the US social world.

[Aaaand … we’re back to “demographics matter.”]

But I don’t think the reviewers who say that about DiAngelo’s thesis are talking about the thesis I took her to have. I gather those reviewers identified her thesis as “all white people are unconscious racists.” [As distinct from what she actually says, namely that all white people in our society are socialized into, benefit from, and are “involved in” racism [5], which is a slightly different claim.] This requires skipping over the place on page 24 where she defines racism as “a system of advantage based on race,”[6] namely a property of social systems rather than a property of individuals’ belief systems. Along with her whole discussion about how talk about racism in the US has made the “racist” label a moral slur, and no one wants to be morally slurred, so she takes pains to make explicit that she’s not blaming white people for being “bad people” just because they have racial blind spots. Since the completely understandable resistance to being “a bad person” gets in the way of noticing those blind spots, or doing anything about them.

These reviews seem to be responding to the sense that DiAngelo is, even though she denies it, calling her white readers racists, telling them they’re bad, and attacking them. On top of that, they sense she’s unfairly disqualifying everything they could possibly imagine saying to defend themselves against that attack. Because she says that all kinds of things white people frequently say to show they do not literally walk around thinking other people are inferior because of their skin color are beside the point because that kind of racism isn’t what she’s talking about.

Granted, the reflexive saying of those things does illustrate exactly what she is talking about. So I could see where readers could get the feeling that “she’s made it so anything you can say just proves her point” – insofar as her point is that most well-intentioned white people still react defensively to having the fact that when a person lives in a racist social system they participate in it brought to their attention. Especially because if we’re white we’re likely to be largely uninformed about and unaware of how we, ourselves, participate in that system. And would also frankly rather not discuss it. That is one of her points. Hence the book’s subtitle.

But that thesis doesn’t seem particularly unfalsifiable, either.
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It also seems worth noticing that anything you could say wouldn’t illustrate her point. Hypothetically, you could say something like “Oh, yeah, since I first read James Baldwin, and then read everything he had ever written, I’ve been deeply interested in the literature of the black experience in the US. I’ve immersed myself in the literature on the systemic problems of racial inequity in the US, too, particularly as that affects education. Consequently, I’m often acutely aware of the manifestations of race in my daily life, and of how our inequitable racial system shapes that experience, particularly in the classroom.”[7]

So I don’t think she actually makes it impossible for an individual white person to be an exception to her generalizations about white people. But exceptions are, almost by definition, exceptional. Plus, if you were going to say something like that, you probably wouldn’t have objected to DiAngelo’s book that way in the first place, or to her point that you probably have racial blind spots you still don’t even know you have. You probably already think that.
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Many of DiAngelo’s readers will already think a lot of what’s in her book, actually. Most socially competent individuals in the US, white or black or whatever, will at one time or another have recognized that, for all kinds of reasons, in most situations, it’s an advantage to be white. Whether a lot or a little might vary.[8] Again, not particularly controversial or earth-shattering. Also, obviously, not the same thing as thinking that white people are literally better. Some people may actually think that these days, but I don’t personally know anyone who would admit it in public if they did. I don’t think.

This might make a person wonder why a book like White Fragility is even necessary, let alone a two-year best seller, if all it says is stuff people already know.

But the devil, as “they” say, is in the details. The problem with blind spots, even when we know we must have them, is that they’re hard to see. It would help us if someone could hold up a mirror – or two, at just the right angle. DiAngelo’s examples and questions aim to do that for her main target audience of “progressive white people.”

And overall, it seems to me, they succeed.

Some of the negative response to DiAngelo’s book strikes me as analogous to my own invariable reaction when shopping for clothes. “What is wrong with this mirror, because my butt is NOT that big?!”
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On the other hand, when I really need to see how I look from behind, I could use that mirror. DiAngelo’s book seemed to me to serve that function, without ever going over 7 on the pain scale. That seemed like a strength, to me.

The other strength of DiAngelo’s book, or so I initially thought, is that it succinctly communicates a whole paradigm. There’s a trick to seeing the features of ordinary daily life as our individual experiences and simultaneously as manifestations of the larger social system we inhabit. That perspective helps make the fraught topic of race in the US less purely personal. More like something we could disassemble if we worked on it.

It’s that social structural paradigm from which notions like “white privilege” and “systemic (or institutional) racism” and “intersectionality” sound more like common sense, like specific historical examples of basic verities of human social life, than like fighting words.

That way of seeing the world depends on the perception Walter Benjamin labeled “the universal in the particular,” and C. Wright Mills called “the sociological imagination.” (Still not new. Mills wrote that book in 1959.)

There’s nothing in the sociological imagination intrinsically hostile to the idea of universal human experience, individual personality, or moral agency. But it can feel that way. Those things look different from that perspective than some people are used to, the way a house looks different from the street than it does from the living room. They look more complex, less absolute, and harder to lay unambiguous claim to. Keeping them in view along with the inexorable influence of demographics and the other operations of social structure takes some practice.

I thought DiAngelo did a good job with that. But maybe that’s down to a different set of blind spots. Maybe to read DiAngelo’s book as mostly commonplace but still helpful, rather than as mostly outlandish and even insulting, it helps more than I realized to have majored in sociology.
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[1] Michigan State University, for those interested. Class of ’81, but only because I took a long time to get around to graduating. They don’t even have that major any more! The closest 21st century version looks like “Social Relations and Policy.”

[2] Matt Taibbi, “On ‘White Fragility.’”

[3] Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018), 38.

[4] Just one example: restrictive covenants for the purpose of preserving a suburban neighborhood’s aesthetic standards, that function to exclude the kind of new housing that would promote residential desegregation, and then as a consequence, educational desegregation. [See, e.g., Eric Levitz, “Trump’s Racism Won’t Win the Suburbs. But It May Diversify Them.” New York Magazine, July 31, 2020.]

[5] DiAngelo, 4-5.

[6] DiAngelo, 24. She is quoting David T. Wellman, Portraits of White Racism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

[7] P.L. Thomas, for instance, could say something like that, although he’d probably say it more eloquently. Thomas’s concern about DiAngelo’s book, by the way, isn’t that she’s wrong about racism in the US, or has an unfalsifiable thesis, or is unfair to whites and condescending to blacks. His concern is that a lot of white people will read her book and stop there, still “centering whiteness,” still “tip-toeing around the delicacy of white people,” still avoiding the necessary work of consulting black authors and voices, and so still not making the progress that needs making. See P.L. Thomas, “Confronting DiAngelo’s White Fragility in the Time of #BlackLivesMatter.”

[8] John McWhorter, for instance, says “In my life, racism has affected me now and then at the margins, in very occasional social ways, but has had no effect on my access to societal resources; if anything, it has made them more available to me than they would have been otherwise.” [John McWhorter, “The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility,” The Atlantic, July 15, 2020.] McWhorter reads DiAngelo as calling for a cult of white penitence. His ultimate objection to her book seems to be that potentially endless self-absorbed white self-criticism functions to caricature and sideline real-life black people, and diverts energy from the woke-enough practical political action that might actually change the things we can as a civil society. I don’t read DiAngelo the way McWhorter does, but his point about putting energy where it will actually have some beneficial effect strikes me as valid.
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DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Foreword by Michael Eric Dyson. Boston: Beacon Press, 2018.

[An installment of the “Read Me” Project.]

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5 responses to ““White Fragility” – Who’s/Whose Reading?”

  1. LOL – here’s what was in this morning’s daily devotional reading:

    “Denying that you are engaged in hermeneutics betrays a shocking lack of self-awareness, an inability to notice the way your mind and emotions are working in the background and beneath the surface. I think statements like ‘this is the clear teaching of Scripture’ are psychologically diagnostic. Statements like these reveal something about yourself. Namely, that you lack a certain degree of self-awareness. For example, saying something like ‘this is the clear teaching of Scripture’ is similar to saying ‘I’m not a racist.’ … Self-aware people would say things like ‘I don’t want to be a racist’ or ‘I try not to be racist’ or ‘I condemn racism.’ But they would never say ‘I’m not a racist’ because self-aware people know that they have blind spots. … They have unconscious baggage that is hard to overcome. And it’s the same with how self-aware people approach reading the bible. Self-aware people know that they are trying to read the bible in an unbiased fashion. … [and] to let the bible speak clearly and in its own voice. But self-aware people know they have blind spots. They know that there is unconscious baggage affecting how they are reading the bible, baggage that they know must be biasing their readings and conclusions.”

    I couldn’t have made that up if I’d tried.

    The quote is from Richard Beck, “Emotional Intelligence and Sola Scriptura” at the Experimental Theology blog (http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2015/10/emotional-intelligence-and-sola.html).

    The devotional readings come from William G. Britton, Wisdom From the Margins: Daily Readings, a book I’ve found really valuable (even though his “margins” are still pretty close to the main page, but them, so am I). New posts show up occasionally at Richer by Far. (https://richerbyfar.com/)


  2. “Most socially competent individuals in the US, white or black or whatever, will at one time or another have recognized that, for all kinds of reasons, in most situations, it’s an advantage to be white”

    I think I can sum up the nature of the conflict using this one sentence of yours. Chuckling but first of all I am not a “socially competent individual.” I’m not even of this world. Why is “socially competent” being used as a standard or a definition of what is reasonable and what is not?

    Second of all, the very nature of a statement like “in most situations it is an advantage to be white,” in inherently racist. It is basically declaring that it is superior to be white, which soon becomes white superiority.

    One of the words I use to hate the most growing up was “disadvantaged.” That is such a huge burden to dump on kid. Disadvantaged by whose standard? Your insistence that socially competent individuals will agree that being white is advantageous then leads to the conclusion that to not be white is a disadvantage. But what if my experience does not agree with that observation? By whose authority are black folks deemed disadvantaged and is there any way to escape that position or must they forever stay in their place?

    I did not like White Fragility.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Like idk. I thought DiAngelo described me pretty well. And I think I am a fairly typical white person, although I could be wrong.

      Your point, that the idea “you’re better off being white” is still basically “being white is better,” and that idea is exactly where the racism lives, is exactly DiAngelo’s point, too, I think.

      In a demented society, maybe social competence is UNreasonable. Maybe the people who “don’t quite fit in,” who “misread social cues” and don’t know “the unwritten rules” that “everyone knows” about social situations and who chronically “don’t respond appropriately,” the “nonconformists” who challenge the status quo, are the reasonable ones. And, maybe those people don’t have this experience of race in the US that I think is so typical, either.

      Most of the people I know are not like that, though, as far as I can tell.

      I imagine there are advantages to not being white. But for me, that is a whole new area.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. HAT, do please bring your open mindedness to my Sunday Zoom webinars on DiAngelo’s book. As a black woman, I aim to get white people beyond the theoretical and able to look at these ideas from where the rubber meets the road in black folx’ real lives. This Sunday I’m looking at the idea of “white women’s tears” and I promise you it not what you expect. I like to keep people guessing where I’m going, it forces them to think for themselves. I believe you will enjoy it.

    Nanette D. Massey
    Buffalo, NY


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