Knowing a bit about Robin DiAngelo‘s book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, having heard some of her lectures online, and also having read John McWhorter and listened to his exchanges with Glenn Loury, I was pretty sure that McWhorter’s review of DiAngelo’s book wouldn’t be full of encomiums. And indeed, it’s a pan.
Yes, I admit I haven’t read the book, and when I write about reviews like this one I’m always accused of not passing my own judgment on the book, but that’s like saying that you can’t criticize thumbscrews until you’ve had your digits crushed. At any rate, I’ll just present McWhorter’s take. I may read the book some time, but there are so many other books out there in the queue, and I’ve listened to several online lectures in which DiAngelo presents her thesis. (I’ve put one at the bottom.)
I’m sure some readers have read it, though, and I welcome you to weigh in below. (McWhorter isn’t the only person who has criticized the book.)
McWhorter’s review appears in the Atlantic, which may be the last bastion of non-woke liberal media. Click on the screenshot to read it:
DiAngelo was a professor specializing in race studies, but left academia to make a very good living lecturing white people on their unrecognized but implicit racism, and acting as an advisor to companies and universities who want a diversity program. “White fragility” is her own term for the defensiveness that white people show when confronted with their racism. Her product has been eaten up, largely, as McWhorter maintains in his review, because it’s a kind of “prayer book for a cult” that helps “certain educated white readers feel better about themselves.”
Here are the flaws that McWhorter sees in the book. (Remember, I’m just giving his take, not mine.) His words are indented, while mine are flush left.
Racism. As a black contrarian who often goes against the black party line on race relations, McWhorter often emphasizes the role of black people as agents in their own empowerment rather than as victims. That doesn’t mean he sees no racism in America, for that’s certainly untrue. But he argues that DiAngelo’s book infantilizes and diminishes black people. More about that below
DiAngelo has convinced university administrators, corporate human-resources offices, and no small part of the reading public that white Americans must embark on a self-critical project of looking inward to examine and work against racist biases that many have barely known they had.
I am not convinced. Rather, I have learned that one of America’s favorite advice books of the moment is actually a racist tract. Despite the sincere intentions of its author, the book diminishes Black people in the name of dignifying us. This is unintentional, of course, like the racism DiAngelo sees in all whites. Still, the book is pernicious because of the authority that its author has been granted over the way innocent readers think.
Errors, misleading claims, and twisted logic. McWhorter points out some errors, one a trivial one about Jackie Robinson, but also faults her for unsubstantiated claims:
Later in the book, DiAngelo insinuates that, when white women cry upon being called racists, Black people are reminded of white women crying as they lied about being raped by Black men eons ago. But how would she know? Where is the evidence for this presumptuous claim?
An especially weird passage is where DiAngelo breezily decries the American higher-education system, in which, she says, no one ever talks about racism. “I can get through graduate school without ever discussing racism,” she writes. “I can graduate from law school without ever discussing racism. I can get through a teacher-education program without ever discussing racism.” I am mystified that DiAngelo thinks this laughably antique depiction reflects any period after roughly 1985. For example, an education-school curriculum neglecting racism in our times would be about as common as a home unwired for electricity.
McWhorter has raised this issue several times before:
DiAngelo also writes as if certain shibboleths of the Black left—for instance, that all disparities between white and Black people are due to racism of some kind—represent the incontestable truth. This ideological bias is hardly unique to DiAngelo, and a reader could look past it, along with the other lapses in argumentation I have noted, if she offered some kind of higher wisdom. The problem is that White Fragility is the prayer book for what can only be described as a cult.
Unfalsifiability. In McWhorter’s view, there is nothing a white person can say that could absolve them from the charge of DiAngelo that all whites are implicit racists and complicit in racism. She’s constructed a watertight edifice in which denial of her accusations merely confirms them:
. . . if you are white, make no mistake: You will never succeed in the “work” she demands of you. It is lifelong, and you will die a racist just as you will die a sinner.
Remember also that you are not to express yourself except to say Amen. Namely, thou shalt not utter:
I know people of color.
I marched in the sixties.
You are judging me.
You don’t know me.
You are generalizing.
The real oppression is class.
I just said one little innocent thing.
Some people find offense where there is none.
You hurt my feelings.
I can’t say anything right.
This is an abridgment of a list DiAngelo offers in Chapter 9; its result is to silence people. Whites aren’t even allowed to say, “I don’t feel safe.” Only Black people can say that. If you are white, you are solely to listen as DiAngelo tars you as morally stained. “Now breathe,” she counsels to keep you relaxed as you undergo this. She does stress that she is not dealing with a good/bad dichotomy and that your inner racist does not make you a bad person. But with racism limned as such a gruesome spiritual pollution, harbored by individuals moreover entrapped in a society within which they exert racism merely by getting out of bed, the issue of gray zones seems beside the point. By the end, DiAngelo has white Americans muzzled, straitjacketed, tied down, and chloroformed for good measure—but for what?
Failure to present the value of her thesis in reducing racism. This is something we need always ask ourselves before signing on to any action, letter, or endorsement of issues around racism: Will these actions really do something to reduce inequality? Or are they just performative virtue signaling? I’m not sure what motivates DiAngelo, but according to McWhorter she’s failed at connecting white fragility to racial equality:
And herein is the real problem with White Fragility. DiAngelo does not see fit to address why all of this agonizing soul-searching is necessary to forging change in society. One might ask just how a people can be poised for making change when they have been taught that pretty much anything they say or think is racist and thus antithetical to the good. What end does all this self-mortification serve? Impatient with such questions, DiAngelo insists that “wanting to jump over the hard, personal work and get to ‘solutions’” is a “foundation of white fragility.” In other words, for DiAngelo, the whole point is the suffering. And note the scare quotes around solutions, as if wanting such a thing were somehow ridiculous.
The infantilization of African-Americans. DiAngelo’s argument that whites need to admit their complicity in racism, and walk on eggshells around the topic as well as around black people in general, is seen by McWhorter as an infantilization of blacks. This, McWhorter asserts at the end, creates its own racism of low expectations.
A corollary question is why Black people need to be treated the way DiAngelo assumes we do. The very assumption is deeply condescending to all proud Black people. 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. Nor should anyone dismiss me as a rara avis. Being middle class, upwardly mobile, and Black has been quite common during my existence since the mid-1960s, and to deny this is to assert that affirmative action for Black people did not work.
In 2020—as opposed to 1920—I neither need nor want anyone to muse on how whiteness privileges them over me. Nor do I need wider society to undergo teachings in how to be exquisitely sensitive about my feelings. I see no connection between DiAngelo’s brand of reeducation and vigorous, constructive activism in the real world on issues of import to the Black community. And I cannot imagine that any Black readers could willingly submit themselves to DiAngelo’s ideas while considering themselves adults of ordinary self-regard and strength. Few books about race have more openly infantilized Black people than this supposedly authoritative tome.
Or simply dehumanized us. DiAngelo preaches that Black History Month errs in that it “takes whites out of the equation”—which means that it doesn’t focus enough on racism. Claims like this get a rise out of a certain kind of room, but apparently DiAngelo wants Black History Month to consist of glum recitations of white perfidy. This would surely help assuage DiAngelo’s sense of complicity in our problems, but does she consider what a slog this gloomy, knit-browed Festivus of a holiday would be for actual Black people? Too much of White Fragility has the problem of elevating rhetorical texture over common sense.
White Fragility is, in the end, a book about how to make certain educated white readers feel better about themselves. DiAngelo’s outlook rests upon a depiction of Black people as endlessly delicate poster children within this self-gratifying fantasy about how white America needs to think—or, better, stop thinking. Her answer to white fragility, in other words, entails an elaborate and pitilessly dehumanizing condescension toward Black people. The sad truth is that anyone falling under the sway of this blinkered, self-satisfied, punitive stunt of a primer has been taught, by a well-intentioned but tragically misguided pastor, how to be racist in a whole new way.
Again, if you’ve read it, weigh in.
If you don’t want to read the book, here’s an 80-minute video of DiAngelo discussing the thesis of her book: