John McWhorter reviews White Fragility

July 19, 2020 • 11:15 am

Knowing a bit about Robin DiAngelo‘s book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racismhaving 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.

I disagree.

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:

59 thoughts on “John McWhorter reviews White Fragility

  1. Good thoughts by McWhorter as usual. How do you falsify a claim that denial of white fragility and admission of white fragility are both evidence of white fragility?

    1. That’s the whole point. DiAngelo’s thesis is dogma and hence unfalsifiable. It’s like asking, “So when will you stop beating your wife?” The more you protest that you don’t beat your wife, the more it shows that you do, in fact, beat your wife!

  2. To be honest with you I’m getting very annoyed at the media thinking only White people need to be schooled. A conversation with numerous Asian friends this morning over Black people using the word, pardon my language”, “chinky eyed” was interesting as some said they don’t mind the term and others said it’s extremely racist and ignorant to say. Yet you’ll never hear the media mention this. According to the media, only White people can be ignorant. People of colour, according to the media, all have a viable excuse.

    1. I am sorry to say that the most racist statements I ever heard in person about African Americans were uttered by an Asian American. I was too shocked to even rebuke the person and didn’t know where to begin.

      That is not to deny that white racism is a bigger problem, since there are far more white Americans and thus far more chances of racism. But I don’t think DiAngelo’s teachings will do more than exacerbate the problems we face. They only increase interracial neuroticism.

      1. I recently had a Twitter, er, discussion with a woke about whether black people could be racists. I told the woke that I have heard blacks using words like “chink” to refer to Asians and I regard that as racist. She (the woke) refused to admit that 1. blacks could be racist and 2. that anti-Asian racism was A Real Thing, all the while excoriating me for being an anti-black racist.

    2. I’m married to a Chinese lady (born and raised in Beijing) and I have to say that she’s oft casually racist about Black pp. Nothing mean, but it’d trigger woke folk.
      Many in the mainland the same.
      (I confess my privilege as a cis white male. Old, to boot)

    1. Seconded. His recent post on Cancel Culture is a treat, too. Taibbi and Halper have a podcast/YT called “Useful Idiots” on the Rolling Stone channel, which I recommend. They made a few segments on this and related subjects in their recent podcasts.

  3. The first time I came across her was when I followed the Evergreen saga.
    She gave a lecture there in 2016 (it is online) and the Maoist revolt that ousted Bret Weinstein followed in 2017.

  4. I don’t want to read it. I’ve listened to several black scholars discuss it, and most come to the same conclusions. This book assumes that black Americans have only succeeded with the permission of white Americans, and that this system continues even though we don’t realize it. That is the most insulting, demeaning and, yes, racist assertion I’ve heard. The author is the one obsessed with race and her own identity. This country is full of successful and brilliant people who happen to be black. Does racism exist? Of course. But people are stronger than their most idiotic critics. That I should walk around, noticing every fellow human who is black and feeling sorry for them as if I am unwittingly oppressing them by existing is ridiculous. That message is more dangerous than all the actual racists in the country, who are recognizably ridiculous. This is ridiculousness cloaked in piety.

  5. If McWhorter’s claim is true, then White Fragility shares a key aspect with religion – unfalsifiability. It would truly be a “cult”.

  6. I have not read her book but have listened to her video. I would just say that he pretty much took her to the woodshed and expect it made no impact on her. That is too bad.

    1. She can’t change because it’s the entire basis of her being. If she modified her views, the scam would be over. She’s one of the most self-hating individuals I’ve ever seen. As a previous commenter noted, I also became familiar with her from the Evergreen mess.

      1. Absolutely. DeAngelo simply hates herself because she was born white and Italian-American by accident.

  7. Really interesting article by McWhorter. There’s something kind of hilariously representative about upper middle class white people convincing themselves that they are fixing racism by going to pricey seminars wherein a wealthy white woman with Marianne Williamson vibes tells everyone how to properly interact with black people, complete with handouts and PowerPoints, and from what I can tell, not an actual person of color in sight. Why was this not a WTF moment right out of the gate? Do actual black people get a say in all this?

    I have to admit, I think that as a moderate, I must be out of touch with something powerful that many people in this country are going through. It was as if all of the sudden, people eagerly embraced becoming parody versions of the most negative aspects of the far Right and Left. The Right was like “I will show you how libertarian I am by coughing in your face during a pandemic! So there! It is my right to put your granny on a ventilator!” and the Left was like “You think you’ve seen out of touch? You think you’ve seen out of touch? Hold my beer!! We’re going Monty Python levels here!”.

    The thing is, I get that there are some things you just don’t understand until you’ve been there. And clearly, a lot of people in this country have ‘been there’, in ways that make extreme or just bizarre stances look suddenly reasonable and preferable. So here, I’ll admit, again, that I’m the one who’s out of touch. Something is clearly going on in people’s lives across the country. (Of course things are going on in my life as well, with the pandemic and so on, but this hasn’t made these political stances make sense to me, so something more than that, I mean.)

  8. Here is a book that claims to know things about the personality and motivation of people based solely on the colour of their skin. How did we get here? How did we get from MLK’s “not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character” to a world where each of us must be bombarded daily with notations to the colour of our skin and to the colour of the skin of others.

    Imagine thinking that the solution to racism is for certain races to become more proud of their skin colour whilst others become entirely ashamed by theirs.

    I wish I believed in God so he could help us right now.

  9. I haven’t read White Fragility either, but the more I read about it, the more convinced I become that it resembles this decade’s 50 Shades of Grey, in the sense that it allows (mostly) white women to explore themes of submission, humiliation and masochism

    1. You beat me to it, so to speak.

      Both books do seem to focus on getting enjoyment from submission and pain, though this new one is more about public self-flagellation. At least 50 Shades had a “happy ending”…or I assume, I’ve never read either.

  10. “’White fragility’ is her own term for the defensiveness that white people show when confronted with their racism.”

    Having heard some of her lectures and read some of her work, I’d reword this to say, “‘White fragility’ is her own term for the defensiveness that white people show when confronted with the idea that they are automatically and irredeemably racist oppressors simply because they have white skin.”

    Does anyone else find it deeply troubling that Robin DiAngelo, who is white, is likely a multimillionaire who makes thousands of dollars off of lectures about the oppression of others at the hands of people like herself? Isn’t she, as someone like her would put it, “making tons of money off of the oppression and suffering of black and brown bodies”?

      1. Whenever I do something that I feel is especially clever (which is to say not very often), I like to say to nobody in particular, “The University of Washington does not give out PhDs for nothing.” But that profile of DiAngelo makes me wonder.

  11. Truly there is nothing new under the Sun. Me DiAngelo’s perverse logic had its antecedent in that of Matthew Hopkins several centuries ago.

  12. I wonder what DiAngelo thinks of interracial marriage, does it absolve the white spouse from implicit racism and complicity in racism? Can a white person love a black person? Can a white person love her/his black children?

      1. Interesting, Mr. Robin is a certifiable narcissist, as is his wife (the “smarty-pants professor” of Whiteness Studies), to judge by
        her message. And she has managed to ride a certain vein of white narcissism into a very lucrative business. Narcissism virtually defines the witchfinders endlessly hunting for traces of microaggression, hidden bias, or cultural appropriation—so concerned are they with their delicate sensibilities.

        We have arrived at an era of narcissism, from the US chief executive to a multitude who claim to be his most zealous opponents.
        Would be interesting to look into the origins of this outbreak. Maybe it’s a virus.

  13. That list of things white people can’t say from Chapter 9 of DiAngelo’s book is something else – WTF?!

    1. Oops- accidentally posted before I meant to. So is DiAngelo claiming to have achieved more than the white people who marched in the ’60s to win civil rights? Does she believe that President Obama should only have awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to James Chaney, because Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner couldn’t possibly count?

        1. “Well, Obama is bi-racial so half of him should just shut up and not talk to the other half I suppose.”

          Unless perhaps first spoken to/given permission.

    2. Well, I can think of at least one more thing that some of us might want to say, which is ‘F**k off out of it’. This woman is a pernicious charlatan, and needs to be called out by everyone who can afford to do so.

  14. If you want to read this as an anti intellectual comment, be my guest, but what is the point of reading DiAngelo’s book or engaging with her intellectually? From the excerpts I have read, her work is basically a racial psychology book aimed at “diagnosing” white people, and if you disagree with her, according to her system you’re proving her point. She doesn’t assume good faith or even the capability if reasoned thought from anyone who disagrees with her, especially if that person is white, so why bother? Sigmund Freud did a similar thing to anyone who disagreed with or objected to any of his theories of psychoanalysis, he’d accuse them of exhibiting any of the variety of defense mechanisms he’d created or of being stuck at a particular developmental stage (a major reason why he had so many schisms within his movement). Best to treat this kind of stuff the way we treat young earth creationists.

      1. Additionally, the murder of George Floyd sent DiAngelo’s book onto the bestseller charts (it might still be the #1 bestseller in its category on Amazon). So this is a very popular book that could do a lot of damage if it doesn’t receive a widespread debunking.

        1. I don’t even think the Floyd case is what’s driving sales of this book, but likely the racially charged event that preceded it by a week or two: the black birdwatching Cooper and the white dog walking Cooper in Central Park. A lot of women over the past several decades, especially white ones, have been encouraged to stand their ground, take no $h!t when confronted, and call the cops if things escalate involving a man and they feel unsafe (no matter if they started it). It was likely dizzying the hate this woman got if you are a liberal-leaning woman living in or near a city, given what’s happened especially in the past 6 or 7 years concerning women’s issues. I can see why they’d turn to what is essentially a book that will help them “think right” in order to make sense of this.

        1. Yes, I imagine she’s made a lot of money with her book and her advising companies and universities on their diversity plans. This kind of work is often lampooned by the Dilbert comic strip as a way for a crafty “consultant” to separate a company from its cash.

  15. [i]I know people of color.[/i] I don’t know very many people of colour.

    [i]I marched in the sixties.[/i] I did not march in the sixties

    [i]You are judging me.[/i] I don’t care if you are judging me.

    [i]You don’t know me.[/i] You know me too well.

    [i]You are generalizing.[/i] You are being very specific.

    [i]I disagree.[/i] I don’t really understand where you are coming from.

    [i]The real oppression is class.[/i] Class is not the real oppression.

    [i]I just said one little innocent thing.[/i] Guilty as charged.

    [i]Some people find offense where there is none.[/i] Everything is offensive

    [i]You hurt my feelings.[/i] I have no feelings.

    [i]I can’t say anything right.[/i] Everything I say is wrong.

  16. I read it this weekend. I tried not to find objections as I read, but I ended up screaming at the book (and filling up 15 pages of rebuttal because I got tired of typing), which is what happened when I read Feminism Unmodified by Catherine MacKinnon and that awful repressed memories bible, The Courage to Heal.
    Really, this book is just warmed-over repressed memory syndrome, with racism substituted for molestation, and with the reader as the perpetrator rather than the victim. This isn’t terribly clever, so it’s depressing that no one has connected the dots. DiAngelo has allegedly made millions off this trash. It manages to insult both white people and people of color, and its central flaw is its lack of falsifiability – the book is one long circular argument. That DiAngelo asserts historical inaccuracies or seems to just make things up doesn’t help her case. She would make a great creationist.

  17. White Fragility: “YOU’RE RACIST!”
    Me: I don’t think I’m racist.

  18. If “mansplaining” is A Bad Thing, surely “whitesplaining” is just as bad. The whole “everything is racist, no progress has been made since slavery and no progress is possible” drumbeat from the Cult of the Woke prevents actual useful activism which might bring in a Universal Basic Income which would help the downtrodden of all races to live with dignity, hope, and opportunity. Class privilege always trumps white privilege and while it falls most heavily on minority races, it undermines the quality of life of every single human on the face of the earth one way or another. The billionaires will die just like the rest of us if it comes to a nuclear weapons exchange or if the climate catastrophe gets to the point where no part of the Earth is compatible with multi-cellular life. Systemic racism is not some kind of moral failing by all whites, it is a tool used by the 0.001% to keep the downtrodden in constant conflict with each other based on the artificially constructed and maintained racial divides. By addicting about 40% of the white population to fake outrage spoon fed them from the likes of Fox News, the kleptocrats hope that enough of the white population will never wake up to how badly the current system is screwing them but instead will direct their discontent against the races who are even worse off.

  19. I was all set to read this, as I have some in-laws that I respect who have raved about it.

    But I also greatly respect McWhorter, and it apparently this book is not only wrong in its arguments, but very poorly written.

    I have enough toilet paper already…I’ll skip this screed.

  20. PCCE: “I may read the book some time…”

    Please don’t, PCCE. You are a good person and do not deserve to inflict this book upon yourself.

    I have read a few pages of it (while browsing at a bookstore; I did not buy it). I alternated between being aghast and laughing at its utter ridiculousness.

    I am in complete agreement with McWhorter’s review. It’s really a shame that DiAngelo most likely won’t pay any attention to him, because by criticizing her book he has shown himself to have internalized whiteness or to be white-adjacent or something. How dare he insist that Black people have agency and aren’t just helpless victims of ever-present systemically racist white people! Sigh.

    1. DiAngelo most likely won’t pay any attention to him . . .

      She would break down in tears like Tammy Faye Bakker and plead forgiveness for inflicting her unconscious racism on McWhorter. It would be very moving, I’m sure!

  21. Writing in the New Yorker, Kelefa Sanneh had this to say about this about Robin DiAngelo:

    DiAngelo is endlessly deferential—for her, racism is basically whatever any person of color thinks it is. In the story she tells about the world, she and her fellow white people have all the power, and therefore all the responsibility to do the gruelling but transformative spiritual work she calls for. The story makes white people seem like flawed, complicated characters; by comparison, people of color seem good, wise, and perhaps rather simple. This narrative may be appealing to its target audience, but it doesn’t seem to offer much to anyone else. At least, that’s my interpretation, and perhaps DiAngelo will be grateful to hear it. After all, I am what she would call a person of color, and whatever I write surely counts as “feedback.”


    1. I love it when POC review DiAngelo’s work. It is a lot harder for the believers to dismiss such criticism as this, though I suspect they will find a way.

      1. It raises the awkward question of who is allowed to speak for the Black community? DiAngelo or some other woke person could dismiss McWhorter and Sanneh as suffering from “internalized racism,” but they could easily retort that DiAngelo was invalidating their lived experience—a phrase that DiAngelo herself employs. Or, if they really wanted to haul out the heavy guns, they could accuse her of invoking the “Uncle Tom” stereotype. Accusations of racism are very tricky, and they can often backfire on the accuser if they lose control of the narrative.

        1. I hope they avoid these wokish terms, “internalized racism” and “invalidating their lived experience”. Part of the problem with the Woke is that they’ve realized the power of defining the vocabulary used to discuss racism. These phrases aren’t wrong but if they can get others to use them, they are halfway to winning the argument with their flock.

          1. Very true. The party that defines the terms often wins the argument (or appears to). Definitely something for the rest of us to think about.

  22. I love how McWhorter describes this as “self-mortification,” as it is a perfect description. I have numerous lefty friends and acquaintances on Twitter and I see evidence of this all the time. People beating themselves up for being white, for not doing enough of the “work,” or criticizing other whites for being bad “allies” because they are asking POC about their experiences.

    I think this is the same mechanism by which we get disordered eating. Take a sensible idea like “eat fewer carbs” for example, and some subset of the population will take that to an unhealthily obsessed extreme. As McWhorter says, DiAngeleo is “well-intentioned” but she takes a sensible idea — white people should seek to recognize their biases and the way they’ve benefited from the biases of whites before them — and takes it to an unhealthy extreme.

    And for what? The self-loathing appears to be the end itself.

  23. I guess I was too late for this train, gotta wait for the next one. Oh well, I’ll try to be on time next time.

    At any rate, M.E.Dyson’s Foreword to White Fragility is so gushingly unfalsifialbile and generic, a la Stokely Carmichael or Larry Neal or even Harold Cruse, that one has only one’s self to blame for choosing to read one page further than it.

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