I reproduce below some excerpts from a big NYT article about "White Fragility" -- a summary of Robin DiAngelo's message and her book of that name
The underlying fact behind her work is that in all sorts of ways whites do better than blacks. Her reaction to that is rage and her explanation for it is that whites are racist in relation to blacks. She appears to think that she can talk people out of that racism but admits that she herself is racist. Her definition of racism is very wide however. What would normally be regarded as human virtues are for her part of white racism.
Basically, her message is an incoherent rave against white society with the only message being that we all have to change our thinking into some sort of alternative consciousness. How, when, where and why we do that is unclear, however. It makes sense as a cry of rage only. There is nothing rational or constructive about it. Anger is attention-getting, however, so a lot of people listen to her in the hope of learning something. What they learn from it however is probably nothing more than a weak sharing of her diffuse rage and a determination to be nicer to blacks.
Some of the paragraphs I reproduce below make the obvious criticism that her focus on race can be counter-productive: With blacks learning that all their failures are due to others and whites learning that they have to make extra efforts with blacks, which is undoubtedly contrary to ideals of equality.
At no point does the lady address obvious problems with her account. Why, for instance, do Africans do much better in White America than in Black Africa?
And the fact that various minorities such as Chinese and Japanese Americans do well would seem, on her account, to mean that whites become non-racist in dealings with those groups. More realistically, there is racism against such groups but it is minor and they overcome it without assistance from white do-gooders. Why cannot blacks do the same? So it would seem that at least part of the disadvantage that blacks experience must lie with blacks themselves. Querying that is surely the only likely way forward.
Robin DiAngelo and her book “White Fragility” have become a national phenomenon. But do the approaches taken by her and other antiracism trainers really serve the cause of racial equality?
Last July, in San Francisco, I attended three of DiAngelo’s sessions. ‘‘I wasn’t raised to see my race as saying anything relevant about me,’’ she declared to a largely white crowd in the Mission district’s 360-seat Brava Theater. Her audience had paid between $65 and $160 per ticket to hear her speak for three and a half hours. The place was sold out.
‘‘I will not coddle your comfort,’’ she went on. She gestured crisply with her hands. ‘‘I’m going to name and admit to things white people rarely name and admit.’’ Scattered Black listeners called out encouragement.
Then she specified the predominant demographic in the packed house: white progressives. ‘‘I know you. Oh, white progressives are my specialty.
Because I am a white progressive.’’ She paced tightly on the stage. ‘‘And I have a racist worldview.’’ Soon she projected facts and photographs onto the screen behind her.
No lone image offered anything surprising, yet the series caused a cumulative jolt: the percentage of state governors who are white, of the 10 richest people in the country who are white, of the ‘‘people who directed the 100 top-grossing films of all time, worldwide’’ - all the percentages over 90 - and so on. The onslaught of statistics was followed by a seemingly innocent picture of an all-white wedding celebration (about which DiAngelo asked her white listeners whether their own weddings were or would be just as pale), a photo of an all-white funeral (‘‘from cradle to grave,’’ she said, white people, no matter how liberal, tend to exist in overwhelmingly white spaces ‘‘without anyone conveying that we’ve lost anything - with a deeply internalized absence of any sense of loss’’), a screenshot of a Jeopardy board - during the semifinals of the 2014 collegiate championship - where the only category left entirely unselected by the contestants was African- American history (‘‘we don’t know our history,’’ we ‘‘separate it out and see it as their history’’), all of this culminating in a photograph showing a female silhouette standing without an umbrella in a torrential downpour. Messages of pre-eminent white value and Black insignificance, DiAngelo pronounced, ‘‘are raining down on us 24/7, and there are no umbrellas.’’ She declaimed: ‘‘My psychosocial development was inculcated in this water,’’ and ‘‘internalized white superiority is seeping out of my pores.’’ And: ‘‘White supremacy - yes, it includes extremists or neo-Nazis, but it is also a highly descriptive sociological term for the society we live in, a society in which white people are elevated as the ideal for humanity, and everyone else is a deficient version.’’ And Black people, she said, are cast as the most deficient. ‘‘There is something profoundly anti-Black in this culture.’’
At some point after our answers, DiAngelo poked fun at the myriad ways that white people ‘‘credential’’ themselves as not-racist. I winced. I hadn’t meant to imply that I was anywhere close to free of racism, yet was I ‘‘credentialing’’? And today, after a quick disclaimer acknowledging the problem with what I was about to do, I heard myself off ering up, again, these same nonracist bona fides and neglecting to speak about the eff ects of having been soaked, all my life, by racist rain. I was, DiAngelo would have said, slipping into the pattern she first termed ‘‘white fragility’’ in an academic article in 2011: the propensity of white people to fend off suggestions of racism, whether by absurd denials (‘‘I don’t see color’’) or by overly emotional displays of defensiveness or solidarity (DiAngelo’s book has a chapter titled ‘‘White Women’s Tears’’ and subtitled ‘‘But you are my sister, and I share your pain!’’) or by varieties of the personal history I’d provided.
White fragility, in DiAngelo’s formulation, is far from weakness.
It is ‘‘weaponized.’’ Its evasions are actually a liberal white arsenal, a means of protecting a frail moral ego, defending a righteous self-image and, ultimately, perpetuating racial hierarchies, because what goes unexamined will never be upended. White fragility is a way for well-meaning white people to guard what race has granted them, all they haven’t earned.
‘‘I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious,’’ one of the discipline’s influential thinkers, Peggy McIntosh, a researcher at the Wellesley Centers for Women, has written. ‘‘White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear and blank checks.’’ Borrowing from feminist scholarship and critical race theory, whiteness studies challenges the very nature of knowledge, asking whether what we define as scientific research and scholarly rigor, and what we venerate as objectivity, can be ways of excluding alternate perspectives and preserving white dominance. DiAngelo likes to ask, paraphrasing the philosopher Lorraine Code: ‘‘From whose subjectivity does the ideal of objectivity come?’’ DiAngelo’s ‘‘White Fragility’’ article was, in a sense, an epistemological exercise. It examined white not-knowing. When it was published in 2011 in The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, it reached the publication’s niche audience. But three years later it was quoted in Seattle’s alternative newspaper The Stranger, during a fierce debate - with white defensiveness on full view - about the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society’s casting of white actors as Asians in a production of ‘‘The Mikado.’’ ‘‘That changed my life,’’ she said. The phrase ‘‘white fragility’’ went viral, and requests to speak started to soar; she expanded the article into a book and during the year preceding Covid-19 gave eight to 10 presentations a month, sometimes pro bono but mostly at up to $15,000 per event.
White culture, for her, is all about habits of oppressive thought that are taken for granted and rarely perceived, let alone questioned. One ‘‘unnamed logic of Whiteness,’’ she wrote with her frequent co-author, the education professor Ozlem Sensoy, in a 2017 paper published in The Harvard Educational Review, ‘‘is the presumed neutrality of White European Enlightenment epistemology.’’ The paper is an attempt to persuade universities that if they want to diversify their faculties, they should put less weight on conventional hiring criteria. The modern university, it says, ‘‘with its ‘experts’ and its privileging of particular forms of knowledge over others (e.g., written over oral, history over memory, rationalism over wisdom)’’ has ‘‘validated and elevated positivistic, White Eurocentric knowledge over non-White, Indigenous and non-European knowledges.’’ Such academic prose isn’t the language of DiAngelo’s workshops or book, but the idea of a society rigged at its intellectual core underpins her lessons.
One critique leveled at antiracism training is that it just may not work. Frank Dobbin, a Harvard sociology professor, has published research on attempts, over three decades, to combat bias in over 800 U.S. companies, including a 2016 study with Alexandra Kalev in The Harvard Business Review. (As far back as the early ‘60s, he recounts in his book ‘‘Inventing Equal Opportunity,’’ Western Electric, responding to a Kennedy-administration initiative to enhance equity, presented lectures by Kenneth Clark and James Baldwin to company managers.) Dobbin’s research shows that the numbers of women or people of color in management do not increase with most anti-bias education. ‘‘There just isn’t much evidence that you can do anything to change either explicit or implicit bias in a half-day session,’’ Dobbin warns. ‘‘Stereotypes are too ingrained.’’ When we first talked, and I described DiAngelo’s approach, he said, ‘‘I certainly agree with what she’s saying’’ about our white-supremacist society.
But he noted that new research that he’s revising for publication suggests that anti-bias training can backfire, with adverse eff ects especially on Black people, perhaps, he speculated, because training, whether consciously or subconsciously, ‘‘activates stereotypes.’’ When we spoke again in June, he emphasized an additional finding from his data: the likelihood of backlash ‘‘if people feel that they’re being forced to go to diversity training to conform with social norms or laws.’’ Donald Green, a professor of political science at Columbia, and Betsy Levy Paluck, a professor of psychology and public aff airs at Princeton, have analyzed almost 1,000 studies of programs to lessen prejudice, from racism to homophobia, in situations from workplaces to laboratory settings. ‘‘We currently do not know whether a wide range of programs and policies tend to work on average,’’ they concluded in a 2009 paper published in The Annual Review of Psychology, which incorporated measures of attitudes and behaviors. They’ve just refined their analysis, with the help of two Princeton researchers, Chelsey Clark and Roni Porat. ‘‘As the study quality goes up,’’ Paluck told me, ‘‘the eff ect size dwindles.’’ Still, none of the research, with its dim evaluation of efficacy, has yet focused on the particular bold, antisupremacist consciousness raising that has taken hold over the past few years - and that may well become even more bold now. ‘‘I’m not afraid of the word ‘confrontational,’ ‘‘ Singleton said, and he predicted, in one of his more optimistic moments during our post-Floyd talks, that the society will be all the more ready for this because ‘‘the racism we’re seeing is so graphically violent,’’ leaving white people less willing or able to ‘‘operate in delusion.’’ Another critique has been aimed at DiAngelo, as her book sales have skyrocketed. From both sides of the political divide, she has been accused of peddling racial reductionism by branding all white people as supremacist. The Fox News host Tucker Carlson has called her ideas more racist than Louis Farrakhan’s, and the journalist Matt Taibbi has railed that her arguments amount to a kind of ‘‘Hitlerian race theory.’’ This isn’t Singleton’s concern. He thinks back to a long line of Black writers on race, and what he sees in the DiAngelo phenomenon is that ‘‘it takes a white person to say these things for white people to listen. In some ways, that is the very indication of the problem in this country.’’ He wrestled painfully with this at the outset of his career. At a training he conducted for educators in San Diego in the mid-’90s, there was ‘‘a collision,’’ he recalled, between him and the white people in the room.
‘‘I lost it, and they lost it,’’ he said; the session came to an early end, because of their ‘‘resistance to Black intelligence’’ and because ‘‘they were struggling with me as a Black person. As people of color who are facilitating learning about race for white people, we need to be very talented in terms of our facilitation skills.’’ One way he has grounded himself and gained poise is by positioning himself, in his mind, as the descendant of ancestral Africans who were ‘‘the first teachers.’’ Yet there may be something worth heeding in those who have resisted today’s antiracism training.
I talked with DiAngelo, Singleton, Amante-Jackson and Kendi about the possible problem. If the aim is to dismantle white supremacy, to redistribute power and influence, I asked them in various forms, do the messages of today’s antiracism training risk undermining the goal by depicting an overwhelmingly rigged society in which white people control nearly all the outcomes, by inculcating the idea that the traditional skills needed to succeed in school and in the upper levels of the workplace are somehow inherently white, by spreading the notion that teachers shouldn’t expect traditional skills as much from their Black students, by unwittingly teaching white people that Black people require allowances, warrant extraordinary empathy and can’t really shape their own destinies? With DiAngelo, my worries led us to discuss her Harvard Educational Review paper, which cited ‘‘rationalism’’ as a white criterion for hiring, a white qualification that should be reconsidered.
Shouldn’t we be hiring faculty, I asked her, who fully possess, prize and can impart strong reasoning skills to students, because students will need these abilities as a requirement for high-paying, high-status jobs? In answering, she returned to the theme of unconscious white privilege, comparing it to the way right-handed people are unaware of how frequently the world favors right-handedness.
I pulled us away from the metaphorical, giving the example of corporate law as a lucrative profession in which being hired depends on acute reasoning. She replied that if a criterion ‘‘consistently and measurably leads to certain people’’ being excluded, then we have to ‘‘challenge’’ the criterion. ‘‘It’s the outcome,’’ she emphasized; the result indicated the racism.
Then she said abruptly, ‘‘Capitalism is so bound up with racism. I avoid critiquing capitalism - I don’t need to give people reasons to dismiss me.
But capitalism is dependent on inequality, on an underclass. If the model is profit over everything else, you’re not going to look at your policies to see what is most racially equitable.’’ While I was asking about whether her thinking is conducive to helping Black people displace white people on high rungs and achieve something much closer to equality in our badly flawed world, it seemed that she, even as she gave workshops on the brutal hierarchies of here and now, was entertaining an alternate and even revolutionary reality. She talked about top law firms hiring for ‘‘resiliency and compassion.’’ Singleton spoke along similar lines. I asked whether guiding administrators and teachers to put less value, in the classroom, on capacities like written communication and linear thinking might result in leaving Black kids less ready for college and competition in the labor market. ‘‘If you hold that white people are always going to be in charge of everything,’’ he said, ‘‘then that makes sense.’’ He invoked, instead, a journey toward ‘‘a new world, a world, first and foremost, where we have elevated the consciousness, where we pay attention to the human being.’’ The new world, he continued, would be a place where we aren’t ‘‘armed to distrust, to be isolated, to hate,’’ a place where we ‘‘actually love.’’ Amante-Jackson, too, sounded all but utopian as she envisioned a movement away ‘‘from capitalist, Western’’ ideals and described a future education system that would be transformed: built around students’ ‘‘telling their stories and listening to the stories of others’’ and creating ‘‘in us the feeling that we belong to each other as people.’’ Before I phoned Kendi, I reread ‘‘How to Be an Antiracist.’’ ‘‘Capitalism is essentially racist; racism is essentially capitalist,’’ he writes. ‘‘They were birthed together from the same unnatural causes, and they shall one day die together from unnatural causes.’’ I asked him whether, given the world as it is, many of the lessons of today’s antiracism training might inadvertently hamper the struggle for racial equality. ‘‘I think Americans need to decide whether this is a multicultural nation or not,’’ he said. ‘‘If Americans decide that it is, what that means is we’re going to have multiple cultural standards and multiple perspectives. It creates a scenario in which we would have to have multiple understandings of what achievement is and what qualifications are. That is part of the problem. We haven’t decided, as a country, even among progressives and liberals, whether we desire a multicultural nation or a unicultural nation.’’ Ron Ferguson, a Black economist, faculty member at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and director of Harvard’s Achievement Gap Initiative, is a political liberal who gets impatient with such thinking about conventional standards and qualifications. ‘‘The cost,’’ he told me in January, ‘‘is underemphasizing excellence and performance and the need to develop competitive prowess.’’ With a soft, rueful laugh, he said I wouldn’t find many economists sincerely taking part in the kind of workshops I was writing about.
‘‘When the same group of people keeps winning over and over again,’’ he added, summarizing the logic of the trainers, ‘‘it’s like the game must be rigged.’’ He didn’t reject a degree of rigging, but said, ‘‘I tend to go more quickly to the question of how can we get prepared better to just play the game.’’ When we talked again in June, the interracial protests had infused Ferguson with some optimism.
‘‘I have this mental image of plants that have been growing in the shade,’’ he said of the impediments Black people too often have to take for granted in our society, ‘‘and all of a sudden the shade starts to be removed, and these plants start to thrive in ways they never imagined they could.
I think there’s a possibility of a blossoming if the society starts to see us as fully human, removing the cloud of white-supremacist assumptions.’’ But, he suggested, ‘‘in this moment we’re at risk of giving short shrift to dealing with qualifications.
You can try to be competitive by equipping yourself to run the race that’s already scheduled, or you can try to change the race. There may be some things about the race I’d like to change, but my priority is to get people prepared to run the race that’s already scheduled.’’