Following The death of George Floyd in police custody last May, millions of Americans asked the question: How can we best fight racism? Books which give a convincing answer were flown off the shelves. With the possible exception of Ibram X. Kendi, no writer has seen his profile grow more during this period than Robin DiAngelo, whose book “White Fragility” was already a New York Times bestseller; has been on this list for 110 weeks.
DiAngelo’s book does more than prove the known principles of Critical Race Theory (CRT) – racism is systemic and widespread; the norms to the Czech race are truly standards of white supremacist transvestite; the lived experience confers a particular knowledge to the victims of racism; etc. – also uses a simple and direct language for teach whites how to talk about running from a CRT perspective.
Leveraging his academic work and experience in shaping corporate diversity, DiAngelo launches into his theory of “white fragility” – a set of psychological defense mechanisms that whites use to avoid recognizing their own racism. These defense mechanisms include “silence, defense, argumentation, certainty, and other forms of pushback” in the face of accusations of racism.
At first glance, it may be difficult to understand why such a punitive message appeals to a white audience. But on closer inspection, the appeal of DiAngelo’s message stems from his masterful exploitation of white guilt. As Shelby Steele has observed, white guilt is less a guilt than a terror – terror at the thought that one can be racist. If one has never felt this terror, then it can be difficult to understand how intolerable it can be, and how welcome any relief is.
DiAngelo understands all of this and exploits it masterfully. Like most anti-racist literature, “White Fragility” takes a lot of time to tell whites that they are racist, but with a crucial touch – it’s not their fault.
“Education without racism is not possible,” she writes, “because racism is a social system integrated into culture and its institutions. We are born into this system and we will not say whether we will be affected by it.”
For DiAngelo, white supremacy is like the English language. If you were born in America, learn it without trying. Racism, in his view, turns from a shameful sin to be avoided into a sign of unblemished birth to be recognized and accepted.
The last writer and atheist Christopher Hitchens had a riff on what he called the “cruel experiment” of Original Christian Sin: “We are created sick,” he often said, “and commanded us to be well.”
In other words, doctrine attracts you by preemptively forgiving your shortcomings – yes, you are a miserable sinner, but it is not your fault – then it requires your compliance to an endless program of recovery over the pain of eternal hell.
If you understand how the doctrine of Original Sin could be seductive, then you should have no trouble understanding the appeal of “White Fragility”; it works the same way.
DiAngelo pleads guilty by telling whites that they are not guilty of their racism, then orders them to adopt their version of “anti-racism” – on pain of social ostracism and cancellation.
A key element of his program is for whites to eliminate a set of normal behaviors when speaking to blacks of race: “silence, defense, argumentation, retaliation, certainty, and other forms of encouragement.” Of course, a skilled communicator may want to avoid silence, defense, retaliation, and certainty. But how exactly do you “argue” and “other forms of pushback”? If you eliminate all these behaviors, there is only one option left: enthusiastic agreement. Try to obey these instructions in a real conversation, and you will find at least two things: first, you must completely close your mind and your personality to realize it; and secondly, developing any kind of emotional intimacy with your conversation partner is not only possible. This is not even a recipe for fostering healthy interracial relationships.
“White Fragility” has two unspoken assumptions about non-white people in general, and black people in particular. The first is that we are a homogeneous mass of established opinion with little, if any, diversity of thought – a kind of aligned beehive CRT mind. He could gather all the opinion polls in the world to reject this slander, but he would not move DiAngelo an inch. He needs non-whites to think as a unit, otherwise his thesis will fail. How could I tell whites to remain silent and listen to the consensus view of non-whites if that consensus does not exist?
The second assumption not stated in “White Fragility” – and this is where the book borders on current racism – is that black people are emotionally immature and essentially similar to children. Blacks, as portrayed in DiAngelo’s writing, can neither be expected to show maturity during disagreement nor to exercise emotional self-control of any kind. The hidden premise of the book is that blacks, not whites, are too fragile.
Some will say I’m reading DiAngelo too incarnately – but how else can you make sense of its guidelines for whites? During his training sessions in CRT, for example, DiAngelo asked abstaining whites to cry around blacks. Why? Because historically, white tears have often been accompanied by false accusations of rape that have led to lynchings. Thus, for black people, she explains, white tears “unleash the terrorism of this story.”
Holding back tears to spare the emotions of others is not something adults do around their peers; it’s what parents do around children.
Indeed, DiAngelo’s portrait of the ideal relationship between whites and blacks bears a disturbing resemblance to the relationship between an exasperated parent and a spoiled child: one who constantly exercises emotional self-control, the other triggered by the smallest things, and unnecessarily expressing every emotion as it comes. These are the roles she expects – even encourages – blacks and whites to play. What people might call this anti-racism with a straight face shows how far language has strayed from reality.
If “White Fragility” is the only book you’ve read about race this year, then you come up with a terribly one-sided education. You’ll learn, to take a representative example, that “there weren’t African Americans who resisted integration efforts; it was always white” – as if Zora Neale Hurston didn’t exist; as if the boycott of Hyde County and similar black anti-integration efforts were not happening all over the South. The book’s fundamental one-sidedness, however, shouldn’t surprise me, because “White Fragility” is zealously disguised as a scholarship.
You will read many controversial and uneducated claims in “White Fragility,” but you will not find any sustained evidence to improve the nation through public policies. You’ll read a lot about how whites are and shouldn’t be heard, but you’ll hardly find a phrase that brings to mind ideas on how to reform the police, for example. To be fair, improving lives for blacks living in intergenerational poverty is not the goal of “White Fragility”.
But we must ask ourselves, why, why this book is being held as the answer to America’s current racial troubles, despite the gradual offer of concrete solutions. We must worry, in other words, that our national conversation about race has become unmoored by the goal of true progress and instead attached to an endless search for spiritual fulfillment.
Coleman Hughes is a contributing editor of City Journal, from which this column has been adapted.