Four Anti-fragile Responses to White Fragility
In an era of extreme racial contentiousness, corporate consultant Robin DiAngelo has positioned herself as the go-to antiracist mediator. A former education professor, she has for the past twenty years conducted workplace seminars on diversity with an emphasis on race relations. Her 2018 book, White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, has been on the New York Times bestseller list for three years.1
A Program in Black & White
Her message to white America is direct and blunt: You are racist. You can't help being racist. And you can't escape from being racist. The best you can do is embark on a lifelong struggle against racism—first your own and, following that, the rest of white America's. Embedded in this missive are several conscripted definitions, which, to her credit, she's equally forthright about:
• Race—a socially constructed concept that is reducible to the binary categories of "white" and "person of color" (POC).2
• Racism—a system of unequal institutional power.3 All whites are invested in it and benefit from it.4 It is not an attitude, act, or event, but rather a structure. It predated us and embeds and forms us all.5
• White Supremacy—the assumed superiority of people defined and perceived as white. Practices based on this assumption, sometimes called "pillars of whiteness," produce an overarching, all-encompassing system of domination.6 Like racism, white supremacy is not an attitude, act, or event, but a structure into which we are born.
• Socialization—the psychosocial conditioning that makes us all what we are. Through socialization, our thoughts and perceptions are formed and internalized according to group identities. We have no choice about this process or its actions upon us, and it shapes every aspect of our identity.7
• White Fragility—any reaction on the part of a white person charged with racism other than full, enthusiastic agreement. No matter whether you object, remain silent, or withdraw from the situation in which you were confronted with your racism—these are all manifestations of your white fragility. White fragility is born of superiority and entitlement.8 It serves to maintain the racial status quo.
• White Solidarity—the unspoken agreement among whites to insulate their fellow whites from feeling discomfort about their racism. "To break white solidarity is to break rank."9 White solidarity, too, serves to maintain the racial status quo.
• Feedback—the mechanism by which whites can engage in the self-critical struggle against their own racism. The process involves whites asking for feedback about the impact of their behavior. White intent is immaterial. Only impact on POC matters. White resistance to feedback is a type of bullying. It is another tactic designed to protect white dominance.
DiAngelo's antiracist prescription, then, presumes universal white racism and centers on training whites to recognize and confess their racism so that they may begin the long, arduous process of repairing it. In this model, all the complexities of human social dynamics, from the micro to the macro level, quite literally distill to categories of "black" and "white."
A (Not So) Different Law & Order
On a superficial level, White Fragility reads like a mostly apolitical book in that DiAngelo doesn't discuss legislation or political parties. But at a more fundamental level, it's a thoroughgoing political polemic. We can deduce that from what she tells us about herself, starting with the Author's Note: "This book is unapologetically rooted in identity politics. . . . I am mainly writing to a white audience; when I use the terms us and we, I am referring to the white collective."
Her primary area of expertise, according to her website, is Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), which is a language-related academic exercise in identity politics. CDA is a derivative of Critical Theory, which emerged after World War I at the University of Frankfurt in Germany as a bundle of neo-Marxist propositions in social philosophy. CDA followed in post-World War II England as a branch of linguistics.
According to the online encyclopedia en-academic.com, CDA draws from Karl Marx, Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and others "in order to examine ideologies and power relations involved in discourse."10 Basically, that means it deals with ideas and how the ways in which we think and talk about them affect power dynamics. If you know only a modicum of intellectual history, you will recognize Marx as the father of Communism, and Gramsci, who followed Marx, as the father of Cultural Marxism (Marxism applied to liberal Western democracies).
Foucault was a French postmodernist who followed Gramsci. Whereas Marx saw power differentials as a problem to be addressed by the violent overthrow of power, Foucault saw language as the means by which the power apportionment had been achieved in the first place. To Foucault, language was not a vehicle for expressing truth, since, if postmodernism is true, there is no truth. Ignore for the moment the incoherence of his postulate; the point is, to Foucault, language was an instrument for wielding power; nothing more, nothing less.
And so, CDA operates on the premise that words are not about truth or meaning but are tools to be deployed. Language is power. It will either serve to reproduce or to resist domination.11 This is the pedigree of DiAngelo's academic discipline.
As these ideas made their way across the Atlantic, they branched out and gave birth to, among other things, Critical Race Theory (CRT), which applied them to race. CRT officially cropped up in 1970s-era law schools as a way of examining race and law in post-Jim Crow America.12 And indeed racism does seem to have played a role in certain policies extant at that time—in Chicago housing policy, for example—such that examining legal codes with an eye to discerning ill-devised legislation was not completely unwarranted.
In the hands of non-Marxist Americans, CRT might have been used to roll back a measure of black disadvantage, but the DiAngeloean enterprise is an entirely different endeavor. Her second area of expertise is "Whiteness Studies," which she describes as "tracing how whiteness is reproduced in everyday narratives."13 What her diversity education adds up to, then, is a program of scrutinizing everyday Americans' everyday lives with an eye to exposing the racism she is certain lies there. To her way of seeing it, the question regarding any given relationship, encounter, or interaction is not, Was racism present? but rather, How did racism manifest itself? If a white person was involved, racism is certain to have been involved, because whites are, by definition, racist.
Georgetown University sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson has called DiAngelo "the new racial sheriff in town. She is bringing a different law and order to bear upon the racial proceedings." But, as this ideological lineage shows, it is not a new law and order. It's a race-based façade on an old and manifestly injurious one. It is a direct descendent of divide-and-conquer Marxism, tailor-made to appeal to well-meaning white Americans eager to break with America's back history of race-based slavery.
Some Buying It, Some Not
If it weren't so pernicious, it would be weirdly comical that corporate America is paying DiAngelo top dollar to undermine capitalism on their dime. Matt Taibbi of TK News gave her a backhanded compliment for turning "Hitlerian race theory" into a cash-cow H.R. product before going on to draw out the cynical presumption behind her "pseudo-intellectual" baloney (not the word he used). "White Fragility is based upon the idea that human beings are incapable of judging each other by the content of their character, and if people of different races think they are getting along or even loving one another, they probably need immediate antiracism training."
Lest Taibbi's takedown be dismissed as a white guy's opinion, black professor John McWhorter of Columbia University summed up White Fragility as "Dehumanizing Condescension"—"a racist tract . . . that diminishes Black people in the name of dignifying us." To be fair, DiAngelo insults people of all skin tones; she only insults them differently. He continued, "By the end, DiAngelo has white Americans muzzled, straitjacketed, tied down, and chloroformed for good measure." Mostly he takes umbrage with her condescending attitude, as if blacks need her to mediate for them (DiAngelo is white). "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."14
McWhorter compared the DiAngelo program to an alternative religion, referring to her teachings as "dogma" and "catechism." And while he's willing to grant the sincerity of her intentions, "DiAngelo is less a coach than a proselytizer. . . . White Fragility is the prayer book for what can only be described as a cult." And it is a suffocating message. "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."
"Have the people hyping this impressively crazy book actually read it?" Taibbi asked.15 It's a good question. Ponder the irony of an "antiracist" program that assigns permanent "racist" status to people solely on the basis of their skin color.
Reframe, Reset, Restore
In 2014, Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the term "antifragile" to describe things that are not just resilient but that actually gain strength from uncertainty and challenge. That which is antifragile welcomes stressors and uses them to advantage. White Fragility-esque antiracism frames America as a collectivist system in which racism is omnipresent. But because the White Fragility framework is a self-referential, closed system, with foregone conclusions prebuilt into its premises, it is itself immanently fragile.
Cynics may fixate on the past as justification for American self-loathing, but is it possible that DiAngelo's success represents backdoor evidence of some American virtue (albeit misdirected), signaling a large-scale break with the racism of the past? Following are four antifragile approaches for reframing the conversation she's started so that better discussions can take place and that which is good in America may gain strength.
(1) Deconstruct the logic. Critical Discourse Analysis is predicated on the Foucauldian premise that words aren't about truth but are merely an attempt to dominate. If this is true, then neither the Foucauldian premise nor the DiAngeloean package need be taken as even potential truth. They should be taken as attempts to dominate—and then called out as such and rejected out of the gate.
(2) Reject the premises.Setting aside the rejection of objective truth, the White Fragility model is predicated on the utterly dehumanizing premise that people have no choice or agency in what they believe because all knowledge and beliefs are "socialized." DiAngelo says this is true of her. Fine. Let us take her at her word. But her assertion that it is universally true for all does not make it so. We can resist this rhetorical theft of our own minds and redeclare the universal human right to have our own thoughts.
(3) Recover the King dream: Moving beyond the pedantic, we can reject social nihilism in favor of Dr. Martin Luther King's more noble vision of racial harmony. King appealed to the good in people. He challenged Americans to live up to their plainly stated founding ideal that all men are created equal. Of course, he knew that certain Founders had not lived up to it, but he was astute enough to know that this was a problem with those particular men, not with America as a whole. Collectivists may not go in for such nuance or discernment, but we can.
(4) Finally (and best), the Christian can meet bad religion with good. Compare the antiracist package with the gospel delivered to us from Jesus Christ. (Pay special attention to every "all" that follows.) The gospel begins from the premise that we are all creatures uniquely fashioned, known, and loved by a very good God, but it also tells us that we have all sinned and fallen short of his glory. Moving on, it tells us our Creator didn't abandon us to that state, destined to die as sinners. He took upon himself the repair effort we could not tackle. As a result, we can be made new—all of us, as many as accept the offer.
Following that, Christians are specifically directed to dispense with all socially constructed people-group categorizations. For us, there is neither black nor white, in nor out, high nor low, for we are all one in Christ. In him, there is full equality, with unity in the diversity. To use the Marxian vernacular, in the Christ collective, there is full diversity, equity, and inclusion. Why would anyone settle for less when this alternative is still on offer?
1. As of 8/29/21: nytimes.com/books/best-sellers/2021/08/29/paperback-nonfiction.
2. White Fragility, pp. ix, 5, 28.
3. White Fragility, p. 125.
4. White Fragility, p. 1.
5. White Fragility, pp. 4, 83, 129.
6. White Fragility, p. 28.
7. White Fragility, p. 69.
8. White Fragility, p. 2; see also p. 81.
9. White Fragility, pp. 57-58.
is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.Get Salvo in your inbox! This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #59, Winter 2021 Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/article/salvo59/antiracism-reset