This is the second book I am reviewing that was recommended by a brother in Christ to better understand his view of race rations. The first was Dr. Ibram Kendi’s “How to be an Antiracist”. (You can read my review here.)
Dr. DiAngelo is a white woman in her 60’s who has devoted her scholarly career to studying “whiteness”. She writes and speaks about race relations and leads workplace diversity workshops. Her book assumes and asserts critical race theory and is aimed primarily at educating white progressives about their continued involvement in racism as she defines it. “White Fragility” refers to the brittle resistance she encounters every time she speaks. Her goal is for whites to develop “racial stamina”, which is the capacity to endure discomfort when their ignorance (born of dominance) offends people of color.
What I Affirm
People, myself included, are often resistant to uncomfortable discussions. Race relations in the American past or present are certainly no exception. Members of a majority can often afford to overlook or misunderstand minority perspectives, though it isn’t right and can perpetuate abuse. An analogy many might find relatable can be drawn from marriage: when I, as a husband, cannot understand a concern of my wife’s, I can try to immediately convince her she’s mistaken by undermining her grasp of reality or I can consider that I may have missed something important and take another look. Marginalizing the observations or concerns of another person or group ultimately poisons and discourages relations.
She says the primary obstacle to recognizing and reducing racism is ultimately self-righteousness. Since most modern Americans believe racism to be wrong and they identify it with overt intentional displays of hate and prejudice, they are offended when they cause offense unintentionally. Since they didn’t violate their own standards of racial sensitivity, they think an offended person is just being too sensitive and quickly grow defensive. I myself am not free of this.
She lists representative evasions she encounters of the charge of racial insensitivity:
- “I have a great relationship with a co-worker/friend/family member that is black”
- “I voted for a black politician… I marched in the 60’s for civil rights…”
- “I’m not from America and didn’t grow up around bad American representations of black people”
- “I treat everybody equally”
- “I don’t see color, just people”
- “My parents taught me to not to have prejudice”
- “I have suffered discrimination myself”
As she says, none of these things mean that a person is incapable of causing offense or that they shouldn’t apologize when offense is taken.
What I Contest
First, though I agree that many such defenses are illegitimate avoidance of hard truths, I have sympathy for those who push back when someone like Dr. DiAngelo comes at them saying things like “racism is unavoidable” for white people. One of her citations defines racism as “a system of advantage based on race” or white privilege, which implicates all “whites” by aggregating them into a group and ignoring their individual circumstances while excluding the possibility of black racism, since they are not the more prosperous group in this comparison. This is contrary even to the definitions used by Dr. Ibram Kendi, a black scholar she cites to support other parts of her case, who affirms the possibility of black racism against whites. I sympathize with anyone resisting a stacked deck.
She, too, might exhibit some defensive “fragility” if she was hypothetically told she was by definition a hypocritical privileged white academic for charging $10k-$15k (more than the average black family makes in 3 months) plus travel expenses per engagement to speak about white “privilege”.
Second, Dr. DiAngelo holds an assumption that seems consistent among progressives, namely, that disadvantaged groups bear no responsibility whatsoever for their relative position in society. Once disadvantage or oppression is established, agency goes out the window. She does not consider factors like those pointed out by Thomas Sowell that arguably mitigate the role of discrimination in racial disparities. She acts as though people of color really are without any power to help or hurt themselves without the “powers that be” intervening. One does not need to deny the need for equitable and humane laws to question this assumption.
Dr. DiAngelo is a white secular puritan preaching to white secular puritans about their sin. Like the prophets of old, she has to overcome objections and excuses to ensure that the healing blade cuts like it should. As a Christian, I am sympathetic to the need for looking at the radical nature of the self-righteousness and other heart sins (like racial vainglory) that affect us all. I just don’t love her graceless and vengeful secular framework.
In the Christian framework, every sin of a creature against another creature is ultimately against the holy Creator, who loves them both and whose law is objective. Dr. DiAngelo in particular doesn’t seem to have room for any impartiality within her dichotomy of oppressor and oppressed. When you define one group as the oppressor, nothing the other group does is wrong, setting up the underdog to then become the oppressor. All is done in the noble cause of holding one party responsible for its sins, but it ends with revenge rather than justice. The politics of resentment makes us all oppressors.
I am fully in favor of American whites facing up to all of the historical record concerning American white supremacy past and present. It’s bad enough to need no exaggeration. The legacy of Jim Crow terrorism cannot be erased by simply granting citizenship. Don’t say you love your black neighbor if you won’t listen to his story. In that vein, I recommend letting yourself be impacted by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations“.
I am also in favor of seeing black Americans freed from narratives of victimhood spun by vote-seeking politicians and donation-seeking “grievance activists”. As Thomas Sowell has said, “The time is long overdue to stop looking for progress through racial or ethnic leaders. Such leaders have too many incentives to promote polarizing attitudes and actions that are counterproductive for minorities and disastrous for the country.” I suggest Dr. Sowell’s Ethnic America for an account of the “American mosaic” that pulls no punches and picks no favorites.
As I said above, there are dynamics which make hypocrisy easy for a group. That acknowledgement is a two edged sword: it applies equally to willfully ignorant, oppressive majority oppressors and resentful, revenge seeking minority oppressors. Let us forsake both kinds of oppression. Let us pursue the truth and justice that love requires.