Some random thoughts on Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility

Having recently finished reading Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, I thought it might be helpful to offer a few thoughts on it. I don’t intend to give a full review here. If you want to read a more substantial review, then I would recommend Coleman Hughes or John McWhorter. What I want to do here is specifically highlight certain points in the book that I personally found to be worthy of comment. Each point begins with a quotation from the book (emphasis added in bold), followed by my own reflections.

  • “We [Americans] have yet to achieve our founding principle, but any gains we have made thus far have come through identity politics.” (xiii)
    It is worth observing that DiAngelo explicitly embraces identity politics. The identity groups that she considers relevant are those socially constructed according to a hierarchy of oppressor/marginalized. This is a basic tenet of Critical Race Theory. (I don’t want to get distracted by debates over whether DiAngelo herself is doing CRT; it’s enough simply to note its direct influence on her work.) On this view, to be white is to fall on the oppressive side of the hierarchy (regardless of one’s own personal awareness, beliefs, or intentions), while people of color fall on the marginalized side. Contrast this with the four primary biblical categories of marginalization—the orphan, the widow, the sojourner, and the poor (Zech. 7:9-10). Such people become marginalized due to personal life circumstances, rather than due to innate identity group membership. In Scripture, you can fall into and rise out of marginalization; in identity politics, you are indelibly stamped as either oppressor or marginalized (and sometimes both simultaneously, depending on your intersecting categories of race, gender, and sexual orientation).
  • “I have a white frame of reference and a white worldview.” (7)
    There has been a lot of debate among evangelicals recently over whether CRT should be considered a “worldview” or merely an “analytical tool.” For her part, DiAngelo certainly believes there are worldviews, and she uses the term repeatedly in her book. But she sees worldviews as divided along the lines of race: there is a white worldview, a black worldview, etc. In her usage of the term, worldview has less to do with one’s basic beliefs about the world than with one’s experience of the world. Granting (for the sake of argument) this definition of worldview, I do wonder whether race is the most relevant criterion for delineating worldviews. Who are more likely to share similar experiences of the world: a rich suburban black person and a rich suburban white person, or a rich suburban white person and an impoverished rural white person? Geography and class seem at least as relevant (and probably much more so) than race. Further, she treats her own project as if it stands above all racialized worldviews, like the supposedly neutral vantage point of the person who can see the proverbial blind men feeling the elephant. This amounts to what you might call a “meta-worldview”—one that she basically assumes rather than argues for.
  • “When I say that only whites can be racist, I mean that in the United States, only whites have the collective social and institutional power and privilege over people of color. People of color do not have this power and privilege over white people.” (22)
    The idea that only whites can be racist goes back to the 1970s, when the (white) sociologist Patricia Bidol-Padva defined racism as “prejudice plus power.” This has also been the definition adopted by many leading evangelical antiracists today, such as Jemar Tisby (The Color of Compromise, p. 16). However, the popular antiracist author Ibram X. Kendi rejects this definition of racism, considering it to be a “powerless defense” that denies the capacity of blacks to exercise power for themselves (How to Be an Antiracist, p. 140). I have to agree with Kendi on this. To deny that people of color can be racist is to deprive them of agency and to excuse (at least on a practical level) anti-white attitudes and actions. This is not the path toward genuine racial progress. Further, accepting the revisionist definition of racism as “prejudice plus power” would lead to some pretty absurd conclusions. For example, does the fact that white South Africans no longer hold a monopoly on institutional power mean that the Boer ethno-separatist movement can’t be called racist?

  • White privilege [is] a sociological concept referring to advantages that are taken for granted by whites and that cannot be similarly enjoyed by people of color in the same context (government, community, workplace, schools, etc.). But let me be clear: stating that racism privileges whites does not mean that individual white people do not struggle or face barriers. It does mean that we do not face the particular barriers of racism.” (24)
    It should be admitted that white privilege is real. Empirical studies have shown that, in certain areas of life, whites do have an advantage over people of color. However, in terms of measurable life outcomes, this form of privilege is relatively slight, and it receives an absurdly disproportionate amount of media attention compared to other forms of privilege. For instance, “two-parent privilege” is a much more significant factor in predicting desired outcomes in life. A black child raised by married biological parents has about a 1 in 14 chance of growing up in poverty, whereas a white child raised by a single parent has about a 1 in 4 chance of growing up in poverty. Where’s the privilege here? Political scientist Wilfred Reilly estimates that, after controlling for other factors such as family structure, class, education, and crime rates, the effect of white privilege probably only amounts to a 2-3% difference in life outcomes (Reilly, Taboo, p. xix). This number will vary depending on the particular outcome being measured, but the basic point is sound. It should also be noted that there are some cases where nonwhites have an advantage over whites, such as in student admission or faculty hiring at pro-affirmative action universities. In such cases, a black applicant may have a 300-400% advantage over an equally qualified white applicant (Sander and Taylor, Mismatch).

  • “Racial bias is largely unconscious, and herein lies the deepest challenge—the defensiveness that ensues upon any suggestion of racial bias. This defensiveness is classic white fragility because it protects our racial bias while simultaneously affirming our identities as open-minded.” (42)
    According to DiAngelo, when whites are confronted with their own racism, their white fragility expresses itself in a number of ways: disagreement, pushback, playing devil’s advocate, “channel-switching” (i.e. considering the possibility that other factors besides racism might produce racial disparities), and so forth. Herein lies, I believe, the most damning criticism of the book. The very definition of white fragility makes it unfalsifiable and circular. Any argument made against white fragility is treated as evidence for white fragility. In the technical parlance of critical pedagogy, such arguments are considered a form of privilege-preserving epistemic pushback. This directs attention away from the objection itself and toward the presumably bad-faith motives of the objector. Many critics have noted that DiAngelo’s strategy is a rhetorical fallacy known as a kafkatrap, wherein denial of guilt is treated as evidence of guilt. This is not how critical thinking works; this is how cults work.

  • “Many of us actively working to interrupt racism continually hear complaints about the ‘gotcha’ culture of white antiracism. We are sometimes depicted as looking for every incident we can find so we can spring out, point our fingers, and shout, ‘You’re a racist!’ While certainly some white people arrogantly set themselves apart from other whites by acting in this way, in my experience, this is not the norm. It is far more common for sincere white people to agonize over when and how to give feedback to a fellow white person, given the ubiquity of white fragility.“ (125)
    This is an important concession on DiAngelo’s part, and I think it provides an opportunity to find common ground. One of the problems I see with DiAngelo’s project is that she provides no objective criteria for determining what doesn’t count as racist. She speaks of “impact over intent,” meaning that if any well-intended action of a white person is perceived as racist, then it should be treated as such. For DiAngelo, the only proper response of a white person in such a situation is to acknowledge, apologize, and learn—never to defend, explain, or clarify. So I would ask her, if she admits that the problems of a “gotcha culture” are real (even if only as a relatively remote possibility), then how would we know when that line has been crossed? How would we know when accusations of racism go too far? Answering such questions would go a long way toward allaying the concerns of DiAngelo’s critics.
  • “I am sometimes asked whether my work reinforces and takes advantage of white guilt. But I don’t see my efforts to uncover how race shaped my life as a matter of guilt. I know that because I was socialized as white in a racism-based society, I have a racist worldview, deep racial bias, racist patterns, and investments in the racist system that has elevated me. Still, I don’t feel guilty about racism. I didn’t choose this socialization, and it could not be avoided. But I am responsible for my role in it. To the degree that I have done my best in each moment to interrupt my participation, I can rest with a clear conscience. But that clear conscience is not achieved by complacency or a sense that I have arrived.” (149)
    I have often heard concerns that CRT and related theories foster an illegitimate “white guilt.” This is taken to mean that white Americans today bear moral culpability for the injustices committed by white Americans of past generations. DiAngelo makes it clear that that’s not quite how she sees things. It’s not your fault if you were born into an unjust system that benefits you at the expense of other races. My objection to DiAngelo here is not about white guilt per se, but rather about a related concept that pervades contemporary social justice discourse. That concept is what sociologists call structural determinism, which teaches that life outcomes are determined by the external structures into which a person is socialized. This can take a stronger, materialistic form, as in classical Marxism, or it can take a softer form, which holds merely that outcomes are strongly influenced by social structures. For DiAngelo and others, structural determinism is the implicit framework that explains both the privilege of whites and the disadvantages of people of color: the system is rigged, either in my favor or at my expense. I want to offer a few responses to this idea:
    • First, it is true that social structures influence individual behaviors. For example, economists and political scientists have long known that if you tax a behavior you’ll get less of it, and if you subsidize a behavior you’ll get more of it. People respond to incentives in predictable ways.
    • Second, this fact in no way lessens personal responsibility. After all, antebellum white Southerners were certainly socialized to support race-based chattel slavery, just as the Nazi soldiers on trial at Nuremburg faced tremendous social pressure to follow orders to murder Jews and other minorities. But that doesn’t get them off the hook for their unjust actions. Calvinists, of all people, should understand this principle.
    • Third, in considering social structures, we need to distinguish between those that are political and those that are cultural. DiAngelo believes that white privilege and nonwhite disadvantage are due almost entirely to oppressive policies (past and present) imposed by whites. But it is questionable whether these policies are as responsible for today’s racial disparities as, say, fatherlessness in the home, youth anti-intellectualism in the classroom, and crime in the streets. One might try to blame these phenomena on oppressive white policies, except for the fact that these phenomena did not exist at anywhere near current levels in the first half of the twentieth century, when America was much more racist.
    • Fourth, DiAngelo rightly holds that whatever privileges I as a white person may enjoy because of my social location, I am still ultimately responsible for how I respond. But the flipside of that coin is also true: whatever disadvantages I may face because of my social location, I am still responsible for how I respond. Blaming the system will do me no good, and this is true no matter what one’s race is. To affirm the agency of one race and deny it of another race is infantilizing and, well, racist. We should all have an interest in seeing every race in America succeed, but that won’t happen by whites treating nonwhites like children rather than adults of equal standing. This is why I believe White Fragility is ultimately misguided.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. | White fragility, white guilt, and the ring of GygesAllkirk Network - July 28, 2021

    […] only further confirms her argument. I’ve previously noted the circularity of her argument here. I think her understanding of privilege is too simplistic, failing to take into account the more […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: