• Jim Kelly

Orienting yourself in the upside-down world of White Fragility

In the strange-ways-to-make-a-living file, consider Robin DiAngelo. Companies hire her ostensibly to diagnose why they don't have more employees of color and to help them become better places for minorities to work. But she knows the diagnosis before she arrives, because she offers the same one to every company: your white employees are racist.

Her book, White Fragility, describes her experiences in her consulting practice trying to convince white employees of their racism and calling them to atone for it. They tend to react defensively. After many years of trying diplomatic approaches around their defensiveness, DiAngelo's frustration comes through. With her book, she delivers a second diagnosis: these employees are not only racist, they're "fragile" about race issues generally, because we white people live in a world of racial comfort. We are not subjected to day-to-day racial stress and therefore lack the stamina to face racial topics.

If that doesn't sound like the America you live in, you're out of luck. DiAngelo simply asserts this is "the" white experience. We're not affected, at least not negatively, by America's racial divisions or reactions to them such as school busing or affirmative action or diversity mandates or even ongoing race riots. Racial tension, apparently, is a one-ended rope.

DiAngelo likewise asserts that all whites benefit from "the racial hierarchy," but cites no more than the familiar fallacy: because powerful people are disproportionately white, any given white person has disproportionate power. Perhaps I'm one of those rare white people who isn't a senator? Perhaps white senators are, by virtue of their skin color, busily advancing my interests? What I see them doing on C-SPAN suggests the opposite.

If there is a "racial hierarchy" in some sense, toward the end of the book she tells a revealing story about it. She made a quip to a black woman about the people in some group they'd been part of being frightened of some other black woman's hair. Then later she reflected this might have been out of line, asked the first woman for a formal meeting and made a groveling apology, which the woman accepted.

To see how significant that apology was, consider reversing the races in the story. A black woman feels the need to apologize to a white woman for an overly-familiar comment about another white woman's hair. You'd run to the calendar to see if it was 1950.

Here is the first big paradox of White Fragility. DiAngelo accuses white employees in her groups of insufficient sensitivity to blacks, but her examples show their hypersensitivity. They know America's racist history as well as Germans know World War II, and they're at pains to distance themselves from it. If they were really unconcerned, they wouldn't react so defensively to DiAngelo's criticisms. We readers weren't in the meetings, but one senses she's handing them a bum rap.

The second paradox is the expectations differential that comes through in her stories. She scolds a white person for saying something potentially off-putting to black colleagues, but never the other way around. On the other hand fragility--taking offense to a comment that ought to be in-bounds--is exclusively a white ailment. Her expectations of white people to manage their own sensitivities and tiptoe around other people's are infinite, her expectations of blacks nowhere to be found.

A useful rule for organizations and relationships in general: the person who can muster more flexibility will tend to end up with more influence. So as career coaching, DiAngelo's facilitation sessions are bizarre, because her lessons are so one-sided. She perceives whites to be ahead and claims to want to help blacks catch up, but she exhorts only whites to raise their game. How does she imagine us ever converging?

The objections that jumped out to me are neither clever nor new. Of course the world's billion white people don't act as a hive mind. Of course outcome gaps don't demonstrate a "racial hierarchy," whatever that means. Of course people of all colors react defensively to criticism, and they may be well justified to do so. Of course white Americans live in the same racially-charged country blacks do.

That DiAngelo doesn't buttress her assertions against any of these reflects dismally on her as a professor of whiteness studies at the University of Washington. Academics should understand competing points of view on their subject well enough to head off the very obvious objections, but she never entertains an alternate interpretation of anything. She dogmatically keeps her racism-as-original-sin lens firmly to her eye. I would call it a theology, but theology has a long, proud intellectual pedigree. Whiteness studies, by comparison, is depressingly thin gruel.

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