White Fragility — Book Review

White Fragility — Book Review

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Published:
September 18, 2020

Editor’s Note: On Friday, September 25, 2020 at 10 a.m. (Pacific), Adventist Forum invites you to join the first Friday Forum Book Group where Andy Lampkin, PhD, bioethics professor at AdventHealth University, and Mark Carr, MDiv, PhD, regional director of Ethics for Providence Health & Services, will discuss White Fragility.

This discussion will be hosted by Adventist Forum Board Chair Carmen Lau and board member Alexander Carpenter. Spectrum Journal Editor Bonnie Dwyer and SpectrumMagazine.org Managing Editor Alisa Williams will be conversation partners for the Friday Forum which seeks to promote community, value scholarship, and imagine ways for Adventists to live an abundant kingdom life together.

Registration required. Email Carmen at no.twaddle@gmail.com for details. The event will also be live-streamed on the Spectrum Facebook page. Watch the website for a schedule of future Friday Forum events.


Introduction

My emotions and critical thinking energies were swinging rapidly before I even made it to chapter one in Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. She drags me into the world of “identity politics,” “white collective,” “dominant culture,” and “binary categories,” all the while insisting that because I am white, I am inescapably racist and supremacist. She has a way of unsettling me. This is her point of course. Her expressed effort is to “unsettle the racial status quo” (14) by asserting that white fragility holds “racism in place” (4, 5).

What is “white fragility”? It is “born of superiority and entitlement” and emerges from whites in a “range of defensive responses” to conversations that make whites uncomfortable. White Americans’ routine responses “work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy” (2). This largely unconscious response is not stereotypically attributed to those whites who are or have been previously understood to be racist, even supremacist. Rather, it is white “progressives” who turn out to be the culprits here. White progressives “cause the most daily damage to people of color.” This is because those who think themselves to be so enlightened will put their “energy into making sure that others see” that they “have arrived” (5).

So begins DiAngelo’s march into the difficult and unsettling conversation of race, racism, and sociocultural realities of the United States today. Below, I will offer some criticisms, some affirmations, and finish with some lingering questions.

Critique

DiAngelo’s logic, writing, and assertions put me into a box from which I cannot escape. Normally, in substantive conversations, one can offer a counterpoint to an interlocutor that serves to probe, deepen, and fine tune the relevant learning points. I do not get the impression she is open to such dialogue in her work here. For instance, all white people in America (and Western European culture at large) are racist in her view. In laying out her argument, there is no escaping this for white readers. Similarly, all whites are supremacists simply by nature of the fact they were born and raised as whites in the “dominant” culture of America. Frankly, I’m not convinced that there is an “American culture” that is so easily defined. I have more coherence with my wife’s French culture than I do the culture of Mississippi or Georgia, for example. But as I noted, this doesn’t get me out of the racist and supremacist box that DiAngelo puts me in. Even if I try to offer a counterpoint to her arguments, I end up being a racist and supremacist; something I do not want to be. And now, after writing these last sentences, I have slid into the defensive, white progressive posture she so deftly exposes.

In order to build this box for her readers, she must expand the typical definition of being racist and supremacist. Her argument depends upon these expansions and it seems appropriate to me. In combination with her critique of Western/American individualism, she argues that racism is a “structure,” a “system.” “Everyone has prejudice, and everyone discriminates.” But “racism is a society-wide dynamic that occurs at the group level.” Specifically, in America, “only whites can be racist,” because “only whites have the collective social and institutional power and privilege over people of color” (20-22).

White supremacy is “the culture we live in.” It is a “culture that positions white people and all that is associated with them (whiteness) as ideal” (33). Whiteness is a “norm or standard” for humans from which all “people of color” deviate. This supremacy frames life for all people in America and DiAngelo’s point is that it is “so internalized, so submerged, that it is never consciously considered or challenged by most whites” (34).

I found myself longing for nuance in this book so I could find a place where I am not a bad guy. She never allows me this comfort. Surely, this is part of the reason that I am critical of her work. She is so quickly effective at putting me in that box and not allowing me wiggle room that I am frustrated by that. And maybe it is because I (and she) are bound by the good/bad binary (chapter 5) of our “dominant” white, privileged culture that turns out to be so fragile. The “good/bad binary” that is so commonplace today allows that racists and supremacists are “bad” people, while woke, progressive whites are “good.” White Fragility strips away this comfortable place for me to hide.

She does allow for a touch of nuance, some space within my box, by using the term salience in her author’s note. Under this saliency she says that “we all occupy multiple and interesting social positionalities.” These multiple positions and “identities” do not “cancel out one another; each is more or less salient in different contexts” (p. xvi-xvii). I can only hope to find myself among those whites DiAngelo refers to as “actively working to interrupt racism” (p. 125). But those whites who engage in such work are routinely marginalized by the more fragile white culture. Nonetheless, some “sincere white people… agonize over when and how to give feedback to a fellow white person.” Count me among those white people. I have agonized many times yet remained all too silent.  

DiAngelo unavoidably comes off as arrogant and condescending toward those “sincere white people.” Perhaps, however, she falls victim to her own boxes as she becomes one of the few who really, truly is woke. She, it seems, stands alone among white progressives who really understand what it takes to honestly face racism in America. She, unlike others who remain unconscious to their racism and supremacist culture, is aware, open, and ready to deal. White opinions on race and racism are “necessarily uninformed, even ignorant,” except of course, her own (8). Indeed, those who “claim not to be prejudiced are demonstrating a profound lack of self-awareness” (19).

Yes, she has lots of experience engaging in difficult conversations about race and racism in America. But in placing so much value in her own experience she falls trap to her own box by thinking — no, asserting — that her experience is the norm. She admits to being overly generalizing but comfortable with it because she is a sociologist (11). In asserting that all whites in America are racist and supremacist she, thankfully, wants her readers to know that she is not accusing anyone of being “immoral” (13). I must admit to being befuddled by this. This is more than shaking up the status quo. By making me inescapably racist and supremacist she alienates me and convinces me all at once.

Affirmation

There is much about her work here that I affirm. First, her effort to expand whites’ understanding of racism and supremacy are important. She argues for her position well and again forcibly puts the reader into this expanded frame. To the extent that readers accept this, they will be moved, their equilibrium will be upset, and thus she will fulfill her purpose.

Second, I am able to compare and contrast my own experience of talking about race and racism in classrooms and clinical contexts through the years. It is remarkably similar to my own in that the defensiveness she identifies is consistent with what I’ve found among whites. In both casual and formal conversations, even before I’m done introducing the questions, my interlocutors jump to hackneyed attacks and counter points. As a diversity trainer, DiAngelo “was taken aback by how angry and defensive so many white people became at the suggestion that they were connected to racism in any way” (2). The anger was coupled with refusal to “acknowledge any advantage to being white” (3).

Associated with this anger is the complexity of blending individual and collective orientation to racism. I have found many of my fellow whites attempt to excuse themselves because they, individually, have no direct connection to American slavery, racism, or supremacy. Their response illustrates DiAngelo’s assertion that American individualism allows an escape for most whites, feeble though it may be.

Finally, and it may be a bit of an aside, her brief comments on judging and speaking to one’s truth are welcome. In the chapter on the “good/bad binary” she asserts that it is “impossible” not to judge others. She notes the frequent white rejoinder that “I was taught to treat everyone the same.” Those who are the recipients of this rejoinder are not supposed to judge those who engage in white, defensive fragility. No one, she thinks, wants to be judged a racist but given our thoroughly supremacist white dominant culture it is impossible to avoid “implicit bias” (81-82). I agree simply due to the fact that this is what the human mind does; it compares, it contrasts, it places one’s self in contradistinction to others, etc. What is to be avoided is being judgmental, namely, after engaging in normal discerning judgment we must avoid taking a moralist, arrogant, exclusionary stance that seeks to condemn the other.

I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say they needed to be true to him/herself by speaking to their truth. DiAngelo will have none of this. First, it is apparent that most whites are not hesitant to speak up and claim “their truth.” The white claim of being “color blind” is “not a truth; it is a false belief.” Any guideline that positions “beliefs as truths and, as such, equally valid” is to be rejected. Important to antiracism work is the recognition that “all perspectives are not equally valid; some are rooted in racist ideology and need to be uncovered and challenged.” What should be “challenged” is a simple statement of one’s “beliefs as truths” (127).

Lingering Questions

DiAngelo leaves me with some lingering questions. The first is to ask what kind of a problem we are facing. Is it a problem of human nature or a specifically American problem? Obviously, she is focused on American white racism and supremacy. But ethnic suppression and supremacy is not unique to the United States or Western Culture in general. I was reading Colum McCann’s pseudo-historical novel, Apeirogon while writing this review. The novel is based upon the true lives of Israeli Jew, Rami Elhanan, and Palestinian Muslim, Bassam Aramin. McCann explores the similarly tragic depths of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict through the lives of these two men and their families. The book adds to my list of reasons why I think racism is a human problem rather than solely an American one. We cannot allow this inclination to blunt the impact of DiAngelo’s effort to shake up the status quo of racism in American white fragility. My effort to expand the conversation and attention to the broader human problem is simply part of my white, progressive, supposedly woke, and self-defensive efforts to return to my status quo.

A second question is likely more manageable or at least more practical. Given the expansion of the definitions of racism and supremacy that DiAngelo establishes, how can whites write credible books on racism in the United States today? Doesn’t her extension of the definitions of racism and supremacy completely eviscerate this possibility? How does one overcome and emerge from a culture that is so engulfing as to make it impossible for white children in America to grow up free of racism and supremacy? Regardless of the answer, I am challenged personally to take the courage to have conversations about race with those willing to talk, particularly whites.

A third question I have ponders the realities of a “post-truth” and “alternative facts” society. Is it just a temporary anomaly or is it here to stay? In a day and age when one’s opinion is as “true” as anyone else’s, who is able to be the arbiter of conflict? How does a society slither out from under the horror of white racism and supremacy when we can’t even agree on whether or not the earth is a globe or flat? Doesn’t such lunacy force us into being users of a power to suppress idiocy for the greater good? Alas, I fall into the trap of arrogance. 

A fourth question comes by way of comparison with how I have imagined my conversation over the years with those of different religions or religious convictions. May I treat race similarly to how I treat religion? May I grant to others the passion and fire of their faith convictions even when they include feeling superior to me, even consigning me to hell? As long as they can hear others at the table who are similarly passionate and don’t devolve to violence, isn’t it possible for disparate parties to maintain their passionate positions? Is it wrong for me to want Black, brown, yellow, and white people to all feel they are the universal standard, they are the most amazing and unique and beautiful people on the face of the earth? Again, just as long as they also allow me to feel that way. Shouldn’t it be this way?

Setting aside my lingering questions (they are diversions), I assert with DiAngelo that it is long past time for whites and particularly white progressives to stop hiding behind half-hearted, comfortable conversations with amenable others. Whatever problems I have with her style or experience, her point should be supported; the status quo must be upset.

Giving DiAngelo the final word, in full accord:

“I have found it much more useful to think of myself as on a continuum. Racism is so deeply woven into the fabric of our society that I do not see myself escaping from that continuum in my lifetime. But I can continually seek to move further along it. I am not in a fixed position on the continuum; my position is dictated by what I am actually doing at a given time. Conceptualizing myself on an active continuum changes the question from whether I am or am not racist to a much more constructive question: Am I actively seeking to interrupt racism in this context? And perhaps even more importantly, how do I know?” (87)

 

Mark F. Carr, MDiv, PhD, is regional director of Ethics for Providence Health & Services.

Book cover image courtesy of Beacon Press.

 

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