Books

Why Is It So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism?

In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo commits the error of telling her readers what to think instead of providing ways to use critical thinking to challenge societal norms.

White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism
Robin DiAngelo

Beacon Press

Jun 2018

Other

Robin DiAngelo is a truth sayer. Her text, White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, is mandatory reading for anyone who is newly considering themselves anti-racist. DiAngelo adroitly demonstrates the ubiquity of white fragility, or the defensive response when individuals' perceived anti-racism is challenged. These behaviors, in turn, fortify a deeply separate and unequal society. She sways readers to consider their role in disseminating racism while ensconcing themselves in false consciousness. The text builds awareness to the immeasurable harm caused by complacency to and denial of racism as enacted by those who believe they cannot be racist. In so doing, however, DiAngelo fails to provide any new approaches to understanding white privilege or rejuvenating the activist tools necessary for enacting social progress.

DiAngelo is careful in her definition of white supremacy and relies on understanding the modalities of power yielded by whiteness. She suggests whiteness is the norm and any person of a color is a deviation. Therefore, "whiteness is not acknowledged by white people, and the white reference point is assumed to be universal and is imposed on everyone" (25). Whiteness shapes our way of thinking and behaving to such an extent that when we are forced to think about it, the response is usually emotional and defensive. She further contends that white individuals are so entrenched in this dominant system that it's difficult, nay, impossible to see or live outside of the confines.

When individuals are challenged racially, their response is oppositional, often rooted in fear, anger, and guilt. These behaviors reaffirm silence, enact white fragility, and halt progress. In turn, cross-racial dialogue is lost and teachable moments are squandered.

The crux of White Fragility reveals the social and cultural conditions upholding white supremacy. For example, DiAngelo examines socialization and its role in cultivating individualism that "makes it very difficult for white people to explore the collective aspects of the white experience" (9). Subsequently, this makes it easy for white people to deny their role in committing acts of racism while rejecting accountability. DiAngelo's writing is methodical, she consistently points readers back to her overarching thesis: racism is systematic and institutionalized. Thus, we as a people are primed and socialized under white supremacy. In part, it seems, it's not our fault that we succumb to insidious forms of prejudice, but we are to blame when we become guarded, angry, and complacent. The tears shed or the guilt felt only serves to affirm white centrality and individualism. Crying, in particular, signals when "racism becomes about white distress, white suffering, and white victimization" (134). The racial transgression is adumbrated and social progress obfuscated.

DiAngelo's primary audience are white people, specifically white progressives. Mired in excuses cloaking their racism, DiAngelo contends "white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color" (5). Based on her experiences as a consultant, sociologist, and educator, she employs case studies to demonstrate the misguided and careless ways individuals have succumbed to and upheld white supremacy. But the question must be asked, is she speaking about all progressives? She anticipates this question by addressing there are "exceptions, but patterns are recognized as such precisely because they are recurring and predictable" (12). She acknowledges her project is not an essentialist examination yet at times adheres to a homogenized approach to understanding privilege as she casts progressives as stagnant pearl-clutchers. A more effective approach is to exhibit those who've checked their privilege, are open to understanding their racial power, and have effectively incorporated this awareness in enacting meaningful activism.

DiAngelo unpacks white racism with the privilege of ignoring. Yet this unabashedly reiterates Peggy McIntosh's essay "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" or Ijeoma Oluo's So You Want to Talk About Race. For example, DiAngelo's inclusion of Rihanna's makeup line for women of all skin colors is simply a modernized example of McIntosh asking about the availability of bandages matching skin tone. Likewise, DiAngelo's critique of John Lee Hancock's 2009 film, The Blind Side is rehashed, already overly deconstructed by other media scholars, and about ten years late. Indeed, DiAngelo's text devotes too much time and effort into recapitulating discourses on whiteness and privilege that have already been said. Yes, awareness of the corollary between race and privilege is important but this part drags as DiAngelo fails to add a nuanced perspective. It's unclear whether DiAngelo believes that white people have failed to make progress in the area of understanding privilege. If so, she neglects to address the cultural and social failure or provide insight into the challenges undermining progression.

Yet White Fragility's strength is clarified when the text becomes solutions-oriented. Towards the conclusion, she offers simple guidelines on how to face our own white fragility and learn from these transgressions. Her suggestions include listen, receive feedback, don't divert the conversation to mend your white fragility, process and reflect but ultimately "if I cannot handle it, it's on me to build my racial stamina" (125). DiAngelo's guidelines are irrefutable in their effectiveness but the simplicity echoes an anti-intellectual sentiment. White Fragility provides large doses of such thinking in its rephrasing of commonly understood practices, theories, and examples of white privilege. Even her frequently used bulleted lists reject the value of critical thinking or developed arguments. Whereas she's not scolding or using white guilt as leverage, her approach is seemingly directed toward individuals who have never or refuse to consider whiteness or racial privilege. Progressives certainly have and many forms of activism are centered with combating these pillars.

More so, her inability to further complicate white privilege or provide coherent tools for dismantling a racially oppressive society echoes a brand of over simplification, if you will, sweeping left-wing and progressive movements. This type of anti-intellectualism directly opposes dominant thought and practice because it is rooted in oppressive traditions and is often reduced as elitism. Throughout, she commits the error of telling her readers what to think instead of demonstrating the ways in which to use critical thinking to challenge and progress societal norms. It's as if she assumes her readers lack the ability to be critical or are too mired in their social comforts to engage in constructive analysis. Again, DiAngelo anticipates this argument by loading her narrative with lengthy quotations from anti-racism scholars including Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michael Eric Dyson, Beverly Tatum and others. But her inability to illustrate nuance or develop new examples of cultural criticism reestablishes a concrete voice that waters down the valuable social and political conversations about privilege.

Criticism is an ally in opening conversations and moving discourses forward. But White Fragility settles on wallowing in the frustrations about privilege already identified. Progressives need new approaches to countering hegemony and racism that value critical thinking as a change agent. Unfortunately, DiAngelo doesn't provide those methods here.

Ultimately, DiAngelo argues "stopping our racist patterns must be more important than working to convince others that we don't have them" (129). Indeed, we must continue to critically challenge racist manifestations and see ourselves as key players in the perpetuation of racism. However, to effectively move forward, activists need the tools that engage critical thinking while also bridging the disconnect between theory and practice.

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