White Guilt, White Fragility: Why Robin DiAngelo Doesn’t Understand Race

Stylized photos of Robin DiAngelo next to pop-art generated portraits of women and female humanoids.

[This is the transcript for Alex Sheremet’s video essay: White Guilt, White Fragility: Why Robin DiAngelo Doesn’t Understand Race.]

In 2011, an academic named Robin DiAngelo coined the phrase “white fragility” in reference to white people’s perceived defensiveness over questions of race. It didn’t explain this defensiveness—it only gave it a name. And it named only a small part of a more general condition. We’ll get to the condition of the white race in a bit, but for now, suffice to say that there are many types of white person. Some are just as fragile, yet break in a less predictable direction. Under the right circumstances, they could pressure themselves into joining a revolution. In more stagnant periods, they reach out to anyone willing to touch them. This is still fragility because it is unstable, because it is easy to recruit, because it is so common. Yet Robin DiAngelo—who is technically a scholar of ‘whiteness studies’—has little space for it. This means that ‘whiteness’ itself is not really being examined, and in failing to explain whiteness, or to give a credible story of what it means to be white, she cannot properly deal with race. Her work alludes to her own racial anxiety, but will not make sense of it. Her theory of racism is a theory of rugged individualism—and this is why it’s popular. The individual is tasked with the burdens of racism. So the individual, as under all right-wing systems, is forced to kneel.

Robin DiAngelo soon published a book, White Fragility, based on her original paper. There are many problems with this text, but chief among them is that she treats black Americans as if they were extraterrestrials—and some, without any idea of who she is, will rise to her challenge. After all, why should a black American feel any affinity for exotic cults, or religious bullying? This sort of idleness used to be the domain of white America, which once held a whip and defined itself against it. Today, it is not so much that the whip is out of fashion, but how it is held has changed. On occasion, the whip even gets handed over to nonwhites. What they are allowed to do with it is rather limited, but sometimes, a white woman or a white man will beg to be whipped. At other times, a white person will grow impatient and will grab the whip so they could self-flagellate more effectively. It is as if, by first losing the right to own slaves, and then other forms of status, some are now trying on a new identity in their free time. Meanwhile, black America, in gaining a little bit of freedom, is encouraged to exaggerate this freedom—to bandage over all the history and paper over all the present with publicity stunts. No doubt this kneeling woman believes that she is doing something right. Yet the Black Israelites believe this too. It might have all started as a delusion, but given how difficult it is to address race without such freakouts, it is now a strategic delusion between two willing accomplices. Their goal is never stated, but always seems to have the same effect: the alienation of yet more people from a real political project.

Early on in the text, Robin DiAngelo claims that structural racism matters, and that issues of class make the experience of racism worse. Yet she quickly drops this line of reasoning in favor of personal responsibility—for example, that white people must attend diversity workshops at the corporations which employ them. She demands whites not be resistant to her message, but instead of proving the details of this message, she claims that any objection to it is proof enough. This is where White Fragility breaks down, and since so much of the book depends upon its circular reasoning, there is no way for Robin DiAngelo to save things. Her message can never be a political strategy because it stigmatizes white Americans and worsens their racial resentment. When it is finally time to define whiteness, she writes that “a positive white identity is an impossible goal…white identity is inherently racist…” She then cautions: “This does not mean that we should stop identifying as white…to do so is to deny the reality of racism…[and is itself] color-blind racism.” In other words, white people exist; white people, by definition, cannot achieve a positive identity; but since white people must continue identifying as white, guilt and shame should be their baseline experience. This is a regressive tax upon ordinary Americans which then doles out a salary to upper-class diversity trainers. At no point in this transaction is wealth transferred into the hands of blacks. It is a socioeconomic rivalry between lower and upper class whites, and black people get to play the mascot. This, of course, is basic predation. If all groups tend to prey on their own, why wouldn’t white America victimize white America? And why wouldn’t white America employ black America to further enrich one at the expense of the other?

Forging a positive white identity is difficult, but it’s even more so when you lack a basic understanding of race. Robin DiAngelo writes that “the idea of racial inferiority was created to justify unequal treatment; belief in racial inferiority is not what triggered unequal treatment. Nor was fear of difference.” She approvingly quotes Ta-Nehisi Coates: “But race is the child of racism, not the father.” Although there is something to be said for how racial ideology festers when it is most needed—for example, in order to justify slavery—its prevalence tends to hide how racism works. In fact, we are simply too good at identifying in-groups and placing individuals into them. At some point, this might have been valuable. Imagine a hunter-gatherer tribe engaged in a multigenerational blood feud with another tribe one village over. Neither of them is the oppressor—they are responsible for an equal number of casualties in a long war of attrition. They are of the same color, but their language, style of dress, and other habits differ. If one finds himself in the wrong village, he could very well die. So—in a state of nature, an in-group is formed partly for the purposes of safety. This is far from Robin DiAngelo’s claims about a puffed-up ‘fear of difference’. There is not only a fear of difference which was rational for much of human history—there is also a genuine fear of the external world. It is a fear which has long outlived its utility and leads to dangerously absurd judgments. Yet this is not something which can be defeated through argument alone. It needs to be defeated by experience and physical proximity—by a program of forced desegregation.

White Fragility talks a lot about segregation, yet the irony is that it is a segregationist text whose author takes money from other segregationists. Robin DiAngelo’s honorarium is too expensive for mom and pop shops, but is just right for large companies hoping to launder their reputations. During the George Floyd protests, the biggest entities promised $50 billion dollars for racial justice—the vast majority being loans with a profit motive. Three years later, little of this money has been disbursed—facts which are both true and, from Robin DiAngelo’s perspective, unwise to critique. Since charitable donations don’t seem to work, would her employers agree to a substantial tax hike for de-segregation? Or would they continue lobbying for a ‘competitive tax rate’—key policy questions which never seem to appear in DiAngelo’s trainings? There is little in the text about politics and the ways in which both Democrats and Republicans condone police repression, fail to address wealth inequality, and reject universal programs which benefit both white and black Americans. In a rather telling anecdote, she quotes a white man angry at being forced into a diversity workshop because—according to the man—“a white person can’t get a job anymore!” Reflecting on this outburst, she writes: “I look around the room and see forty employees, thirty-eight of whom are white. Why is this white man so angry?” It is strange: how often does Robin DiAngelo get paid by these all-white companies? How often do they stay white after her interventions? Does she keep track? She complains that, after these sessions are over, the vast majority of participants simply reiterate their pre-existing beliefs. So for all of the book’s critiques of white privilege, it seems as if the ultimate privilege goes unremarked upon. By her own words, Robin DiAngelo consistently fails at her job but still gets the money—as well as the celebrity—for a job well done. Her ability to self-segregate by race as well as class thus becomes one of the book’s central features.

[Alex’s note: This paragraph was taken out of the video essay to save time.]  White Fragility is further divorced from the practical experience of racism because it is so focused on white people’s reactions to minor racial incidents. It concocts a number of white ghosts which flit in and out of existence, never to be recorded. In story after story, Robin DiAngelo alludes to an ostensibly racist comment from a white participant at a workshop, yet rarely provides details. It is as if she knows that the reader might disagree with her interpretation of events, and because such disagreement is inherently racist, she feels no need to engage. The text also condones classist, social-climbing behavior by pitting the poor against her preferred in-groups. At one point she says: “Patrick Rosal writes poignantly about the pain of being mistaken for the help at a black-tie event celebrating National Book Award winners. I have witnessed this assumption of servitude many times as I checked into hotels with colleagues of color.” But why should anyone feel pain at being mistaken for a janitor or a waiter? This has become a cliché of antiracist writing: the trope of the “successful” person of color as opposed to the grunts still stuck in manual labor. Of course, this is a class rather than a racial slight, and given how many blue collar workers out-earn today’s poets, it is only a perceived class slight. Yet the perception counts. Just as white Americans are responding to a loss of social status, writers (to use one example) are contending with the fact that fewer and fewer people read books—so virtually all writers now need another income. Robin DiAngelo understands the most consequential labor issue will not be between the working and white collar classes, but white collar workers in a free-for-all with other white collar workers. A new underclass is now under construction, with an even more chaotic politics of resentment.

One fascinating aspect of White Fragility is how often Robin DiAngelo acknowledges black struggle, only to then minimize it. This is what she writes of a conversation she had with a white friend: “She was telling me about a (white) couple she knew who had just moved to New Orleans and bought a house for a mere twenty-five thousand dollars. ‘Of course’, she immediately added, ‘they also had to buy a gun, and Joan is afraid to leave the house.’ I immediately knew they had bought a home in a black neighborhood…White people will perceive danger simply by the presence of black people; we cannot trust our perceptions when it comes to race and crime.” As it stands, however, New Orleans now has one of the highest murder rates in America. How could it be otherwise? The city was barely rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, subsidized housing is harder to come by, social services have been cut, most schools are privatized, and racial segregation is intensifying. New Orleans stays afloat because of tourists and downwardly mobile whites fleeing more expensive urban centers. It makes one wonder—what does Robin DiAngelo mean by “structural racism”, if not this? Though she attempts to defang the costs, New Orleans IS structural racism, often in ways she can’t imagine. White people who have spent time living among nonwhites quickly realize that, far from being targets of crime, they are preferentially ignored. The real threat her white couple faces is that they have no experience in this environment. Segregation has kept them ignorant of the real world, for only a program of de-segregation can provide the insight Robin DiAngelo attempts to engineer. Nor is this blanketing over of human costs limited to white academics. Ibram X. Kendi writes that “[the myth of] the dangerous Black neighborhood is the most dangerous racist idea”—the irony being that it is in fact a myth for its white residents, but a certainty for anyone who looks like Kendi. And while right-wingers continue to blame black men for this state of affairs, liberals pretend that the specifics are not so urgent.

To the extent that ‘culture-first’ analysts are correct, it is in the simple fact that material harms produce material damages. If slavery, segregation, and the lack of investment into black neighborhoods are material harms, it shouldn’t be difficult to find corresponding damages. This could be one too many cracks in the sidewalk, or a negative cultural affect. It could be the voided social contract between black men and police. Yet the white progressives for whom Robin DiAngelo is writing can’t bring themselves to discuss implications. To improve the state of the sidewalk, finite resources must be sent from one neighborhood to another. To increase trust between citizens and cops, there must be a period of reshuffling where one sees far fewer officers. And to change culture, de-segregation remains the best tool—which means living alongside the full spectrum of black America. In all cases, taxes go up, on everyone, at a time when liberals have failed to explain the logic of higher taxes. Another problem is that few progressives wish to live among blacks, which is as true of the white couple in New Orleans as it is of Robin DiAngelo herself. In White Fragility, she bemoans segregation while admitting that she has ‘moved up’ from her station in life. She even analyzes—without really analyzing—her fear of attending a mostly-black picnic. When she catches herself in a racial faux pas with a colleague, it is as if she becomes a robot dealing with other robots: “Would you be willing to grant me the opportunity to repair the racism I perpetrated toward you in that meeting?” Perhaps this is why white liberals were so comforted by Barack Obama: segregation would remain conceptual, or even cease to be, as we entered a post-racial America. Yet if white progressives are so important to the causal chain, why are they—and whiteness in general—absent from her analysis?

Whiteness, as a concept, is as new as the knowledge of other races, since groups are defined as much by inclusion as by exclusion. Europe has only ceased warring with itself a couple of decades ago—and it is still an open question whether Russia is a part of Europe, or even white. In America, however, Russians can become white as much as Jews and Italians—as much as Africans have become African-American. Yet only one of these groups is thought to have broken from its past. A first-generation Russian defaults to being white, since whites enjoy the benefit of anonymity, the privilege of re-inventing themselves without comment. And perhaps this is the first thing to understand: that freedom of identity IS freedom of movement. White nationalism has received lots of attention, but the irony is that white pride does away with the core value proposition of whiteness, which is the ability to be anything and to assume any history whatsoever—or no history at all. How many white Americans, for example, claim to have had ‘nothing to do with slavery’? So white nationalism is discouraged and booed, yet black pride in something abstract—in something other than present-day accomplishment—gets cultivated. White liberals enjoy tokens of black pride not because they wish to entrap black America, but because they are powerless to offer much else. They understand that an overcommitment to the past is negation of the future—and if black America can’t have a future, it can at least have Black Pride. Progressives know the white liberal vote hasn’t achieved much in decades, and some suspect the backsliding of Middle America mirrors that of black America. In many places, white men have had their lifespans cut, with well-paying jobs eliminated and synthetic drugs introduced. Whites are now dying of overdoses at much higher rates than any other race due to a loss of dignity and structure. The fact is, white Americans, like most Americans, are too busy dealing with their own lives to empathize with other people’s issues. This forces them to live in their feelings (and only their feelings) as if it were the true measure of the world.

Robin DiAngelo can’t quite say it, but any black/white political project needs to emphasize this shared feature of all races. A kneeling white woman might be compassionate and kind, but in the end, she is still transfixed by her own whiteness. She is still playing out a fantasy—the fantasy of change and even that of sainthood. For all of her advantages in life, she is much closer to the baseline black experience than she is to the experience of genuine power. A book like White Fragility wishes to focus on the advantages, but why? In a world built on segregation, it’s not surprising that every ‘solution’ is yet more segregation. White progressives are instructed to escape into psychoanalysis, or told to vote for one of two corrupt political parties, or to bow for something vaguely beneficial—in short, to make themselves as unsympathetic as possible. White guilt is unproductive not because there is no white privilege, but because guilt exhausts long before it identifies an enemy—or even a goal. No corporation will pay for this messaging, so it goes unheard. Yet we hear about reparations because reparations are politically impossible. We hear about diversity training because there is still a white underclass to exploit. We are told to be uncomfortable around each other because the risk of closeness—of true desegregation—is the risk of a shared politics. The question is: a risk for whom? Robin DiAngelo knows the answer, and has written a book to obscure it.

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