Who Do We Think We Are?   /   Spring 2021   /    Thematic Essays

The Unchosen Condition

Robin DiAngelo’s Peculiar Gospel

Malloy Owen

Illustration by ImageZoo/Alamy Stock Photo.

Is there really anything left to say about White Fragility? If Infinite Jest is a symbol of pretentious masculinity and On the Road a totem of the Beat generation, Robin DiAngelo’s slim volume is a metaphor for the state of racial progressivism in America circa 2020. To let it lie casually on a desk or coffee table is to signal a commitment to societal change, to dismantling systemic racism, to doing the work. To demand that someone read it is simply to point out that benighted soul’s theoretical unsophistication on racial matters. (If you don’t understand why it’s offensive for a white man to bounce a black child on his knee while joking about integration, you need to read White Fragility.11xConor Friedersdorf, “Anti-Racist Arguments Are Tearing People Apart,” The Atlantic, August 20, 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/08/meta-arguments-about-anti-racism/615424/.) On the other hand, mentioning Robin DiAngelo with a roll of the eyes signifies dissatisfaction with identity politics, wokeness, or perhaps the mingling of corporate power and ersatz radicalism that certain socialists of an older generation see in the New New Left. Critical reviews of White Fragility by liberal centrists (Matt Taibbi, Jonathan Chait, John McWhorter, Conor Friedersdorf) have become vehicles for broader complaints about the state of progressive cultural politics.

Many commentators have assimilated White Fragility into critical race theory (CRT), a term that is now applied to a vast, heterogenous body of work in law, political science, sociology, history, literature, education, journalism, and business management. The first critical race theorists were legal academics concerned with identifying inadequacies in antidiscrimination law and affirmative action programs. They distinguished themselves from conventional law professors by their willingness to critique the foundations of the liberal order, and by a crucial set of premises: that racism, past and present, remains a powerful influence on American life, and that justice requires ongoing, race-targeted policy interventions. But those premises had obvious applications beyond legal academia, and subsequent contributions in other fields have applied them to innumerable spheres of policy, politics, and culture. To its critics, CRT is unhealthily obsessed with race, imagining insidious forms of discrimination at every turn. To its defenders, however, CRT forces a necessary reckoning with difficult and sometimes hidden truths.22xSee, e.g., Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2017); Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Twenty Years of Critical Race Theory: Looking Back to Move Forward,” Connecticut Law Review 43, no. 5 (July 2011), https://opencommons.uconn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1116&context=law_review.

DiAngelo’s primary employment is in diversity training, a field that extends some of CRT’s analytical principles into the corporate world. Companies and other private organizations, seemingly moved by some combination of genuine social concern and the desire to avoid liability,33xSee, e.g., “Conduct Diversity Training to Head Off Potential Lawsuits,” Leaders Choice Insurance, June 20, 2019, https://www.leaderschoiceinsurance.com/blog/conduct-diversity-training-to-head-off-potential-lawsuits/. pay diversity trainers to deliver bracing speeches about systemic racism to their employees. According to her website, DiAngelo has given presentations to companies such as Amazon and Unilever44xList of services, Robin DiAngelo, PhD, Critical Racial and Social Justice Issues, accessed December 30, 2020, www.robindiangelo.com.; her average fee in 2020 was $14,000 for a ninety-minute session. Diversity trainers’ work tends to be less measured than academic CRT—perhaps because it isn’t subject to peer review, perhaps because corporate clients want something impressive and shocking in return for those five-figure fees. For example, the now notorious “Smithsonian Chart,” on which it was declared in July 2020 that “objective, rational, linear thinking” and “plan for future” [sic] are “aspects and assumptions of white culture in the United States,” was the work of DiAngelo’s colleague Judith Katz,55xJonathan Chait, “Is the Anti-Racism Training Industry Just Peddling White Supremacy?,” New York, July 16, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/07/antiracism-training-white-fragility-robin-diangelo-ibram-kendi.html. who leads “transformational change initiatives” for corporate clients like Allstate Insurance, United Airlines, and Merck Pharmaceuticals.66xBiography of Judith H. Katz, Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, accessed December 7, 2020, https://kjcg.com/judith-h-katz.

It is not altogether surprising, then, that White Fragility is hardly the best of CRT. But its curious mingling of racial apocalypticism and social-scientific value neutrality, served up in the language of organizational management, is in many ways characteristic of our moment. Beyond DiAngelo’s strange and fractured picture of the world, a more sober and moderate CRT offers a vital corrective to the flaws of colorblind liberal politics while holding onto liberalism’s noblest aspirations. For that reason, appreciating the true strangeness of White Fragility can help us to distinguish that significant and urgent body of work from the excesses that DiAngelo’s work represents—excesses that too easily lend themselves to the caricatures drawn by CRT’s most hostile critics.

The Transvaluation of Values

DiAngelo’s critics, measured and hostile alike, have trained their fire on White Fragility’s racial essentialism. Carlos Lozada of the Washington Post argued in his review that according to the book’s framework, “white people should be regarded not as individuals but as an undifferentiated racist collective.”77xCarlos Lozada, “White Fragility Is Real. But ‘White Fragility’ Is Flawed,” Washington Post, June 18, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/06/18/white-fragility-is-real-white-fragility-is-flawed/. New York’s Jonathan Chait protested that under the premises of diversity training, “the individual is subsumed completely into racial identity.”88x Chait, “Is the Anti-Racism Training Industry Just Peddling White Supremacy?”. In a widely read Substack article, Matt Taibbi complained that for DiAngelo and her “dingbat racialist cult,” “where we reside on the spectrum of righteousness is…almost entirely determined by birth, a view probably shared by a lot of 4chan readers.”99xMatt Taibbi, “On ‘White Fragility,’” Substack, June 28, 2020, https://taibbi.substack.com/p/on-white-fragility.

These writers are correct in observing that White Fragility takes a markedly essentialist view of race. DiAngelo acknowledges that race is contingent and socially constructed, even while insisting that it is profoundly and inescapably constitutive of selfhood:

I was raised in a society that taught me that there was no loss in the absence of people of color—that their absence was a good and desirable thing to be sought and maintained—while simultaneously denying that fact. That attitude has shaped every aspect of my self-identity: my interests and investments, what I care about or don’t care about, what I see or don’t see, what I am drawn to and what I am repelled by, what I can take for granted, where I can go, how others respond to me, and what I can ignore.1010xRobin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2018), 69.

DiAngelo sees the influence of race in everything she does, says, or thinks. Consequently, although she notes that “I have friends who are black and whom I love deeply,” she doubts the possibility of meaningful relationships with people of other races; she insists that “racism cannot be absent from your friendship.”1111xIbid., 90. The New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh wrote in his review that “people of color function in [DiAngelo’s] world as sages, speaking truths that white people must cherish, and not challenge,” and that “[her] story makes white people seem like flawed, complicated characters; by comparison, people of color seem good, wise, and perhaps rather simple.”1212xKelefa Sanneh, “The Fight to Redefine Racism,” The New Yorker, August 12, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/08/19/the-fight-to-redefine-racism. Dichotomies like these, even when they are deployed as self-consciously utilitarian fictions, seem to leave little room for human intimacy. If a work friendship under such conditions sounds hard, just imagine what an interracial marriage would be like.

However, DiAngelo’s essentialism is merely groundwork for a stranger doctrine, one that has received less attention from the critics even though it is both more distinctive and more central to the teachings of White Fragility. Taibbi, among others, depicts DiAngelo as an ascetic priestess summoning white people to lives of continual sorrow and repentance, like the flagellants in The Seventh Seal. In fact, she is attempting a kind of transvaluation of values.

DiAngelo believes that “only whites can be racist.”1313xDiAngelo, White Fragility, 22. This is a striking statement, and one that her fellow antiracist thought leader Ibram X. Kendi, among others, rejects.1414xIbram X. Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist (New York, NY: One World, 2019), 140–149. It is justified, however, by her social-scientific definition of racism. Racism is racial power united with racial prejudice: “When a racial group’s collective prejudice is backed by the power of legal authority and institutional control, it is transformed into racism, a far-reaching system that functions independently from the intentions or individual self-images of individual actors.” Racial prejudice is inescapable and universal: “All humans have prejudice; we cannot avoid it,” because “if I am aware that a social group exists, I will have gained information about that group from the society around me.” According to this view, all black people are prejudiced against white people, and all white people are prejudiced against black people. “People who claim not to be prejudiced are demonstrating a profound lack of self-awareness.” However, only white people possess racial power. “To be white is to be in a privileged position within society and its institutions—to be seen as an insider and to be granted the benefits of belonging. This position automatically bestows unearned advantages.”1515xDiAngelo, White Fragility, 20, 19, 27. Only white people possess both racial prejudice and racial power. Therefore, all white people, and no nonwhite people, are racist.

Inevitable Complicity

It is obvious why many readers find this claim offensive. The most prevalent modern ideas about morality make it depend on intention. Sophocles’s Oedipus bore guilt for actions he did not intend, but we believe that guilt attaches only to people who do wrong willingly. Even a manslaughter conviction in our courts requires evidence of intentions that were in some way defective—because the accused was either culpably negligent or in the process of committing another crime. But DiAngelo seems to be accusing white people of moral wrongdoing just by virtue of being born into a particular race and culture, a condition they did not choose. This is what Taibbi means when he says that in White Fragility our place on the “spectrum of righteousness” is determined by birth.

Taibbi’s accusation is not quite fair, however, because DiAngelo is acutely conscious of this problem. She recognizes that in her framework, racism is an unchosen condition: “Most of us would not choose to be socialized into racism and white supremacy,” but “unfortunately, we didn’t have that choice.” And she agrees that it is unfair to assign guilt to people for actions or dispositions they did not choose. Indeed, DiAngelo’s core project in White Fragility is to dissociate racism from moral guilt. Because white people can neither relinquish their power nor escape their prejudice, their racism is not a moral failing. It is a social problem, to be addressed through various measures that DiAngelo lays out in her book, but it is not a sin.

Like many social scientists before her, DiAngelo offers her readers release from guilt through determinism. You are racist to the core, she says, but the good news is that your racism is not your fault, and no good works can save you from it. All you can do is expose and mitigate it while constantly reminding yourself that it doesn’t make you a bad person—only a person with work to do. Accordingly, DiAngelo insists that “I don’t feel guilty about racism.” She explains that “unlike heavy feelings such as guilt, the continuous work of identifying my internalized superiority and how it may be manifesting itself is incredibly liberating…. I am eager—even excited—to identify my inevitable collusion so that I can figure out how to stop colluding!”1616xIbid., 69, 149. Here DiAngelo begins to sound like a kind of racial predestinarian.

DiAngelo wants to free white people from guilt because she believes that it prevents them from taking action. Guilt is enervating because when people feel guilty, their only thought is to protect themselves. “White fragility,” DiAngelo’s term for unenlightened white people’s shocked responses to being called racist, is an epiphenomenon of white guilt. When DiAngelo enters a corporate training session and tells the white attendees they are racists, they interpret her words as a moral accusation and start defending themselves. DiAngelo finds their flailing “rather amusing.” (Think of Oedipus lambasting Tiresias, merely delaying the inevitable, awe-filled revelation.) “Stop and take a breath,”1717xDiAngelo, White Fragility, 116, 14. she says. Your racism does not make you a bad person; if you think it does, you have succumbed to the unscientific ideology of individualism, which confuses social structures with personal morality. When you have acknowledged this fact, you are free to examine, without guilt or shame, the ways in which your racism affects other people.

All against All

The theoretical core of White Fragility is “The Good-Bad Binary,” a chapter that begins with the Nietzschean declaration that this dyad is “perhaps the most effective adaptation of racism in recent history.” The hermeneutic of suspicion continues to do its work on the next page, where DiAngelo critiques the simplistic equations “RACIST = BAD” and “NOT RACIST = GOOD.” She goes on to argue that the imagery of the civil rights era—Whites Only signs, lynchings, church bombings, attack dogs, and firehose attacks—fooled white people into identifying racism with personal moral depravity. But “while making racism bad seems like a positive change,” DiAngelo declares grimly, “we have to look at how this functions in practice.” “The good/bad frame is a false dichotomy,” she explains.1818xIbid., 71, 72.

All people hold prejudices, especially across racial lines in a society deeply divided by race. I can be told that everyone is equal by my parents, I can have friends of color, and I may not tell racist jokes. Yet I am still affected by the forces of racism as a member of a society in which racism is the bedrock…. I will have a white worldview and a white frame of reference.1919xIbid., 72–73.

As it turns out, “making racism bad” merely allows good people to deny their own complicity in structural injustice. Indeed, overt racists are closer to the truth than white progressives:

Of course, some whites explicitly avow racism. We might consider these whites actually more aware of, and honest about, their biases than those of us who consider ourselves open-minded yet who have rarely thought critically about the biases we inevitably hold or how we may be expressing them.2020xIbid., 47.

We are now in a position to survey Robin DiAngelo’s world-picture. It is summed up admirably in the epigraph to chapter 4, from the Seattle writer and activist Ijeoma Oluo:

White people: I don’t want you to understand me better; I want you to understand yourselves. Your survival has never depended on your knowledge of white culture. In fact, it’s required your ignorance.2121xIbid., 51.

Oluo and DiAngelo see the world gripped by a racial war of all against all in which white ignorance is nothing less than a matter of survival for white people. The tendency to understand every human action as part of a continual struggle for survival among mindless, amoral bodies is common to the Darwinian right and the Foucauldian left; for DiAngelo, white fragility is a strategy adopted by white bodies in their struggle against black ones.

DiAngelo believes that this bleak vision is the consequence of a properly social-scientific understanding of human behavior. We are constituted by environmental influences that make us vicious, cruel, and self-seeking, no matter our intentions. On this darkling plain of eternal racial strife, the powerful protect themselves by crushing the powerless; the powerless would do the same in their place.

It would be wrong and unjust to accuse DiAngelo of encouraging or excusing white supremacy. She makes it quite clear that whites have a duty to “challenge our racial filters,” to engage in “ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual antiracist practice,” and even to “be ‘less white.’”2222xIbid., 147, 5, 150. It is worth noting, however, that this program of action consists almost entirely of individual self-examination and self-development. White liberals will not equalize racial power by displaying sensitivity toward their black acquaintances, but if they work hard, they might make themselves feel better, live up to their own commitments, and give offense less often. The problems are all structural, but the solutions are all personal. In light of these considerations, it is perhaps not surprising that serious questions have been raised about DiAngelo’s own material commitment to racial equity.2323xCharles Fain Lehman, “Antiracism Icon Robin DiAngelo Paid More Than Black Woman for Same Job,” Washington Free Beacon, November 23, 2020, https://freebeacon.com/culture/antiracism-icon-robin-diangelo-paid-more-than-black-woman-for-same-job/.

Moreover, someone might ask why white people would put any effort into even these relatively mild forms of antiracist self-discipline, given that racism does not confer guilt and that white fragility is nothing less than a strategy for “survival.” DiAngelo does have an answer to this question, at least for herself. Her aim, she tells us in her book’s final paragraph, is “to align my professed values with my real actions.”2424xDiAngelo, White Fragility, 154. Because DiAngelo professes to oppose white supremacy, she can only become a whole, self-consistent person by managing and minimizing the effects of her racism. Openly acknowledging her white identity and its effects allows her to achieve that end. Presumably, most of her white liberal readers share her stated commitment to opposing white supremacy. This book is directed at them.

But how did DiAngelo and her readers come to oppose white supremacy in the first place? The conscious opposition most white Americans feel toward racist discrimination is, for a majority, the direct or indirect result of the civil rights movement. The intellectuals and political leaders who brought racial injustice to the white public’s attention—Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, John Lewis, James Baldwin—spoke in richly moral language, about a struggle for justice and righteousness, a spiritual renewal, the realization of this country’s noblest and most beautiful hopes. By contrast, the word “justice” appears only once in White Fragility, when DiAngelo explains that “aversive racism…exists under the surface of consciousness because it conflicts with consciously held beliefs of racial equality and justice.” No wonder DiAngelo is ambivalent about the legacy of the 1960s. Her only comment on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is that the law made it “less acceptable for white people to admit to racial prejudice.” In her account, the triumph of Jackie Robinson fooled well-meaning whites into believing that individuals have agency against racist power structures. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is significant only because of its serial misinterpretation by colorblind propagandists.2525xIbid., 43, 41, 26, 41.

DiAngelo is correct in asserting that the civil rights movement and the association of racism with immorality did not end racial discrimination in America, or even come close to doing so. She is also correct to assert that colorblind policy seems unable to realize King’s great dream of racial equality. Among other things, black Americans suffer from an enormous wealth gap—the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination in the New Deal and the GI Bill, and redlining—that hurts their chances of attending good primary and secondary schools, graduating from college, giving their children better lives than their own: all the ordinary, unpretentious aspirations that American conservatives admire. The wealth gap is self-reinforcing, since poverty makes it harder to build home equity, invest, train for better-paid work, or start a business, and it seems unfair to ask black Americans to achieve genuine equality of opportunity—an equal chance to work their way into the middle class—without race-targeted interventions.

In other words, DiAngelo is right in saying that caring about racial justice requires us to think seriously about race. But by seeking to unlink antiracism from moral struggle, she is destroying the basis for her own deep moral convictions, and those of her white readers. Her grim picture of eternal racial struggle, unmitigated by meaningful cross-racial friendship or community, cannot explain why a mindless, amoral human body would voluntarily set aside its survival strategies, relinquish its grip on power, and work to help someone else. Pure though her intentions may be, DiAngelo’s calls for “white people to explore the collective aspects of the white experience” and to “face the first challenge: naming our race,” and her description of herself as working “to raise the racial consciousness of whites,”2626xIbid., 9, 7, 63. have an eerie ring at a time when explicit white nationalism seems to be gaining momentum in online communities.

Other major figures in the new antiracism have a more substantive and positive vision to offer. The New York Times’s 1619 Project, especially Nikole Hannah-Jones’s flagship essay, has been attacked by the right and center-left for what its critics have called a bleak vision of American history. But Hannah-Jones’s central thesis, that black Americans have made immense and underacknowledged contributions to the realization of this country’s founding ideals, is morally serious and even patriotic in its commitment to the lofty principles of the Declaration.2727xNikole Hannah-Jones, “Our Democracy’s Ideals Were False When They Were Written. Black Americans Have Fought to Make Them True,” New York Times Magazine, August 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html. In How to Be an Antiracist—blurbed, ironically, by both DiAngelo and Oluo—Ibram X. Kendi insists on the moral evil of racism and the ability of white and black people to join in solidarity to combat racist power. When Thomas Jefferson brought his wife’s half-brother, Robert Hemings, to Philadelphia as his enslaved manservant in 1776, he was denying that he and Hemings belonged to the same people, despite their family bond. When American police officers single out black drivers for traffic stops and selective enforcement of drug laws, and when judges hand down harsher sentences to black defendants, they are treating black Americans like a separate people, disjoint from the American community. When employers hesitate to hire people with black-coded names or hairstyles, they are implicitly questioning the ability of black workers to live up to American culture’s standards of excellence. CRT’s insistence on maintaining race as a category of analysis allows us to see that these injustices are occurring all around us. But we cannot understand why they are unjust unless we accept a claim that DiAngelo would have us deny: that Americans are one people with a shared future, a shared though diverse culture, and, in principle, a shared set of moral ideals—preached by white founding fathers but realized in large part through the toil, suffering, and heroism of black Americans. Nothing guarantees that these ideals will triumph. But if we dismiss them as mere superstructure, we have little reason to observe even the tremulous courtesies DiAngelo demands from us.