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.

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