I think that the book White Fragility (2018), written by Robin DiAngelo, is fabulous, but I am a little alarmed that people are reading it now as their introduction into this antiracist movement. The way we have discussions around topics of race and culture changes by the week, if not by the day, and the book is not as relevant as it once was.
Since the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery people have been much more receptive to its ideas and we wouldn’t be here without the book – and so it is one of the most important books of the century. But for the current moment, we shouldn’t be reading it. It is time for new books, and books by people of color.
People are less in denial about structural and systemic racism than they used to be and schools and businesses, even very large corporations, are making statements acknowledging shortcomings and, at times, committing to do better. But conservative outlets like National Review have run articles about how “no one is woke enough” for the PC culture that is unfurling more and more every day. The aforementioned article is based around this article from Harper’s Magazine, signed by many progressive journalists and a few conservatives who have grown alarmed by our heightened call out culture in the wake of more extreme manifestations of Black Lives Matter (another article on the same event here or here – note that only poor quality news outlets covered it) that are tarnishing the movement in the eyes of conservatives I know personally who were just starting to get on board.
White Fragility made me realize that by being White in America I am automatically a complicit racist and that while I might have antiracist moments, people can’t be antiracists (how DiAngelo’s framework might be read via Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist which implies that you can be an antiracist because of the article “an” in the “an Antiracist” of the title is a topic for a future post). However, the book also made me bolder and less careful in my cross-racial interactions because I realized that mistakes were inevitable, and that my inevitable faux pas could be discursively anticipated by people who were up on the recent developments in antiracist thought. Learning this was irritating and led to an irreverence on my part that few others can afford to have (given that I blog openly about my recovery from mental illness on another website and that I tutor and consult with people who are progressive but not overly so). No racial slurs, but a sort of glibness emerged that is common in conservative pundits nowadays. But I was teaching antiracism in this glibness and my goal was to get people’s guards down so we could dismantle White supremacy together without the polarized Facebook consciousness. But I digress.
The book also gave me an insider perspective (a little smug in retrospect) that told me that I was up on the latest developments. There have been newer iterations of this false sense of confidence that I have experienced personally, whereby White women get street cred from their friends of color and where White people become arbiters of PC justice rather than their friends, the people of color whose lived experience actually makes them the expert (White “allies” are not experts and the term itself is problematic).
A perhaps more problematic aspect of the book was that I stopped caring about the feelings of White people because I looked at everything discursively. DiAngelo does discourse analysis in her work – that’s a fancy way of saying that she asks not what is being said or what is being felt, but rather, what the function of what’s being said or felt is in the conversation. Many readers will recognize discursive thought when they are told that intention doesn’t matter and that impact is everything. Well this is for good reason. Often, the function of our obsession with our feelings, niceness and which words we use is that racism and the status quo (i.e. White supremacy) are upheld and that, furthermore, our White feelings and emotions and shame about the racist status quo dominate the bodies of color as we enter a depressing metaland into which not even all people of color see the conversation as having gone.
As an antiracist, DiAngelo sees her job as dismantling racism and rejecting her White privilege. She sees herself as acting within her integrity by calling out racism, what she describes in another book as “breaking White silence” (the book is entitled What Does it Mean to Be White?: Developing White Racial Literacy (2012)).
“I’ve read the book,” I thought. “Therefore, I can help.” This was wrong. The logic of this was simple. I thought to myself that I would never be “in” and that being “in” and trying to get there was part of the problem.
In a recent podcast with Robin DiAngelo, Resmaa Menakem mentioned an expression, “bodies of culture,” that I wished the podcast had gone into greater depth about (see this podcast with Resmaa Menakem alone to see the highlights of his most recent book, My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies). Through his focus on the body, Resmaa Menakem moves us out of DiAngelo’s intellectual and discursive focus on racism into a posture of humility and accountability that is quite literally embodied.
This brings me back to the point of my article, which is to state that really we should be reading books by people of color right now and not intellectual books by White people about racism, which seem to be more a form of cultural tourism. Through Menakem’s work, I have gained awareness of the need to be not just aware of my flaws, but also to be accountable for them. Bodily. I have actually caused a lot of pain when I have gone in brashly proud of my flaws and rush into cross-racial conversations anyway because “now I’ve read White Fragility and I understand everything.” Really this is how antiracism work becomes colonized.
Unraveling my White identity and my White supremacist entitlement to the time and work of people of color is a lifelong process. DiAngelo’s book doesn’t strive toward redemption or the “beloved community” but asks us instead for us to be more processual, and this is one of the book’s strengths. But she does this with a spotlight on her integrity as a White person rather than on the communal impact of such action, and therefore it sort of still reinforces the White Racial Frame.
My thought after reading the book was, “Now I don’t have to try as hard because I realize how inevitable my mistakes are.” And I don’t think I’m alone in this. It is part of a disturbing trend that I am seeing – first in myself, and now in others, and still others (for an example of someone who has helped me evolve from White Fragility, listen to this last podcast from Brené Brown) -where we are so accepting of people of color and “in” White anti-racist trainers’ inevitable rejection of us that we just give up and stop trying to not offend. Next week I will write about how in some ways, I think that the rhetoric of the current president is an outgrowth of that. And that this trickles down to the failure to wear masks.
At bottom, I am still a learner, and I want to learn from my readers (and I will annotate my development from your feedback below and write future posts from it).