Written by Classical Liberal
Dr Robin DiAngelo is a white American academic with a PhD in multicultural education who specialises in whiteness studies and critical discourse analysis.
Analysis of her best-selling book, White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, reveals just how intellectually bankrupt identity politics is.
DiAngelo tries to convince her readers of two things. First, white people are inescapably racist. ‘All white people are invested in and collude with racism’, and ‘The white collective fundamentally hates blackness for what it reminds us of: that we are capable and guilty of perpetrating immeasurable harm and that our gains come through the subjugation of others’.
Second, any white person who does not admit their own racism is blinded by their White Fragility. DiAngelo argues that white people tend to act defensively when people of colour discuss racism – anger, fear, guilt, arguing, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation – in order to prevent people of colour from attempting to talk about racism with them. She refers to this defensiveness as ‘White Fragility’. This occurs because white people are ‘Socialised into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race’, which explains why ‘people who identify as white are so difficult in conversations regarding race’.
DiAngelo’s grandiose theory, as applied to all white people, has two fatal flaws. First, White Fragility is unfalsifiable. It is impossible for anyone to prove that they are not fragile, just as it is impossible for someone to prove that they are not possessed by a demon. More insidiously, DiAngelo frames the theory of White Fragility such that any conceivable reaction a white person has when discussing race is purportedly evidence of fragility, and any denial of her theory is interpreted as proof of its validity. Therefore, if DiAngelo accuses you of racism and you disagree in any way, your reaction is considered proof of your fragility. DiAngelo leaves white people only two options. Either acknowledge your White Fragility, which proves her theory, or deny your fragility, which, according to DiAngelo, also proves her theory. This is a logical fallacy known as a Kafka Trap, named after the story ‘The Trial’, written by Franz Kafka, where any denial of the truth of an accusation is taken as evidence of guilt. If our legal system worked this way, no person accused of a crime would ever be acquitted because their denial would prove their guilt.
Second, DiAngelo uses similar techniques to support her other core theory that all white people are racist. For example, DiAngelo lays another trap that makes it impossible for white people to speak badly of any areas with high crime rates in which many people of colour live. When DiAngelo’s friends warned her not to buy a home in a neighbourhood with relatively high crime rates and poorly rated schools, she later discovered that this neighbourhood had a high percentage of black and brown residents. Therefore, she concluded that her friends’ warnings were racially motivated and that ‘my fellow whites had communicated the racial boundaries to me’. Can you see the trap? If DiAngelo’s friends had told her not to live in this neighbourhood because it had black and brown residents, she could call them out for overt racism. But, even when her friends made no mention of race whatsoever, DiAngelo attributed their warnings to racism as well. There was no way for DiAngelo’s friends to mention the neighbourhood’s high crime rates without DiAngelo finding them guilty of racism.
The theory of White Fragility relies on the flawed premise of implicit bias, which is now known to be a form of pseudoscience. Implicit bias is supposed to refer to when people have unacknowledged biases that affect their behaviour. DiAngelo takes for granted that implicit biases are pervasive, that implicit biases predict behaviour, and that most people are unaware that they have implicit biases. Her understanding, however, is based upon studies from the first generation of implicit bias research, which arose after the publication of a paper describing the ‘Implicit Association Test’. About 70% of people who took the race version of the Implicit Association Test showed the same tendency – when asked to choose from a selection of faces, they preferred faces with typically European-American features over those with African-American features. These findings led to a popular narrative that racism is a system built upon implicit bias.
However, a second generation of research has raised serious doubts about implicit bias. It is not clear what exactly implicit bias measures. Implicit bias is not the same as unconscious bias. Several studies have found that implicit bias does not predict how people will react in real life. Finally, the validity of the test is also cast into doubt by a lack of evidence that results are consistent, even for the same person on the same day. In summary, psychologists do not know exactly what implicit bias is, or how to define it. Implicit bias is almost certainly not a measure of unconscious prejudice. It does not reliably predict behaviour. It does not seem to explain much about racial inequality.
If a similar book was written about any other racial group – Asian Insecurity, Black Hostility, Latino Insensitivity, etc – it would never get published. People would recognise the book for what it is – an absurd generalisation that attributes negative qualities to an entire race of people. This is the very definition of racism.
But, White Fragility has succeeded because we are in a unique historical moment, in which our discourse of race-related issues has become so irrational, that people can no longer tell the difference between scholarship and nonsense.
It is most telling that White Fragility has come under heavy criticism from black intellectuals. American linguist John McWhorter, a black professor at the elite Columbia University, argues that DiAngelo’s book is condescending towards black people. The book ‘openly infantilized Black people’ and ‘simply dehumanized us’. Thus, the book ‘is racist’:
… if you write a book that teaches us that Black people’s feelings must be stepped around to an exquisitely sensitive degree that hasn’t been required of any human beings, you’re condescending to Black people. In supposing that Black people have no resilience, you are saying that Black people are unusually weak. You’re saying that we are lesser. You’re saying that we, because of the circumstances of American social history, cannot be treated as adults. And in the technical sense, that’s discriminatory.