Robin Diangelo, formerly a tenured professor of Multicultural Studies, has spent years presenting workshops to various organizations in an effort to help white people to recognize and overcome the racism that she believes they hold, but often do not see. It is in these workshops, as well as in her own life and in the public conversation at large, that she has observed and defined the phenomenon that she describes as “white fragility.” As one may imagine, a large portion of her audience is not pleased to be accused of racism, and they will deny it, become angry, burst into tears, and generally push back at the idea that they harbor racist beliefs.
According to Diangelo, prejudice is when an individual holds belittling or negative views of a person of another race, and discrimination is when a person or group acts in such a way as to harm someone against whom they are prejudiced. Racism, however, is a larger, societal concept whereby the laws and accepted culture of the entire nation discriminate against a particular group. She believes that the history of the United States has inculcated racist views into every American, despite the abolition of slavery and the end of Jim Crow. We may not recognize these attitudes within ourselves, but they continue to operate underneath all of our social, professional, and legal transactions, keeping the white-dominated hierarchy in place.
Once Diangelo establishes her thesis, she continues to repeat it relentlessly until the reader despairs of there being any proper response to her claims. Although the book has only 154 pages, it is about 125 pages too long. One anecdote after another parades her hapless workshop participants being berated for having the wrong reaction to a charge of racism. Eventually, we learn that Diangelo believes that white people are going to be racist forever, but that they can learn how not to treat people of color. The last chapter gives some practical suggestions.
How can the same book be simultaneously the #1 national bestseller and the most hated book in America? It depends on your viewpoint. I was prepared to be terribly offended by this book, but in the introduction, Diangelo points out that she is aiming at white progressives, who, she believes, have caused more trouble for people of color than anyone else. (p. 5) Since I am not a progressive, I was then able to listen with an open mind. Truthfully, I was very rarely offended in these pages, and I did learn a few things. Interestingly, she shares two opinions with Pastor Swanson, the author of Rediscipling the White Church (reviewed here), that white people are much more likely to emphasize the individual, rather than the group, and that white people use their own experiences and beliefs as the yardstick for measuring the world. White people generally believe that their culture is the neutral norm.
Reading this book as a Christian, Diangelo’s solution, when she finally gets to it, sounds like a watered-down version of what is already laid out in scripture. We could probably all find some prejudice in our hearts because we are all sinners by nature. Matthew 18 tells us to be open and honest with one another and to apologize when we’ve hurt someone. The purpose of loving confrontation is not to be defensive– or “fragile”– but to restore relationships. The Bible tells us to lift up the oppressed and to avoid favoritism, and since we live in a democracy, we can protest oppression and advocate for just laws.
The neverending masochism that Ms. Diangelo prescribes seems to be the modern, secular version of wearing a hair shirt and whipping one’s back. This exhausting obsession offers no solutions, just incurable guilt. The problem is real, but we can look to other voices for better answers.
Coming up in the Anti-Racist Reads category: James Baldwin and Ijeoma Oluo.
Disclaimer: I own a copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.