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On the Defensive: Navigating White Advantage and White Fragility

IN HER 1981 keynote address to the National Women’s Studies Association, the poet and freedom fighter Audre Lorde described the perils of some such gatherings. She told her audience that “I speak out of direct and particular anger at an academic conference, and a white woman says, ‘Tell me how you feel but don’t say it too harshly or I cannot hear you.’” Lorde then asked: “But is it my manner that keeps her from hearing, or the threat of a message that her life may change?” Lorde was up against “white fragility,” but the problem then lacked a name.

The person providing the name has been Dr. Robin DiAngelo, whose doctorate in education from University of Washington analyzed the racial discourse of white preschool teachers. An award-winning professor who has increasingly turned to being a facilitator of workshops designed to teach whites to frankly discuss their own racial position, she first used “white fragility” in a 2011 article. Her work has informed many experts in multicultural education and activists in social movements. In the book under review here, DiAngelo mostly lets readers figure out what white fragility is by trickling out interesting concrete examples, often from her workshop experiences. Through the years her most succinct definition has specified,

White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.

There rages among antiracists and those who imagine that we are past all that a pretty fierce debate over the merits of asking people to confront, in an organized way, the advantages accruing to them as whites. On the right, DiAngelo is already attacked, as is critical whiteness studies generally. Indeed, one perverse dimension of such venomous attack is an ability to perpetually gin up outrage and white fragility around academic studies of whiteness as if it were a new and intolerable thing, a quarter century after the first such attacks. Now that DiAngelo’s book has appeared on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list, she is almost certain to become the outrage du jour.

At one extreme of progressive opinion is the position taken by the political scientist Adolph Reed and the literary scholar Walter Benn Michaels. They discern in activism and education around racism the diversionary initiatives of a “class” of academics, middle managers, and political hired hands who, consciously or otherwise, divert attention from the hard facts of economic inequality and keep us preoccupied instead with obsessing about identity. This “antiracism/industrial complex” — odd that a nation so bereft of industrial jobs is said to keep generating these complexes — allegedly expresses the interests of a professional/managerial class serving capital. The counter-positions to those of Reed and Benn Michaels hold that stark racial inequality continues and that something like what feminists called “consciousness raising” has value where whiteness is concerned. Whites — the feminist imagination of a process with the oppressed themselves at the center is perhaps insufficiently emphasized in the antiracist variant — might then puzzle out the miseries, to others and themselves, done in the name of adherence to a set of unexamined assumptions and fiercely defended privileges.

Neither position very much encourages constructing a balance sheet regarding what antiracist seminars, study circles, workshops, and certificates might achieve. Neither much notices the differing ideologies and material realities under which they operate. For Reed and Michaels, the antiracist consultant is a class enemy; the more sympathetic, myself included, are sometimes too tempted to then suppose that the well-meaning consultant ought not be criticized, or even that the critiques are themselves simply evidence of a desire for what DiAngelo calls “comfort” and “white-centeredness” among the critics.

To occupy more fruitful ground, treating the contradictions and success of the book together seems apposite before I offer a closing section on the challenges and possibilities of antiracism training. White Fragility fascinatingly reads as one-part jeremiad and one-part handbook. It is by turns mordant and then inspirational, an argument that powerful forces and tragic histories stack the deck fully against racial justice alongside one that we need only to be clearer, try harder, and do better. On the one hand, as its subtitle suggests, the book underlines how wildly difficult it is for mere conversation to break through layers of defensiveness among whites. The sedimented debris of past injustices conspire with current patterns of white advantage to make white employees and even white activists very hard to coach toward any mature questioning of racial oppression. Their practiced (in all senses of the word) resort to defensiveness and even tears in squelching talk about such advantage is both reflexive and conscious. That very fact adds to opportunities for race talk to devolve into a need to validate the good intentions of individual whites at the expense of serious consideration of either structures of white supremacy or its impacts on its victims. Seldom can anyone learn anything.

On the other hand, White Fragility and DiAngelo’s website offer lists, links, and rules for working antiracist magic, making the task seem at times straightforward and centered on the skills of the workshop facilitator and perhaps on lay people adopting and adapting her wisdom. “Robin DiAngelo is,” Michael Eric Dyson writes a little oddly, in a generous and apt foreword, “the new racial sheriff in town.” DiAngelo is able to bring a “different law and order to bear upon the racial proceedings.” She can, he holds, deliver results by making whites own up to fear, pain, and privilege. If we do things right, the movement, workplace, or the congregation will change and grow, at the very least coming to contain better people. In tone and content, the book jars against itself. The can-do spirit of the workshop and primer knocks against the sober accounts of the utter embeddedness of white advantage in structures of both political economy and of personality and character. Such jarring is not indefensible. We live in contradictions and we do what we can. “Optimism of the will,” the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci enjoined, but also “pessimism of the intellect.” The danger perhaps arises when doing ameliorative work well begins to seem like a strategy for deep structural change.

The subtitle itself suggests how hard it is for a book to thread needles that a society and the states of its social movements do not provide us with the resources to thread. I never blame an author entirely for his or her title and subtitle, as I have unhappily learned from personal experience how the marketing department can commandeer the naming of books. But whomever gave it to us, the subtitle of White Fragility offers a telling example of the apt severity of the book’s analysis clashing with its search for a plausible fix. It promises to tell us “Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” a real problem, but one deepened even more by the fact that white people do in fact drone on about race and racism. They speak privately, rehearsing what I have elsewhere called “whitelore” and to a remarkable extent casting themselves as the victims of racism. When a Donald Trump or a Rush Limbaugh markets himself as having the courage to defend in public what “you” already know and say, they trade on an extensive, if intellectually impoverished, discourse.

Thus the challenge only seems to be getting whites to open up and fill a void. At its best, DiAngelo’s work knows this well and emphasizes likewise that whites are not in the main vexed by being actually fragile around race. The more exact and obdurate problem is that they tend to be sullen, anxious to defend advantages, and given to performing a stance of fragility. It is less clear that all readers will know as much or that allowing them to acknowledge what underlays their fragility will change their attitudes.

The author’s keen perception, long experience, and deep commitment make White Fragility revealing as to how whites hunker down and huddle together for warmth. In movement settings, I have seen the term white fragility deployed to great effect, especially in the least scripted scenarios. In its appreciation of the emotional content of white identity’s many associations with misery, it calls to mind the indispensable work of the theologian Thandeka in Learning to Be White, though the latter leaves more room to acknowledge that the pain of white racial formation is profound and real as well as contrived. As Katy Waldman has written in The New Yorker, DiAngelo has issued a necessary “call for humility and vigilance.”

Though at times White Fragility envisions race as a durable category — even calling for whites to have more “racial stamina” in order to question whiteness — it does not imagine anything redemptive about whiteness and hopes at least for so-called white people to become “less white.” It is uncommonly honest about the duration and extent of entrenched injustice and provocative on the especially destructive role of progressive whites at critical junctures. How often, in the age of Trump, do we read that: “White progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color?”

Nevertheless, for me White Fragility reads better as evidence of where we are mired than as a how-to guide on where we are on the cusp of going. Its pessimistic half convinces more than its optimism. Without more than appeals to logical consistency and to conscience, what lasts beyond the workshop is likely to fade. There is no firm sense of the politics that might be productively attached to the attack on white fragility and white supremacy to which DiAngelo is passionately committed. Between the book’s lines, some sort of reparations for slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration would seem the logically desired outcome, but DiAngelo elaborates little regarding what comes after white fragility.

Part of the problem is a certain reticence to become curious about what antiracist training is, who it has as an audience, and what are its limits. Is the workshop the project of a union, a church, a radical collective, or, as is so often the case, an employer? This difference goes unexamined. It includes much textured description of training sessions, but perhaps too little about their contradictions and limitations.

Beyond the contradiction belabored above — the one setting powerful structural and emotional causes for white fragility against discursive and voluntary solutions — several other (potentially productive) difficulties arise. What voices and eventualities are relatively missing from the description of the workshops deserves consideration. As Waldman points out in her appreciative review, the role of people of color in the sessions described is pretty scant. They appear as rightfully suspicious and not active at times or as weighing in late in the proceedings or afterward with a critique that enables the facilitator to reflect and grow, modeling the overcoming of white fragility. But the substance of their contributions and the ways in which they might become more central to the discussions remain unclear. The very important and often transformative moments when people of color disagree with each other in discussions of race are perhaps subjects for another book. The labor historian in me also wonders how many antiracism workshops take place in workplaces, and whether we should not emphasize that those interactions are management-sponsored as well as workplace-centered. As much as Starbucks, for example, seems to enter the side of the angels by undertaking diversity training, they and other corporations also manage workers hierarchically, and use their antiracism training in marketing, in damage control, and in combating litigation. Such corporations are themselves in large measure responsible for the obscene racial wealth gap in the United States. Under their auspices may not be the most favorable setting for workers to find their ways beyond racism.

Full disclosure: I have had an inglorious and meager career — okay, the better noun is surely side hustle — in giving non-corporate antiracist workshops, in addition to being a historian of race and class. If asked to do so by unions or by friends wanting me to do something extra when in town to do an academic talk, I grudgingly assent. The critical legal theorist john powell and I long ago prepared a questionnaire on whiteness. I still sometimes trot out a few questions from it — “When are you white?” or “What would you put in a display on white culture?” — to try to break through to frank discussions very like those DiAngelo has honed strategies for encouraging.

Sometimes, such antiracism without a license has proven to be a wonderful learning experience, more for me than my interlocutors. The best examples came a quarter century ago. I was still trying to figure who the “white worker” was, past and present, and why so much of her or his political behavior accented the “white.” So I just asked, particularly in workshops in Missouri sponsored by the New Directions Movement within the United Automobile Workers and the summer schools of the United Steelworkers: “Why would anyone want to claim the identity of ‘white worker?’” The students were perhaps two-thirds white, and it was the white trade unionists who first answered. They said that if you were white you could get a job in higher-paying skilled trades, that you could get a better interest rate and buy a house in any neighborhood, that your kids could go to better schools, that cops were less likely to hassle you and your family. That is, they understood acutely — in that setting anyway — the advantages attending whiteness.

The remarkable matter-of-fact set of insights that those workers presented, reinforced by interspersed comments from African-American workers, suggests that White Fragility may — if taken as panacea rather than as a useful corner of a big problem — be too pessimistic as well as too cheery. Some of the critique of whiteness may already reside in the heads of ordinary whites, though sadly what they already know can increase defensiveness as easily as decrease it.

Long ago, in The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin invited a dis-identification from whiteness so that whites in the United States might join in the “suffering and dancing” around them. More than ever in our moment we need just that. In my view, such a change will come when whites are swept into social movements that express the interests of humanity and that probably will seldom have whites at their center. White Fragility — indeed any single book — cannot conjure up such movements. But it does much help us to get there.

¤

David Roediger chairs the American Studies Department at University of Kansas. His recent Class, Race, and Marxism (Verso) has won the C. L. R. James Book Prize from the Working Class Studies Association.

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