Book Review: “White Fragility” versus Anti Racist Agility

By Karyn Pomerantz, June 29, 2020

“White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo ranks as the number one best selling book on many publisher lists and has a months long waiting list at public libraries.  It clearly has an important message to garner such attention. What does this message mean for a multiracial fight against racism as we’ve witnessed in the protests around the world? What kinds of strategies does it encourage to overcome the racist nature of capitalism?

Dr. DiAngelo is a white woman educator who helps companies and organizations diversify their workforces and develop more harmony between workers of different “racial” and ethnic backgrounds. She creates and delivers an antiracist curriculum to the employees, mostly white, in order to expose white people’s racism and, as she states, to encourage them to recognize their privilege so they can stop oppressing black people. (The book focuses on black and white people). 

There is no way to live in this toxic society without learning the false, racist stereotypes pounded into us of black “criminals,” “illegal” Mexicans, “diseased” Asians, “redneck” whites, or “drunk” Native Americans. There is no reason workers need to be defensive when confronting racism as long as they struggle against it in their ideas and actions. Placing the ruling class as the inventor and beneficiary of racism by generating wealth and divisions can help alleviate the dysfunctional guilt and anger many white people display.

DiAngelo defines white fragility as the defensive and angry reactions white people exhibit when called out for racism. This racism can be interpersonal slights by white people, such as centering attention on oneself, dominating conversations, or making insensitive comments about the hair of a black woman. 

Racism also influences people’s ideas about society, such as the beliefs that affirmative action gives black and Latin people an advantage over whites in employment and education, that black men are dangerous, and that poverty, not discrimination, is the only problem.  There is no evidence for any of these beliefs.  In fact, white women benefited more from affirmative action programs than any other group (Crenshaw, 2006), and black families with higher incomes and education have higher rates of bad birth outcomes compared to white women with lower incomes and education (Novoa, 2018; California Newsreel, 2014). 

Strengths

DiAngelo correctly describes key tenets of US racism. She explains how the early colonizers developed “race” as a concept to justify inequality and bribed white indentured servants with higher wages, coercive policing positions on the plantations, and a higher status. She acknowledges how racism divided people and enabled the landowners to rule in relative peace except for slave rebellions and the occasional opposition from black, white, and Native American fighters. 

She and Ibram X. Kendi (Stamped from the Beginning and How to be an Antiracist) also agree that the practices of enslavement, Jim Crow codes, incarceration, and discrimination led to the construction of racist ideas disseminated widely by media depictions to protect the status quo whereas many race theorists believe bad attitudes cause bad policies. However, White Fragility only instructs readers to change attitudes rather than policies. 

She identifies the angry and defensive reactions white people (who volunteer for the sessions) have in her workshops when confronted by descriptions of their racist behaviors, reactions that will be familiar to many readers. They include white solidarity, sticking together as a “race;” rejecting the training because they are anti-racist, have read many books, or already know black people. She offers  strategies to de-escalate tense situations and to recognize one’s own racist behaviors.

Weaknesses

However, she does not advise her audience to take meaningful actions to change behaviors or engage in antiracist campaigns, let alone why white people would need to do so. (Keep in mind that in this diversity-industrial complex, companies pay for these workshops and would not support them if they taught employees how to demand unions, higher wages, and other costly benefits). 

One wonders how much her presentation generates the anger she attributes to white fragility. As one Amazon reviewer wrote:

“I find it amusing that at no point does the author consider the following possibility- that ‘white people’ do not react negatively to conversations about race per se, but that it is simply the way SHE has such conversations that upsets people. Since almost all the ‘evidence’ base for this book is entirely from the author’s own experience…..the clear conclusion is that she just pisses people off when she gives her seminars. Should she be surprised that when you tell people that somehow they are not individuals and are a monolith driven by forces that they do not understand….but magically she DOES understand….that they will be pissed off?” (International Reviews). 

Aside from the contentious nature of the workshops, she makes the same mistakes other acclaimed “unpacking racism” educators make and that many activists embrace. She lumps all white people into one monolithic block without any acknowledgement of class or even different viewpoints “This book is  unapologetically rooted in identity politics.” She holds all white people accountable for oppressing everyone else in order to maintain a higher social status (i.e. “privilege”). This was and is the exact intention of the past and present ruling classes: enslave all workers in different ways but give a bit more to the whites so they will align with the rich and not their brothers, sisters, and non-binary people who have the same needs. 

Contrast this with Kendi’s position that individuals of different “races” have different perspectives and class interests. White people who hold powerful positions in society use racism to generate profit by paying black and Latin workers less, cutting social services, and dividing workers so they don’t fight back. They underpay black, brown, and indigenous workers; track them into the worst (or no) jobs; deny them critical services like housing and food; and severely repress them with police violence, surveillance, and imprisonment. White privilege theories argue that white workers benefit from racism because they don’t experience the same levels of oppression. However, the vast majority of white workers at all income levels do not benefit from this. Many experience these same problems although at different levels of harm. Thirty million unemployed people have more in common with each other than white workers have with Jeff Bezos. Furthermore, workers throughout the world need to unite in order to fight for common needs.

As Metzl explains in Dying of Whiteness, some white workers he interviewed refused Medicaid benefits, viewing them as a hand out for black people, thereby increasing their own risks of dying. For decades, politicians from all parties have linked social problems and government support with black, Latin, and Native American even though more white workers received the benefits. In the 1980s when HIV ravaged black drug users, the government criminalized drug possession and provided jail cells. Now, when white workers overdose on the same drugs, they are offered (but not always given) treatment. How different it would be if white workers supported earlier harm reduction programs, like needle exchange and safe injection sites. Calling for prevention and treatment now that white workers suffer shows whose lives matter to the ruling class (although it doesn’t help any worker). 

Noted public health author, Dr. Camara P. Jones, discusses the deadly effects of racism on everyone, especially by cutting off the contributions of marginalized and oppressed people. Many articles on this blog demonstrate that racism doesn’t  benefit white workers. While white people are nowhere near as exploited and oppressed by racism, they suffer its consequences in very concrete ways, even if they are not aware of it. In her book, DiAngelo never indicates how harmful racism is to white people. “White people are the beneficiaries of that inequality and divisiveness.” In fact, she is part of the conversation that demands white people give up privilege. Antiracism is not a moral issue. It is material; it damages people in very concrete ways and in different degrees of intensity, such as housing security, Covid19, healthcare, and education. Do we really want white people to forgo treatment for Covid19 or do we want people to fight for treatment for everyone, prioritizing funding where the need is greatest? As Bill Sacks argues in another article:

  • “We have to hold in mind the definitions and implications of proportions and numbers: greater proportions of black working-class people are killed by cops or incarcerated, while greater numbers of white working-class people are killed by cops and incarcerated.
  • There is a difference between a right and a privilege: just because black (mainly) working-class people are denied a right does not turn it into a privilege for white working-class people; it’s still a right and a right denied.” (Multiracialunity.org, June 2020)

We need to win life sustaining rights for everyone.

How do we fight racism: some ideas

We can fight to improve our lives way beyond the level of white workers, especially those millions without health insurance or without a living wage. Overthrowing the current economic system or even reforming capitalism’s horrors requires huge numbers of people from all backgrounds. We need to embrace our working class membership. Instead of defining ourselves by different categories, we can appreciate our similarities. Billions of people work in a society where only a few garner most of the wealth we create. We can reject an emphasis on identities while still celebrating our differences and unite as workers with the potential to force change.

As we’ve witnessed from the massive uprisings today and past revolutionary and social movements, action and unity can accomplish changes in policies and social systems. The process of organizing and protesting forges relationships, connections with different issues, and lessons about who’s an ally, comrade, or enemy. Getting involved in union campaigns, community safety, and health issues trains people for bigger battles. In this context, people can learn in supportive environments to make racist and other harmful attitudes (anti-trans, sexism, xenophobia) visible and unacceptable. We can learn from each other.  It is gratifying to see the upsurge in multiracial actions among the public throughout the world. Let’s turn white fragility into antiracist agility!

References

California Newsreel. When the Bough Breaks: How Racism Impacts Birth Outcomes, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xUUJIG0-SlA

Crenshaw K. Framing Affirmative Action, 105 Mich. L. Rev. First Impressions 123 (2006). Available at: http://repository.law.umich.edu/mlr_fi/vol105/iss1/4

International Reviews. https://www.amazon.com/White-Fragility-People-About-Racism, viewed on 6-27-2020)

Jones C. Racism and Health. American Public Health Association. https://www.apha.org/topics-and-issues/health-equity/racism-and-health, viewed 6-1-2020.

Lozana C. White fragility is real. But ‘White Fragility’ is flawed. Washington Post Outlook section, June 18, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/06/18/white-fragility-is-real-white-fragility-is-flawed/

Metzl J. Dying of Whiteness. Basic Books, 2020.

Novoa C. Exploring African Americans’ High Maternal and Infant Death Rates. 2018. Center for American Progress. https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/early-childhood/reports/2018/02/01/445576/exploring-african-americans-high-maternal-infant-death-rates/

Sacks W. Antiracist Book Reviews. Multiracialunity.org. June 28, 2020. https://multiracialunity.org/2020/06/27/antiracist-book-reviews-working-class-unity-versus-white-privilege-2/#more-2786

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