Racism and Responsibilization in “White Fragility”

Most readers will be familiar with the story of Elizabeth Holmes, the founder of Theranos. Although she had no medical training and little in the way of engineering education, Holmes claimed to have invented an efficient, far less painful way to collect and test blood samples. Drawing on her connections to wealthy and powerful elites, Holmes was able to raise $400 million in funding and attract a lot of media hype, complete with glowing magazine features and placement on lists of important young business people and powerful women. The problem: Theranos’s blood-testing technology didn’t actually work, and Holmes’s fraud wasn’t discovered until she’d already built a $9 billion house of cards. The case of Holmes and Theranos is extreme, but it is representative of a recurring phenomenon of charlatans peddling miracle cures for social problems to a receptive audience of politicians and plutocrats, who in turn enlist the rest of us as guinea pigs in their doomed experiments. 

Diversity trainer and education scholar Robin DiAngelo is also peddling a miracle cure. In this case, the social problems are racism and inequality, and the solutions are to be found in her book White Fragility. Although first published in 2018, this book currently sits at the top of the New York Times’s list of best-selling nonfiction books. The news and social media are currently filled with mentions of its popularity, importance, and utility. Particularly for European-Americans, White Fragility is advertized as a necessary starting point for those who want to heal themselves of racism and understand the premise that racist beliefs and practices were not eliminated by the abolition of slavery or the election of a black president. While White Fragility may feel like an effective remedy for racism in police departments and other institutions, the reality is that the author’s theory of change only serves the interests of diversity trainers like herself and their ruling class masters.

Context

Over the past few weeks, activists and popular media outlets across the country have highlighted the frequent and disproportionate murders of African-Americans by police, and the long history of the perpetrators of those violent acts—especially Euro-American police officers—evading accountability. As articles by Cedric Johnson and Conrad C. have recently noted, however, the unrest is not only a response to racial bias expressed by police officers. Instead, the unrest should be seen as a response to the contradictions that arise when political representatives from both ruling class parties (including the first African-American president, Barack Obama) try to paper over inequality by offering poor and working people a selection of kente-cloth pageants, skills-training credits, and bible-study competitions, all while allocating billions of dollars in relief to banks and employers. In order to make sense of the current unrest, individuals and organizations across the country have purchased White Fragility, and major corporations like Google and Amazon have ensured that it rises to the top of their search engines.

DiAngelo defines “white fragility” as the process whereby people labeled as white become stressed and exhibit emotional, defensive responses during conversations about race and racism. DiAngelo argues that white people are a privileged racial group who have not built their “racial stamina” because they rarely experience “racial discomfort.” When confronted with the claim that they are privileged, white people react with a range of responses including “emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdrawal from the stress-inducing situation.” Thus, according to DiAngelo, white fragility is a way for white people to protect themselves from conversations that could pose a risk to their personal identity and unearned advantages. 

DiAngelo claims that she developed her theory of “white fragility” while working as a diversity trainer for various firms. She notes that she was puzzled by the “resentment or disinterest in learning more about…racism” that was expressed by the employees at a mandatory training when there were few, if any, people of color amongst them. DiAngelo admits that she was intimidated by the employees’ willingness to challenge the legitimacy of diversity training and the expertise of the diversity trainers, and this made her want to be “silent and careful” in these situations. After getting past the introduction, however, it is obvious that White Fragility is really an expression of her own guilt and fear about her role as a Euro-American racial dialogue manager who gets paid to be an expert on race and racism even while she claims to believe that white folks can never be experts on such matters.

The problems with White Fragility

Regardless of DiAngelo’s reasons for writing the book, there are many reasons to be worried about White Fragility’s popularity as an antiracist handbook—especially if our goal is to address racism and inequality in ways that serve the interests of working-class people. To begin with, DiAngelo views racism as a problem to be combated with sensitivity training. The premise of diversity and cultural competency training is that by educating Euro-Americans on the persistence and consequences of racism, they can be transformed into non-racist (or, ideally, anti-racist) individuals. The problem is that diversity training has been shown to be a largely ineffective way to address racism in American workplaces. These lectures and workshops do little, if anything, to address the structural tensions that workers of all races navigate on a daily basis. Economist Frank Dobbin has noted in his book Inventing Equal Opportunity that such training is often merely a clever way of establishing legal protections for firms facing accusations of discrimination. Studies have also shown that such diversity training can actually activate and reinforce biases. Perhaps DiAngelo’s unwilling students are reacting negatively to her work out of an intuitive defensiveness of their own anti-racist values. Since she can’t consider this possibility it is no wonder DiAngelo needs to concoct new categories like “white fragility” to explain away why corporate employees under her tutelage react to her the same way high school students react to a substitute teacher.

The second reason to be afraid of White Fragility is that it reinforces the responsibilization of employees. By responsibilization, I mean the process whereby decision makers transfer their responsibilities (and the risks that accompany those responsibilities) to individuals. White Fragility enables this by shifting the responsibility for preventing and addressing racist practices (and other invidious practices) from employers to their employees. The book provides employers with the tools to make employees view their workplaces as compliant with anti-discrimination laws and policies. More broadly, DiAngelo reinforces the unfalsifiable view that employees’ workplace issues are attributable to invisible phenomena like implicit bias instead of to policies and practices authorized by the employers. If I were an employer, why would I hire a specialist to teach employees about the utility of unions, collective action, or other ways to hold decision makers accountable to the victims of discrimination and exploitation? And if I were an employer, why wouldn’t I want to hire a specialist to train workers to believe that their own identities and unconscious biases are the main sources of inequality, instead of exploitative workplace practices? Simply put, DiAngelo continues to be paid by schools and firms across the country for the same reason that employers pay any professional or manager: it advances their material interests as opposed to the interests of their personnel.

Finally, and most dangerously, White Fragility actually reinforces racist beliefs. Sociologists generally agree with the notion that ethnicity can refer to an identity that individuals or communities assert, but races are labels that are ascribed to individuals. As scholars like Barbara E. Fields, Adolph Reed Jr., and even DiAngelo’s frequent collaborator Ibram Kendi have repeatedly noted, the belief that races are groups with distinct physiological differences serves as a justification for racist practices. DiAngelo doesn’t talk about the “racial” differences in skulls or intellectual capacity, but the book is filled with associations of race with physiological differences. Terms such as racial stress, racial [dis]comfort, racial control, racial stamina, racial knowledge, the unavoidable dynamics of racism, racial humility, racial relaxation, and racial manipulation resemble the racist beliefs communicated by white nationalists and commodified by the Armitage family in “Get Out. Repeated calls for white Americans to reject the “ideology of individualism” in favor of recognizing their “whiteness” as an inborn characteristic could have been written by David Duke or Richard Spencer, who find that would-be targets for conversion to their ideology resistant for the same reasons that DiAngelo does. Both the identitarian right and identitarian center want us to believe that we’re all living in a world that is shaped foundationally and primarily by an everlasting conflict between racial groups. They just want us to take different sides. What makes DiAngelo and her supposedly anti-racist compatriots unique is the fact that they enjoy massive support from many of the most powerful institutions in the country, from Amazon to American Express.

I do not contend that DiAngelo is a white supremacist. I do contend, however, that anyone claiming to be an expert on the sociology of race and racism should challenge (as opposed to reinforce) the association of immutable characteristics with race. No matter how many times she confidently claims that “As a sociologist [DiAngelo is not actually a sociologist], I’m quite comfortable making generalizations [without deploying sociological methods],” racial essentialism is racial essentialism. Unlike DiAngelo, my family and I are incredibly vulnerable when police officers, politicians, educators, doctors, lawyers, managers, and other folks with power act upon racially essentialist ideologies, even in ways that they may intend to be benign. 

The popularity of White Fragility suggests that many people view the recent protests as a sign that they should understand and address the invidious treatment of people who are not labeled white. But it offers nothing to address the structures undergirding present and past racial disparities within political and economic institutions or the dramatic decline in state funding for social programs in recent decades. Nor can it speak to the coronavirus pandemic that has resulted in more than 10.8 million cases and at least 520,000 deaths worldwide, or the paltry form of federal relief for the poor and working-class citizens affected by the crisis, with more than 40 million people thrown out of work as a result of the current crisis.

Left politics must be anti-essentialist

It may be tempting to dismiss DiAngelo’s theories as “liberal antiracism” by those who consider themselves to be on the left. The argument being that while liberals like DiAngelo might have shallow and somewhat embarrassing analyses that place inappropriate focus on getting people to fix their ideas within the context of certain socially progressive schemes of managerial authority, socialists have a more textured view that is colored by a deep consideration of class. Unfortunately, this claim presumes a separation that doesn’t exist. The intellectuals that DiAngelo builds upon and cites–like Cheryl Harris and Kimberle Crenshaw–have immense purchase among many claiming to be left-wing, despite their notions of “whiteness as property” and intersectionality conflicting with the anti-essentialist and materialist world outlook at the heart of the socialist tradition. This ubiquity is hardened by the putatively socialist left’s close institutional association with the immense number of charities, NGOs, universities, and industries linked to the Democratic Party, where earnest espousal of the ideas presented in White Fragility are near-requirements for career advancement. If the left’s dominant culture and ideology can be said to differ from that of the antiracism training industry at all, it is only set apart by the addition of a thin layer of what is dishonestly referred to as “class analysis”, which usually amounts only to an increase in emphasis on social class or socioeconomic status as a factor within a multidimensional matrix of oppression. This analysis doesn’t even rise to the level of the crudest workerism; it is in effect an expression of pity for the impoverished alongside pity for the racially downtrodden.

Like many participants in the demonstrations, I have felt a deep sense of hope that there will be a clear benefit for the victims of racism. Hopefully we will soon live in a nation where claims of racism are taken seriously—especially when the perpetrators have control over the distribution of political and economic resources. And maybe, just maybe, the victims of racism will not be reframed as problems that need to be managed and/or removed. At the very least, I hope the demonstrations can foreshadow a day when I (and everyone else) will no longer be afraid when I see blue and red lights flashing in my rearview mirror, or be fearful that police officers will presume that I am a criminal who probably deserves to be killed or assaulted without consequence. A day when I can fill my gas tank as I travel throughout upstate New York and Boston for work without anxiety that it could be my last ride, and not feel selfish for wanting to start a family and raise African-American children in the United States. In short, the protests have given me hope despite the fact that they will probably not lead to the complete eradication of problems of police brutality, racism, and labor exploitation.

But if we allow White Fragility and similar works to become the handbooks for addressing these injustices, then there will be zero meaningful progress to speak of for anyone, especially the people who will be killed by the new and improved police officers trained to recognize their “racial stress.”


A shorter version of this article was originally published in The Bellows.