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Sunday, April 17, 2022

White Fragility: Unpacking the Kafka Traps of Robin DiAngelo’s NYT Bestseller

Robin DiAngelo's popular book 'White Fragility' breaks from the established rules of scholarship in several ways

Image Credit: Unitarian Universalist Association

The biggest issue with Robin DiAngelo’s New York Times bestseller White Fragility is that it throws the rules of good scholarship out the window. That’s a bold claim, but multiple quotes from DiAngelo’s book readily back this up.

If You’re White You’re Racist

DiAngelo’s biggest claim is that, if you’re white, you’re automatically and unavoidably racist. Now to be clear, DiAngelo doesn’t mean that all white people have a conscious anti-minority bias. Rather, she claims that all white people employ racist assumptions and patterns that harm people of color and display an underlying bias.

To quote DiAngelo: “racism is unavoidable and…it is impossible to completely escape having developed problematic and racial assumptions and behaviors.” Speaking of herself (DiAngelo is white), she says, “I also understand that there is no way for me to avoid enacting problematic (racial) patterns.”

If DiAngelo, an affiliate professor of education at the University of Washington, were simply outing her own biased patterns, that would be one thing. Where her argument breaks the rules of good scholarship is that she makes it in a way that’s unfalsifiable.

DiAngelo considers multiple objections to her claim that all white people are racist. What if you’re married to a black person, have black children, do mission work in Africa, or marched during the Civil Rights Movement? She rejects all of these objections. That is, if you’re white, even if you have a black spouse and adopt black children and risk life and limb helping poor people in Africa (many of my friends are missionaries, and missionary life as a rule is neither safe nor well-paying), you’re still racist.

For DiAngelo, you are racist even if you actively try to promote racial equality—for instance, by marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1960s. If you’re white, there is no way for you to not be racist.

A good scholar will present a hypothesis and test it. This is the scientific method, and it applies as much to the social sciences (DiAngelo is a sociologist) as to the physical sciences. The reason scholars do this is that we’re all human, and none of us has all the answers. Therefore, we must discuss and debate ideas, and marshal evidence for and against them, in order to reach the truth. At the root of good scholarship is the humility to accept that you might not have the world completely figured out.

DiAngelo takes a different tack. She presents her hypothesis as axiomatic and therefore as beyond question. If you’re white, you’re racist; full stop.

Every Accusation of Racism Is True

DiAngelo further breaks from the established rules of scholarship by explicitly adopting a mentality of: believe all accusers.

DiAngelo says that if you’re accused of racism, the only acceptable response is to thank the person for pointing out your racism and to promise to do better. For DiAngelo, acceptable responses include, “I appreciate this feedback,” “It is inevitable that I have this pattern. I want to change it,” “This is very helpful,” “Thank you,” and “I have some work to do (so as to stop enacting this racist behavior in the future).”

And to be clear, these are all great responses if the accusation is valid. If you make a racist joke (for instance, you walk into a primarily black movie theater and claim it’s like walking into Planet of the Apes, like Joe Rogan did), and people point it out, you should sincerely apologize and try to do better (as Rogan did).

The problem is that accusations aren’t always true. Sometimes the person making the accusation has misunderstood the situation. They might mishear, lack context, or simply have an underlying assumption that’s incorrect. We are all human, both those making accusations and those on the receiving end. Accusations need to be weighed on their merits, not just assumed to be true.

DiAngelo’s approach is a refutation of the idea of, “innocent until proven guilty.” But it’s bigger than that, too. It’s a rejection of the scientific method, wherein claims (even claims such as, “John’s a racist”) are weighed according to things like evidence and can be disagreed with.

If you’re accused of racism, under DiAngelo’s approach, even asking a third party to weigh in is considered unacceptable. DiAngelo says that sometimes, if someone calls her a racist, she’s tempted to ask another person of color for their perspective. But she dismisses this urge as “inappropriate” and something that “upholds racism.”

Even weirder, for DiAngelo, denial of the accusation of racism is proof of your racism. In a telling passage, DiAngelo talks about, “white people who think they are not racist, or are less racist, or are in the ‘choir’ or already ‘get it’.” Those people, she asserts, “cause the most daily damage to people of color.”

That is: if you deny that you are racist, you are part of the group that (according to DiAngelo) does more actual damage to people of color than the KKK.

This is a logical fallacy known as a Kafka trap. A Kafka trap is when someone is accused of something, and if they defend themselves then it’s considered proof of their guilt.

Crucially and disturbingly, DiAngelo doesn’t play by her own rules on this one. John McWhorter, a black liberal and Columbia University professor, wrote a review of White Fragility in The Atlantic that accuses the book of racism. The review is titled, “The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility” and includes lines like this: “Few books about race have more openly infantilized Black people than this supposedly authoritative tome.”

When an interviewer brought up McWhorter’s criticism, DiAngelo dismissed it. Her response: “I think that that is a disingenuous reading on the part of John McWhorter.”

And to be clear, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with saying that a critic is being disingenuous. But notice how sharply her response differs from the range of acceptable responses that she offers her white readers. Kafka trap rules for thee, but not for me.

If You’re White You’re Fragile

Besides the idea that all white people are racist and that any accusation of racism must be accepted (unless it’s a black liberal calling DiAngelo racist), there’s a third core of the book that’s in some ways equally troubling: another Kafka trap.

DiAngelo argues that, if you’re white, you are automatically fragile when it comes to any discussion of race. She uses the term “white fragility” to describe how difficult she finds it in her workshops to get white people to talk about race, racial identities, and racial hierarchies in the United States.

And to be clear, having real conversations about race can be difficult. It’s something that many Americans don’t want to talk about, and probably a majority of those Americans have white skin. But just like the rest of her book, DiAngelo takes what could be a nuanced point and approaches it without any respect for the ideals of good scholarship.

How does she claim this fragility manifests? Via behaviors and emotions such as “argumentation” “silence” “leaving the stress-inducing situation (that is, the room where the person is being informed of how fragile they are),” “guilt” “tears” and “anger.”

That is: if you’re white, you are fragile. If you disagree that you’re fragile, it’s proof of your fragility. If you agree, of course that’s proof of your fragility too. If you remain silent, it’s also proof of your fragility.

DiAngelo doesn’t seem to consider the possibility that someone might disagree with her argument, not because they’re fragile, but because her argument is simply flawed. Are some white people fragile? Of course. Do all 204 million white Americans share such similar psychology that you can accuse them all of the same character flaw, and do so with such confidence that disagreement is seen as just more proof of your rightness? That’s a little more difficult.

Weirdly, even wanting to promote racial equality is a sign of white fragility. For DiAngelo, the guilt is the point; if you’re white, the work is to embrace this guilt. And, “wanting to jump over the hard, personal work and get to ‘solutions'” is one of the patterns at the, “foundation of white fragility.”

The idea that white people are innately fragile would be a bold hypothesis even if she tried to back it up. But in practice, it’s just one more unfalsifiable claim.

Empathy Varies With Skin Color

The other big issue with DiAngelo’s book is that I got a consistent sense, from the stories she told, that her empathy for her fellow human was tied to skin color. In Chapter 8, she tells a story of how she co-facilitated a workshop and one participant described herself as being, “falsely accused” of racism. Apparently being accused of racism by the workshop leaders was not a trivial thing for this participant. As DiAngelo reports:

“Her friends wanted to alert us to the fact that she was in poor health and ‘might be having a heart attack.’ Upon questioning from us, they clarified that they meant this literally. These coworkers were sincere in their fear that the young woman might actually die as a result of the feedback.”

How did DiAngelo respond to the fact that a white woman might have died during one of her workshops? I don’t know how she responded in the moment, but in the book she described it as a, “cogent example of white fragility.” She bemoaned how it took attention away from the people of color in the room: “Of course when news of the women’s (sic) potentially fatal condition reached the rest of the participant group, all attention was immediately focused onto her and away from engagement with the impact she had had on the people of color.”

If someone almost dies in your workshop and your response is to complain how it distracts from the real issues in the room, you may want to check your priorities. More perniciously, if your empathy for a potentially dying human being is tied to their skin color (I’m hopeful that DiAngelo would respond less breezily to a black woman almost dying because of her actions), then that’s a huge problem–and that’s true whatever the skin color in question is.

White Fragility Fails to Move Us Forward

To be clear, there are genuine racial barriers in the United States, and in a lot of ways black Americans and white Americans receive unequal seats at the table. In her book The New Jim Crow, for instance, former United States Supreme Court clerk Michelle Alexander documents the existence of phenomena like white privilege and systemic racism in the criminal justice system. And those barriers are things we should all be trying to fix. But DiAngelo’s book, full of calls to self-flagellate and light on actual ideas, is unlikely to get us there.

(Correction: This article was updated to reflect that John McWhorter is a self-described liberal, not a conservative.)

  • Julian is a former political op-ed writer and current nonprofit marketer. His work has been featured in FEE, National Review, Playboy, and Lawrence Reed's economics anthology Excuse Me, Professor.