Watching a country tear itself apart is quite the spectacle. It’s the cycle I’ve come to expect, though, as we continue enduring racial violence. But is it a cycle we can break? Not if we keep doing what we’ve done before.
What follows is my attempt to move away from that cycle and to encourage us to imagine another approach.
Anti-racism is the philosophy that undergirds much racial activism today. And much of this philosophy has been promoted by a book that’s been number one on The New York Times bestseller list—White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo. I will use this work to represent the ideas behind much of what has been called anti-racism. While my criticisms of DiAngelo’s approach may not apply exactly to other popular anti-racist writers, such as Ibram X. Kendi, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Reni Eddo-Lodge, much of it will relate to their work as well.
Rise of White Fragility
DiAngelo’s basic thesis is that whites have been socialized to have “a deeply internalized sense of superiority and entitlement.” All whites, then, are racist, but not overtly so; they are racist in that whites are complicit in society’s institutionalized racism. And their defensiveness about this—their “fragility”—needs to be broken down, DiAngelo argues, if we’re to move beyond a white-dominated society. This isn’t the totality of her argument, but it’s a key point I’d like to discuss.
Though I support some of DiAngelo’s points, our disagreement is pronounced. As an African American who has not only done academic work on these issues but had to navigate the issues of racism personally, I recognize the irony of reviewing a book by a white woman. But as a professor in the social sciences, I believe she provides little empirical work to support her assertions. The work on implicit bias is questionable at best. Implicit bias may be real, but it doesn’t seem a major factor in why people discriminate against others. Another empirical problem is her lack of research for the unique defensiveness of white people. Where’s the cross-racial research indicating fragility is unique to them?
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