Part 1: A Critical Response – White Fragility (Robin DiAngelo 2018)
“White Fragility – Why It’s So Hard For White People to Talk About Racism” (2018) is the title of the best-selling nonfiction book by academic, author, workshop leader and speaker Robin DiAngelo. There are many book reviews and critiques from various perspectives circulating online. I intend to contribute to the conversation by offering my perspective.
Before I begin, I’d like to point out that Robin DiAngelo is an image-bearer of God. I respect her as she has intrinsic value and dignity. You will find no ad hominem attacks or intentional misrepresentations of her ideas in my response and analysis. However, I will critique, challenge and counter her ideas, praxis and solutions.
In Part One, I present a Critical Response intended to confront and deconstruct a series of flawed and/or weak claims, presuppositions and arguments in DiAngelo’s book. My degree is in anthropology, where I focused on cultural anthropology with a heavy dose of sociology (gender studies, race, class, culture, power etc.). I am familiar the academic process in the social sciences as well as DiAngelo’s language and methods. My goal is to critique without being overly discursive or academic.
In Part Two, I present a Worldview Analysis of the book, it’s author and Critical Theory worldview in light of the Christian worldview. I have been studying worldview and Christian apologetics since 2006. I was commissioned as a Colson Fellow in 2020. My focus areas are worldview, cultural analysis, theology and applied apologetics.
My primary objective is to inform Christians who want to learn more but are confused by the presumed moral authority, perspectives and prescriptions offered in “White Fragility.” In addition, I will investigate aspects of a competing worldview called ‘Critical Theory.’ As my colleague John Stonestreet said, “Ideas have consequences, bad ideas have victims.” In this cultural moment, we are seeing pollution downstream. As Christians, we must travel upstream in the culture, find the source of the toxin and address it. In conclusion, I explain why Christians should not adopt concepts from DiAngelo’s book and I will present why the Christian worldview offers the best solution.
In sections I-II, I will layout DiAngelo’s main thesis in her book ‘White Fragility’ and describe the form (style) of her writing / argument, how she supports her thesis and how she puts her theory into practice (praxis). In sections III-V, I will discuss strengths and weaknesses, followed by countering DiAngelo’s premises and arguments. My objective in PART ONE (Critical Response) is to stay within the bounds of the social sciences and logic. PART TWO is dedicated to the worldview aspects of the book.
I. The Thesis of White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo
DiAngelo’s posits that white Americans are fundamentally and implicitly (subconsciously) racist and demonstrate a condition called ‘white fragility’ when faced with discussions and confrontations in regard to race and/or racism.
[DiAngelo’s definition]: “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. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.” (DiAngelo, 2018, p. 30) ‘White fragility’ is demonstrated when a white person is confronted with the notion they are complicit in racism and white supremacy.
I will address and challenge these notions throughout this paper.
II. Form, Thesis Support and Praxis
As you read the book you will notice, DiAngelo employs rhetorical repetition of her main thesis throughout as a persuasive tool and to drive home her point. She relies on qualitative, anecdotal and subjective observations gathered from her antiracism trainings and workshops in various contexts to support her main thesis. DiAngelo’s praxis works to expose, confront and dismantle ‘systemic racism’ and ‘white supremacy’ in America. The reader is encouraged to become an “antiracist” practitioner by engaging in social activism – “a lifelong process”.
In the following sections, I will begin challenging DiAngelo’s ideas and exposing flaws. I’ll leave it to you to determine whether or not DiAngelo’s ideas are worth following – particularly for Christians.
III. Strengths and Weaknesses
Robin DiAngelo’s book is provocative, impassioned, well-timed and plays well within progressive sectors of culture and politics. The book is strong in the areas of emotion, edginess and robust activism. That being said, White Fragility is weak in several areas. In the following section, I will cover those weaknesses and deconstruct DiAngelo’s thesis.
Note: I have created a definitions and links page in order to provide the accurate meaning while being understood within the context of Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility.” Click here to view the Defnitions and Links page…
First, DiAngelo claims to be a sociologist. Robin DiAngelo received her Ph.D in multicultural education focusing in the fields of critical discourse analysis and whiteness studies (2). However, in her book, she claims to be a sociologist.
“As a sociologist, I am quite comfortable generalizing.” (DiAngelo, 2018, p. 45)
I find this problematic. It undermines DiAngelo’s thesis, arguments and oversold deterministic conclusions because she doesn’t know how sociology works or she does know but does not care. Claiming to be a sociologist (an authority in the field), DiAngelo employs broad sweeping generalizations regarding large sectors of human society. Devoid of scientific methodology, empirical evidence and statistics to support her generalizations, the book does not qualify as sociology. A sociologist, Robin DiAngelo is not.
The University of Minnesota’s Sociology Department provides the following statement regarding the field; “Sociology as a Social Science.” It provides clarity to our understanding of what sociology is and what it is not.
“When we say that sociology is a social science, we mean that it uses the scientific method to try to understand the many aspects of society that sociologists study. An important goal is to yield generalizations—general statements regarding trends among various dimensions of social life (e.g. men are more likely than women to commit suicide, young people were more likely to vote for Obama than McCain in 2008, and so forth). A generalization is just that: a statement of a tendency, rather than a hard-and-fast law. For example, the statement that men are more likely than women to commit suicide does not mean that every man commits suicide and no woman commits suicide. It means only that men have a higher suicide rate, even though most men, of course, do not commit suicide…
Many people will not fit the pattern of such a generalization, because people are shaped but not totally determined by their social environment. That is both the fascination and the frustration of sociology. Sociology is fascinating because no matter how much sociologists are able to predict people’s behavior, attitudes, and life chances, many people will not fit the predictions. But sociology is frustrating for the same reason. Because people can never be totally explained by their social environment, sociologists can never completely understand the sources of their behavior, attitudes, and life chances…
Although sociology as a discipline is very different from physics, it is not as different as one might think from this and the other “hard” sciences. Like these disciplines, sociology as a social science relies heavily on systematic research that follows the standard rules of the scientific method.”(2)
DiAngelo is “quite comfortable generalizing.” This is fine in an opinion piece in a newspaper. However, it’s unacceptable in sociology where DiAngelo misunderstands or misapplies generalization as a tool. “A generalization is just that: a statement of a tendency, rather than a hard-and-fast law.” For argument’s sake, I will use the University of Minnesota example of suicide – reframing it in racial terms: “The statement that whites are more likely than blacks to exhibit racial prejudice does not mean that every white is racist and no black is a racist.” In DiAngelo’s version of sociology her generalizations are “hard-and-fast law” and people are totally “determined by their social environment.” This is problematic for sociologists and those who willingly accept DiAngelo’s ideas.
Third, DiAngelo points to implicit bias as the root cause of “racism” (DiAngelo, 2018, p. 143). This is an indeterminate and questionable claim. In fact, implicit bias is the peg on which DiAngelo hangs her entire premise of ‘White Fragility’ and systemic racism. She claims that implicit bias or unconscious racism works to keep white supremacy in place (DiAngelo, 2018 p. 56). Again, DiAgelo is playing fast and loose with science to support her theory that all white people are racist whether they are conscious of it or not. While measures of implicit bias are interesting and useful, it’s not solid enough science to build a theoretical framework much less an argument or praxis. [See Jonathan Church – The Epistemological Problem of White Fragility Theory, 2018]
Forth, DiAngelo’s thesis is ideologically driven. She holds to presuppositions instead of empirical data and methodology (both are open to testing). Sociology is the study of human social relationships and institutions (3). Considered a ‘social science’, sociology is a process of systematic research and the application of scientific method. On the other hand, ideology is a set of beliefs or principles, especially ones on which a political system, party, or organization are based (4). While sociology as a science opens itself up to challenges, ideology closes itself off through indoctrination which leads to conformity of thought. DiAngelo believes her thesis hangs on the peg of implicit bias, I counter by arguing her thesis hangs on the peg of ideology (identity politics in particular).
In a peer reviewed 2013 article entitled, “Beyond the Face of Race: Emo-Cognitive Explorations of White Neurosis and Racial Cray-Cray,” DiAngelo reveals one of her core presuppositions is her adherence to Critical Race Theory stating, “interdisciplinary approaches of Critical Whiteness Studies and Critical Race Theory to entertain how common White responses to racial material.” (5). I will discuss Critical Theory, Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality and Cultural Marxism in PART 2 (Worldview Analysis). Suffice to say, DiAngelo’s presupposition boils down to every white person is racist, White Fragility protects white supremacy and institutional racial structures against black people because whites must retain power within those structures (propping up white privilege). The question is, where is the empirical evidence, research and statistical data proving her hypothesis? Are the ideas she’s putting forth true, verifiable and worth accepting?
Fifth, DiAngelo employs circular and unfalsifiable argument to support her thesis. She contends that white people are fundamentally and implicitly (subconsciously) racist and demonstrate a condition called ‘white fragility’ when faced with discussions and confrontations in regard to race and/or racism. Here is an example from the book, “White progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color. I define a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist”. She uses an argument tactic that says, “any attempt to argue, deny or defend yourself is seen as proof of guilt.”(6) This type of argument is a logical fallacy referred to as “Klafka-trapping – a sophistical and unfalsifiable form of argument that attempts to overcome an opponent by inducing a sense of guilt and using the opponent’s denial of guilt as further evidence of guilt.”(ibid).
IV. Distilling DiAngelo’s Premises and Arguments
DiAngelo’s book, ‘White Fragility’ is far from being an academic work. It is an overtly ideologically driven discursive diatribe designed to shame white people and deny individual agency of black people in order support her presupposition of power dynamics. DiAngelo works from the following premises (there are more in the book but these stand out):
- White people (in America) have a “deeply internalized sense of superiority and entitlement” this a result of racial socialization from birth. (DiAngelo, 2018, p. 12)
- “Institutional racism” is the hegemonic structure of American culture and society. (DiAngelo, 2018, p. 29)
- “Implicit bias” of white people works to defend and retain “institutional racism” and “white supremacy”. (DiAngelo, 2018, p. 56, 205)
- “White Fragility” “functions to reinstate white racial equilibrium and “white privilege.” (DiAngelo, 2018, p. 30)
- Individualism (agency) and objectivity are to be rejected as functions of “white supremacy.”(DiAngelo, 2018, p. 38, 39)
- Intent is unimportant. The most important aspect in analyzing racial discourse and actions is impact. (DiAngelo, 2018, p. 126)
- White people must continuously work to address implicit racial bias and expose, confront and dismantle ‘systemic racism’ and ‘white supremacy’ in America through social activism. (DiAngelo, 2018, p. 237-239)
- The epistemological starting point of the entire human experience and society is reduced to ‘Power Dynamics (oppressors and oppressed)’ and a ‘zero-sum game’ (power, privilege, resources are gained by a dominant group at the expense of an oppressed group). (DiAngelo, 2018, p. 150)
- Human Identity is rooted in racial identity and intersectionality. (DiAngelo, 2018, p. 152)
- White people are unaware of their ‘whiteness, yet they demonstrate ‘white solidarity’ and ‘white fragility.’ (DiAngelo, 2018, p. 37-38) All whites are guilty of racial thought crimes.
V. Counter and Closing Response
From DiAngelo’s standpoint, there is no quarter for skepticism or argument. There is no room for counter-perspective, even from ethnic minorities. In publishing this popular book, she has established herself as the ultimate authority with the only prescription. As I have pointed out, there are major problems with her ideas and the presuppositions from which those ideas emerge.
Does ethnic prejudice exist in American society? Yes.
Should all Americans work together to resolve these issues? Yes.
Does the book, “White Fragility” actually help build bridges among ethnicities? Absolutely not.
DiAngelo states, “This book is unapologetically rooted in identity politics.” (DiAngelo, 2018, p. 25). When her thesis is rooted in power dynamics and a zero-sum game, building bridges is antithetical to the thesis. That is why the entire book prescribes an unending cycle of deconstruction, self-flagellation and shame for whites while denying agency and dignity for blacks. There is no resolution only perpetual revolution within the power dynamics dialectic (of materialism).
The author presupposes that the entirety of American society is racist. DiAngelo’s argument follows the circular reasoning that “American society is racist because America is racist.” As a black person, you must somehow apprehend your “power” from white people. You are unable to create, work or strive for resources for yourself. As a white person, you will never actually arrive – you will always be a racist. All you can do is accept your guilt. Judge Robin DiAngelo hereby sentences all white people to a lifetime of working to expose, confront and dismantle ‘systemic racism’ and ‘white supremacy’ in America – by joining her “antiracist” movement as a practitioner by engaging in social activism. This book is for white people written by a white woman who claims to speak for black people because she knows their racial experiences better than they do. There are plenty of black academics who have written on these topics for decades. Where is their perspective?
To DiAngelo’s credit, creating a perpetual unresolvable problem where she is the lone solution is marketing genius. One can buy DiAngelo’s books in order to enlist others in her movement. In addition, your company can pay her $12,000+ to lead ‘antiracism’ workshop. The ‘antiracism-training’ / diversity training industry is hot right now (worth billions of dollars per year). At the end of the day, the author’s successful divisive tactics yield her a tidy profit at the expense of human relationships. It’s interesting how anti-capitalist principals are brushed aside by antiracist leaders who are supposed to be the voice for the oppressed, when a capitalist endeavor like writing books and hosting diversity trainings yield substantial personal profit.
Privilege of some type must be at work, right?
“Decide to be your best. In the long run the world is going to want and have the best and that might as well be you.”
DEFINITIONS AND LINKS - WHITE FRAGILITY (DiAngelo 2018)
- The Epistemological Problem of White Fragility Theory December 21, 2018 – Jonathan Church
- The diversity industry is worth billions. But what do we have to show for it? – BY KAVITA DAS
- Understanding Social Justice Segregationists APRIL 27, 2020 – SHAUN CAMMACK
- Valuing Differences and Reinforcing Them: Multiculturalism Increases Race Essentialism – Leigh S. Wilton, Evan P. Apfelbaum, Jessica J. Good
- WHITE FRAGILITY THEORY IS A BULLYING RHETORICAL TACTIC – by Jonathan Church
- What anti-racism really means and how to talk about it – In Critical Race Theory, ‘racism’ means ‘systemic racism’, which is said to be ‘the ordinary state of affairs’ in the United States – Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay
- Critical Theory and Racism – Dr. Glenn Sunshine
- Queer theory
- Critical Race Theory
- CRITICAL THEORY IS BIBLICAL
- Cultural Marxism and Critical Theory – A Friendly Response to Ameen Hudson – Neil Shenvi
- Beyond the Face of Race: Emo-Cognitive Explorations of White Neurosis and Racial Cray-Cray – Matias, Cheryl E.; DiAngelo, Robin
- The Dehumanizing Condescension of White Fragility – John McWorter
- Glorifying White Authors like DiAngelo Erases Decades of Black Writing on Whiteness – Anastasia Kārkliņa
- The Problem with ‘White Fragility’ Theory – Jonathan Church
- Why Nobody is Systemically Racist – JULY 9, 2020 JAMES LINDSAY
- The Orwellian Dystopia of Robin DiAngelo’s PhD Dissertation – Jonathan Church
- The Worldview of White Fragility – A Review of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility – Neil Shenvi
- Antonio Gramsci: the Godfather of Cultural Marxism – Bradley Thomas