Robin DiAngelo’s Fragile Narrative

For many people, 2020 was a nightmare that refused to end. For Robin DiAngelo, it was a very good year. In the aftermath of the George Floyd riots, her book White Fragility, surged to the top of the bestseller list. It sold more than 100,000 copies, making her a wealthy woman. This summer, DiAngelo released her newest work, Nice Racism. The most interesting feature of this book can be summarized in three words: It didn’t sell.

On the face of it, there is nothing extraordinary in the collapse of a mediocre book. Bad books drop from the printing press into obscurity every day. Normally, though, the author’s previous work is not still listed by the New York Times. How did DiAngelo’s bright moment pass so quickly? What does this mean for the ongoing debate over Critical Race Theory?

DiAngelo’s work has already received intense criticism from writers across the political spectrum. They found it condescending, hypocritical, or just racist. These charges are probably fair, though it can be difficult to judge, because DiAngelo’s meandering narrative does not readily cohere into a cohesive argument. To a certain extent, this is probably intentional. DiAngelo (under the influence of deconstructionists like Michael Foucault) has a fraught relationship with rational discourse, which she tends to see as an instrument of oppression. She describes herself as an expert in “discourse analysis,” which in her own words is, “a method for identifying how language positions speakers in relation to social others in recognition that language is sociopolitical, not simply a neutral transmitter of a person’s core ideas or self.”

The goal of discourse analysis, in other words, is to look past the truth claims that people make, and instead assess tone, terminology, and the broader social and political context. Who speaks the most, and with whom do they agree or disagree? How do people’s claims and arguments reflect and affect their own social status, and that of their interlocutors?

Within reasonable limits, this sort of analysis can sometimes yield helpful insights. Nearly everyone has the occasional Foucauldian moment, when they notice the nefarious potentialities of narrative. For DiAngelo though, “discourse analysis” seems to have swamped all other forms. She isn’t really in the business of making arguments, or responding to other people’s. On one level, Nice Racism is clearly a follow-up to White Fragility, which was one of the most hotly discussed (and heavily critiqued) books of 2020. But DiAngelo offers almost nothing by way of direct rebuttals, or responses of any kind to identifiable public writers. A few stray paragraphs are devoted to a flyby dismissal of John McWhorter, one of her most eloquent critics, but for the most part she devotes page after weary page to shadow-boxing anonymous detractors, whom we meet through DiAngelo’s anecdotes. She seems to find ignorant, insensitive people around every corner: on airplanes, in taxi rides, and of course, in the diversity seminars that she facilitates for a living. Unsurprisingly, these faceless interlocutors are easily vanquished. One hardly needs reasoned discourse to defeat such opponents.

An Insensitive Subject

As a reviewer, it is difficult to know what to say about such a book. Even when I disagree intensely with a book’s content, I normally try to do the author the courtesy of engaging his argument directly. This book, though, just doesn’t quite rise to the level of argument. Beyond that, the author herself seems to have objections to reasoned discourse. Also, there is the issue of redundancy. I could repeat the critiques of McWhorter, Jonathan Haidt, and others who have already written articulate responses to DiAngelo’s views. Since they remain on the table unanswered, this doesn’t feel particularly worthwhile. It really is not possible to advance the dialectic, because that isn’t a game that DiAngelo plays.

With no argument worthy of the name, readers may find themselves looking back at the author herself. By the end of the book, I was indeed overwhelmed with both pity and revulsion for this wretched-seeming woman. Everywhere she goes, people seem to be shouting, crying, or storming away in disgust. The problem is not limited to her fellow whites! DiAngelo also tells stories about offending or alienating BIPOC friends and associates. One cannot but notice that there is a common denominator across all of these unhappy anecdotes. It’s not white fragility.

The deep irony of DiAngelo’s work is that she demands exquisite sensitivity from everyone in all social interactions, but her own gross insensitivity is displayed on virtually every page. She brags constantly about her “expertise” and deep insight, but this façade falls immediately whenever she starts talking about real human beings. She is astonishingly deaf to the nuances of human relationships and human feeling. She cannot understand the complexities of human motivation. A writer like Chris Arnade brings unseen people to life before our eyes; she seems to reduce everyone to a cardboard cutout. She shows no interest in understanding or learning from the people she encounters, or even in finding more effective ways to persuade them. It’s easy to understand why she is constantly offending people. Her entire perspective on the world just feels bleak and dehumanizing.

Examples are legion, but I will content myself with one. In one chapter, DiAngelo rails against white women who speak in her seminars about their marriages to black men. This, in her view, is extremely insensitive. “There is a long and painful history,” she sniffs, “surrounding white women in relationship to Black men.”

By referencing their black husbands, DiAngelo claims, white women raise disturbing visions of Emmet Till, and other black men who have historically been lynched for their relationships with white women. Even within marriage, she warns, white privilege endures. Black men can be racially exploited by their own white wives. Meanwhile, white women harm black women when they publicly discuss their interracial marriages. By discussing their relationships publicly, they may stoke inferiority complexes black women have concerning their appearance. Social messaging has already persuaded them that white girls are prettier and more desirable to men.

“When white women insensitively flaunt their relationships with Black men in front of Black women,” DiAngelo tells us, “the heteronormative message of white women as most desirable may be painfully reinscribed, as well as serving as a reminder of how oblivious white people can remain to white supremacy, even when in intimate cross-racial relationships.”

Incredibly, one suddenly feels moved to ask: In an anti-racist regime, would interracial relationships be condemned? Would miscegenated children be stigmatized? DiAngelo is supplying the justification right here.

By the end of Nice Racism, one cannot but reflect that the white-fragility moment might best be understood as a kind of ghastly tragicomedy, with the entire nation drawn into the angst of one miserably maladjusted person.

Close Encounters of the Privileged Kind

The mind simply reels at these passages. This is not a discussion of television characters, or posed models in a magazine ad. These are flesh-and-blood men and women, who have given their entire lives to each other. DiAngelo should find this heartening, as an example of how intimate relationships can transcend racial barriers. She can only see exploitation, violence, and crass status-seeking. Can any real human connection survive the nuclear winter of DiAngelo’s “discourse analysis”?

DiAngelo’s social dysfunction becomes more explicable late in the book, when she relates the extreme hardships of her own childhood. Her parents divorced when she was quite young, and her mother struggled to support DiAngelo and her sister, even as she battled the leukemia that eventually took her life. DiAngelo recalls evictions, living in cars, and being publicly shamed by schoolteachers for her poor hygiene. At eleven, her mother finally succumbed to cancer, and the girls went to live with the father who seemingly had not been in the picture at all during the previous difficult years.

These reflections are heartbreaking. It is easy to understand how this kind of suffering would breed misanthropy, and the ruthless lack of sympathy DiAngelo has for those she perceives as “privileged.” By the end of Nice Racism, one cannot but reflect that the white-fragility moment might best be understood as a kind of ghastly tragicomedy, with the entire nation drawn into the angst of one miserably maladjusted person. DiAngelo needs a capable therapist, not a second bestseller. Looking away may be the kindest thing we could do at this point.

Before that, though, we must briefly consider one further question. For all its repugnant features, White Fragility was a New York Times bestseller. How did this happen?

I suspect that the explanation is threefold. First, it seems likely that significant numbers of people bought White Fragility for their coffee tables, mainly in the interests of virtue-signaling. Nice Racism may have been written partly as a rebuke to that group, taking them to task for their performative wokeness. She wants to rebuke the privileged; she doesn’t want to help them feel better about themselves.

Second, the George Floyd riots put many whites in a mood to be chastised. For some, the tenets of “wokeness” have become a kind of religion. When the Twin Cities erupted in violence last summer, this group felt a strong psychological need for penance. DiAngelo supplied it, effectively functioning as a “woke” Jonathan Edwards. In a unique moment, her grotesque excesses were seen as a feature of her work, not a bug.

The third point is perhaps the most interesting. Many Americans really are grasping to understand the significance of being white. This angst has become steadily more pressing in recent years. As children, most of us were taught the precepts of Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, which we accepted gladly. No one should be ashamed of the color of their skin. Judge people by the content of their character. Celebrate America as the land of opportunity, where everyone has a chance to succeed.

To many, this view has come to seem oversimplified and naïve. We know that black Americans as a group are poorer, less educated, and less healthy than white Americans. Racial tensions are obviously still very real. Why is this so, when the Jim Crow laws have been gone for more than half a century? Many well-intentioned whites earnestly wish to understand this curious situation. Disillusioned with “colorblindness,” they want to make sense of their whiteness in a way that clearly distances them from the likes of Richard Spencer. In White Fragility, DiAngelo appeared to offer another alternative.

The Moral Significance of Race

Before we scoff, we should note that it is quite difficult to understand the moral significance of race. This is especially true in an age when self-definition is a de facto requirement for all adult citizens. In America today, no one inherits a job, title, or social role from birth. Coming of age, for us, is largely a process of discerning and proving our identity to the world. It is understandable that Americans would struggle specifically with race, because our country’s history in this area is very fraught, but also because the ethical implications of race are complex and confusing. Sometimes ethnicity can be a defining part of a healthy personal identity. In other cases, we have good reasons to discourage people from taking pride in their race. All men are created equal, but “races” may not be, precisely because they are to a great extent socially constructed.

Sometimes ethnic pride may give people a healthy sense of belonging, connecting them to meaningful human ties and ancestral traditions. It would be unreasonable to fault people for taking pride in the contributions their ancestors made to this nation as Italians, Jews, Armenians, Lebanese, Nigerians, Irish Catholics, Japanese Americans, and so forth. In other cases, however, ethnic pride can give rise to bigotry, hatred, and oppression. In America, “whiteness” has always been a fluid classification, but where it has carried social and cultural weight, it has mainly served to exclude black, indigenous, and objectionably foreign-seeming people from opportunities and legal protections. People of European ancestry should not be shamed or shunned for the historical sins of other light-skinned people, but neither should whiteness be celebrated as such. It opens no doors to unique traditions or communities, of a sort that might ground a healthy social identity. Any traditions we may enjoy as white Americans, should properly be seen as the heritage of all Americans.

Americans love equality. It can be difficult for us to grasp these non-parallels. Why do we study “black history” but not “white history”? Why do some people identify as “Asian Americans” or “Mexican Americans,” while others are simply “Americans”? Why is it acceptable to tell a mall cop that a lost child is white, but inappropriate to march in a white pride parade? There are real justifications for these differences, and complexities like this are part of life. In an anxious age, however, the dissimilarities call for explanation. That helps to explain why, in 2020, DiAngelo briefly persuaded thousands of whites that their race was all-important, and that she held the key to understanding it. Her perspective was too bleak, dehumanizing, and incoherent to hold sway for very long, but even that brief moment was telling.

Racism is not nice. DiAngelo is not nice, either. It is heartening that her influence seems to be waning. Let us now try to live up to higher ideals, so that our compatriots are not again tempted by her counsels of despair.